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 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?

Vargas Llosa’s title, The Temptation of the Impossible, refers to the diatribe against Les Misérables that was published in 1862 by Alphonse de Lamartine, the Romantic poet, former president of France, and friend of Victor Hugo. Lamartine accused Hugo of blaming all human ills on society, and of making “the impossible” (justice, equality, and lasting happiness) seem attainable: “If we sow ideal and impossible thoughts in the masses, we reap the sacred fury of their disillusionment.” “Man against society, this is the real title of the novel.” According to Lamartine and other conservative critics, Hugo exaggerated the imperfections of society, and thereby created a dangerous desire for the perfect world of fiction. It is a sobering thought that these early criticisms of Les Misérables continue to influence perceptions of the novel. It should be remembered that many of the injustices described by Hugo were treated as exaggerations precisely because they were disturbingly true to life, and that when Les Misérables was published, Hugo was the Second Empire’s most prominent exiled dissident: any journalist who praised him in print was likely to lose his job.

Vargas Llosa also mentions contemporary criticisms of the character Fantine, the dying woman who has been fired from Jean Valjean’s factory, and whose child Cosette he promises to protect. Lamartine “finds the misfortunes of Cosette’s mother—in particular when she sells her teeth and her hair—to be melodramatic and false.” Another critic, Narciso Gay, who published a study of Les Misérables in the Light of Good Sense and Healthy Social Philosophy (Madrid, 1863), thought that “it strains credulity to the limits to have Fantine lose her job for being a single mother.” No doubt, as Vargas Llosa states, these criticisms “completely miss the mark”: the point is the novelist’s transformation of reality, not his conformity to verifiable fact. It is worth pointing out, however, since Vargas Llosa considers these criticisms historically justified, that as a man who walked about Paris at night, talked to beggars and urchins, enjoyed intimate relations with female members of the proletariat, received hundreds of visitors of every social rank, and undertook fact-finding missions to factories and slums, Victor Hugo knew far more than we do today about the real conditions of working people in nineteenth-century France.

Lamartine’s attack on what might be called the persuasive implausibilities of Les Misérables is unintentionally revealing. It shows, for instance, that the poet who was considered at one time to be on the side of the workers, and who was elected president of the French Republic after a popular revolution in February 1848, was unaware of the fact that poor people often sold their hair and their teeth. The “hair harvest” was a significant source of income in many parts of France, and there was a lively trade in human teeth (for dentures), though nothing quite as grim as the current trade in human kidneys.

Anyone who assumes that Hugo’s amplified rhetoric distorted the literal truth of what it expressed might, for instance, compare Fantine’s miserable life with that of a real working woman, Jeanne Bouvier, whose memoirs describe a later and more comfortable period (1876–1935).9 Bouvier makes it clear that the law of 1841 which limited a child’s working day to eight hours was rarely applied, and that even eighteen years after the publication of Les Misérables, a girl was practically defenseless against a sadistic or niggardly employer. It was literally true, as the narrator of Les Misérables claimed in a passage that was excised from Part III (quoted by Vargas Llosa), that “when a woman is accepted by the social order, she is considered a minor”: Napoleon’s Civil Code had given married women the same inferior legal status as children and lunatics.

It is also quite true—even though, as Vargas Llosa says, the incident was “universally accepted as being unbelievable”—that in 1795 an adult could receive a five-year jail sentence, as Jean Valjean does, for smashing a baker’s shop front and stealing a loaf of bread. That year (to take an example at random from the Gazette des Tribunaux), a fifty-eight-year-old man who took three napkins from his regular restaurant in Paris was condemned to spend eight years in the galleys shackled to a ball and chain.10 While Hugo was writing his novel, in September 1846, he visited the Conciergerie prison in Paris and talked to a twelve-year-old boy who had been sentenced to three years in a house of correction for taking some peaches from a tree in a suburban garden. The exaggeration that infuriated some of Hugo’s contemporaries resides not in the facts themselves, but in Hugo’s inflammatory magnification of the underlying injustice: “True, we might ask them, ‘What have you done with our peaches?’ But they might answer us, ‘What have you done with our intelligence?'”11 To say, then, that “Les Misérables is a fiction, a creation that turns its back on lived experience” is true only in a very particular and perhaps a very personal sense.

As Vargas Llosa points out, the most important political event described in Les Misérables, apart from the Battle of Waterloo, is the Paris uprising of June 1832, when the liberal monarchy that was founded by the 1830 Revolution savagely crushed (and perhaps provoked) a popular revolt of royalists, Orleanists, legitimists, and republicans. According to Vargas Llosa, Hugo dissolves complex political events such as the June 1832 uprising “into a sentimental and utopian haze.” He transforms a revolution—which is to say, in Vargas Llosa’s words, “an imperfect, chaotic, convulsive, ambiguous, collective movement”—into a preordained event that marks one of the stages in humanity’s progress toward a higher form of moral life. He smoothes away the divergent ideologies of the insurgents and replaces them with vague principles that represent “everyone and no one.” In this view, the Victor Hugo who narrates Les Misérables is also the “chameleon” politician whose changing and apparently opportunistic views Vargas Llosa finds “somewhat dubious.”

