The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables by David Bellos

Novel of the Century by David BellosThe short answer is that if you love the novel or the musical Les Misérables, then yes, you should run right out and buy a copy of The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables by David Bellos. If you are what Cameron Mackintosh calls a “Les Mis freak,” then this book is definitely for you. But it is also for those who love literature in general, who love a good “behind-the-scenes” documentary, who are fascinated by literary history, or who love reading about how authors work.

I couldn’t have been more pleased with Bellos’ account of how Les Misérables came to be, and how it came to be so famous. Though Bellos is a scholar, this was not written for scholars, which is just fine with me. It is in fact, perfect for me. And here is who I am, when it comes to Les Misérables:

I have read the unabridged edition of Les Misérables three times, and an abridged edition at least fifteen times with eighth grade students. It is one of my five or six all-time favorite novels, though I never studied it formally in school. It was my sister who first recommended it to me after she read it in high school, some twenty years ago. I began with the same edition she did, a 350-page bare-bones abridgment by James K. Robinson. It was edited so much that it was almost incomprehensible, but I loved what I could understand, so I found an unabridged copy and it filled in all the gaps–and then some.

About that time the eighth grade literature teacher at our school moved to another state, and I moved up from seventh grade to take her position. She had taught A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens, and while I love Dickens, I wasn’t particularly passionate about that title, so I began searching for another book that might fit that slot: a nineteenth century historical novel a bit on the longer side. I dismissed Les Misérables at first because of its length, but when I found the Paul Bénichou abridgment (now known as the Enriched Classics edition), I knew I had found the right novel for me to teach. At just under 600 pages, it had enough of the story to make sense. It has proven to be one of the most beloved books taught at our school.

And while I have taught myself quite a bit about the novel over the years, I have still never had a course in French literature or Victor Hugo’s works. So for me, Bellos’ work is perfect: scholarly enough to help me go even deeper into the meaning and background of a novel I love, yet accessible enough to read and enjoy on a casual level.

But Bellos does much more than explain how the novel came to be written. He describes the laborious process of handwriting the entire manuscript, he discusses the technical challenges of printing such a large work, and he details how the plot was kept secret from the public until the last possible moment.

You’ll also gain insight into how nineteenth century readers understood color, and how vital that is to understanding character. And how one bookshop owner in Paris put his entire stock in storage so that he could display a mountain of copies of Les Misérables–and how he worried that his floor would collapse from the weight of all the books. But this is perhaps my favorite bit of trivia from Bellos:

Hugo was born on 26 February 1802, but because he was a slightly premature baby, he always believed he had been conceived on 24 June 1801. Valjean’s prison number on his first incarceration at Toulon is 24601.

As you can see, I loved The Novel of the Century. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give Bellos is that it makes me want to read Les Misérables again. And I think I have just the right opportunity. Bellos mentions that Les Misérables has exactly 365 chapters:

You can therefore read one chapter a day – most of them are quite short – and complete Hugo’s vast novel of love and revolution in the time that it takes planet Earth to complete its revolution around the sun.

I had already been thinking about hosting my own readalong next year, so why not host a chapter-a-day readalong of Les Misérables?. What do you say? I know it’s early to start thinking about it, but would you be willing to read Les Misérables with me next year? Leave a comment and let me know if it’s crazy genius or just plain crazy.

The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables by David Bellos
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, March 21, 2017
Print length: 336 pages

Deacon Nick

Nick Senger is a husband, a father of four, and a Catholic school teacher, vice principal and technology coordinator. He taught junior high literature and writing for over 25 years, and has been a Catholic school educator since 1990. In 2001 he was named a Distinguished Teacher of the Year by the National Catholic Education Association.

2 Responses

  1. hopeinbrazil says:

    Yes, I would read Les Mis along with you.

  2. I have to say, I can’t wrap my brain around the idea of reading an abridged version. The strength is not just in the plot, but in the beauty of the writing and the structure of the whole book. I believe one would miss a lot in an abridged version. At then end of my own review, a vlog, I added a link to a video by Bellow talking about his book. Fascinating: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xOgVEzifUIc&index=7&list=PLJD9IPtbUPL6o5R5RQLuyM0ImZ6wrAghk

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