Wednesday, January 2, 2013
Victor Hugo (1802-1885): among the great ones
Though I am not much of a movie-goer, over the last few months, I have actually seen several of Hollywood’s more recent and talked about efforts, including Argo, Lincoln, and Anna Karenina. Just before we went up to New York to see the New Year in with a group of old friends, we went down to Princeton’s sole and seedy cinema house and took in Les Misérables. I am very glad we did, as the experience has helped me clarify in my mind an incipient field theory of modern fiction.
There are whole continents of popular culture of which I am shamefully ignorant. We don’t go to Broadway shows, as I am unprepared to take out the second mortgage the habit would demand. I am therefore one of what are probably comparatively few suburbanites who over the last couple of decades have not shelled out a hundred and fifty bucks to watch a stage full of urchins in rags cavort their way through the fantastically successful show called “Les Miz.” This is relevant because the current film Les Misérables is a version not of Victor Hugo’s masterwork Les Misérables but of the Broadway musical “Les Miz”. That is, instead of talking the characters mainly sing to each other. Sort of.
Artistic “adaptation” has a long and noble history, but its parasitism must be frankly acknowledged right up front. As the great classicist Richard Bentley said of Pope’s version of the Iliad, “It is a pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you must not call it Homer.” So let us agree not to call this thing Hugo; call it Les Miz.02 or some such, and you will enjoy it greatly. The stage sets, the costumes, the architectural detail—all that is fabulous. Much of the acting is very fine. Although there are notable exceptions, for the most part the singing ranges from the mediocre to the misérable; but this somehow often seems appropriate to the material. Russell Crowe once made a film on the Princeton campus (“A Beautiful Mind”). His public deportment on that occasion suggests that his role as the horrible Inspector Javert was an instance of casting by type.
Russell Crowe as Inspector Javert: cool hat
This leads me toward my field theory. I long ago concluded that what is so thin about modern fiction is the absence of God. I do not refer to God as a literary character with a speaking part. Once you get past Milton’s Paradise Lost God doesn’t get all that many speaking roles. I refer to the moral gravity that becomes available to a work of fiction when it engages with the great question of a Providential Order, the question that animates the fiction of Rabelais, Shakespeare, Fielding, Dickens, Tolstoy—not to mention Les Misérables of Victor Hugo.
I do hope this film will stimulate a certain number of its viewers to read Hugo’s novel. Hope is of course a different thing than expectation. Les Misérables is half a million words long, within spitting distance of War and Peace. It is a skein of multiple plots, and its characters are sufficiently numerous to fill a small town’s phone book. Like much of the great fiction of the nineteenth century it is awash in sentimentality and coincidence. But, boy, is it ever “on message”!
Years ago a student said something very surprising to me. He was comparing two fine novelists, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James. Both, he agreed, were very great writers; but he was forced to grant the priority to Hawthorne. This was to me a rather surprising judgment, and he expressed it in an unforgettable way. “You see,” he said, “Hawthorne has more of the old eternal verities going for him.” It was easier to chuckle at the form in which the judgment was phrased than to contest the judgment itself.
Although there is a great deal in Hugo’s Les Misérables that is not in the film of Les Miz.02, I detected very little in Les Miz.02 that is not in Les Misérables. There is so much of Hugo, indeed, that it can hardly escape being an impressive work of art. I think it would be impossible to see this film without realizing that it is pregnant with the old eternal verities: sin and redemption, the vivacity of the spirit and the deadness of the letter, the debility of law and the power of grace, the vivid possibility, never entirely effaced even by the cruelest of material realities, of genuine moral change.
Les Misérables is a great work of Christian literature. This is not because Victor Hugo was particularly pious. Far from it. He was a free-thinking political radical who scorned the comfortable and often hypocritical Catholicism of the re-established ruling classes of post-Revolutionary France. All this is clear in Les Misérables, and quite explicit in some of his other works. Like his contemporary Karl Marx, he nurtured a passion for social justice—a fact obvious even from the very title of his book. Unlike Marx, he was not a materialist. There was an ideal moral order to be searched for beyond the random play of the molecules. His hero Jean Valjean searched for it and found it, and neither Broadway nor Hollywood could conceal it.