The Temptation of the Impossible: Victor Hugo and Les Miserables

The Temptation of the Impossible: Victor Hugo and Les Miserables

The Temptation of the Impossible: Victor Hugo and Les Miserables

The Temptation of the Impossible: Victor Hugo and Les Miserables

Synopsis

It was one of the most popular novels of the nineteenth century and Tolstoy called it "the greatest of all novels." Yet today Victor Hugo's Les Misérables is neglected by readers and undervalued by critics. In The Temptation of the Impossible, one of the world's great novelists, Mario Vargas Llosa, helps us to appreciate the incredible ambition, power, and beauty of Hugo's masterpiece and, in the process, presents a humane vision of fiction as an alternative reality that can help us imagine a different and better world.


Hugo, Vargas Llosa says, had at least two goals in Les Misérables --to create a complete fictional world and, through it, to change the real world. Despite the impossibility of these aims, Hugo makes them infectious, sweeping up the reader with his energy and linguistic and narrative skill. Les Misérables, Vargas Llosa argues, embodies a utopian vision of literature--the idea that literature can not only give us a supreme experience of beauty, but also make us more virtuous citizens, and even grant us a glimpse of the "afterlife, the immortal soul, God." If Hugo's aspiration to transform individual and social life through literature now seems innocent, Vargas Llosa says, it is still a powerful ideal that great novels like Les Misérables can persuade us is true.

Excerpt

The winter in the boarding school of the Leoncio Prado Military College in Lima that year, 1950, was damp and gray, the routine was numbingly boring, and my life was rather unhappy. The adventures of Jean Valjean, the bloodhound obstinacy of Javert, the warmth of Gavroche, and the heroism of Enjolras blotted out the hostility of the world, turning my depression into enthusiasm during those hours of reading stolen from classes and military training, and transporting me to a world blazing with extreme misfortune, love, courage, happiness, and vile deeds. Revolution, sanctity, sacrifice, prison, crime, men who were supermen, women who were virgins or whores, saintly or wicked, a whole cast of characters shaped by theatricality, euphony, and metaphor. It was a great place to take refuge; this splendid fictional life gave one strength to put up with real life. But the treasures of literature also made real reality seem more impoverished.

Who was Victor Hugo? Having spent the last two years totally immersed in his books and in his time, I now know that I will never know. Jean-Marc Hovasse, the most me-

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