When the Author Won’t Die

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Death of the author. By now a familiar concept, thank you Barthes, and incredibly useful in interpreting a text. It’s freeing for both the reader and the writer, opening up works for interpretations that their authors never would have considered. The writer’s intentions don’t matter; the text speaks for itself. However, there are a few works where the authorial presence is so strong that divorcing the text from the author is almost impossible.

Les Miserables

Les Miserables

Namely, I’m talking about Victor Hugo and Les Miserables. It’s one of the longest books ever written, totaling 1500 pages in English and even more in French, and more than a quarter of the book is made up not of plot, but authorial digressions. Hugo is notorious for his tangents in Les Mis. He’ll put the story on hold and talk about Waterloo for fifteen chapters, then the lifestyle of a specific Parisian convent, and for me most egregious of all, the history and design of the Parisian sewer system. Even at the beginning of the book, before Hugo even introduces his main character Jean Valjean, he writes, “Although these details in no way essentially concern that which we have to tell…” and proceeds to devote several chapters to the background of the bishop that Valjean meets, including the layout of his house.

Hugo’s intentions in writing this novel don’t need to be speculated; he states them clearly within the text. He’s attempting to address social injustice above all, and in introducing Les Miserables, he says, “So long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.” Several times he pauses in the narrative to discuss the horrible lot in life of the poor – how society leads men like Jean Valjean to commit crime and the punishment is so severe that it turns him into a hardened criminal. While many novels attempting to make a similar statement would simply present the narrative and let the reader draw the natural conclusion, Hugo stops the narrative and explains it to the reader. There’s very little room for misinterpretation in Les Miserables – Hugo lets you know what he’s trying to do as an author all the time.

Victor Hugo, a man with something to say.

Victor Hugo, a man with something to say.

What audacity. Les Miserables is considered one of the greatest novels of its time, so how did Hugo get away with this? One of his biographers explains, “The digressions of genius are easily pardoned.” True, Hugo is a great writer, and Les Miserables has an epic scope, discoursing on French history, the architecture of Paris, politics, philosophy, the nature of justice, religious, love… Hugo has an incredibly informed and eloquent opinion on all of it, and he’s going to explain it to you at length.

Only in one other book have I encountered such a strong authorial presence within the text, one of the earliest novels ever written, Tom Jones by Henry Fielding. The newness of the category explains Fielding’s unconventionality, at least. Like Les Miserables it’s an incredibly long book (both could be effectively wielded as a blunt weapon), and it has its share of social commentary as well, although Fielding goes for satire, exposing with comedy what Hugo does with tragedy. Fielding has the same authorial interruptions, but his are more organized; Tom Jones is divided into 18 books (like I said, long), and each book begins with a chapter where Fielding speaks directly to the reader. They’re not always unrelated to the plot, sometimes he makes analytical comments about specific characters, but he’s just as likely to start ripping into bad writers, and particularly, bad critics.

I love both Les Miserables and Tom Jones, and I think the authorial presence within them works well. Hugo may digress, but he writes with such knowledge, intelligence, compassion, and beauty that it only makes the work greater. Fielding’s notes to the reader make a long book even longer, but I was charmed by them. I felt like I was entering into a conversation with the author, and when the book ended, I felt the loss.

What I’m wondering is if any writer today could pull of this same kind of intrusive yet welcome authorial presence in a work of fiction. Generally we want authors to get out of the way of their writing, and I can’t see any attempts at interrupting the story for a personal digression making it past the editors. That’s why the non-fiction genre is there. What’s more, Les Miserables and Tom Jones were hugely popular when they came out. It’s hard to imagine any novel so long being widely popular outside of literary circles today, even without the additional eccentricities. Could a contemporary author accomplish this style, assuming their work had a similar epic scope and social commentary? Is there a particular author you’d want to write a book like that? Or is Les Miserables simply a period piece, undoubtedly great but unable to be repeated?

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4 Responses to When the Author Won’t Die

  1. Rod Smith says:

    It’s been suggested to me that lots of alternate world genre readers want bulk to bolster the illusion of realms much larger than what’s necessary just to relate the narrative — lots of atmosphere and tackle and trim. Perhaps one reason we don’t have as many tomes as the 19th century (and don’t forget the novel’s cradle, crowded with Pamela and Clarissa, the wonderful T, Shandy) is that many authors in our greedy world choose to publish in series extended multigenerational novels. Why put it all under one wrapper when you can sell it in pieces (okay: chunks)? Is It the giant typefest by S. King? (One reviewer suggested that two letters had been omitted from the title . . . I’m just saying.)

