A biography of a book, rather than a person, is a relatively new wrinkle in nonfiction. When the approach succeeds, as it does with David Bellos’s “The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of ‘Les Misérables,’” the result can be genuinely fresh and inspiring.
Bellos’s book is a major accomplishment. His warm and engaging study of Victor Hugo’s 1862 masterpiece renews faith in the idea, so fundamental to the mysterious attraction of literature, that great books of whatever age continue to be worthwhile objects of attention. In applying a melange of literary criticism, linguistics, political science and history to the study of one of the best-known, if least-understood great books of all time, he illuminates the work in a way that transcends conventional literary criticism.
Bellow displays a dazzling range of erudition with lightness and easy wit, and almost every section of his book bears surprising insights. He shows, for example, how different French words for money — ranging from francs to sous to napoléons — carry subtle denotations of class, effectively becoming “sign and substance of the social injustices that ‘Les Misérables’ sought to dramatize.”
The novel’s hero, Jean Valjean, makes his fortune by starting a factory that manufactures black beads, which Bellos elegantly unpacks as a case study in niche manufacturing, right down to calculations of materials, unit costs and gross margins. He writes with clarity and grace about the complex political turbulence of 19th-century France and its effect on Hugo, most notably in his nearly two-decade exile from his homeland.
The section on the publication of “Les Misérables” is one of the most informative accounts of the mechanics of the 19th-century book business that I have ever read. And you need not necessarily be a book person to find this study of what Bellos calls “the first truly international book launch” fascinating. For starters, the advance Hugo received was the equivalent of almost $2.5 million today, and its financing by “a carrot-haired young businessman called Albert Lacroix” puts the novel “at the vanguard . . . of the use of venture capital to fund the arts.”
The physical process of composition and printing was mind-boggling: Thousands of proof pages had to be sent via ship and coach between Hugo in exile in the Channel Islands and Lacroix in Brussels, a staggering task in the face of the onrushing deadline for the book’s publication. (These passages are enough to give anyone who works in publishing a kind of delayed-sympathy anxiety.)
“Les Misérables” was the first book in the history of publishing to be embargoed — that is, to be withheld from sale until a specified date because of the fear of what we would now call “spoilers.” Indeed, the appearance of a pirated Belgian edition mere weeks before the scheduled publication date in April 1862 caused the whole unwieldy apparatus to be pushed to the breaking point. When the novel did finally appear, the uproar put a modern-day Harry Potter release party to shame, with policemen being called upon to restrain unruly customers who “verged on a riot.”
As the title suggests, Bellos is endearingly protective of his subject, snarling at “serious readers [who] have often turned up their noses at a work they assume to fall below the level of great art” because of “the sometime inept adaptations of it.” (This last is a dig at the egregious musical adaptation and its reign of terror over Broadway.)
Perhaps the only way Bellos stumbles is by occasionally overreaching for the significance of the novel’s contemporary relevance. Writing of the “social mechanisms that condemn some people to poverty,” he stiffly lists “factors identified by modern social scientists” in an odd-sounding attempt to prove the novel’s prescience. Later, he makes the baffling statement that a certain utopian strain in Hugo’s novel led in some way to the foundation of the European Union and the United Nations.
As a rule, I am suspicious of attempts to update a novel’s merits to make it fit contemporary ideas of social value — a trend that critic Louis Menand once described as “presentizing.” Bellos can relax a little: We don’t need “Les Misérables” to be the best novel of the 21st century; it doesn’t even need to be the best novel of the 19th century. He is surely right in saying that since it is “not a reassuring tale of the triumph of good over evil, but a demonstration of how hard it is to be good,” it will never go out of style.
Michael Lindgren is a frequent contributor to The Washington Post.
By David Bellos
Farrar Straus Giroux. 307 pp. $27