The Temptation of the Impossible: Victor Hugo and "Les Miserables"

Overview

It was one of the most popular novels of the nineteenth century and Tolstoy called it "the greatest of all novels." Yet today Victor Hugo's Les Misérables is neglected by readers and undervalued by critics. In The Temptation of the Impossible, one of the world's great novelists, Mario Vargas Llosa, helps us to appreciate the incredible ambition, power, and beauty of Hugo's masterpiece and, in the process, presents a humane vision of fiction as an alternative reality that can ...

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Overview

It was one of the most popular novels of the nineteenth century and Tolstoy called it "the greatest of all novels." Yet today Victor Hugo's Les Misérables is neglected by readers and undervalued by critics. In The Temptation of the Impossible, one of the world's great novelists, Mario Vargas Llosa, helps us to appreciate the incredible ambition, power, and beauty of Hugo's masterpiece and, in the process, presents a humane vision of fiction as an alternative reality that can help us imagine a different and better world.

Hugo, Vargas Llosa says, had at least two goals in Les Misérables—to create a complete fictional world and, through it, to change the real world. Despite the impossibility of these aims, Hugo makes them infectious, sweeping up the reader with his energy and linguistic and narrative skill. Les Misérables, Vargas Llosa argues, embodies a utopian vision of literature—the idea that literature can not only give us a supreme experience of beauty, but also make us more virtuous citizens, and even grant us a glimpse of the "afterlife, the immortal soul, God." If Hugo's aspiration to transform individual and social life through literature now seems innocent, Vargas Llosa says, it is still a powerful ideal that great novels like Les Misérables can persuade us is true.

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Editorial Reviews

Los Angeles Times - Benjamin Lytal
Although books about other books abound, there are very few that actually tell us what it is like to read. The Temptation of the Impossible, Mario Vargas Llosa's book about Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, is one of these rare confessions.
San Francisco Chronicle - Robert Hicks
Novelist Mario Vargas Llosa contributes to the canon with his provoking and insightful study of 19th century French novelist Victor Hugo's Les Misérables in his book-length essay, Temptation of the Impossible....Vargas Llosa's study reaches beyond an analysis of Les Misérables to help define the very essence of the novel and fiction.
ForeWord - Tim Davis
Part literary criticism, part biography, and part personal essay, The Temptation of the Impossible is the author's perceptive tribute to Hugo's Les Misérables. For Vargas Llosa ... Hugo's marvelous novel is a brilliant portrayal of 'a world blazing with extreme misfortune, love, courage, happiness, and vile deeds.'... Some literary critics may disagree with his provocative claims regarding the role of fiction in readers' lives, but Vargas Llosa argues so passionately that even dissenting critics will admire his zealous and meticulous reasoning.... For any student of world literature who is interested in an important and hugely readable, one-stop critical analysis of Hugo's canonical novel, Vargas Llosa's book is the perfect destination.
First Things - Algis Valiunas
Vargas Llosa is ideally placed to lead a reconsideration of Victor Hugo.... [He] examines the providential vein in Les Misérables that runs through both individual destinies and the life of nations.
The Age - Steve Carroll
Mario Vargas Llosa, acclaimed novelist, critic and one-time conservative politician, has, in Hugo's epic, found the perfect vehicle for a study that is a combination of literary criticism, general essay and philosophical speculation. He dissects Hugo's style, emphasizing not just his larger-than-life characters, but, more importantly, his narrator—the biggest and most dangerous 'character' in the book of dangerous characters. What makes Hugo's book dangerous is that it just might stir the reader to pursue the ideals of a better world. Llosa, with an eloquent ease that has to be admired, relates this danger to the novel form itself, and how societies—especially repressive regimes of military, religious, left or right persuasion—have distrusted the novel.
Choice - C.B. Kerr
When one distinguished author critiques the masterpiece of another, the result is not always exceptional. But in this case, it is. In this expanded version of lectures he delivered at Oxford in 2004, Vargas Llosa offers both probing insights into the characters, themes, and ultimate significance of Les Misérables and powerful lessons on the art of fiction writing.
Magill's Literary Annual - Shawncey Webb
Vargas Llosa's book is a significant addition to the criticism of Les Misérables and of Hugo as a novelist. Vargas Llosa makes Hugo accessible to the reader as an author who was not fettered by the time period in which he wrote. He also presents valuable insights into the genre of fiction and what 'reality' means in a fictional work. Since Vargas Llosa is himself a highly respected novelist, his book has been particularly welcomed by critics in the field.
From the Publisher
One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2007

