In His Nightmare City

Victor Hugo
Victor Hugo; drawing by David Levine

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…

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