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
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.