...genuinely fresh and inspiring. Bellos’s book is a major accomplishment. His warm and engaging study of Victor Hugo’s 1862 masterpiece renews faith in the idea, so fundamental to the mysterious attraction of literature, that great books of whatever age continue to be worthwhile objects of attention. In applying a melange of literary criticism, linguistics, political science and history to the study of one of the best-known, if least-understood great books of all time, he illuminates the work in a way that transcends conventional literary criticism. Bellow displays a dazzling range of erudition with lightness and easy wit, and almost every section of his book bears surprising insights.
The number of cross-connections between life and fiction that Bellos describes are remarkable. The 19-year exile of Hugo himself paralleled the 19-year prison sentence served by Valjean, the sinner turned saint hero of the novel ... Can Hugo’s monumental novel provide a mirror to the injustices of our own times? After reading Bellos’s graceful and constantly intriguing account of a great novel’s history, the uninitiated (myself included) will have been inspired to find out.
For a nuts-and-bolts dissection of a 150-year-old doorstop French historical novel, The Novel of the Century is captivating ... there's a distinct charm in realizing that Bellos is not only an authority on the book but a fan ... The title of Bellos's book, it must be conceded, is much closer to those paddle steamers than it is to literary reality. Hugo's book is for long stretches hysterically over-stuffed and scatterbrained. Hugo himself might have been right in calling it 'a work of love and pity,' but Bellos calling it 'the novel of the century' is sheer fan club partisanship ... The Novel of the Century perfectly captures all sides of this publishing phenomenon and the man at its center. Bellos fascinates from beginning to end – and who knows? He may even tempt his braver readers to leave his base camp and make an assault on the Everest of the novel itself.
Impeccably researched and pithily written, Bellos’s book provides an important corrective to these kinds of distortions ... It’s a shame there are not more personal anecdotes ... Bellos’s book also doubles as a fascinating partial biography of Hugo’s life. Here we have a writer who had the courage of his convictions.
[Bellos] goes beyond the statistics to argue persuasively that in terms of impact and influence, Victor Hugo’s masterpiece was the novel of the 19th century ... in telling the engrossing story of the book and its author’s journey from staunch defender of the government to exile in Guernsey after Napoleon III’s 1851 coup d’état, Bellos also makes a powerful case for the novel’s enduring relevance.
The Novel of the Century...vividly traces the origin and development of Hugo’s most famous work, assessing its impact on the novel as a genre … The original inspiration for Les Misérables that the spirit was urging Hugo to finish came from scenes of social despair he had witnessed in Paris...As Bellos notes, the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen spoke of society owing ‘subsistence to citizens of misfortune,’ defined as orphans, the sick, the old, and the infirm, but made no mention of the able-bodied poor … Stylistically, claims Bellos, Hugo broke new ground. He admired Shakespeare for his vast cast of characters, each with a vocabulary reflecting his or her class and occupation.
Whether you're contemplating a run at Les Misérables or returning to it, Bellos' book is a perfect guide — as well as a compelling story in its own right ... There are chapters on everything from the religion and politics of Les Misérables to the significance of colors in the age before chemical dyes. Bellos has struck the ideal balance of top-notch research and readable prose in the chapters that deftly lead us through the world of the novel and its characters ... an engaging and enlightening companion.
[Bellos] navigates through its five parts, 48 'books' and 365 chapters with clarity and wit. At once erudite and entertaining, he shows how the novel’s magic lies in its multitasking versatility ... he restores Les Mis to its maker and his times.
Bellos opens our eyes to many fascinating elements of the book and its milieu ... Anyone who loves Hugo, France, and the French language will revel in this delightful book that explains all the intimacies of 19th-century French life.
...the story of how Victor Hugo’s classic novel came to life is a challenging, complex, and utterly engrossing epic all its own ... There are tidbits of trivia sprinkled effervescently throughout, along with serious considerations of Hugo’s relationship to the French language, his moral universe, and his political intentions for a book that spawned countless spin-offs.