Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Miserables’ – an appreciation

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Modern literature suffers from the lack of an epic novel which encompasses and defines the times in which we live, containing as a result that elusive but necessary quality of timelessness necessary to accord it the status of the classic. Perhaps Don Delilio’s Underworld (1997) is the closet there has been to claiming that mantle over the past thirty years or so, but since then there has been little to get excited about among the plethora of vacuous tripe proffered by the mainstream – which in the main consists of novels written by middle class people for other middle class people wherein the most common issues being grappled with are unsatisfying sex lives and deciding on the colour of the wallpaper in the sitting room of the second house in the country.

Where is the serious work of western literature that deals with seismic events such as 9/11, the war on Iraq, the war on terror, Palestine; on issues such as the plight of asylum seekers, immigrants, the struggles of the poor and dispossessed in the 21st century?

Having just read Victor Hugo’s magnificent Les Miserables, this lack of serious literature in and of our time is even more evident.

Les Miserables – the story and its characters – has been a permanent cultural fixture for the best part of a generation, most commonly associated with the musical adaptation, which has now been performed in 21 languages in 42 countries around the world and is estimated to have been seen by 60 million people since first opened to poor reviews in Paris in 1980. The movie version of the musical, starring Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe, was released earlier this year to excellent reviews, but previous to this there had already been three movie adaptations of the book. The first of those was made in 1935 and starred Charles Laughton and Frederic March. The second, produced in 1958, was shot in East Germany and is considered the most overtly political of the movie adaptations made. Meanwhile, the third and last dramatised movie adaptation to date was made in 1998 and starred Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush.

In addition there has been a radio production, a TV movie version, and a TV mini series, further evidence of the enduring resonance and impact of the characters created by Hugo in a novel that was originally published in 1862.

The themes encapsulated in Les Miserables – redemption, love, justice, crime and punishment, morality, and human solidarity – unfold in the course of a story which begins at the end of Napoleon’s ‘hundred days’ after his return from exile on Elba, and ends in 1832 just after the short-lived June Rebellion of Republicans in Paris against the monarchy of Louis Phillipe.
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