Monday, June 25, 2012

La Miserable

I decided to pick up Les Miserables (Ayn Rand's favorite novel by her favorite novelist) to read in my downtime this summer. I'm not going to do a blow-by-blow response series, for it's beyond the scope of this blog and I'd like to not lose another half-year of my life, but I might occasionally throw in an observation or two. Like now.

Reading the opening chapters of Les Mis after coming off of Atlas Shrugged, two facts present themselves: Rand was unusually charitable in her love of Victor Hugo, for his worldview is about as far from hers as can be imagined. We are introduced to the Bishop of Digne, Monsieur Charles-François-Bienvenu Myriel, his life story, his home, his routines. He is an utterly selfless man, devoting every free moment and spare income to the poor. A looter and moocher, in the Randian parlance. Rand in fact originally was going to include a priest character in Atlas Shrugged, a genuinely altruistic man who toils to realize his moral vision and then comes to understand it has already come to pass and ravaged the world, but she abandoned the character because she didn't think such a creature could ever be convincing (not that an inability to craft believable characters never stopped her before). It is amazing, then, to know she could admire Hugo in spite of him standing for everything she despised.

And not only did she admire him, but she owed him certain characteristics of her own writing (one hesitates to call it style). Her first and "objectively" best novel We the Living owes much to Hugo in its panoramic view of post-revolutionary Russia, but the strongest influence I can trace--perhaps because it's so immediately obvious--is what looks to be a shared tic of anecdote. All three of Rand's full-length novels dole out their exposition of character histories with a series of vignettes, that always end with a pithy line or action or fact to emphasize a character's essence. A representative sample from The Fountainhead, detailing the rise of self-made newspaper magnate Gail Wynand:
He remained in the building, sitting on the stairs outside the city room. He sat there every day for a week. No one paid any attention to him. At night he slept in doorways. When most of his money was gone, he stole food, from counters or from garbage pails, before returning to his post on the stairs. 
One day a reporter felt sorry for him and, walking down the stairs, threw a nickel into Wynand’s lap, saying: “Go buy yourself a bowl of stew, kid.” Wynand had a dime left in his pocket. He took the dime and threw it at the reporter, saying: “Go buy yourself a screw.” The man swore and went on down. The nickel and the dime remained lying on the steps. Wynand would not touch them. The story was repeated in the city room. A pimply-faced clerk shrugged and took the two coins.
Les Mis is absolutely rotten with this kind of character building, even as it builds in the completely opposite moral direction. Here is the bishop dealing with the problem of an overcrowded hospital:
"Monsieur," he said, "How many beds do you think this hall alone would contain?" 
"Your Lordship's dining hall!" exclaimed the director, stupefied. 
The bishop ran his eyes over the hall, measuring and calculating. 
"It will hold twenty beds," he said to himself; then, raising his voice, he said, "Listen, Monseiur Director, here's what I think. Obviously this is wrong. There are twenty-six of you in five or six small rooms; there are three of us in space enough for sixty. That is wrong, I assure you. You have my house and I am in yours. Give me back mine and this will be your home." 
Next day the twenty-six indigent patients were installed in the bishop's palace and the bishop was in the hospital.
Another example of characterization-by-anecdote:
His conversation was cheerful and pleasant. He adapted himself to the level of the two old women who lived with him, but when he laughed, it was a schoolboy's laughter. 
Madam Magloire sometimes called him "Your Higheness." One day, rising from his armchair, he went to his library for a book. It was on one of the upper shelves, and as the bishop was rather short, he could not reach it. "Madam Magloire," said he, "bring me a chair. My highness cannot reach that shelf."
It's almost like telling a joke, with the point of the story, the character's defining quality, revealed like a punchline. It goes without saying that her reading of Hugo did not, alas, impart to Rand a sense of humor.

No comments:

Post a Comment