Three Literary Freaks
From Verso Books:
There are three kinds of conception of the novelistic. There is what we could call the official lineage, which the academy presents as the history of the French novel, proceeding by way of Stendhal and Flaubert. Here, the novel is the narrative, the capturing of the real, in a rapid, narrative and stylised prose. Then there is the current that I would call the tendency of great totalisations: the novel has the objective of capturing the spirit and the uniformity of an era, of constructing a sort of vast universe in which the spirit of the time takes hold, like in an orchestra. I would include Balzac in this totalising current — and it was perhaps him who invented it, with his La Comédie humaine — as well as Zola, perhaps Proust, and Martin du Gard. Then there is a third current, which is rarely recognised as officially making up part of the history of the novel (more than a current in itself, it is a sort of space apart, a freak case). In this current we have a certain number of freak novels: Rousseau’s Julie, or the New Heloise, Chateaubriand’s Mémoires d’outre-tombe and Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Three literary freaks. We don’t really know how they should be classified. We have the epistolary Julie, or the New Heloise, which is today little studied or read, whereas in the eighteenth century it was an extraordinary best-seller. We have the Mémoires d’outre-tombe, which is a novel only in that we know that Chateaubriand was just recounting what he wanted to (and with many of his wonderful stories, it is doubtful whether they are real). But we can, ultimately, take it as a magnificent historical and personal novel. And we have Les Misérables, which we will concern ourselves with here.
These three books are hardly even considered novels, and they are not invoked as an essential element of the history of the French novel. But they have at least three distinguishing characteristics. Firstly, a formal mechanism — one that is in each case wholly singular. Julie, or the New Heloise is an epistolary novel, able to bring together an extraordinary variety of points of view; whereas the Mémoires d’outre-tombe takes the form of memoirs, and not that of a novel. As for Les Misérables, it is difficult to characterise it purely as a novel, given its myriad elements that belong more to the order of narrations, exhortations, assessments, and prophecies. And that’s to say nothing of the characters who, as everyone knows, have become icons and symbols and not characters in the ordinary psychological sense: Jean Valjean, Cosette, and the policeman Javert are “novelistic” figures only in their immediate inscription, and they are figures who could perfectly well function in other registers (without doubt, Les Misérables is the one book worldwide that has had the most film adaptations). As well as the different scale at which they operate, there is also the matter of these works’ didactic intent. In each of the three cases, we have a certain engagement: the novelist also considered himself a teacher, a lesson-giver, an analyst, a prophet, even; he wholly consciously — and in a certain sense naively — assumed a didactic function with regard to the public. In Rousseau this is a matter of the analysis (such as he conceived it) of society, his time, and the prophecy of democracy; in Chateaubriand it is a matter of knowing what lessons someone who is still a partisan of the old world should draw from the French Revolution, and how to maintain the monarchical principle while integrating the lessons of the French Revolution into that principle. In Victor Hugo we find a far-reaching meditation, at whose heart is the recognition that the world is today divided between two possible visions of its destiny: and contradiction is therefore at the centre of Hugo’s political and historical analysis. In each of the three cases, the novel — the fiction and everything therein that goes beyond fiction, what we might call the real of fiction — has a function of teaching, revealing, educating, and not a simply aesthetic quality or dimension.
Finally, these are figures that can be distinguished through their evident link to political evenementality. Rousseau was the major ideological inspirer of the French Revolution; Chateaubriand was part of the current of the monarchical Restoration, but also took on board what had resulted from this Revolution; Victor Hugo was the radical republican who really wanted History to be opened up to popular sovereignty.
Les Misérables is a genuine singularity in French prose.