Writers & Company

David Bellos on why Les Misérables still resonates today

Eleanor Wachtel speaks with translator and biographer David Bellos about the times and timeliness of Victor Hugo's novel, Les Misérables.
David Bellos, author of The Novel of the Century, examines what makes Victor Hugo’s 1,500-page novel resonate with today’s readers. (Raincoast Books)
Listen to the full episode52:35

In his new book, biographer and translator David Bellos chronicles the life and legacy of 19th-century French writer, Victor Hugo. The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables explores the social history and dramatic story behind Hugo's masterpiece — the most frequently adapted novel of all time.

First published in France in 1862, Les Misérables was a global sensation. Known for his enormously popular 1831 novel, Notre Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame), Victor Hugo received the biggest advance that had ever been paid for a work of literature — the equivalent of about $5 million today. Les Misérables went on to become one of the most frequently translated literary works, and the source of numerous stage and film adaptations, including the hit 1980 stage musical and 2012 feature film.  

But the novel, and its author, had a troubled history, which David Bellos delves into in The Novel of the Century.  

Bellos spoke with Eleanor Wachtel from Princeton University, where he teaches.

What the films and musicals can't capture

"It tells a very simple story. Its central thread is just the life of a man who suffers unjustly, is later treated kindly and then decides to be good. But that is a fairly simple central thread around which everything else is structured. That 'everything else' is literally everything else — social life, emotional life, the history of France, philosophy and above all morality. What people who see the movies and the musicals often also don't appreciate is just how funny it is. Hugo is a very witty writer. He's also an immensely informative writer. There are reasons why this book has been so popular for so long. It really does serve many functions all at once."

Hugo prized morality above all else

"Les Misérables is about morality in a deeper sense. I think Hugo wanted for sex not to be a complicating factor in what he wanted to say about morality. Fantine is a fallen woman and at the end she becomes a prostitute because she has no other way of earning a living. But Hugo deals with that in just two lines, two very brief lines. There's no description, no engagement and no involvement with it. It's simply not a novel of marriage and divorce — it is a novel about much bigger and important things from Hugo's point of view. It's about how to be good. It's about how to live. It's about generosity, kindness, self-sacrifice and redemption — sex just isn't involved in any of those things in the novel and in Hugo's mind."

Les Misérables is a difficult title to translate

"'Misérable' is an adjective and it names people. In ordinary, everyday French it just means poor, not having enough money. In the novel itself the word is used with that meaning a number of times and it's perfectly plausible meaning for it. But it also means 'scoundrel' or 'wretch' — a person to be scorned or despised. Yet that's not all that it means. Behind the word in English and French lies a Latin word 'miserabilis', which doesn't mean any of those things. The original Latin 'miserabilis' is the adjective form verb 'miserere,' which means 'to have pity on' or 'to have mercy on.' And that is what I think is really the fundamental sense of Les Misérables — people whom we should pity."

David Bellos's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the broadcast program: "Les Misérables Medley" performed by Lindsey Stirling.