    Although I’m not sure McCarthy’s Suttree is bulky enough to qualify for this interrogation, I confess that I’ve read it twice. Moby-Dick? If another brooding wizard like him comes along and can make the most elaborate (even epic) “digressions” a functional theater for the themes of the story and the figurative dynamic, I’ll read it. Otherwise, in a couple of summers I want to read M-D a last time.

    But it’s obvious that my personal syllabus is neurotic, repetitious, “old school.” What’s new out there that’s neither speculative nor alien but which aspires to the kind of fullness that Les Mis aspires to?

  2. Ryan Scott says:

    One thing I think is important to keep in mind is that the portrait of the artist we get through their works can be as much a fiction as their narrative. There’s been a lot of discussion lately about how disingenuous social media can be because it allows individuals to present sanitized and idealized versions of themselves to the world at large (see this article from Psychology Today: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/meaningful-you/201301/your-facebook-self). In my experience, authors– especially those who go out of their way to insert themselves explicitly into their works– are often doing much the same thing.

    As much as I love him as a writer, Kurt Vonnegut was, by his own admission, guilty of this. I read a fascinating biography of KV by Charles Shields recently that opened with a telling quote by Vonnegut: “I keep losing and regaining my equilibrium, which is the basic plot of all popular fiction. I myself am a work of fiction.”

    Throughout the rest of the biography, Shields went into great depth about how Mr. Vonnegut intentionally crafted this icon of himself as a saint of secular humanism through his frequent moral sermons and cultivated a sense of a personal relationship with his readers by inserting himself as a character in his books and frequently including explicitly autobiographical excursuses in the texts. Unsurprisingly, however, the real Vonnegut frequently (very frequently, in fact) failed to live up to the high moral standards he expounded in his fiction and, toward the latter part of his career, began to feel that his identity had been subsumed by the idealized image of himself he had sold to the public and to which he felt he could never live up.

    Of course, Vonnegut’s situation is not remotely the same as those of Hugo and Fielding. I am sure that Hugo legitimately cared about the poor and sought to raise awareness of their plight through his fiction. I do, however, think it is a risky business to assume that one can gain a firm grasp of an author’s real personality solely through the texts they write, especially when they are reflecting on themselves. Authors are, after all, only human, and when we are speaking of ourselves and our own moral concerns, we are hardly impartial witnesses.

    • Stephanie Rice says:

      The example of Vonnegut is interesting, and it does show that even there’s a strong authorial presence in a work, we as readers have no way of knowing how genuine it is. I suppose the difference with Hugo is that he’s never a character involved in the action of Les Mis, he comments on it without being personally involved. (Though how much of that narrator is really him and not a construct is of course impossible to determine.) In fact, within the novel Hugo treats Les Mis as nonfiction; he intermingles descriptions of real people and places and events with a few fictitious ones, but treats all as fact. This blending is actually pretty similar to what Vonnegut does in Slaughterhouse Five, but Hugo maintains a distance from the plot while Vonnegut doesn’t.

      It’s likely that Fielding constructed a narrative persona. He never inserts himself into the plot, but he clearly attempts to charm his readers, which Hugo never does. I’ll admit, it worked on me. And since it is a work of fiction and the story is the main point, it makes sense that the author’s persona would be more idealized, more polished. For the truth, you’d have to look at a memoir, and even then not you might not get it. It’s rare for me to read a work of fiction where the author has a presence, not as an actor in the story, but commenting on the story itself, acknowledging their position as a writer. The author may represent themselves disingenuously, but the fact that they do it at all is very interesting to me.

  3. Grace Haynes says:

    Stephanie, as a huge fan of Hugo and Les Miserables, I was ecstatic to see the iconic image of Cossette appear at the beginning of your post. I’m obsessed with the Broadway production. In fact, Spotify emailed me yesterday highlighting my most listened to song of 2014: “One Day More” by the 10th anniversary cast. I listen to the soundtrack on repeat, allowing the lyrics filled with universal, personal elements of humanity permeate my being, and it is incredible moving to me. I saw the live production in New York this summer, tears lingering in my eyes throughout the show because of the beauty and the power of the story that was playing out in front of me, and the grace and emotion with which the actors portrayed the plot. I think that’s why I love Les Mis so much—the core themes are universal and relatable, expressing timeless conflicts of the human condition. That’s why Hugo’s work continues to live on today—humanity continues to relate to his book’s themes. Though I agree with you, Hugo’s voice may be heavy-handed at times, but I think it is effective and awards the author prominence in the literary world. I have yet to come across another work that has touched me as much as Les Miserables. It’s hard to know which books will be granted timeless success—but universal values and emotions must be present in the work, ones that connect with audience and express the inner workings of the human condition. When another work as powerful as Les Miserables comes along, I will whole-heartedly hop on board.

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