PUBLISHERS call them blockbusters; critics dismiss them as potboilers; in their own time and place -- Paris of the 1840s -- they were romans-feuilletons -- and the greatest of them all was Eugene Sue's The Wandering Jew (unless that honor belongs to The Count of Monte Cristo, which was being serialized at exactly the same time in a rival Paris newspaper). The Wandering Jew has got, as the form demands, everything: an heiress falsely accused of madness and incarcerated in a lunatic asylum; a destitute hunchbacked seamstress of the highest moral character hopelessly in love with a blacksmith (who is a patriotic poet on the side); bloodthirsty panthers, telepathic twins, debauchery, murder, suicide, duels, supernatural manifestations, blazing passions, wild mobs, a plague of cholera, scenes in Java and the Arctic, the two best Reading of the Will scenes that ever were, and, towering over all these attractions, the nastiest crew of villains ever brought together in one book, presided over by the fiendish, the insidious, the wholly diabolic Jesuit priest and arch-hypocrite, PMere Rodin, who is hell-bent on becoming the next pope.
My first acquaintance with Sue's genius came at about age 10 when, like stout Cortez upon his peak in Darien, I stared in wild surmise at the Classics Illustrated comic book of The Mysteries of Paris, wherein the hero had been trapped, among frantic rats, in a cellar rapidly being flooded to the rafters. Here was an absolutely Basic Truth about human destiny that no other Classics Illustrated author had ever revealed to me. It was to be another 10 years before I found the Modern Library Giant of The Wandering Jew (no longer in print, alas) and consumed its 1,357 pages of faded purple prose like so many kilograms of popcorn, since when, though I have not returned to it till last month, I have remembered its main outlines and best scenes with the seared after-image recall that some few paintings of the same era achieve -- Gericault's Raft of the Medusa or Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People, paintings that could be dismissed as clich,es if they had not established themselves as archetypes.
While that part of the novel-reading audience that includes some classics as a staple of their diet can usually accept the glorious excesses of painters and composers, they tend to shy away from books that purvey equivalent pleasures of Too Much and Far Out. Melodrama and an eye peeled for box office success are accounted mortal sins by academics, and academics have been left in charge of which books of the past are to be accounted classics, taught, and kept in print.
Yet I doubt the neglect of Sue's novel can be ascribed entirely to highbrow snobbery, since any number of comparable novels by Scott, Hugo, Dumas, and Wilkie Collins have managed to stay in print without much assistance from academia. Nor, I think, need the book's length tell against it, for in the great page-turners, from Clarissa to The Godfather, length becomes a positive virtue: no one wants the fun to stop.
I suspect that the root of the problem may be that The Wandering Jew is a vehemently anticlerical parable ("vituperative" one reference book calls it), while the tenor of the last 40 years has been towards that brand of genteel ecumenicism whose first article of faith is that religion and politics should not be discussed -- or, if they are, every effort must be made to be fair. And melodrama is seldom fair; there isn't time. Besides, Sue wasn't writing in the age of Bing Crosby but at a time when the Catholic church was in the vanguard of political repression. Which is not to say he doesn't stack the deck. Besides the machiavellian P,ere Rodin and his Jesuit minions, the book's crew of villains includes a venal Mother Superior whose convent is a prison in disguise, a gluttonous bishop who is regaled by an ultramontane (i.e., rich and right-wing) dowager with a lenten repast that includes "little Calvaries of apricot tartlets" and "a superb crucifix of angelica with a crown of preserved barbaries," together with such lay assistants as sweatshop operators, wild animal tamers, and Indian thugees. There is not, this side of Melmoth the Wanderer (the most lurid of the gothic novels and one of Sue's prize sources), a work of literature better calculated to drive a Catholic Anti-Defamation League into paroxisms of denunciation. To return such a book to print is obviously asking for trouble.
And that's too bad, because despite its glorious excesses (or in addition to them) The Wandering Jew represents a considerable literary achievement, especially for the way Sue is able to weave his many characters into a plot of monolithic unity. To wit: seven descendants of one Marius de Rennepont stand to inherit that gentleman's fortune, which has mounted at 5 percent interest over 150 years to a sum of 212,175,000 francs (or 8,487,000 pounds sterling). These seven, whom the Jesuits are determined to despoil of this fortune, represent a cross-section of all that is sexy, virtuous, and left-wing; Blanche and Rose Simon, twin daughters of one of Napoleon's marshals, lately escaped from Siberia; a utopian-minded industrialist; the dashing Prince Djalma; an 18-year-old heiress of exquisite refinement; a debauched but good-hearted workman called Couche-tout-Nud; and the saintly young priest Gabriel, whom the Jesuits have tricked into making over his share of the fortune as a deed of gift. For the first half of the novel the bad guys conspire to see that only Gabriel will be present at the reading of the will, thus becoming sole legatee. Just as their scheme seems to have succeeded, the female counterpart of the Wandering Jew of the title appears as dea ex machina to produce a codicil that sets the plot in motion for another 600-plus pages. I am sworn not to reveal how it all ends, but take my word, the final tableau is a lulu.
For some readers that synopsis may suggest that the book is no more than a classic of camp humor, and indeed there are chapters when the extravagance of the plot can be discombobulating, especially if we have been bullied by the schoolmarms of Serious Literature into believing that grand gestures and bold colors are necessarily in bad taste. However, anyone who can enjoy Griffith's Birth of a Nation or a well-sung Il Trovatore should have no trouble achieving total immersion in Sue's story, while readers on friendly terms with Dickens and Balzac (whose La cousine Bette could not exist without the precedent of The Wandering Jew) will feel a kindred sympathy for Sue. More to the point, perhaps, in terms of resurrecting this book from the limbo of used bookstores (where the old Modern Library Giant is still often to be found), readers of such current melodramatists as Richard Condon or Anne Rice ought to be highly receptive to The Wandering Jew, especially if it were published in a slightly condensed version. With just a bit of spit-and-polish the old warhorse could be a best seller all over again.