SPIRITISM — communicating with the dead — was a European fad in the second half of the 19th century, and the French writer Victor Hugo was an eager practitioner. A friend who visited Hugo in his home on the Channel Island of Jersey once presented him with a three-legged table that enabled the author to establish contact with his eminent predecessors, such as Virgil, Dante, and Shakespeare; the table’s legs would tap-tap-tap out the departed writers’ answers to Hugo’s questions. One day, the personified Spirit of Civilization itself commanded Hugo in suitably deferential terms: “Great Man, finish Les Misérables.”

This burst of “celestrial morse” is recounted in David Bellos’s The Novel of the Century, which vividly traces the origin and development of Hugo’s most famous work, assessing its impact on the novel as a genre. Though some — like those in the War and Peace corner — may quibble with Bellos’s title, the novel is certainly a top contender, which has, in our own day, regained worldwide popularity through the musical and movie.

But first things first: what was France’s most celebrated literary figure doing on a godforsaken Channel Island? In 1851, Hugo’s opposition to the increasingly repressive regime of president Louis Napoleon led to his banishment from France. He expressed his contempt in a pamphlet fired off from Brussels: “Just because we had Napoleon le Grand, do we have to have Napoleon le Petit?” Sure enough, the following year, Louis Napoleon upgraded himself to emperor. It was only a question of time before the French would ask the Belgians to kick Hugo out. Britain, the safe haven of choice for European expellees, afforded the obvious answer. Since life on the Channel Islands was cheaper than London, Hugo first settled on Jersey, but after having fallen out with the locals, moved on to neighboring Guernsey.

The original inspiration for Les Misérables that the spirit was urging Hugo to finish came from scenes of social despair he had witnessed in Paris — such as an incident where a man was hauled away by soldiers for having stolen a loaf of bread, while an elegantly dressed Parisian duchess sat in her carriage doting on her child, totally oblivious to the wretched beggar. This was described in Hugo’s Things Seen. As Bellos notes, the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen spoke of society owing “subsistence to citizens of misfortune,” defined as orphans, the sick, the old, and the infirm, but made no mention of the able-bodied poor. Besides, it lacked the funds to care even for the first group.

In 1808, to get beggars and vagrants out of city centers, Napoleon created so called dépôts de mendicité, which were essentially holding pens; but the effect was only cosmetic, says Bellos, and the idea was eventually dropped. The consensus was that poverty was the sufferer’s own fault. But to Hugo, as to Dickens, poverty was a fundamental cause of crime and social upheaval. Yet unlike Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, the story of Jean Valjean is not one of revenge; nor is it, like Zola’s Germinal, an indictment of capitalism. Instead, it is a story of redemption and reconciliation. The convict Valjean, who has served 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread, experiences a conversion after he is saved from rearrest by the Bishop of Digne, whose silver plates are found in his sack. The bishop pretends they were a gift, and admonishes Valjean to use the money he will get for them in the service of good — an admonition that guides the man through his subsequent life.

Furthermore, Bellos notes, unlike Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy, Hugo does not provide us with an in-depth psychological study of Valjean. Instead, Valjean is revealed through his actions, much in the manner of the lives of the saints. Having rescued Marius, the wounded suitor of his adopted daughter Cosette, from the barricade, he carries him though the sewers, emerging as a mixture of Hercules, Theseus, and Christ bearing his cross, a myth-like figure. Inspector Javert, Valjean’s antithesis and relentless pursuer, Bellos has down not as an evil man, but as one cursed with tunnel-vision, whose zeal in discharging what he perceives as his duty props up an unjust and evil system. When Valjean saves Javert from execution after he is exposed as a spy on the barricade, the inspector drowns himself in the Seine: “those who refuse reconciliation between social classes in the name of law and order are swept away. Moral progress cannot be realized as long as Javert’s two-part vision of humanity persists.”

