I watched the usually tedious fundraising show for public television. Suddenly it was enlivened by a videotape of songs from the musical of LES MISERABLES - which throughout Europe, the US and Japan has been one of the most popular musicals ever produced. By the end of the first act, the public television fund-raisers were obviously stunned by the power of the musical, which carried the spirit of Victor Hugo’s novel, published in 1862, while Hugo was exiled from his native France.
Now booksellers tell me there is a run on new and used copies of the novel by people who saw videos of the musical. LES MISERABLES, in 1987 edition is 1,463 pages long. Victor Hugo worked on it for sixteen years. And yet the action moves amazingly fast. We could all find places in the book to cut. Especially from a twentieth century point of view, the chapters on the Battle of Waterloo could be cut by half, since they directly concern only one of the characters, the rascally innkeeper Thenardier, who buys his inn with the valuables he strips from the corpses on the battlefield.
But Hugo wants to make clear that Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo set the stage for the larger historical situation against which the characters of LES MISERBLES play out their personal dramas.
The action of the novel goes from 1815, the year that Napoleon’s loss insures that the French Revolution is over for a while and a king is back on the throne, to 1832, the year of the unsuccessful student and worker uprising against the monarchy, the first revolutionary movement to use the red flag.
Within these seventeen years Jean Valjean, a man of tremendous mental and physical strength is released from prison after nineteen years - five years for stealing a loaf of bread and fourteen for trying to escape. Jean Valjean violates his parole by doing another robbery. Then he goes to a small town in disguise and opens a factory which is so successful that the royal government appoints him mayor of the town, although before his prison term he was an illiterate farm laborer.
Yet when he finds out that an innocent man is accused of being himself, the parole violator, he takes a difficult journey to the town where the man is in jail to let the judge know that he - the wealthy factory owner, the mayor, is the real Jean Valjean.
He is sent back to prison but he escapes and fulfills the promise he made to the dying prostitute Fantine, to rescue her eight-year old daughter Cosette from brutal slavery working for her guardians, the innkeeper Thenardier and his ferocious wife.
Jean Valjean goes with Cosette to Paris where they live under a new identity until Cosette is seventeen in 1832. She falls in love with Marius, an idealistic student who is preparing for the uprising against the royal rule. The student movement is infiltrated by the ruthless policeman Javert who has been searching for Jean Valjean all these years. Jean Valjean joins the uprising as the students and workers crouch behind barricades of cobblestones ripped up from the street, waiting for the royal troops to attack them.
The musical based on LES MISERABLES has enjoyed such popularity and revived interest in the novel because the whole western industrial world has gone through a period like the one in which Jean Valjean and Cosette had their adventures. Just as the French revolutionary impulse was crushed at the battle of Waterloo and followed by long years of monarchy, the upheavals of the late sixties and early seventies in the US and Europe were followed by years of right-wing governments (Reagan in the US, Thatcher in Britain, Kohl in Germany, etc.). Unions were broken, wages were lowered. The cheers for LES MISERABLES are cheers for a new time of breaking free.