I dithered in a bookshop some weeks ago over buying a copy of The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of ‘Les Misérables’ by David Bellos. Fortunately, I bought it as I’ve had my money’s worth in pleasure and interest many times over. I just adored every page of this book and hated having it come to an end. I’ve always loved books about other books, and it is hard to find a better one than this.
Bellos tells the story of how Hugo came to write Les Misérables, the amazing tale of its publication and the money paid for it, and then its phenomenal popularity (including in the Soviet Union). The book was the first truly international bestseller, it was the first novel ever to appear on film (and remains the most filmed novel in the world), and thanks to Les Misérables the crowd that assembled in Paris for Victor Hugo’s funeral was the largest crowd ever gathered in that city.
Southern soldiers in the American Civil War called themselves ‘Lee’s Miserables’, after their leader Robert E. Lee, and read the novel eagerly throughout the war.
But interspersed with all this information, is additional social and historical detail about the book. I was fascinated to learn that Hugo grew a beard in the belief that beards protected a man from infections and so a beard would mean he could live long enough to finish his masterpiece. I loved reading about what colours people wore in 19th century Paris, what words different classes of society used for coins, the coded use of numbers within the novel, and the ground-breaking use of the word ‘Merde’ in its pages. I could picture Hugo’s mistress Juliette devotedly copying out pages of the manuscript, understand why the book had to be published in Belgium, see how it has been used and abused, filmed, made into musicals, plays and comics, and enjoyed an incredible after-life – oh there was just SO much to enjoy in this wonderful book. No wonder it won the 2017 American Library in Paris book prize!
Have you read Les Misérables or have you, like many, only seen the film or musical? Reading the Bellos book made me want to re-read this classic, especially as he made me aware of how vital it is NOT to read an abridged version. There’s an unabridged audio version available that runs for just over 67 hours.
You should read Hugo’s book before you read The Novel of the Century. Then you should read the excellent biography of Victor Hugo by Graham Robb. I can’t think of a better way to enjoy a great classic than to follow it up with a gem like this.
Have you read the book? I’d love to hear what you think in a comment.