Saturday, December 29, 2012

800 Words: The Survival of Les Miserables Part 1

I just saw Les Mis last night, and it is a truly great movie. Not the Les Mis out in theaters now, I mean the 1998 movie version. I will probably see Les Mis at some point this weekend. But I doubt this movie will be half as good as the 1998 Les Miserables – a movie so absolutely underrated as to be a scandal. Les Mis stars Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe, the latter of which is featured in more overrated crap than any movie star since Clint Eastwood or Robert Redford (it’s amazing how often boring movie stars make good directors…), whereas Les Miserables is not a centimes short of magnificent. It’s directed by Bille August, an Ingmar Bergman protégé, and stars Liam Neeson and Geoffery Rush – who between them seem to have made more great movies nobody but me and five other people remember than any two stars in Hollywood today. Geoffrey Rush is particularly great. Not that this should surprise anybody, anyone who’s seen Quills knows that he is the equal of any screen actor in movie history, and all he has to do to inhabit Javert as no one else ever could is to dim the wattage of his eyes. The terror implicit in that scowl is enough make viewers jump three feet out of their collective seat.  Claire Danes’s overacting notwithstanding, the rest of the cast is just as wonderful. Hell, even Uma Thurman is great as Fantine. To put it simply, I don’t see how  there can ever be a greater, more moving, more hallucinatory, or higher reaching cinematic vision of Les Miserables than what we got in 1998. And unlike the novel, it takes two-and-a-half hours to get through the whole thing.

As perhaps none of the other ‘loose baggy monsters’ of 19th century literature do, Les Miserables cries out for a movie. The story itself is nothing less than a primal myth about how humanity is kept wretched. Would that other novelists learned from Victor Hugo’s example and wrote novels about the world rather than their own navels. And yet, in my experience, this novel is much less than its parts. I realize that this is the view from 2012, but from the vantage point of our era, Victor Hugo seems to do everything he can to dull his story’s inherent drama.

Now I should specify, I have not read Les Miserables from cover to cover. But I’ve tried to dip into it many times, and I’m constantly struck by the woodenness of Victor Hugo’s writing. Whether in Les Mis or Notre Dame, Hugo is an amazing writer of descriptive prose. When the situation calls for action, he has the entire world of language at his disposal. But when it comes to the kind of repose that makes the characters truly breathe that illustrate his ideas, Victor Hugo seems rather hopeless.

That Victor Hugo was a great writer of action and an indifferent student of human nature shouldn’t surprise anyone. Action was his entire life. He was born in 1802, the year Napoleon was elected France’s Consul for Life. Hugo was the son of a Bonapartist general and raised in the milieu of the Napoleon's iron fist. Napoleonic self-belief and humorlessness also seems to have passed to the young writer, and it stayed with him all his days. Some French wag is said to have remarked “Victor Hugo was really a madman who thought he was Victor Hugo.” When the writer was in his seventies or eighties, a friend expressed to Hugo his belief that the soul dies with the body, to which Hugo replied “For your soul that may be true, but I know that mine is eternal.”

Whether or not Hugo’s soul is eternal, he seems to have done absolutely everything within his power to ensure that posterity would not forget him. By the end of his life, he’d written seven novels – nearly all of which are of Les Miserables length – he wrote twenty-one plays, countless numbers of polemics and pamphlets, and 155,000 lines of poetry! And that doesn’t count any private correspondence.  No one but a person of messianic inner conviction can create an output so large, and anyone who writes at such a frenetic pace for so many decades has neither the time to make sure everything is of equal quality nor the self-awareness to realize that the quality of his writing might improve if there were less of it, nor the leisure time to make a proper study of human nature.

And yet Victor Hugo is probably the most widely beloved writer in French history. His fictions are about very real issues, yet they make no real intellectual demands on the reader. Even if insipid, the prose is always crystalline, and when he was at his considerable best, the excitement of his plots carried his writing forward through whatever weaknesses they possessed. In both his time and long after his death, there was probably not a single person in France who did not have strong feelings about Victor Hugo. If you could read French, it’s likely you read every scrap of his writing you could find. If you couldn’t, somebody probably read it to you. In order to understand the importance of Victor Hugo to 19th century France, you’d have to combine Stephen Spielberg, Bob Dylan, Christopher Hitchens, and Norman Mailer. His only contemporary peer in this regard is Charles Dickens, who like Hugo, was the voice of his entire country: every region, every social class, every ethnic group, every background. There might be a few 20th century writers who served the same purpose to give voice to the stories of small nations, but none of them have anything resembling the enormous international presence which Hugo commanded as well. 

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