In This Review

The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of “Les Misérables”
The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of “Les Misérables”
By David Bellos
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017, 336 pp

Although ostensibly a work of historical fiction, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is in fact a panoramic exposé of mid-nineteenth-century France—a society defined by its contradictions. The splendid memory of Napoleon Bonaparte remained omnipresent, yet his mediocre nephew Napoleon III headed the state. Extraordinary new wealth was everywhere, yet so, too, was abject poverty. Rich men profited handsomely by criminal and immoral means, including the promotion of dangerous industrial labor, corruption, prostitution, imperialism, and even slavery. As Bellos shows, such contradictions found expression in Hugo’s own life and career. Although the novel’s hero, Jean Valjean, rails against injustice from atop Parisian barricades, Hugo himself led a company of soldiers against the revolutionaries of his own time. Similarly, having written nearly 2,000 pages that movingly described the plight of the poor, Hugo sold temporary publication rights to Les Misérables for an advance of $5 million in current dollars—arguably the highest amount ever paid for a work of fiction. This unique and readable book conveys the chaotic fabric of French life two centuries ago more powerfully than most conventional histories.