The Temptation of the Impossible: Victor Hugo and "Les Misérables"
Mario Vargas Llosa
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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.
the angel at the end” (V, I, XX, pp. 1266–1267). Put like that, it appears simple, but it is not, because, on the one hand, in this “advance from evil to good” there are so many “exceptions and weaknesses” that the ultimate objective seems to vanish like a mirage. On the other hand, it is only in the case of Jean Valjean that this spiritual puriﬁcation can be said to be absolute (although, as we shall see, this assertion can also be countered). The same is not true of other characters, and there
of the rebels, the acts of individual heroism or skill—Jean Valjean shooting down the mattress to strengthen the barricade under ﬁre from the attackers, Gavroche picking up bullet cartridges impervious to the ﬁring, the assault and capture of the redoubt in an explosion of violence and savagery—are the bestwritten pages in the novel. The language is extremely powerful, dramatic, and vivid. It is also one of the rare occasions that the narrator forgets himself and the reader forgets him: as if
reﬂected in Les Mise´rables. All the scenes that deal with this issue have a particular force, and the “message” is always unequivocal and transparent. When it deals with these issues, despite the inevitable exaggerations that give artistic weight to certain scenes, the novel is also close to historic truth. But it is close to historic truth only if we isolate judicial and prison matters from the other social problems. Perhaps because the problem was one that Hugo was so passionate about, in the
spectacular episode in a story in which, as we have 134 chapter vi seen, theatricality deﬁnes both characters and situations. The rebels seem not to be motivated to take up arms and take charge of their own destiny out of desperation, or a sense of exasperation, triggered by speciﬁc social and economic circumstances or political beliefs. Instead they seem to be eloquent interpreters of a script that they act out magniﬁcently, but which also enslaves them. They are there, behind the stones,
exercises over perishable matter is a sign that there is something in him that is neither matter nor perishable, something lasting, immortal, and that, thanks to this transcendent part of humanity—the soul—there is a “communication” between different aspects of creation: “Space is an ocean: the universes are islands. But there must be communication between them. This communication is made through souls.” From the second chapter, the text takes on a polemical tone to refute the atheism of liberals