Much of the final episode of the BBC adaptation of Les Misérables featured our hero wading chest-deep through raw sewage, with a barely supportable burden upon his shoulders. This felt an appropriate metaphor for the entire series.
The BBC’s offering has formed my introduction to Victor Hugo’s ‘masterpiece’. I have not read the novel or seen the musical. Since I now have no intention of doing either, the series will also form my farewell to Victor Hugo’s ‘masterpiece’.
You will gather that I haven’t enjoyed it. In fact, it took an act of supreme effort to wade through to the end of the final episode. But is my true target Victor Hugo or the BBC’s production? Having now researched the matter, I can say categorically that the target is Victor Hugo. The production is blameless. The cinematography was superb. The script and the acting were as good as they could have been, given that an outstanding adapter and an excellent cast were trying to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.
If Les Misérables was presented to publishers today, it would be turned down flat as a work of serious fiction. Would this be the fault of publishers, or the fault of the novelist? Same answer as above: the fault of the novelist. It is true that fiction as an art form has progressed in the past 150 years. On the whole, it has progressed in a positive way. The readers of serious fiction, and those who publish it, now insist on character-driven writing, where the characters are complex but act in accordance with their natures. They insist on believable storylines, and on a finished novel that, whatever its genre, feels credible.
Les Misérables is not character-driven. Nor is it plot-driven. It is driven by the moral purpose of the author. In fact, Moral Purpose with capital letters and a large finger jabbing at the words to make sure you’ve got the message, and possibly a heavenly choir warbling the lyrics. (I do have some idea what I’m talking about here. I once contrived to do the same thing myself in a novel that was intended to be the follow-up to The Breaking of Eggs. My publisher wisely refused to publish it.)
In Les Misérables, a tortuous plot is constructed to serve the Moral Purpose, and cardboard characters are constructed to serve the tortuous plot. Neither have any credibility. I have watched in amazement as one implausible coincidence followed another until the entire edifice collapsed under the weight of its own artificiality.
Admittedly, the role of coincidence in fiction-writing is always tricky. It is hard to write a novel in which coincidence plays no part. And also unnecessary: after all, coincidence is an integral feature of life. But it must be done subtly, and it must not be overdone. In general, the role of coincidence in life is greater than can be credibly portrayed in fiction. But not for Victor Hugo. For him, no coincidence was too coincidental, no contrivance too contrived.
Of all the characters in Les Misérables, the most absurd (and there is heavy competition for this accolade) is Javert, the police inspector. We will pass over the fact that Javert progresses at breakneck speed from prison overseer in Toulon to police chief at Montreuil more than 1,000 km away (where his obsession from Toulon, Valjean, just happens to be living) to head of police in Paris (where Valjean just happens to have moved). When Javert’s subordinate informs him that an armed uprising against the government is being plotted in Paris, Javert tells him that the pursuit of Valjean, a petty thief, is more important. He has no evidence, but justifies his priorities by announcing that, of the 800,000 inhabitants of Paris at the time, he ‘knows’ that this petty thief is the master-mind of the plot.
When Javert belatedly discovers that Valjean is now a Good Man, he becomes so confused that he takes his own life, although he has already seen Valjean being a Good Man in both Montreuil and Arras several episodes earlier, to which his response was to imprison him. But that happened too soon in the story for redemption. My heart goes out to David Oyelowo, who had to find a way of playing this unbelievable character. In fact, it is possible that it was not Javert jumping into the Seine to kill himself, but Oyelowo jumping in to kill his character.
If all this is true, why has Les Misérables been regarded as a great work? The immediate answer is that, when it was first published, it wasn’t. According to Victor Hugo’s Wikipedia entry: “The critical establishment was generally hostile to the novel; Taine found it insincere, Barbey d’Aurevilly complained of its vulgarity, Gustave Flaubert found within it ‘neither truth nor greatness’, the Goncourt brothers lambasted its artificiality, and Baudelaire – despite giving favourable reviews in newspapers – castigated it in private as ‘repulsive and inept’.” Flaubert, the Goncourt Brothers and Baudelaire make for a formidable array of critics, and they were right.
I know I have some nerve castigating a novel that I have not read. If I did read it, I might find it to be beautifully written. But that could not make up for the deficiencies of plot and character. Having now read the synopsis of the novel and the descriptions of the main characters, I have no doubt that Andrew Davies produced a faithful adaptation and that the fault lies with Victor Hugo. I would still find the novel unreadable, however well-written.
But the main, and thoroughly depressing, conclusion is that great literature has nothing to do with literature that endures. Flaubert may have been the greater novelist, but Victor Hugo has endured. George Meredith may have been the greater novelist, but Dickens has endured. In a century’s time or more, Jeffrey Archer will probably be regarded as the finest novelist of our age.
In which case it would be time for any self-respecting writer to jump in the river.