The Oxford Companion to French Literature says of Hugo's masterpiece:
- The book is made still more unwieldy by the continual insertion of long historical, political, or sociological dissertations. Interesting ones are the description of the battle of Waterloo, the study of the end of the Restoration period and the figure of Louis-Philippe, the famous description of the Paris sewers, and numerous pictures of Paris and Parisian underworld life.
A question arises: How could a book so oddly constructed, and tipping the scales at over 500,000 words, consistently win praise from critics as one of the greatest novels ever written?
To readers expecting only a clear character-driven narrative, the book's many diversions are unorthodox additions that "don't move the plot forward." Is this a fair criticism? There are a whole lot of these lectures, and they do tend to go on. They take up fully a quarter of the book. What are we to make of them?
I believe that Hugo's digressions do serve an important purpose. They are there for a reason ... but the reasons are not always obvious on first reading. And this brings us to the main point: Reading this book once is not enough.
The second time through the book, you pick up thematic connections that you couldn't possibly have grasped the first time. For instance, the long essay on Waterloo culminates in some musings on destiny that are more relevant and more powerful once you have taken in the whole story. A lengthy lecture on the nature of human progress means more once you realize it is introducing four vicious career criminals.
The "I get it now" response that accompanies such (re)readings is a reward for exploring the book a second time. There are hundreds of these rewards, comparable to Easter eggs. You get them not just in your second pass on the dissertations, but also when you come across certain astonishing plot foreshadowings. You couldn't possibly identify or make sense of all of these foreshadowings on first reading. An example: Fantine, still a beautiful young girl unacquainted with tragedy, watches a horse being beaten to death on the streets of Paris. She who observes this will suffer similar abuse.
Bottom line: This massive book is designed to be read multiple times. For me, the second time was far better. I found the diversions far more manageable the second time through. They take the book out of conventional fiction mode and tie it to a much larger experience involving the work's real subject: infinity.
You can read this book if you want, but if you want the full experience, you must reread it. Rereading this book is a little like having Jacob Bronowski ("He knows everything!") serve as a collaborator and guest host on a month's worth of episodes of ONE LIFE TO LIVE.
Hugo's encyclopedic knowledge of seemingly irrelevant topics moves this astonishing work into a category all its own. His book would be worse, much worse, without its digressions.
I believe LES MISERABLES operates on at least three levels, only one of which, the first, shows up in the popular musical adaptation or in any other adaptation I've seen: