“The book which the reader has before him at this moment is, from one end to the other, in its entirety and details … a progress from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsehood to truth, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from corruption to life; from bestiality to duty, from hell to heaven, from nothingness to God. The starting point: matter, destination: the soul. The hydra at the beginning, the angel at the end.”
“Humankind’s wounds, those huge sores that litter the world, do not stop at the blue and red lines drawn on maps. Wherever men go in ignorance or despair, wherever women sell themselves for bread, wherever children lack a book to learn from or a warm hearth, Les Miserables knocks at the door and says: ‘open up, I am here for you’.”
Tonight, I watched the film version of the musical Les Mis for the third time. Each time I see it, I’m fascinated not just by characters and the story, but by the towering nature of Victor Hugo’s achievement: How he fashioned a novel so universal and yet personal, so time-bound and yet so timeless, so rooted in narrative and yet so supple that it could be reshaped into a musical that has touched millions more than 150 years after the story that inspired it was written.
As I ponder all of this, I realize that sheer ambition is a huge aspect of Hugo’s success. He deliberately set out to write a monumental novel — one that would tackle huge, intractable issues and pose thorny moral dilemmas, one that would pit two enormously powerful and diametrically opposed men as protagonist and antagonist. His story is sprawling — it’s 365 chapters and well over 1,000 pages long. In it, he not only tells the story of Jean valjean, he also offers the reader, without apology or explanation, long discourses on the nature of democracy, religion, the Paris sewers, Waterloo, and a small ocean of other topics that he somehow wove or cobbled together.
I’ve only dipped into the pages of Les Miserables, but more and more, I feel that I’d like to dive into it. There is something supremely satisfying to me about a novel that is as vast and unruly as life itself. Just the thought of this makes me wonder if writing ambitiously isn’t part of what writing dangerously is all about. So let’s not play small. Write on!