I’m having quasi-Proustian moments as I re-read Les Miserables. This book was the first serious novel I ever read. Prior to that, my reading had consisted almost entirely of books about baseball teams, animal stories, and science-fiction of the pulpier sort. I suppose I was ten or so when I first picked it up.
I did not come from a reading family. My mother read best-sellers, often in the Reader’s Digest condensed version. In the days before paperbacks, if you wanted to read a bestseller and didn’t want to buy the book you rented it from a little cart they had in most drugstores, for a nickel a day. I knew no one who read good books, or listened to good music. In my house the pinnacle of achievement in music was Rodgers & Hammerstein, of theater, Arthur Miller, of poetry, Robert W. Service, of literature, James Michener. My dad read the paper. Well, a common story.
I got my reading from the public library or from expeditions to the used bookstores that used to flourish on lower Fourth Avenue in Manhattan. I would take the subway up from Brooklyn on a Saturday morning, spend the whole day there in the book-stinking dust, happy as a pig in shit. I would come home with a shopping bag full of nickel and dime trash and spend the rest of the weekend absorbed in it, dodging imprecations from my parents to go outside and play. I would eventually go out, but often just to the library.
One day I was walking through the adult fiction section of the Farragut branch library, something I rarely did, since I took nearly all the books I borrowed from the sci-fi ghetto, each of which had the little spaceship pasted on the bottom of the spine. This cover stood out on the row, since it was pure white, a shining bar covered in that cellophane-like plastic that only libraries seemed to use. I read the title: Les Miserables, and under that, “Hugo.” A stranger to French, I wondered what defect in type-setting had shifted the final s of Less to the end of Miserable, but the meaning was perfectly clear, and indeed I very much wanted to be less miserable than I was. Also, I thought it cool that they had used the guy’s first name on the cover.
I took the book down. The designer had chosen to place a full-color reproduction of Delacroix’s painting, Liberty Leading the People, upon the white of the slip cover. I didn’t know Delacroix from ham and eggs at the time, nor had I ever seen the painting before this, but the image gripped me with an awful power. It shows, you’ll recall, a lovely, passionate-looking young woman grasping a bayoneted musket in one hand and a tricolor flag in the other. On her right is a fellow in a top hat, similarly armed, and on her left a kid who looked about my age at the time, toting a pair of pistols. The woman’s breasts are bare. I naturally assumed that the picture was an illustration of some action in the book. The fat volume in my hand, therefore, must in its pages somehow involve a situation where a kid got to handle guns in company with a girl who didn’t mind one bit if he glommed her knockers. Sold. I was worried a little that the librarian wouldn’t let me take it out, as being too adult for a kid, but no. (Note that it wasn’t Les Miserables at all, a book I have never actually read. It was an English translation of it. )
Well, of course, I could comprehend maybe half of what was going on. I knew there was such a thing as the French Revolution, and I assumed this must be a book about it, but the author keeps mentioning the French Revolution as something that happened fifty-odd years ago, and there’s a king on the throne. I understood, though, that I was in the presence of people utterly different from any I had known in my life or even in books. The weirdest alien in sci-fi was a kid from the block compared to Jean Valjean. And they were, in a way I hadn’t encountered before, real people. There was a lot of stuff about what was going on inside their heads, a lot more than what the average 50s sci-fi novel told you about the interior life, and that impressed me, because a lot of stuff was going on in my head too. I picked up here the idea that you could think about your own thoughts. You could apply principles to your thoughts, ideas from outside you, and observe how your behavior jibed with those ideas. Also, I hadn’t understood that fiction could make you have feelings that were neither suspense nor amusement. That was frightening, a little, like you feel when you take a small boat out of a harbor into the open sea, even if you’ve done it lots of times before, you still feel it: you’re not in control, the sea has grasped you.
Now, looking back, I see that this initial plunge into real fiction cast my literary tastes much in the form they retain, like dropping a blob of molten plastic into water. For me to enjoy a novel it has to have some of Les Miserables in it. It must have narrative action, the characters have to be agents of the plot, the plot has to stand within some moral framework, and the thing has to present ideas—moral, political, aesthetic, it doesn’t matter, but something from the higher realms of thought. An old-fashioned view, of course, but there it is. This is still what I like to read and also how I try to write. I appreciate modernism, I get what it’s trying to do, but I can’t love it.
Much later, in college, when I read Moby-Dick, I flashed on the similarities between the two whale-like, so to speak, novels. Valjean, mighty of limb and of desperate vigor, plays the Whale; Javert, implacable hunter, the instantiation of the “evil of goodness,” pursues him in Captain Ahab’s role, while in place of the sea, the characters sail through France, and the storms of French history. In college, I was informed that Moby-Dick had been rescued for modernism, standing as one of the ur-texts that you had to understand in order to get American literature. Les Miserables was considered, in contrast, old-fashioned rodomontade, an example of a dead form. So I was taught; but I failed to convert. Sadly, I can’t do literature, I retain the interest in narrative and character, in breasts and guns, I am indeed less miserable than I was then, and the book had something subtle to do with that as well.