Book Review: The Novel of the Century, by David Bellos

The Novel of The CenturyIn yet another “biography of a novel,” following books such as Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel and Alice Kaplan’s Looking for the Stranger translator and professor David Bellos looks at the story around Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Weaving together a number of strands, including biography of Hugo, the tale of the book’s writing and publication, and an analysis of the novel, Bellos provides a detailed look at Hugo’s process and intentions when writing this book. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)

Les Misérables is arguably the greatest novel of the 19th century. I only got around to reading it about ten years ago, and I was amazed at how vast it is. Not just the themes and the characters, but the scope of the novel, which covers the many levels of class in French society in the early 19th century. Like Moby-Dick, Les Misérables is a book that can be a bit stodgy, with “essay” chapters that may turn off some readers, but it is a novel that needs every chapter.

Bellos gives the context for the writing of the novel, discussing Hugo’s early draft, and how he returned to the story when in exile in the Channel Islands. He looks at the themes of the book, and discusses elements such as the character names, the title of the book itself, and much more. He also gives an interesting account of the book’s publication. It was the first book published in France to have a poster campaign, and probably the first book to have excerpts given to the press under embargo. Hugo and his family worked very hard to ensure that he would get as many sales as possible, given the fact that copyright laws either did not exist or were flouted in Europe and around the world.

Like the novel itself, this book is a page-turner, assuming you’ve read the book. Since Bellos discusses much of the novel’s plot, you probably don’t want to read his account if you haven’t read Les Misérables. But if you have, and if you love this book as so many do, The Novel of the Century gives you the context, history, and an analysis of themes that will help you better appreciate it.

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