Readers familiar with Victor Hugo's mammoth, 1500-page, 1862 novel "Les Misérables" mainly from watching some soggy regional staging of Cameron Mackintosh's 1980 musical adaptation – and let's be honest, that's most readers – will be first nonplussed then amazed by how seldom the show is even mentioned in David Bellos's comprehensive new work of popular history, The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables. Bellos, a translator of French fiction and the author of 2011's well-received "Is That a Fish in Your Ear?," is certainly aware of the appalling billion-dollar theatrical behemoth in the room, but he has an even more remarkable success story to tell: the story of the novel itself.
Button-hole histories like this – of one painting, one boxing match, one book – are very tricky to do well. You need to provide readers with the broader background or the specifics won't make much sense, but providing too much background runs the risk of reminding your readers of all the things that were happening at the time that were actually important (the first automobile was built in 1862, for instance, and government-threatening unrest was building in Poland, and the United States was embroiled in the Civil War). Michael Gorra mostly managed this balancing act in his 2012 "Portrait of a Novel" about Henry James's masterful novel "Portrait of a Lady," and Bellos pulls the feat off even more engagingly. For a nuts-and-bolts dissection of a 150-year-old doorstop French historical novel, "The Novel of the Century" is captivating.
Long before Hugo's publisher Albert Lacroix actually released "Les Misérables" to Paris bookstores, speculation had been peppy about this new work from the universally-lionized Hugo. Bellos neglects no element of his story's background; we get a brisk but meaty walk through Hugo's biography, a lively overview of the French publishing world in the Second Empire, and best of all, an infectiously passionate account of the novel's many plots and sub-plots – there's a distinct charm in realizing that Bellos is not only an authority on the book but a fan.
But the heart of the tale is in the bookshops of Paris, where it should be. Lacroix was ecstatic about the novel, breathlessly telling Hugo, “Your work, dear master, is that great and magnificent forest where everything exists, merges and combines.… Your book is the forest of human life and of our nineteenth century. It leaves us captivated, penetrated, moved, transfigured, renewed, improved and pensive.”
He negotiated a contract of stupendous proportions: 250,000 francs for an eight-year license, with 50,000 francs for translation rights. “That was a lot of money,” Bellos writes. “It was much more than Hugo's own weight in gold – turned into twenty-franc gold pieces, it would have weighed more than 97kg. It represented twenty years of a bishop's stipend, enough money to endow a chair at the Sorbonne or to build a small railway.”
It was worth the money. Six thousands copies of the Paris first printing sold out in a day. Lines formed around bookshops. Crowds in every city eagerly waited their turn. As Bellos points out, nothing like it had ever been seen in the history of bookselling, and the book's author and publisher left no details to chance.
“Superlatives really are in order,” Bellos writes. “Lacroix had invented at Hugo's behest the first truly international book launch with infrastructure that was barely ready for it: paddle steamers, a rail network that still had more gaps than connections, four-horse diligences and maybe, on the approaches to St. Petersburg, a jingling three-horse sleigh.”
The title of Bellos's book, it must be conceded, is much closer to those paddle steamers than it is to literary reality. Hugo's book is for long stretches hysterically over-stuffed and scatterbrained. Hugo himself might have been right in calling it “a work of love and pity,” but Bellos calling it “the novel of the century” is sheer fan club partisanship when it's up against a baker's dozen far superior works from the period – "Madame Bovary" was published in 1862, "Great Expectations" in 1861, "Silas Marner" in 1861, "Crime and Punishment" in 1866, "Moby-Dick" in 1851, and a little thing called "War and Peace" in 1869.
The bookstore rank-and-file customers of 1862 may have been crying the novel's praises, but France's literary establishment immediately saw through the rhetorical hyperventilation Hugo was trying to pass off as Olympian profundity. Prosper Mérimée likened its fans to apes (an opinion shared by some of Cameron Mackintosh's earliest critics back in the 1980s, coincidentally); Flaubert used a less printable term for those same fans; Alexandre Dumas said that reading the book was like wading through mud; Baudelaire hacked out a favorable review for money but lamented to his mother about what a liar he was.
"The Novel of the Century" perfectly captures all sides of this publishing phenomenon and the man at its center. Bellos fascinates from beginning to end – and who knows? He may even tempt his braver readers to leave his base camp and make an assault on the Everest of the novel itself.