Jonathan Keates

He Dreamed a Dream

The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables

By

Particular Books 307pp £20 order from our bookshop

Among the many remarkable facts about Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is that its title has never been translated into English. Who are these wretched creatures that they should have remained so unshakably French throughout the century and a half that has elapsed since the work first appeared in English? In The Novel of the Century, David Bellos explains that Hugo’s working title for the book was ‘Les Misères’, conveying an idea of ‘all the woes of the world’. Only in the final phase of composition did it become Les Misérables, a much more ambiguous term embracing both pity and contempt and encapsulating a contemporary view of the poor and downtrodden which the writer was determined to challenge. ‘The outcast’, ‘the wretched’, ‘the humiliated’, ‘the oppressed’? None of these renders Hugo’s meaning broadly enough, so Les Misérables the title remains, whether of the novel itself or of its incarnation as a musical that has broken box-office records worldwide.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • 'The characters in many of these stories are trapped in the obsessive present tense of their own thoughts; in the m… ,
    • 'Libraries, for much of their existence, have embodied in microcosm many of the characteristics of the totalitarian… ,
    • 'Moss and Cynthia buy several properties through which to launder their ill-gotten gains, take lots of drugs, have… ,
    • 'Never mind the imperial cult. This is the cult of Boris. What happened to Rome?' From the LR archive:… ,
    • Thirty-two years ago this month, we published Muriel Spark's short story, 'A Playhouse Called Remarkable' Read it… ,
    • Time travel, bicycles and white horses populate @WomackPhilip's roundup of children's books by @marcussedgwick,… ,
    • RT : Joanna Kavenna’s ‘Cooking with Trotsky’s Frying Pan’ in June’s is the most well written and interesting… ,