The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of ‘Les Misérables’

David Bellos. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27 (320p) ISBN 978-0-374-90078-6
As Bellos (Is That a Fish in Your Ear?), a translator of French literature, proves here, the story of how Victor Hugo’s classic novel came to life is a challenging, complex, and utterly engrossing epic all its own. The narrative sweeps the reader along on the journey from germinating idea to published book (in April 1862). Along the way, readers meet such compelling real-life characters as Hugo’s dedicated wife and publicity manager, Adèle; his equally dedicated mistress and chief copyist, Juliette Drouet; and his innovative publisher, Albert Lacroix. Some of the most fascinating sections chronicle the breathtaking laboriousness of 19th-century publishing: corrected galleys went back and forth by boat between Hugo, in exile on the Isle of Guernsey, and the Belgium-based Lacroix, who purchased 22 tons of lead type to print it all. There are tidbits of trivia sprinkled effervescently throughout (Bellos notes that reluctant readers may read just one chapter a day—the novel contains 365), along with serious considerations of Hugo’s relationship to the French language, his moral universe, and his political intentions for a book that spawned countless spin-offs. (Mar.)
Reviewed on: 12/19/2016
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