You made it through the 1,000-plus pages of the epic historical novel Les Misérables by Victor Hugo? Congratulations—and in celebration, treat yourself to this enjoyable guide to how it was written, published and received.
Without a sprawling plot or a cast of characters best kept track of by writing the names on a large wall banner, The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables checks in at a more modest 300-plus pages. But author David Bellos’ feat is worthy of admiration, too, whether you’re a serious Francophile or just crave a good read peppered with cocktail party-ready factoids.
Does the book live up to the hype of the title? Well, consider that Hugo wrote his quintessentially French novel (which inspired the eponymous musical) while in exile on the Channel Island of Guernsey, or that its publication in Brussels meant that printers were at the whim of unreliable thrice-weekly boat service ferrying Hugo’s dispatches, constantly worrying that pirated (figuratively if not literally) versions would be leaked to the public and spoil the novel’s much-hyped release. As for the publishing deal that led to the book, Bellos makes the case that after 155 years it remains the biggest in history (at 240,000 francs cash, or about $3.8 million today) because of its limited eight-year term.
While Hugo famously had his “digressions” in Les Misérables, with all you ever wanted to know about the Paris sewer system and more, Bellos has his "Interludes": chapters on how the characters got their names, or the history behind France’s various revolutions, uprisings and insurrections. And yes, he’d still have a book if they were cut out, but it wouldn’t be as good.
Bellos has impeccable academic credentials, but he never talks down to the reader. From manuscript to musical, The Novel of the Century delivers on its promise.
This article was originally published in the March 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.