By John Hertz: (reprinted from Vanamonde 1249) The best notes I know for Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables (1862) are James Madden’s in the 2008 Modern Library edition, tr. Julie Rose. My own copy is the 1987 Lee Fahnestock & Norman MacAfee rev’n of Charles Wilbour’s tr. 1862, whose notes appear at the feet of pages (where notes belong! grr!) but not nearly enough.
Modern Library apparently first published the Wilbour in 1931; the ML ed’n with Stephen Alcorn’s woodcut on the jacket is not dated; ML reïssuing the Wilbour in 1992 [dieresis mark for Phil Castora] still offers both it and the Rose.
Yes, it’s a masterwork. Yes, it’s long; 1,194 pages by Rose (who after expatiating how faithful she was, which I can’t judge, says Alexander Pope 1688-1744 reïnterpreted Shakespeare 1564-1616 primly [p. xxiv] — aiee!) + 136 pp. of notes, 1,222 by Wilbour (and how he managed to get his tr. published in the year of the original is a story in itself).
No, there aren’t any digressions. Every side-path and detail is of the essence, from giving Cambronne’s answer at Waterloo as Merde! (the journalist Rougement reported La garde meurt et ne se rend pas! “The Guard dies and does not surrender!”, which was put on the base of a statue of C after his death; C denied he’d said either) to the sewers of Paris.
Hugo said he was writing a polemic: “So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilisation, artificially creates hells on earth … books like this cannot be useless” (beginning and end of his preface, tr. Wilbour). But that last word is strange.
For years the coal of my desire to read this book was cold. I hearkened too much to how Hugo was a social critic — ipse dixit — and how Les Misérables was about relentless Inspector Javert’s pursuing Jean Valjean for stealing a loaf of bread.
Although “a loaf of bread” is an oafish misstatement, the criticism is there; the pursuit is there — oh, the pursuit! O Javert, what an end for you! — but we’d not call Rembrandt’s Night Watch (1642) a painting about men’s hats.
I’ve said the works of Jane Austen (1775-1817) are to us like writing by a Martian for fellow Martians; of Georgette Heyer (1902-1974), set in that period, like a science fiction author’s writing about Martians: Austen assumes we understand. Hugo is a Martian from across a canal.
What do these Martians tell one another to evoke the world they all share? We, who are in the business of verisimilitude, evoking fictional worlds, can watch.
I mention the notes first here because Les Misérables is so studded with allusion and reference that we need the help.