Yet Vargas Llosa conjures up a similar sort of simplicity with his own optimistic view of historiography. He suggests that historians, who once held “divergent” views on the subject of the 1832 uprising, are all now in agreement, though he cites only two articles published in 1962 and a book that first appeared in 1841. He paints a picture of history as a consensus of “sociologists, economists, statisticians, and historians.” He implies that our informed “image of historical Paris” can be used as a stable base from which to view the maelstrom of inventions that characterizes fiction: “The novel has an ambiguity that history itself does not have.”

There is no doubt that Hugo’s analysis of the 1832 uprising would not satisfy a professional historian. Nevertheless, he produced a more accurate description than any contemporary historian of the confusion inherent in a popular revolt. His firsthand experience of revolution gave him an unusually clear view of the impenetrable obscurity of mass events. Les Misérables contains one of the very rare descriptions of what it was like to fight on a barricade:

Leaving a barricade, one no longer knows what one has seen…. Swept up in a battle of ideas endowed with human faces, one’s head has been in the light of the future. There were corpses lying down, and phantoms standing up…. Hands with blood on them. A horrific, deafening din. An atrocious silence…. One seems to have touched the sinister perspiration of unknown depths. There is something red under one’s fingernails. One remembers nothing.12

Hugo’s description of animated ideology, carnage, and amnesia hardly lends itself to academic history, but neither does it deserve to be seen as “a rhetorical smokescreen” because it fails to identify political factions and patterns of cause and effect. This is not just “a splendid fiction” whose truth is “the truth of certain dreams, fears, or desires.” It is also a challenge to the consensus of historians and their own creative selection of truths. As Vargas Llosa writes, the notion that history creates its own discrete, coherent worlds is “marvelously expressed” in the chapter of Les Misérables titled “In the Year 1817,” in which the narrator, after presenting a bewildering assortment of trivial events, observes, “History scorns nearly all these odds and ends and cannot do otherwise because it would be invaded by infinity.”

When he writes as a literary critic, Vargas Llosa’s own sense of history appears remarkably tidy. He puts Hugo firmly in his historical place by contrasting him neatly with Gustave Flaubert: “One can say that [Les Misérables] is the last great classical novel, while [Madame Bovary] is the first great modern novel.” Whereas Hugo’s narrator behaves like an omniscient god, Flaubert

killed off the innocence of the narrator and introduced a self-consciousness or guilty conscience in the teller of the story, introducing the idea that narrators must “abolish themselves” or justify themselves artistically.

But that “guilty conscience” was already at work in Hugo’s novel, though it manifested itself in a different form. When the exiled Hugo expanded the passage on the June 1832 uprising, he referred to his own ambiguous involvement in the June 1848 uprising. On both occasions, a government that had been brought to power by a popular revolution repressed a rebellion of the people. Vargas Llosa mentions June 1848 as the cause of Lamartine’s political downfall and his attack on the demagoguery of Les Misérables, but he does not mention Hugo’s part in the same events. It was on the barricades of June 1848 that Hugo discovered the terrible truths that one can follow the dictates of one’s conscience and yet not be on the side of good, and that the relatively straightforward path of political action can be just as ambiguous as a novel.

The extraordinary vagueness that sometimes descends on Hugo’s tale is part of its historical and psychological accuracy. Like the best historians, he knew that he was fighting a losing battle with passing time and self-delusion. Like Vargas Llosa in his study of Les Misérables, he refused to allow his own simplifications and wishful thinking to write the conclusion. The strength of this study lies in the doubts that it casts on the process of literary invention and on the writer’s awareness of his own procedures and his inflammatory effect on readers. Instead of simply justifying its own methods, as many academic studies of Les Misérables have done, Vargas Llosa’s study, like the novel itself, poses questions that inevitably remain without an answer. Do the “falsehoods” of the novelist’s imagination “help us to live or contribute to our misfortune”? Do they help slaves to “discover their freedom” and encourage citizens to rise up against “bad governments and the evil arts of evil men”? Is a novelist who tempts us with “the impossible” a public benefactor or a reckless nuisance? Is Vargas Llosa’s own historical fiction true to “real reality” or only to itself? And would society now be better or worse if the manuscript of Les Misérables had been stolen from Hugo’s home in June 1848 and used to stoke the fires of revolution?

This Issue

June 28, 2007