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In His Nightmare City

Les Misérables, Victor Hugo’s epic tale of an escaped convict and an abandoned woman, which Tolstoy called “the greatest of all novels,” nearly vanished into the skies over Paris in June 1848. Four months after the popular revolution that brought it to power, in a desperate attempt to deal with hunger and unemployment in Paris, the French government introduced mass conscription. Riots broke out on June 22, and Hugo and his family left their apartment in the Place des Vosges, which was close to the heart of the insurrection.

Hugo, then aged forty-six, had been elected to the Assemblée Nationale, and found himself in an impossible position. The author of Notre-Dame de Paris and some of the best-loved poems in the language was seen by voters as a moderate socialist sympathizer and a friend of the starving workers who were now erecting barricades in the city. However, as a member of parliament, he believed that the uprising, though morally justified, could only lead to anarchy. At the risk of his life, he harangued insurgents, begging them to return home peacefully, and when his pleas were ignored, the author of Les Misérables (which might be translated “The Wretched” or “The Scum of the Earth”) led a full-scale artillery assault on the barricades where the misérables themselves were fighting for their lives.

While Hugo was helping to repress the insurrection in a state of moral confusion, his apartment in the Place des Vosges was invaded by a band of rioters. They were setting fire to houses to defend the quarter with a cordon of flames. Awed by the other-worldly atmosphere of Hugo’s home, which Charles Dickens had likened to “the Property Room of some gloomy vast old Theatre,”1 they removed their hats and processed silently through the deserted rooms. A huge pile of paper on a desk might have served as kindling, but in the event, only one sheet of paper was removed: it was a petition, signed by Hugo, in support of sailors who had mutinied because of their appalling working conditions. The petition was taken by the rioters to prove to their comrades on the square outside that Victor Hugo was indeed “a true friend of the people.”2

The pile of paper on Hugo’s desk was the first version of Les Misérables. Three years later, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte conducted a coup d’état. For Hugo, the situation was now much clearer: his political duty and his moral duty were no longer incompatible. After trying to stir up resistance to the coup d’état, he fled to Belgium, disguised as a worker, with the manuscript of Les Misérables in his luggage. He eventually returned to it in 1860, and inflated it with the experience of the last twelve years. The result was a novel so huge that even Hugo was alarmed by it. He compared it to Brunel’s steamship, Leviathan: “The paddles are a hundred feet across, and the lifeboats are battleships; it will not be able to enter any harbor.”3 Yet within hours of its publication in 1862, thousands of copies were sold, not just to educated, middle-class readers, but also to many of the misérables who recognized their own experiences in the thrilling adventures of Jean Valjean, Marius, and Cosette.

The Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa first encountered this titanic novel in the winter of 1950, when he was fourteen years old, shrouded in drizzle and fog on top of the cliff at La Perla, near Lima. The world of Les Misérables—“a world blazing with extreme misfortune, love, courage, happiness, and vile deeds”—was an antidote to the boredom and hostility of the Leoncio Prado Military College:

It was a great place to take refuge; this splendid fictional life gave one strength to put up with real life. But the treasures of literature also made real reality seem more impoverished.

His study of Les Misérables was first published in 2004 as La Tentación de lo imposible. An abridged version was given as a series of lectures at the University of Oxford in April and May 2004. It is always an important literary event when one great novelist writes about another. This is especially so in this case: Vargas Llosa has spent “two years totally immersed in [Hugo’s] books and in his time,” he has revisited one of the scenes of his formative years—the mountaintop where he first discovered Les Misérables, and which he also describes in his novel The Time of the Hero (La Ciudad y los perros, 1962); and, although he never refers to them directly, there are striking parallels between his own career and that of Victor Hugo. In his youth, Vargas Llosa sympathized with the ideals of the Cuban Revolution; later, as a candidate for the presidency of Peru in 1990, he advocated a free-market economy, and was condemned as a turncoat by some of his former socialist allies. By contrast, Victor Hugo was an ardent monarchist in his youth, moved gradually to the left, and became one of the founding fathers of the Third Republic in 1870.

Both novelists were accused of political opportunism, and both have been forced to consider the complicated relationship of literary invention with political and social reality. As Vargas Llosa puts it, do “the falsehoods that our imagination conjures up help us to live or contribute to our misfortune by revealing the insuperable gap between reality and dreams”? To put it more crudely: Why does someone who claims to have an unusually clear view of present political realities spend most of his time, as a novelist, making things up?

The result of this encounter is one of the most engrossing and interestingly inconclusive books ever written about Les Misérables. As a novelist, Vargas Llosa describes Hugo’s techniques in concrete terms, without rehearsing theories or squabbling with rival interpreters. He gives a thrilling sense of what it feels like to inhabit a fictive universe, and explains how the illusion of reality is deepened by characters who seem to contradict the omniscient narrator. He compares the essential episodes that form “volcanic craters” in the plot with the purely instrumental events that serve simply to “ensure the fluidity of narrative time, the illusion that time is passing.” His metaphors say more about the workings of Hugo’s novelistic brain than hundreds of pages of abstract analysis. The Temptation of the Impossible might almost serve as an instruction manual on writing a nineteenth-century novel.

Vargas Llosa’s central theme is the discrepancy between “real reality” and the world created by the novel: “Fiction is not life but is in conflict with life.” Les Misérables “is not a reproduction of reality, but a transgression of reality that we accept through its power of persuasion.” This was also the central theme of Vargas Llosa’s earlier study The Perpetual Orgy: Flaubert and Madame Bovary (1986), but in The Temptation of the Impossible, he appears to take a more critical view of the novelist’s “transgression”: Hugo’s fiction is a “grandiose lie,” its “documentary aspects” are “not very exact,” and its “re-creation of life” is “unfaithful.”

