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The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables Hardcover – March 21, 2017
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One of the Most Anticipated Books of Spring 2017, Publishers Weekly
One of the Best Reviewed Books of 2017 (So Far), Literary Hub
"Genuinely fresh and inspiring . . . Bellos’s book is a major accomplishment. His warm and engaging study of Victor Hugo’s 1862 masterpiece renews faith in the idea, so fundamental to the mysterious attraction of literature, that great books of whatever age continue to be worthwhile objects of attention. In applying a melange of literary criticism, linguistics, political science and history to the study of one of the best-known, if least-understood great books of all time, he illuminates the work in a way that transcends conventional literary criticism.The section on the publication of Les Misérables is one of the most informative accounts of the mechanics of the 19th-century book business that I have ever read." ―Michael Lindgren, The Washington Post
"Intriguing . . . Impeccably researched and pithily written, Bellos's book provides an important corrective . . . The notion posited by Bellos's title that Les Misérables is the novel of the (19th) century is given a thoroughly good airing . . . Bellos's book also doubles as a fascinating partial biography of Hugo's life." ―Tobias Grey, The New York Times Book Review
"Whether you're contemplating a run at Les Misérables or returning to it, Bellos' book is a perfect guide―
as well as a compelling story in its own right . . . [It] becomes surprisingly suspenseful as Bellos takes us through the months leading up to the novel's publication . . . Bellos has struck the ideal balance of top-notch research and readable prose in the chapters that deftly lead us through the world of the novel and its characters . . . An engaging and enlightening companion." ―Liza Graham, NPR
"Bellos's fine book could be seen as part of the recent critical genre that Joyce Carol Oates baptized the 'bibliomemoir' . . . But it is not so much about Bellos's personal engagement with the novel as a study of its genesis, its production, its reception, and notably its language . . . The story of the composition of the novel, and of the journey of manuscript, proofs, then corrected proofs between Guernsey and Brussels, is one of the most entertaining and illuminating in Bellos's book . . . Best of all is Bellos's command of the French language, including its linguistic underclass, argot . . . He is an excellent guide to a kind of nineteenth-century high style that needs to be enjoyed for itself if we are to respond fully to Hugo's epic ambitions." ―Peter Brooks, The New York Review of Books
"This unique and readable book conveys the chaotic fabric of French life two centuries ago more powerfully than most conventional histories." ―Foreign Affairs
"Bellos condenses tranches of research into a gripping tale about Victor Hugo’s masterpiece." ―Nina Martyris, The Paris Review
"If you’re a Les Misérables superfan (yes, we’re looking at you) then we have three words for you: Read. This. Book." ―Elizabeth Rowe, Bookish
"Bellos takes us on a freewheeling ride through the genesis, revision, publication and eternal life of Les Misérables, with relevant vignettes from Victor Hugo's life and deep dives into historical and linguistic aspects of the novel . . . Bellos has indeed written 'the definitive biography of the world's most popular novel' . . . If you love Hugo's novel and/or Boublil and Schönberg's musical 'Les Mis,' read The Novel of the Century." ―
Marva Barnett, The Huffington Post
"Captivating . . . The Novel of the Century perfectly captures all sides of this publishing phenomenon and the man at its center. Bellos fascinates from beginning to end." ―Steve Donoghue, The Christian Science Monitor
"Never mind those self-help manuals urging that some classic novel may change your life: in this sparkling study of the birth, growth and afterlife of Hugo's evergreen blockbuster, The Novel of the Century, David Bellos argues that Les Misérables already has . . . With deep learning but a charmingly light touch, Belles dissects and salutes this 'dramatic page-turner' bursting with 'generous moral principles.'" ―Boyd Tonkin, The Economist
"In telling the engrossing story of the book and its author’s journey from staunch defender of the government to exile in Guernsey after Napoleon III’s 1851 coup d’état, Bellos . . . makes a powerful case for the novel’s enduring relevance." ―Lucy Watson, Financial Times
"This biography of one of the world’s most read novels is rich in extraordinary detail . . . Bellos traces the life of the 1,500-page novel from conception to publication, mentioning along the way the many film and musical adaptations of Les Misérables that have given it a rich life beyond the printed page." ―Ruth Scurr, The Guardian
"The origin story of Victor Hugo's masterpiece Les Miserables is an epic tale, and Bellos is the perfect writer to tell it . . . This book is a joy to read, and Bellos makes a convincing case for his claim that 'among all the gifts France has given to Hollywood, Broadway and the common reader wherever she may be, Les Miserables stands out as the greatest by far.'" ―The National Book Review
"There’s no question about it: David Bellos makes the case for the fame of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables (1862). It's the novel of the century and possibly then some . . . [A] superb biography of a novel rather than a man." ―Charles R. Larson, CounterPunch
"The Novel of the Century . . . vividly traces the origin and development of Hugo's most famous work, assessing its impact on the novel as a genre." ―Henrik Bering, Los Angeles Review of Books
"Bellos’ feat is worthy of admiration . . . whether you’re a serious Francophile or just crave a good read peppered with cocktail party-ready factoids . . . Bellos has impeccable academic credentials, but he never talks down to the reader. From manuscript to musical, The Novel of the Century delivers on its promise." ―
