Man, those 19th century novelists loved their melodrama, didn't they? It kept on reminding me of (not that I am overly familiar with his books) Charles Dickens. Did they ever meet? Yes, as it happens. A wide reading blogger notes:
In 1846, the thirty-four-year-old Dickens, having just written the chapter of Dombey and Son that ended poor Paul Dombey's life, wandered Paris with his best friend, John Forster, and called on Victor Hugo. Tomalin's account, which draws on Forster's biography of Dickens, shows Dickens to have been simultaneously impressed and amused:Les Misérables was not published until 1862, but from the same blog I just linked to, there is an extract from the Goncourt Journals (written by two brothers - more about them below) which indicates that Hugo went through a lot of melodrama in his family:
Hugo made a profound impression on both of them with his eloquence, and Forster observed that he addressed "very charming flattery, in the best taste" to Dickens. Dickens thought he "looked like the Genius he was," while his wife looked as if she might poison his breakfast any morning; and the daughter who appeared "with hardly any drapery above the waist . . . I should suspect of carrying a sharp poignard in her stays, but for her not appearing to wear any."
I started thinking about that family, about that father, that genius, that monster--about that first daughter who had been drowned, and that second daughter who had been carried off by an American and brought back to France raving mad--about those two sons, one dead and the other dying--about Mme Hugo, committing adultery with her son-in-law--about Vacquerie, marrying one daughter, sleeping with the mother, and practically raping his sister-in-law--and finally about that Juliette, that Pompadour of the poet's, still pursuing, with her kisses, at his late date, the dying son. A Tragic Family, such is the title the dying man gave a novel he once wrote--and such is the title of the Hugo family.Gosh. His Wikipedia article does not give much detail about his home troubles, but they do provide a photo from 1853:
Reading further in his entry, I see that he became a pretty fierce critic of Catholic clericalism, which makes the sympathetic treatment of the Church in the movie (and its general theme of redemption and - I think - grace) rather surprising. Here's what Wiki says about his views:
Hugo's religious views changed radically over the course of his life. In his youth, he identified himself as a Catholic and professed respect for Church hierarchy and authority. From there he became a non-practicing Catholic, and increasingly expressed anti-Catholic and anti-clerical views. He frequented Spiritism during his exile (where he participated also in many séances conducted by Madame Delphine de Girardin), and in later years settled into a Rationalist Deism similar to that espoused by Voltaire. A census-taker asked Hugo in 1872 if he was a Catholic, and he replied, "No. A Freethinker"
I'll have to dig further some other time as to why the book (I assume) treats its Catholic figures well. [See update 2 below.]
Did I like the movie? Yes, with some reservations. On the up side, all of the actors did well, and even though Hugh Jackman routinely appears in material that simply does not interest me (and he always just seems to be too nice in interviews), he really is very good in this. (Strangely enough, I have just realised that my objectively hard to justify dislike of Jackman as a personality - which is seemingly shared by no one - is similar to the view a huge number of people are supposed to take towards his co-star Anne Hathaway. I can't see what's wrong with her at all.) It is also interesting to note that Helena Bonham Carter's approach of only taking roles that allows her to have insane hair continues.
I see that the singing was filmed "live", which is a pretty remarkable way to make a movie musical. As to the score itself, it sometimes drags a bit, but it grew on me as the movie progresses.
On the downside: it's one of those movies which displays poverty via the personal grubbiness of characters to such an extent that it looks rather over the top and a caricature. I am sure poor slums were squalid and that prostitutes did sometimes look pretty horrifically made up, but it is still hard to believe that the poor didn't wipe the grime off their faces or bodies every now and again, as they never seem to do in much of this movie.
And, as I say, the plot is melodrama to the max, with continual co-incidences and ill fortune heaped upon ill fortune, love at first sight, and characters racked by internal conflicts about which 20th century folk would have forgiven themselves within 24 hours, let alone 24 years. Anthony Lane just found the thing too over the top, and includes some fantastically witty lines in his review:
Valjean (Hugh Jackman) serves nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread: a punishment that he regards as unjust, though in fact it reflects well on the status of French baking. Had he taken a croissant, it would have meant the guillotine....I can see where he's coming from, but I did find it affecting in parts, so I can't endorse his view.
I was unprepared, having missed “Les Misérables” onstage, for the remarkable battle that flames between music and lyrics, each vying to be more uninspired than the other. The lyrics put up a good fight, but you have to hand it to the score: a cauldron of harmonic mush, with barely a hint of spice or a note of surprise. Some of Hooper’s cast acquit themselves with grace, notably Redmayne, and it’s a relief to see Sacha Baron Cohen, in the role of a seamy innkeeper, bid goodbye to Cosette with the wistful words “Farewell, Courgette.” One burst of farce, however, is not enough to redress the basic, inflationary bombast that defines “Les Misérables.”
