We talk to Princeton Professor David Bellos about his HWA Non-fiction Crown shortlisted book, The Novel of the Century.
The HWA Non-fiction Crown celebrates the best in historical non-fiction writing. Do you consider yourself a historian, a biographer or both?
I would like to be thought of as a scholar and a writer with no special label attached. I’m not an academic historian by profession or training and would be uneasy being called a historian, even if my work engages with the past. It is true I have written three biographies but I don’t think that makes me “a biographer” in any essential respect. I would most like to be remembered as a person who never wrote the same book twice.
How did the initial idea for The Novel of the Century come about?
The initial idea was to write a book about the novel in general. Then it dawned on me that you can say all the important things about novels in general by talking in detail about one of them, because it contains all the stories it is possible to tell: Les Misérables.
What attracted you to Victor Hugo, and Les Misérables particularly?
The sheer size of it. Its intricately woven story. The range of subjects it covers. Its wonderful descriptions. Hugo’s fascination with all the varieties of the French language. Together with the amazing story of how it got written, and how the manuscript survived a revolution, a coup d’état and exile. And its place in global culture as the most recognisable and most often adapted story of all time. To sum up: just about everything!
How do you approach research and how do you know when you’ve done enough?
Research is never-ending and we are not, so you have to wrap up the archive at some point. I am not sure how to describe it, but in every project there comes a moment when you feel ready to write a book despite knowing that there are some things you don’t know and probably many others you don’t even know that you don’t know. Perhaps it is the moment when your research has led you to conceive of a coherent story with parts that fit together.
Did your research for this book turn up anything unexpected?
I learned a huge amount of new things. The most unexpected was the realisation that Les Misérables has 365 chapters, one for each day of the year. You would have thought that scholars over the last 150 years would have written something about that, but they haven’t. Among the very few mentions that I found of the chapter count of Hugo’s novel several got the sum wrong!
Clare Mulley, Chair of Judges, said of the shortlisted books, ‘Each of these six exceptional books engages with the past in a way that resonates powerfully today.’ Were you conscious of any modern day parallels when writing the book?
All the time. Les Misérables is not just about the poor of the 19th century, it is about the impact of exclusion and division on a whole society. Those issues have never been so raw as they are now. Hugo means his work to be encouraging and prompt reconciliation. That’s why we still need it.
I have to ask, which is your favourite iteration of Les Mis?
The original work itself. It is truly inimitable. But I would give second place to Claude Lelouch’s movie, Les Misérables du XXe siècle, which I find truer to the spirit of the work than other more literally faithful screen adaptations.
Which history books would be on your personal shortlist?
Simon Schama, Citizens. Mark Mazower, World Government. Shariz Maher, The History of an Idea.
I am sure that good historical fiction creates an audience for history as well. That’s very important for professional historians too.
What’s next? What are you working on now?
I’m getting interested in the history of copyright, and I might end up writing a book about it.
And finally, just for fun, can you describe your book in five words?
Well, there are five nouns in the title that do tell you what my book is about: Novel, Century, Extraordinary, Adventure, Misérables. Shuffled around any way you like, they give you a good idea of what’s in it!
David Bellos teaches French and Comparative Literature at Princeton, where he also directs the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication. He has written biographies of Georges Perec and Jacques Tati that have been translated into many languages, and an introduction to translation studies, Is That A Fish in Your Ear? His latest book, a study of Victor Hugo’s masterpiece, Les Misérables, is shortlisted for the HWA Non-fiction Crown.