Keith Herrell, BookPage
"Bellos's near-unmitigated zeal is convincing, and itself part of the pleasure of the book; and he’s a knowledgeable, attentive reader, and an engaging storyteller himself, alert to vivid detail . . . Any reader who hasn't yet embarked on Hugo's book might be converted to the idea by this one." ―Daniel Hahn, The Spectator
"[Bellos is] equipped to tackle le Léviathan of French literature . . . The Novel of the Century, for example, reveals a great deal about French coinage and the intricacies of Victorian authorial contracts. (If this sounds boring, it isn't.) . . . That section [on cloth-dying] alone is worth the price of admission . . . Until Hugo returns from the grave or Les Mis renders up its secrets in the fullness of time, Bellos' fine volume will do." ―Jason Rhode, Paste
"[Bellos is] a crisp stylist capable of seizing the readers' attention and holding it effortlessly . . . Anyone who loves Hugo, France, and the French language will revel in this delightful book that explains all the intimacies of 19th-century French life." ―Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"As Bellos, a translator of French literature, proves here, the story of how Victor Hugo’s classic novel came to life is a challenging, complex, and utterly engrossing epic all its own . . . There are tidbits of trivia sprinkled effervescently throughout (Bellos notes that reluctant readers may read just one chapter a day―the novel contains 365), along with serious considerations of Hugo’s relationship to the French language, his moral universe, and his political intentions for a book that spawned countless spin-offs." ―Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"Like its indomitable protagonist, Les Misérables absorbs abuse and survives. The astonishing story of a story." ―Bryce Christensen, Booklist (starred review)
"[Bellos's] book elevates this great novel to its rightful place in the literary cannon . . . This delightful narrative about a literary masterpiece will be particularly intriguing to readers of French literature and those individuals curious about the true origins of 'Les Mis.'" ―Erica Swenson Danowitz, Library Journal
“David Bellos, whose distinguished career has been dedicated to propagating appreciation of French fiction in the resistant Anglophone world, makes a grand claim for Les Misérables. It is, against (to take other champions) Tolstoy, Dickens, and Melville, the novel of the nineteenth century. He follows its course from first stirrings to most recent adaptation. He proves his case.” ―John Sutherland, author of Lives of the Novelists and Orwell’s Nose
“The Novel of the Century is the best, most instructive book about Les Misérables ever written―the shrewdest, the most knowledgeable, the most detailed, the most enthusiastic, and the most enjoyable.” ―Paul Berman, author of A Tale of Two Utopias and Power and the Idealists
“It is possible for a book to have adventures as well as recount them. David Bellos’s witty, informed, but never overloaded work proves the case thoroughly. Here we learn a great deal about the career of a writer, the turbulent politics of his times, the composition of a great novel, and the life and afterlife of the novel itself. And whether the subject is exile, poverty, suffrage, Hugo’s ‘split mind’ during the 1848 Revolution, or the complications of the word ‘miserable’ in English and French, the sense of adventure never lapses. The recurring, multifaceted question posed by Les Misérables, as Bellos says, is not whether good will triumph over evil, but ‘how hard it is to be good.’” ―Michael Wood, author of Yeats and Violence and Alfred Hitchcock: The Man Who Knew Too Much
“In this lively and engaging account of the making of Les Misérables, David Bellos captures the brilliance not only of Victor Hugo’s novel but also of its conception, execution, and publication. His learned study bristles with insights on topics great and small―from French history, politics, and linguistic registers to the meaning of colors, coinage, dates, and modes of transport in the book to its untranslatable title and its many adaptations worldwide. The story behind the greatest novel of the nineteenth century will enchant both popular and scholarly readers, who will come away with an even deeper understanding of and appreciation for Hugo’s prose masterwork.” ―Kathryn Grossman, Pennsylvania State University
“In full command of the artistic and moral complexities of Victor Hugo’s masterpiece, as well as of the social and political conditions in nineteenth-century France, David Bellos offers the reader a comprehensive view of Hugo’s creative genius and of the historical circumstances of the great novel’s composition. He does so with brio and humor, and in a distinctly personal voice.” ―Victor Brombert, author of Victor Hugo and the Visionary Novel
About the Author
David Bellos is a well-known translator of modern French fiction and the author of several prizewinning biographies of French literary figures. His irreverent study of translation, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? (2011), was a runner-up for the Los Angeles Times book prize and has itself been translated into Korean, Spanish, German, and French. He teaches French and Comparative Literature at Princeton University and holds the rank of Officier in France's Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
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Bellos's history of the writing and reception of LM draws on deep understanding of the book and its languages, on original research in historical sources, and on the vast scholarship to produce one of the most readable books about a book ever. What is more astonishing, Bellos has done so passing over (briefly) the familiar facts about Hugo's sex life to get to details like Hugo's frustration that mail could not be delivered on Sundays and the weight in tons of the lead print required to typeset the initial pages of the first edition.
