Victor Hugo, the subject of today’s Google Doodle, is one of the most beloved authors that most Americans have never read.
Most know the bare outlines of the plot of Les Misérables, Hugo’s most celebrated work, whose last chapter was published on this date in 1862. They know why the virtuous former thief Jean Valjean goes on the run and is pursued by the obsessive Inspector Javert. They know about Valjean’s redemptive love for his adopted daughter Cosette. They know about the revolutionaries dying at the barricades, and how Marius and Cosette marry.
For at least 60 million of them, that’s because they saw the musical based on the novel. Many fewer people, however, have braved the 1,500-page novel itself — not because Americans are lazy or illiterate, but because holy hell, that is many, many pages about 19th-century France, and we all have things to do.
I consider Les Misérables to be one of the greatest novels of the 19th century, and probably the greatest French novel of that century. There are a number of English translations, including one that revised the first English version of 1963, by C. E. Wilbour, updating its language. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) Coincidentally, one of the two translators who worked on this edition, Norman MacAfee, is an old New York friend.
Or you could read it in French, if you have the language skills. There is the one-volume leather-bound Pléiade edition and an excellent paperback edition, using the same text, in two volumes. (Volume 1, Volume 2.)
To learn more about Les Misérables, read The Novel of the Century, The Extraordinary Adventures of Les Misérables, by David Bellos, which tells the fascinating story of the book’s creation, publication, and later life.