Would I ever try to read the book? Well, after reading the Wikipedia entry about it - definitely not. I've commented here or at other places around the web how my late 20th century brain has trouble coping with the length of sentences in 19th century novels. Sure, I can read them and understand them, but I just keep getting the mental equivalent of feeling I have run out of breath by the end. If this explanation by Hugo in his preface is any guide, I have every reason to be fearful that the book is against me:
So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.Wikipedia also explains the layout of the book in great detail, noting that it is by no means a straight narrative. In fact it sounds as if it makes the lecturing content of much of Moby Dick (or so I am told) minor in comparison:
More than a quarter of the novel—by one count 955 of 2,783 pages—is devoted to essays that argue a moral point or display Hugo's encyclopedic knowledge, but do not advance the plot, nor even a subplot...I think I'll give it a miss.
And finally, what about the journal of the Goncourt brothers, about whom I have not heard. They sound pretty interesting, and as if to again confirm the remarkably widespread effects of syphilis I was recently contemplating in another post, it got to one of them:
Born nearly ten years apart into a French aristocratic family, the two brothers formed an extraordinarily productive and enduring literary partnership, collaborating on novels, criticism, and plays that pioneered the new aesthetic of naturalism. But the brothers’ talents found their most memorable outlet in their journal, which is at once a chronicle of an era, an intimate glimpse into their lives, and the purest expression of a nascent modern sensibility preoccupied with sex and art, celebrity and self-exposure. The Goncourts visit slums, brothels, balls, department stores, and imperial receptions; they argue over art and politics and trade merciless gossip with and about Hugo, Baudelaire, Degas, Flaubert, Zola, Rodin, and many others. And in 1871, Edmond maintains a vigil as his brother dies a slow and agonizing death from syphilis, recording every detail in the journal that he would continue to maintain alone for another two decades.Oh well. Put their journal on the list of things I might enjoy, but will never get around to.
Update: I could have added that Charles Dickens had a life full of melodrama as well. I was vaguely aware that he had a mistress, and was not exactly a good family man, but this short summary of his dark side as detailed by a recent biographer indicates it was much worse than I imagined. (And no, I don't get all of my biography information from The Sun...).
This part struck me as interesting:
The writer had always shown a genuine interest in helping prostitutes. He even set up a home to look after them. But Dickens also had a less than wholesome reason for seeking out their company. Claire said: “He almost certainly used prostitutes. Many men did in the 19th Century. They thought they needed regular sex to maintain ‘sexual hygiene’.I can't say I was aware of that motivation in that century, and given the risk of fatal venereal disease, it's remarkable that the idea caught on. I wonder - was it part and parcel of the idea that masturbation was a incredibly unhealthy activity?
As for Victor Hugo and mistresses, here's a handy summary of his sexual exploits. Talk about talking in code in those days:
Although both Hugo and Briard were married they began to see eachother. Their encounters did not remain private for very long however because On July fourth Hugo and Biard were found "in criminal conversation and in uncrumpled attire meaning that they were comitting adultery and were wearing no clothes. While his lover went to jail Hugo left the station a free man because he was pair de France and was thus immune to prosecution"The site that this is from is entirely devoted to entries about the state of France at the time of Les Miséables. It seems to contain quite a few interesting perspectives.
Update 2: On the issue of sympathy to Catholicism in the film, this review by a Catholic indicates the musical takes quite a different tack to the novel:
Today, Les Misérables is the center of one of the most successful pop-culture phenomena of recent decades—and all because the material has been reworked in ways that Hugo himself would likely reject. His story of Jean Valjean—a man who spent 19 years in a French prison for stealing a loaf of bread—was not meant to be a Christian spiritual odyssey, but a individualist, humanistic one. Valjean's nemesis, the singleminded Inspector Javert, is an atheist in Hugo's novel; in the stage and film production of Les Misérables, he becomes a Christian believer who, unlike Valjean, never rises above the concept of duty nor embraces the Christian teaching on mercy toward others—or even, in the end, toward himself.Certainly, the cranky Catholic Church of the 19th (and 20th!) century had no time for the book:
As with anything pleading for social change, the novel acquired many conservative enemies who feared the social impact of the novel. Common reasons for banning it included displaying prostitution, murder, “portraying the Church as unimportant”, and glorifying the French Revolution.
All of Victor Hugo’s works- past, present, and future- were banned in 1850 by Tsar Nicholas I because of Hugo’s less-than-flattering depiction of royalty; his works were also listed on the infamous Index Librorum Prohibitorum- the Catholic Church’s list of books forbidden among members of the faith. Les Misérables was added to the Index in 1864, where it remained until 1959 because it was considered to be critical of the clergy and the papacy.