Bellos writes for serious fans. He also discovers materials and makes new arguments that experts must acknowledge. His is not a book of literary criticism. Literary critics will not like it, and I predict they will (wrongly) dismiss it as naive. But then they don't like Hugo either...
Bellos juggles a number of goals. First, he goes far towards explaining why the novel reached an extraordinarily wide readership and has continued to provide a source for myth--from musicals to anime. Second, he describes the amazing story of the long-delayed, furiously completed writing and printing. Third, he reexamines the novel's narrative and language, clarifying meanings that have been lost.
Examples of major insights that will benefit readers are: 1) the best and shortest account of the relationship of the story to the historical layout of Paris; 2) a compelling explanation for why Hugo chose the rebellion of 1832, not 1830 or 1848, and why it matters; 3) an entertaining presentation of the chronology of later additions and last-minute structural innovations that sheds light on the relative importance of the superstructure and discursive narrative; 4) a discussion of the names for money (providing a key for the values and more important an appreciation for the class connotations of the references); 5) a consideration of details of modes of transportation; 6) a clarification of the treatment of prisoners (not galley slaves!). Perhaps more important still are Bellos's discussion of Hugo's use of language generally--especially helpful in his attention to vocabulary and identification of words that Hugo invented.
Bellos writes with generosity towards his source and its many reincarnations (except for the first authorized English translation, which he hates). But the "greatest novel of the century" is not hyperbole: it is fact, not value judgment. Contrary to one early reader, Bellos does not engage in hero worship. He probably has other personal favorites on the list of great novels of the century. But face it, nothing else comes close to LM in terms of cultural and intellectual impact. The publishing phenomena that came closest have been mostly forgotten--especially Hugo's original inspiration, The Mysteries of Paris.
I am told that taken seriously, a review must add some gripes. Here they are. First, I wish the citations were more frequent. But then I am the weird reader who wants to find the original copy of the menu Bellos quotes in full. Second, there are a few historical connections I am not sure about because the book covers so much so fast. Was Hugo or his readers aware that Valjean was at risk for cholera in the sewers or is that anachronistic? (A note provides the date of scientific discovery. Popular awareness could be different.) Did Hugo's son's drama version really influence later adaptations, or was it an understandable coincidence that they omitted a lot of the same stuff?
Amazon readers have already begun to question Bellos's cosmopolitan, liberal reading of Hugo's politics. Bellos emphasizes that Hugo adopted positions that deliberately defied partisan classification, so the political debates will probably continue forever. But Hugo did not avoid supporting specific controversial movements and figures--Garibaldi, John Brown, the Mexicans resisting Maximillian. He did not equivocate in his support for the republic and had a specific vision of humanitarian progress--one that suggests a more nuanced (I would say conflicted) view of Enjolrasis, and one that not easily squared with the top-down management style of the EU.
Most striking to me--and it says worlds about Bellos's convincing reading of the novel--is the near omission of Javert. Bellos thinks everyone has gotten Javert wrong. Bellos does not see Javert as representing tragic adherence to duty (or law) so much as tragic adherence to blind duty. Emphasis on blind. Draining Valjean's traditional antagonist of voltage allows Bellos to look closely at parts of the novel that have been ignored. But if Marius and Valjean have something of Hugo in them, could Javert, too?
