Many years earlier, in his preface to a collection of poetry, inner voices, dated June 24 1837, hugo had said that the poet's duty was to elevate political events to the dignity of historical events. This fluidity between the political and the historical is central to les Misérables. Hugo wanted to transform politics into history, and rewrite history so that it included the unknown, the ignored, the forgotten - a version of history that would inevitably, therefore, be both an exercise in philosophy and an exercise in politics. Les Misérables, let's remember, was a historical novel on its first publication. But what is a historical novel? With Les Misérables it allowed Hugo to rewrite history: to show how far history is fiction; how far fiction had always been taciturn about the mass of its editing. In his chapter "The year 1817 a four-page list of minute events, hugo concludes: "History neglects nearly every one of these little details and cannot do otherwise if it is not to be swamped by the infinite minutiae. And yet, the details, which are wrongly described as little - there are no little facts in the human realm, any more than there are little leaves in the realm of vegetation - are useful.".
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Hugo's epigraph limits his novel too neatly. It's true that hire the same triad of the needy - which corresponds to valjean, fantine and Cosette - is restated by two characters in the novel. But Hugo was not simply a political writer. How could he be? His subject was the infinite. In an abandoned section on prostitution, hugo wrote: "The portion of fate that depends on man is called essay 'misère and it can be abolished. The portion of fate that depends on the unknown is called 'douleur and this must be considered and explored with trepidation." he was an ontological pessimist, and a historical optimist. This was why Flaubert was unfair to mock hugo for "the catholic-socialist dregs. The philosophical-evangelist vermin" who admired his novel. Hugo's novel was grander than its politics. It was not so limited.
A few drops of water, more or less, brought Napoléon to his knees. So that Waterloo could be the end of Austerlitz, providence needed only a bit of rain, and a cloud crossing the sky out of season was enough for a whole world to disintegrate.". It looks like an essay on Waterloo; just as Valjean's story looks like a story about the tribulations of an escaped convict. In both cases, however, the true subject is chance: "the immense strokes of luck, good or bad, that are calibrated by an infinity that escapes us". Hugo's length does not just represent a philosophy: it is also a politics. In Les Misérables, there is a correlation between the infinite and the unknown; and another correlation between the unknown and the miserable - the destitute. This is why hugo can move so fluently from a detail to its moral or political halo. Everything is linked by his thematic network. Perhaps it's a pity, therefore, that all that survived of his preface to the novel was a single, dogmatic sentence: "As long as social damnation exists, through laws and customs, artificially creating hell at the heart of civilisation and muddying a destiny that is divine.
We live our lives so blissful in our ignorance of an infinity which could invade us at any moment. Hugo's form, predicated on length, on digression and detail, is a deliberate accretion of overlapping examples: his scenes are all variations on the same theme. That is why the novelist Mario vargas Llosa has described how Hugo's main scenes are "irresistible traps" - volcanic craters, where chaos suddenly acquires logic. (And yet, how strenuously do hugo's characters try to resist the traps of the world!). Whether Hugo is writing about the historical battle of Waterloo or the fictional journey to Arras, his scenes obey the same constraints: a mass of infinite detail, which coalesces to form a trap, an unstoppable destiny. According to hugo, the battle of Waterloo was determined by the weather. "If it hadn't rained during assignment the night of June 17-18, 1815 writes Hugo, "the future of Europe would have been different.
As he put it in Les Misérables: "How do we know the creation of worlds is not determined by the falling of grains of sand? Who, after all, knows the reciprocal ebb and flow of the infinitely big and the infinitely small, the reverberation of causes in the chasms of a being, the avalanches of creation? A cheese mite matters; the small is big, the big is small; everything is in equilibrium within necessity - a frightening vision for the mind." he wanted pattern. But he wanted it only after subjecting the form to its limits, stuffing it with random accreted details - like the man fighting at the barricades, who "had padded his chest with a breastplate of nine sheets of grey packing paper and was armed with. Meaning could be revealed only by slowing down the tempo of each scene: pausing it in the infinity of its detail. This is the meaning of Hugo's long novel and its slow tempo - heavy with detail. How can you know what fact will emerge, and destroy you? How can you know what will become a trap, and what will not?
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Schlock, however, can make existential discoveries too. One way in which Hugo emphasises the coincidences in his novel is the persistent failures of recognition. This occurs on the level of the characters - where a father does not recognise his son, or a criminal does not recognise the very person he has been pursuing for years. And it occurs on the level of the narration, where the narrator withholds the name of a character throughout an entire episode. Partly, perhaps, this adds to suspense: it creates moments of dramatic irony. But really it's to create a bifocal effect. Hugo wants a plot that is at once about total randomness, and also total predetermination.
The novel, therefore, is written from two perspectives. The perspective of mankind, and the perspective of God - or Destiny. "We chip away as best we poetry can at the mysterious block of marble our lives are made of - in vain; the black vein of destiny always reappears." Hugo is echoing Hamlet here: "There's a divinity that shapes our ends, / rough-hew them how. Les Misérables is a game with destiny: it dramatises the gap between the imperfections of human judgments, and the perfect patterns of the infinite. The reason for including so much of the world's matter was to work out how mystical the world was.
This might seem surprising - since one natural assumption, perhaps, is that improbability in a novel should diminish with length. In Tolstoy's War and peace, if people coincide, or marry each other, it still seems probable. Every decision retains its fluidity. And yet in Les Misérables this isn't true. In this gargantuan novel, everything seems utterly improbable. Every plot operates through coincidence.
Normally, novelists develop techniques to naturalise and hide this. Hugo, with his technique of massive length, refuses to hide it at all. In fact, he makes sure that the plot's coincidences are exaggerated. It could be argued that the persistent weakness of the plotting is its strength. This, after all, is how coincidence often happens in real life - thinly. But the overwhelming impression is of schlock. And so it might be right to remember that Hugo's original title for his novel was Les Misères, not Les Misérables: which echoed Eugène sue's recent bestseller, les Mystères de paris. Hugo's novel would offer miseries, not mysteries. But it would be part of the same urban pulp tradition.
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"The eye of owl the drama must be everywhere at once wrote hugo. For every plot, seen from the angle of Hugo's style, was infinite. In some ways, the plot of Les summary Misérables is simple. It is the story of an escaped convict, jean Valjean, who determines to reform after being saved by the bishop of Digne; javert, the policeman who wants to see him rightfully punished according to the law; a dead prostitute, fantine, and her illegitimate daughter, cosette. This might sound tightly plotted, taut with melodrama. It might sound like a good plot for a musical. But no one can read Les Misérables for the cleverness or subtlety of its plot. It is not a novel which prides itself on believability.
Its quantity is its quality. It represents an answer to a central soldiers artistic question, which was not an answer the tradition of the novel has ever quite believed in since. This is one reason why hugo's novel is so strange, and so valuable. "Really, universally, relations stop nowhere henry james would write, 40 years later, in his preface to the new York Edition of his early novel Roderick hudson, "and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, the. James, after all, had learned the art of the novel from Flaubert. According to this modernist tradition, the novel was an art of miniaturisation, and indirection. Hugo, however, had come up with a new solution, no less artful than the solution proposed by Flaubert and James. He wanted to create a novel which would try to represent everything by pretending that it did, in fact, represent everything. It would be wilfully ramshackle and inclusive - both on the level of form, and on the level of content: an essayistic novel, or a novelistic essay.
the people, god and in particular the world, this is what I have tried to include in this book; it is a sort of essay on the infinite.". The subject of one of the longest novels in European literature is - what else? That is why its tempo is so explicit with slowness, syncopated with digression. But in this novel there is no such thing as a digression. Everything is relevant - since the subject of this book, quite literally, is everything: "This book is a tragedy in which infinity plays the lead writes Hugo. "Man plays a supporting role." "When the subject is not lost sight of, there is no digression hugo wrote later. But how can the subject of the novel ever be lost sight of, if the lead character is infinity? In that case, nothing will ever be a digression. Yes, the length of this novel is important.
To describe his work in progress, he jotted down a list of paper hyperbolic adjectives: "Astounding, extraordinary, surprising, superhuman, supernatural, unheard of, savage, sinister, formidable, gigantic, savage, colossal, monstrous, deformed, disturbed, electrifying, lugubrious, funereal, hideous, terrifying, shadowy, mysterious, fantastic, nocturnal, crepuscular.". The size was the centre of Hugo's discovery in the art of the novel. And this is visible immediately: it's visible, to the perturbed reader, in the second of this novel's many sentences. The beginning, it turns out, is not a beginning at all. "There is something we might mention that has no bearing whatsoever on the tale we have to tell - not even on the background." Les Misérables begins with a digression from a digression (thus resembling Gustave flaubert's Madame bovary, which a few years earlier had. When the book was finished, hugo tried - and failed - to write a preface. The preface would have begun like this: "This book has been composed from the inside out. The idea engenders the characters, the characters produce the drama, and this is, in effect, the law of art.
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To begin with the central problem: the exorbitant length. Les Misérables is one of the longest novels in European literature. But length is not just a question of pages, it's also a question of tempo. And this is why les Misérables is longer than the arithmetic of its length. In his essay "The curtain milan Kundera writes how "aesthetic concepts began to interest me only when I first perceived their existential roots, when I came to understand them as existential concepts." A guaranteed form is not free-floating; it is not purely a technical exercise,. It is intimately, intricately linked to what it describes. "In the art of the novel kundera adds, "existential discoveries are inseparable from the transformation of form.". And the most obvious transformation, victor Hugo effects in the novel's form is sheer gargantuan size. This megalomania was a conscious choice on Hugo's part.