What has caused some confusion for later readers of the novel, says Bellos, is Hugo’s use of word “proletariat.” The standard 19th-century usage derives from the Latin “proletarius,” which referred to a man who had no property and paid no tax and therefore could not vote, which was how Hugo understood it. It was synonymous with outcast. But in Marx’s adaptation, the word changes its meaning from “having no property” to “having no means of production.”

“Thanks to Karl Marx’s approximate Latin and to the long-lasting impact of the political movement he founded, a single word at the head of Les Misérables has had Hugo’s masterpiece labelled a leftwing book,” writes Bellos. While certainly progressive, the novel was not a socialist work. The prostitute Fantine works in Monsieur Madeleine’s factory, but “waged labor in Madeleine’s model factory in Montreuil is the solution to Fantine’s woes, not their cause”; for Hugo, the very idea of class warfare is poison. Yet the novel also demonstrates how sheer desperation can lead a harmless character like the ancient ruined bookseller Mabeuf to join the barricades.

The first two volumes appeared on April 4, 1862, but the full release took three months. The French authorities realized it would have been counterproductive to ban it. The critics were less than enthusiastic. To Alexandre Dumas, it felt like “swimming in mercury,” while Flaubert dismissed the book as written for “catholico-socialist shitheads and for the philosophico-evangelical ratpack.” Readers, on the other hand, loved it. Sales went through the roof, including in the United States; unfortunately, this did not benefit Hugo, as the U.S. did not recognize copyrights held by foreigners. Southern publishers, of course, did not recognize Northern publishers, and certain bits mentioning the word “slavery” were struck in pirated Southern editions. But poignantly, Confederate soldiers took to referring to themselves as “Lee’s Miserables”: They felt “Hugo’s book was really about them, the miserable sons of Robert E. Lee!”

Stylistically, claims Bellos, Hugo broke new ground. He admired Shakespeare for his vast cast of characters, each with a vocabulary reflecting his or her class and occupation. Relying on the dictionary produced by a former convict-turned-policeman Eugène Francois Vidocq, he greatly widened what could appear in print by including underworld slang, which he justified as “the professional jargon of a business called crime.”

Some readers have undoubtedly been tempted to skip the philosophical essays scattered throughout the novel. They shouldn’t, argues Bellos, for “far from being digressions they constitute the basic rhythm of the book.” Thus, in the essay on Waterloo, which ascribes Napoleon’s defeat to chance or destiny, but not to Wellington, Hugo seeks comfort in the long view: “Despite its short-term reactionary effect,” writes Bellos, “the humiliation of Waterloo was a chapter in the longer-term narrative of progress,” as it brought the ordinary allied occupying soldier in France into contact with the ideals of the Revolution and ensured their spread to the rest of Europe.

After Louis Napoleon’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–’71, Hugo returned to France to become “almost a tutelary deity [of] the Third Republic.” And yet one problem he never solved. “There are no ‘bad grasses’ or ‘bad men,’” Valjean states when hiding in the convent as a gardener, but “only bad gardeners.” Where Valjean’s and Hugo’s progressive vision hits a wall is when faced with Thenardier, the wicked innkeeper, who does his level best to cheat and destroy Valjean. Thenardier and his wife are not victims of misfortune; the bankruptcy of their inn and their subsequent poverty is entirely of their own making.

While Valjean remains a saint-like ideal, Thenardier feels very real. In the musical and film, notes Bellos, the Thenardiers are reduced to comic characters, but they are deadly serious in the novel, irredeemably criminal and brimming with hate. Hugo does not have an answer to that, notes Bellos. Neither does the modern welfare state, one might add, which with great patience and at huge expense has tried to reform and integrate Thenardier and his ilk, with no luck.

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Henrik Bering is a graduate of Oxford University (Pembroke College) and has been a Professional Journalism Fellow at Stanford. He is the author of Outpost Berlin: The American Forces in Berlin, 1945-1994 and of Helmut Kohl, an authorized biography. His reviews have appeared in Policy ReviewThe Wall Street Journal, and The New Criterion.