I would have loved to hear more about Javert from the master of French language. What are we to make of the name itself--its inversion of the sound of Valjean's? The fact he is Roma? His dress? No one has more to teach me about Javert than Bellos. But life is short, and Javert did not make the final cut.
I was sorry when I came to the end of his book. When was the last time you could say that about a book by a tenured professor?
Always in English.
I learned a lot from David Bellos and I think him here for the time he has invested in my favorite novel.
"L'homme Qui Rit" and "Quatre-vingt-treize" also deserve his attention.
The book sets the book in the context of Hugo's biography, and sets both of them in the context of the social, economic and political travails of 19th century France. The author takes you from the germination of the idea of the book, through its remarkably efficient drafting, and on to its publication and its lives afterwards. When I reached the chapter on the sale of the right to publish the book, I thought, "well, this is where it's going to slow down", but in fact the competition was such, the ambition for its publication across the continent was such, and the pains taken to keep the manuscript secret to avoid theft of intellectual property were so intense, that the chapter could easily be the basis for a movie. Of course, you'll also find a few pages on the stage and film adaptations, but the real fun and learning lie - for this reader, anyway - in the contextualization of the book in its 19th century milieu.
The author's knowledge is worn lightly, yet leaves the reader with many nuggets and insights, such as the significance in Hugo's life of the two numbers assigned to Jean Valjean when he is a prisoner, or what the "Val" in "Valjean" was derived from and how that relates to the morality play that the book intends to put on. You''ll learn the meaning of the word "Miserables" (and also a fun pun the Confederate soldiers here in the US created when they read the book). Further examples: the social significance of various colors in that era, or how people of the time could tell a person's class by the names he gave to the coins in circulation, all insights that one would never hope to acquire just by reading the novel on one's own. To the 21st century reader, those seem like clutter but to the reader of the era, they conveyed connotations that shape the reading of the text considerably.
I also learned that Hugo's father was not merely an officer in the French army, but in fact was the last of Napoleon's generals to surrender, a humiliation that seems to have stoked his son's passion to inspire their countrymen to "make France great again", within, rather than without, its borders (the author does not deploy that anachronism, btw; I am wholly responsible for its appropriation to this context). In that vein, one of the most thrilling chapters of this book, and another one that could be the basis for a movie, is the one setting forth the interplay between Waterloo and the novel. This sentence from the book sums it up: " Making sense of Waterloo was therefore in Hugo's mind the only way to make sense of the century his novel aimed to portray and understand, and the only way to explain why, despite its defeat, France remained the moral and intellectual centre of the world." So important was Waterloo for Hugo as a motivation that he insisted on renting a room overlooking that battlefield while he finished the final pages of the draft he sent off for publication.
As for the man, I learned he was, like most great men, or at least great subjects of biographies, a man of tremendous contradictions. Outspoken on the need to reduce prostitution by expanding the opportunities for young women, he nevertheless frequently paid women for sex. One who tried to foster empathy and kindness toward the poorest members of French society, he still demanded that he be paid more for Les Mis than any author in history had received for a book. Notwithstanding his advocacy of greater empathy for the lowly, he advocated that they be assimilated -- somewhat reminiscent of Shaw's Pygmalion -- by teaching them to speak Latin and proper French. An author who painted an iconic portrait of students at the barricades, nevertheless, in the actual battles of 19th century France, he directed soldiers on the other side of the barricade against revolutionaries. A lifelong critic of religion, in the fashion of most intellectuals on the continent in that century, he nevertheless states at the outset of Les Mis, "The book you are about to read is a religious one." by which he seems to have meant "didactic". It was meant to teach moral lessons about, first, caring for the poor, and also about woman's rights and education, in an era without a welfare state. But he did, as he grew older, pray more, and encouraged others to do so as well. But he recommended prayer, not so much for holiness in and of itself, but to foster compassion and to lead to greater charity and good works on the earthly plane.
Last, as to the era, as indicated above, the author gives you many instances of how economic problems (not just poverty and class but monetary policy as well); and political upheavals affected Hugo and the book -- most dramatically, the political developments that caused Hugo to have to become an exile from France, which seems not to have diminished him as a coward, but to have made him only more legendary an avatar of an idealized France.
I read about a book a week and so far this is easily the best book I have read this year.