Thursday, April 10, 2014

I Is for the "I" Voice: First-Person Essays in Hugo's #LESMISERABLES

In a previous post, I shared my belief that Victor Hugo's sprawling novel operates on at least three levels, only one of which (the first) shows up in the popular musical adaptation. Here they are again:

1. The Drama (an often-corny plot)
2. The Diversions (lengthy discourses on politics, history, sociology, sewers, etc. that seem not to move the plot forward)
3. The First-Person Essays (Hugo's own personal experiences, which are what we're looking at today)

These three worlds intersect to create a single world for (patient) readers, a world of seemingly endless interest, complexity, and resonance, a world meant to be comparable to the real world you and I inhabit in its variety and scale. Of course, this is an illusion -- a literary trick -- but it's the best one I've ever seen.

Easier to miss than the drama (level one) and the diversions (level two), is Hugo's careful, conscious decision to weave his own personal perspective into the book, by means of a number of first-person essays.

These "I" essays may at first give the appearance of being tucked into one of the other two compartments, but they are not. They constitute a separate narrative thread.

Despite what I have called them, the "I" essays do not always make use of the "I" voice. They are more likely to refer to "we" or to "the author of this book." Even so, Les Miserables is a personal journal of sorts. It is Hugo himself who tours the silent battlefield of Waterloo decades after the battle, and Hugo who shares his own personal memories of the barricades of 1832 as an insurrection raged in Paris.

These "I" reference-points -- there are dozens of them -- may go unnoticed the first time through, because the reader is still off balance, trying to take in all the larger episodes, lectures, and rants. The "I" entries become clearer, and more obviously essential to the novel, on the second read. Again: Reading this book once is not enough. It is designed to be read multiple times.

Although the two instances I have given -- the tour of the ghostly Waterloo battlefield and the memory of having been caught in the crossfire in 1832 -- are extended ones, Hugo's "I" episodes are sometimes very short. He uses this perspective, for instance, to add a special emphasis and moral indignation to the petty crime that wins our hero Jean Valjean a long prison sentence: "This is the second time, during his studies on the penal question and damnation by law, that the author of this book has come across the theft of a loaf of bread as the point of departure for the disaster of a destiny."

This reference to the "I" experience constitutes a kind of literary "close-up" on two overlapping crimes: the theft of a loaf of bread, and society's theft of a man's life. (Of course, society no longer steals the lives of men. This is all nineteenth-century stuff, I'm sure.)

The first-time reader never knows when, why, or for how long these powerful "I" passages will present themselves. Yet they keep materializing, and it's likely their cumulative impact is meant to register subconsciously. Hugo goes out of his way to establish and re-establish his own identity as an individual.  He is careful not to establish himself as a character interacting with other characters in the drama involving Jean-Valjean, Javert, Cosette, et al. Yet we are never allowed to abandon his presence, just as we can never abandon our own. With these first-person essays, Hugo presents himself as the subtle analogue to the reader's own "I" point of view.

There's nothing else like LES MISERABLES. It's still a radical book, both thematically and structurally, and the more closely I examine it, the more astonished I am that it exists. Even a twenty-first century author, armed with a word processor, should not have been able to make a half-million-word manuscript sing, enchant, confound, and demand repeated readings as this one does. That a man in exile, equipped only with vast supplies of paper and ink, was able to do so suggests that all his tricks are worthy of close study. I've shared only three, and I'll shut up now and move on to other blog topics, but the book remains an inexhaustible source of inspiration to me and to others.

This book took Hugo seventeen years to complete. Full disclosure: I include several homages to LES MISERABLES within my novel JIHADI: A LOVE STORY, which only took me six years to finish, and is less than an eighth the length of Hugo's massive tale. Not in his league, of course but give me time. I've started another one, and might just live another seventeen years.