As the author of an epic novel loosely based on historical records and on Euclides da Cunha’s partly fictional account of an episode in Brazilian history (The War of the End of the World, 1981—to which he does not refer in this study), Vargas Llosa has evidently thought hard about the methods and responsibilities of the historical novelist. Yet the main question raised by his central theme, which reaches far beyond the enchanted world of Romantic fiction, is not only never answered but never clearly formulated.

The problem is that the “real reality” in question is a historical reality, and our perception of it has been deeply colored by works of imagination and invention, including Les Misérables. For example, in order to describe the real, “nightmare city” that Hugo supposedly obscured with a “rhetorical smokescreen,” Vargas Llosa refers to two books. One is Le Code des gens honnêtes, ou l’Art de ne pas être dupe des fripons (Handbook for Honest People, or The Art of Not Being Fooled by Rogues), an anonymous, money-making work concocted in 1825 by a novelist, Honoré de Balzac, and a literary charlatan called Horace Raisson. Le Code des gens honnêtes exploited a voyeuristic fascination with crime, and its impressive, bogus statistics were intended to shock, not to inform. The Code‘s claim that “one out of every ten people was a criminal” is belied by criminal statistics: during the year in question (1825), approximately one in every 17,000 French citizens was accused of a crime against another person, and approximately one in every 5,700 of a crime against property.4 But because Balzac’s work is more accessible and entertaining than statistics, it has retained the power to distort the truth. “Thus it is,” said Baudelaire, in a different context, “that the man of wit molds the people, and the visionary creates reality.”5

Vargas Llosa’s other authority is the “admirable” and hugely influential study by the first professor of the history of Paris at the Collège de France, Louis Chevalier: Classes laborieuses et classes dangereuses à Paris pendant la première moitié du XIXe siècle (1958).6 In the words of the historian Barrie Ratcliffe, who has shown its methods and conclusions to be unreliable, Chevalier’s study depicts a Paris “engulfed by massive demographic growth and threatened by social disorganization.”7 Immigrant workers, according to Chevalier, turned the population of Paris into “an atomistic, anomic, alienated mass.” As Ratcliffe points out, Chevalier was describing middle-class fears rather than ordinary realities; he relied on subjective accounts rather than on statistics and came to share the neuroses of his literary sources; his discussion of violent behavior was “brief and sketchy”; he exaggerated the extent and impact of immigration; and he confused “the margins” (criminals, vagrants, and the desperately poor) with the mass of working people. His book, says Ratcliffe, “is, in fact, a barrier to our understanding of the French capital in the first half of the nineteenth century.”

Since few other serious works of fiction gave such prominence to the proletariat, one of Chevalier’s main sources was, inevitably, Les Misérables. This suggests that the “real reality” with which Vargas Llosa contrasts Hugo’s novelistic universe owes at least something to the novel itself. A character in Oscar Wilde’s dialogue “The Decay of Lying” half-jokingly observes that “the nineteenth century, as we know it, is largely an invention of Balzac.”8 After hundreds of editions and translations of Les Misérables, and tens of thousands of performances of the musical, this could probably be said in all seriousness of Hugo’s novel.

It is obviously true that novelists transform the realities that they use as their raw material, and that the amazing coincidences and providential interventions that shape the plot of Les Misérables belong to a world that today seems quite different from our own “real world.” Now that Paris is no longer a collection of urban villages, the chance encounters that seemed plausible to Hugo’s first readers look miraculous and contrived. And in a city where physical survival is no longer a daily concern—except in certain violent suburbs of northern Paris—life no longer lends itself to a stark depiction of Good and Evil. But is it really the case that Hugo transformed the reality of his time to such an extent that his fictional universe is historically false? And if, as Vargas Llosa notes, its first innocent readers believed the novel to be true to life, was this simply because “fiction described what the men and women of the time wanted or believed themselves to be”? In other words, was the miserable cadet of the Leoncio Prado Military College who read Les Misérables taking refuge in antiquated dreams or embarking on a voyage of historical discovery?

  1. 1

    Letter to the Countess of Blessington, January 27, 1847, in The Letters of Charles Dickens, Vol. 5, edited by Graham Storey and K.J. Fielding (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 15.

  2. 2

    Victor Hugo, Oeuvres complètes: Actes et paroles III (Paris: Hetzel, Quantin, 1884), p. 18.

  3. 3

    Letter to Jules Hetzel, July 4, 1861, in A. Parménie and C. Bonnier de la Chapelle, Histoire d’un éditeur et de ses auteurs (Paris: Albin Michel, 1953), p. 368.

  4. 4

    André-Michel Guerry, Statistique comparée de l’état de l’instruction et du nombre des crimes (Paris: Everat, 1832), pp. 4 and 7.

  5. 5

    Charles Baudelaire, “Les Martyrs ridicules, par Léon Cladel,” in Oeuvres complètes, edited by Claude Pichois (Paris: Gallimard, 1975–1976), Vol. 2, p. 183.

  6. 6

    Translated by Frank Jellinek as Laboring Classes and Dangerous Classes in Paris During the First Half of the Nineteenth Century (Fertig, 1973).

  7. 7

    Barrie Ratcliffe, “Classes laborieuses et classes dangereuses à Paris pendant la première moitié du XIXe siècle?: The Chevalier Thesis Reexamined,” French Historical Studies, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Autumn 1991), p. 543.

  8. 8

    Oscar Wilde, Intentions (1891; London: Methuen, 1908), p. 33.

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