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.
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.
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?