Ec(h)oes of Les Mis

Nov. 3, 2012
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  Anticipation for December’s release of the film adaptation of Les Miserables rests on the success of the Broadway musical based on one of the 19th century’s signature novels. Anyone interested in the deep underpinnings of Victor Hugo’s work i.e. the thinking behind Les Mis ought to read Umberto Eco’s thoughts on Hugo in his new essay collection, Inventing the Enemy (published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

As author of Foucault’s Pendulum and The Name of the Rose, Eco is one of our era’s most acclaimed novelists; he is also an accomplished essayist who investigates a multitude of topics with philosophical acumen and a slightly humorous edge. Inventing the Enemy covers much ground. Within the span of a few pages, Eco debunks the notion that most people believed the world was flat in Columbus’ time and explores how our enemies can define who we are.

The essay on Hugo is one of the longer pieces in Inventing the Enemy and casts much light on a writer with “an excess in the description of earthly events” and a desire to view those events “from God’s point of view.” Hugo was the omniscient author par excellence, his characters were wooden but inhabited by passions “taken to such levels of paroxysm as to become memorable.” His real protagonists were the great forces of history, working out of their trajectory according to a Hegelian scheme.

Eco pays the author of Les Miserables a supreme compliment when he suddenly declares, “What a great screenwriter Hugo would have made!” Like the best of that tribe, “he wanted us to feel the panting breath, the often fetid roar of history.” If Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway can capture that panting and echo that roar, the cast of the upcoming Les Mis may well fulfill Hugo’s intentions in a medium he never imagined.

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