The Temptation of the Impossible
Victor Hugo and "Les Miserables"
By Mario Vargas Llosa
Princeton University Press / 232 pages / $24.95
Known to Americans primarily as the author of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables, Victor Hugo (1802-1885) is considered France's greatest poet and one of its greatest prose writers. Hugo's stature, according to The Temptation of the Impossible by Mario Vargas Llosa, is due mainly to the impact of Les Miserables.
Why did the novel exert such a profound influence on Hugo's literary status? And what does the story tell us about Victor Hugo himself? Vargas Llosa, a prolific Latin American novelist, journalist and scholar, grapples with the two questions. But he never actually answers them because Hugo, like Les Miserables - which in the unabridged version consists of 10 volumes - is super-sized. And as Vargas Llosa admits, it is impossible to know this great author of the Romantic period - even after spending "two years totally immersed" in his books.
As Vargas Llosa explains it in these essays (originally lectures that he delivered as a visiting professor at Oxford University), Hugo began Les Miserables after one of his plays bombed. The audience had laughed at the wrong places; the critics panned the performance, and Hugo became the butt of jokes. Not to be stopped, he continued to write, putting much of his dramatic energy into the novel, which became a larger-than-life narrative - noted for its theatricality.
Ironically, the story is fairly well-known primarily because it's been adapted so often to both film and stage. The plot concerns an ex-convict, Jean Valjean, who, treated kindly by a Roman Catholic bishop, "redeems himself, and scales the moral heights after much suffering," as Vargas Llosa summarizes it.
Usually considered a social novel, it is peopled with have-nots who must struggle against overwhelming odds just to survive, and according to its epigraph, this novel could be of help in dealing with problems caused by poverty and ignorance. Yet Hugo, Vargas Llosa says, intended the design of this novel to be less about earthly things than about heavenly ones.
As Vargas Llosa sees it, the story affirms the existence of God and the redemptive effect of grace, which would even include Satan. Told by a "divine stenographer," one directly inspired by God, the story seeks to create a fictional world the size of the universe and to include infinite themes - as opposed to historical and social themes - concerning "God, time, fate, and life." Hugo explained the novel's metaphysical and theological underpinnings in a lengthy preface that's incomplete and not usually included in contemporary editions, but from which Vargas Llosa extensively quotes.
In creating the fictional world of Les Miserables, Hugo expanded his fairly compact original story over many years with two main versions of the book - one written between 1845 and 1848 and another written between 1860 and 1862, when Hugo was in exile. (Vargas Llosa aptly calls Hugo's manuscript "a progressive enlargement ... of words, characters, and stories." The two versions show Hugo's evolution from a constitutional, liberal monarchist to a republican with radical and social-minded leanings.
Hugo, who tried always to stand at the center of the action, lived a rich and adventurous life. He even sneaked out of his house to make love to an old and elderly flame when he was 83 years old. Hugo did as many things as his words and his imagination could devise: from his fascination with the occult, to his love life, to his extensive concern for social issues, to his interest in theology and his efforts to understand the nature of a Supreme Being, to his seeming disdain for organized religions.
By the time Hugo died in 1885, most people had forgotten the play whose failure had spurred the French author to literary greatness. All of France and all of Europe wept for him, Vargas Llosa writes; nearly everyone in Paris turned out to follow his funeral cortege. Ultimately, Victor Hugo had become "the symbol of his society and his century." So prolific was Hugo that, as Vargas Llosa estimates, it would take a reader 10 years - nonstop - to read all of his work, which includes thousands of still-unedited letters, notes, papers and drafts - proving, if nothing else, that writing well and living well make the best revenge.
Diane Scharper teaches English at Towson University. Her next book, "Reading Lips," will be published this year.