A renowned French translator explores the life and legacy of Les Misérables.
The best translators must find just the right meaning, and Bellos (French and Comparative Literature/Princeton Univ.; Is that a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything, 2011, etc.) certainly understands that; he is also a crisp stylist capable of seizing the readers’ attention and holding it effortlessly. The story of Victor Hugo’s masterpiece is much more than an account of creativity. His work began as Les Misères, indicating the poor, but the story goes far beyond just those in financial poverty, encompassing the poor in spirit, the wicked, those in distress, and the mauvais pauvre, aka the “bad poor,” who were full of resentment and contempt. The novel is an indictment of three of the biggest problems of the 19th century: limited civil rights, the debasement of women, and a lack of education for children. The story itself and especially its characters grew and developed as names and dates changed, but the character of Marius always reflected Hugo’s life. Bellos opens our eyes to many fascinating elements of the book and its milieu: the depth and complexity of all aspects of French life; the differences between the rich and poor, even down to different terms for money; and Jean Valjean’s embodiment of “the potential that the poorest and most wretched have to become worthy citizens…[that] moral progress is possible for all, in every social sphere.” Particularly astute is the author’s observation that Les Misérables “is not a reassuring tale of the triumph of good over evil, but a demonstration of how hard it is to be good.” With the arrival of Louis Napoleon’s Second Empire, Hugo was banished, first to Brussels and eventually, in 1855, to Guernsey in the Channel Islands. It was there that he finished the 1,500-page masterpiece we know today.
Anyone who loves Hugo, France, and the French language will revel in this delightful book that explains all the intimacies of 19th-century French life.