Victor Hugo's sprawling novel, Les Miserables, is one of the very few literary works that managed to retain its original title in its English editions. (Somehow, I doubt that The Miserables, The Wretched, The Miserable Ones, The Poor Ones, The Wretched Poor, or The Victims would've attracted many readers, especially given the book's inordinate length - more than twice the length of Joyce's Ulysses.) Despite its length, it's something of a pièce à thèse. It's a fantastically long slog - a gauntlet of orchestrated human suffering pointing in a single direction: at Christian forgiveness. Valjean is the ultimate prodigal son, lost as a condemned criminal at the beginning, but found by a single act of forgiveness - that literally saves his neck. Reformed, he becomes a pillar of his community and his acts of kindness and generosity make him wealthy and beloved. But it is Javert who, according to Hugo's design, must also see the light, even if his final act of contrition is suicide. In the wrong (or right) hands, Les Miserables could easily have lapsed into satire. Like Jesus, Hugo tells a parable to demonstrate the central importance of the forgiveness of sins.
Most English readers know Hugo only as a novelist, but it was for his poetry that Hugo was most celebrated in France. In fact, his novels, though wildly popular, were controversial among French critics and writers. Les Miserables was attacked as both immoral and politically motivated. Flaubert, who knew a thing or two about writing, hated it. For him, Hugo's novel had "neither truth nor granduer." His own novel L'education sentimentale can be seen as an answer to Hugo.
I have encountered Les Miserables in many forms: in Isabel Hapgood's 1887 English translation, in American and French movie adaptations, and even a British radio adaptation that was, in many ways, better than any of the film versions. I've known about the musical since it first attracted attention in the 1980s. I never sought to see it. If the novel never really appealed to me, and if none of the films were all that compelling, I doubted that a stage musical version was an improvement on the novel.
Now Les Miz, as bi-lingual illiterates are calling it, is a musical movie. My problem with movie musicals in general is that the genre isn't compatible with the realism of film. From the looks of the previews for Les Miserables the movie, its makers resorted to a great deal of realism in the depiction of the blood and the grime of Hugo's book. The trouble with using such realism is, the second Hugh Jackman or Anne Hathaway break into song (with orchestral accompaniment), the realism is destroyed.
In his wonderful collection, Books and Persons: Being Comments on a Past Epoch
1908-1911, Arnold Bennett devoted some space to the peculiar manner in which the French celebrate their poets.
OFFICIAL RECOGNITION OF POETRY
[_14 Oct. '09_]
I did not go to Paris to witness the fêtes in celebration of the fiftieth
anniversary of Victor Hugo's "La Légende des Siècles," but I happened to
be in Paris while they were afoot. I might have seen one of Hugo's dramas
at the Théâtre Français, but I avoided this experience, my admiration for
Hugo being tempered after the manner of M. André Gide's. M. Gide, asked
with a number of other authors to say who was still the greatest modern
French poet, replied: "Victor Hugo--alas!" So I chose Brieux instead of
Hugo, and saw "La Robe Rouge" at the Français. Brieux is now not only an
Academician, but one of the stars of the Français. A bad sign! A bad play,
studded with good things, like all Brieux's plays. (The importance
attached to Brieux by certain of the elect in England is absurd. Bernard
Shaw could simply eat him up--for he belongs to the vegetable kingdom.) A
thoroughly bad performance, studded with fine acting! A great popular
success! Whenever I go to the Français I tremble at the prospect of a
national theatre in England. The Français is hopeless--corrupt, feeble,
tedious, reactionary, fraudulent, and the laughing-stock of artists.
However, we have not got a national theatre yet.
* * * * *
Immediately after its unveiling I gazed in the garden of the Palais Royal
at Rodin's statue of Victor Hugo. I thought it rather fine, shadowed on
the north and on the south by two famous serpentine trees. Hugo, in a
state of nudity, reclines meditating on a pile of rocks. The likeness is
good, but you would not guess from the statue that for many years Hugo
travelled daily on the top of the Clichy-Odéon omnibus and was never
recognized by the public. Heaven knows what he is meditating about!
Perhaps about that gushing biography of himself which apparently he penned
with his own hand and published under another name! For he was a weird
admixture of qualities--like most of us. I could not help meditating,
myself, upon the really extraordinary differences between France and
England. Imagine a nude statue of Tennyson in St. James's Park! You
cannot! But, assuming that some creative wit had contrived to get a nude
statue of Tennyson into St. James's Park, imagine the enormous shindy that
would occur, the horror-stricken Press of London, the deep pain and
resentment of a mighty race! And can you conceive London officially
devoting a week to the recognition of the fact that fifty years had
elapsed since the publication of a work of poetic genius! Yet I think we
know quite as much about poetry in England as they do in France. Still
less conceivable is the participation of an English Government in such an
anniversary. In Paris last Thursday a French Minister stood in front of
the Hugo statue and thus began: "The Government of the Republic could not
allow the fiftieth anniversary of the 'Legend of the Centuries' to be
celebrated without associating itself with the events." My fancy views Mr.
Herbert John Gladstone--yes, him!--standing discreetly in front of an
indiscreet marble Wordsworth and asserting that the British Government had
no intention of being left out of the national rejoicings about the
immortality of "The Prelude"! A spectacle that surely Americans would pay
to see! On Sunday, at the Français, Hugo was being declaimed from one
o'clock in the afternoon till midnight, with only an hour's interval. And
it rained violently nearly all the time.