"Although books about other books abound, there are very few that actually tell us what it is like to read. The Temptation of the Impossible, Mario Vargas Llosa's book about Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, is one of these rare confessions."—Benjamin Lytal, Los Angeles Times

"Vargas Llosa discerns genius in the French novelist's artistic transmutation of . . . leaden terrestrial events into a golden utopian fantasy. Readers who cherish Hugo's powerful novel will value this insightful study."Booklist

"Among the things that most fascinate Vargas Llosa is how very fictional Les Misérables is—in the sense of not being true to reality. . . . Among the best parts are when Vargas Llosa goes at it from a writer's point of view—such as in explaining the necessity and use of the great lengths to which Hugo took this work—but even in professor-mode Vargas Llosa offers many useful tidbits (about Hugo, about the reception of the book, etc.) and opinions.... Even if [Les Misérables] is only a distant memory, Vargas Llosa's look makes one eager to pick it up again."The Complete Review

"Novelist Mario Vargas Llosa contributes to the canon with his provoking and insightful study of 19th century French novelist Victor Hugo's Les Misérables in his book-length essay, Temptation of the Impossible....Vargas Llosa's study reaches beyond an analysis of Les Misérables to help define the very essence of the novel and fiction."—Robert Hicks, San Francisco Chronicle

"Part literary criticism, part biography, and part personal essay, The Temptation of the Impossible is the author's perceptive tribute to Hugo's Les Misérables. For Vargas Llosa ... Hugo's marvelous novel is a brilliant portrayal of 'a world blazing with extreme misfortune, love, courage, happiness, and vile deeds.'... Some literary critics may disagree with his provocative claims regarding the role of fiction in readers' lives, but Vargas Llosa argues so passionately that even dissenting critics will admire his zealous and meticulous reasoning.... For any student of world literature who is interested in an important and hugely readable, one-stop critical analysis of Hugo's canonical novel, Vargas Llosa's book is the perfect destination."—Tim Davis, ForeWord

"Vargas Llosa is ideally placed to lead a reconsideration of Victor Hugo.... [He] examines the providential vein in Les Misérables that runs through both individual destinies and the life of nations."—Algis Valiunas, First Things

"Mario Vargas Llosa, acclaimed novelist, critic and one-time conservative politician, has, in Hugo's epic, found the perfect vehicle for a study that is a combination of literary criticism, general essay and philosophical speculation. He dissects Hugo's style, emphasizing not just his larger-than-life characters, but, more importantly, his narrator—the biggest and most dangerous 'character' in the book of dangerous characters. What makes Hugo's book dangerous is that it just might stir the reader to pursue the ideals of a better world. Llosa, with an eloquent ease that has to be admired, relates this danger to the novel form itself, and how societies—especially repressive regimes of military, religious, left or right persuasion—have distrusted the novel."—Steve Carroll, The Age

"When one distinguished author critiques the masterpiece of another, the result is not always exceptional. But in this case, it is. In this expanded version of lectures he delivered at Oxford in 2004, Vargas Llosa offers both probing insights into the characters, themes, and ultimate significance of Les Misérables and powerful lessons on the art of fiction writing."—C.B. Kerr, Choice

"Vargas Llosa's book is a significant addition to the criticism of Les Misérables and of Hugo as a novelist. Vargas Llosa makes Hugo accessible to the reader as an author who was not fettered by the time period in which he wrote. He also presents valuable insights into the genre of fiction and what 'reality' means in a fictional work. Since Vargas Llosa is himself a highly respected novelist, his book has been particularly welcomed by critics in the field."—Shawncey Webb, Magill's Literary Annual

Los Angeles Times
Although books about other books abound, there are very few that actually tell us what it is like to read. The Temptation of the Impossible, Mario Vargas Llosa's book about Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, is one of these rare confessions.
— Benjamin Lytal
Booklist
Vargas Llosa discerns genius in the French novelist's artistic transmutation of . . . leaden terrestrial events into a golden utopian fantasy. Readers who cherish Hugo's powerful novel will value this insightful study.
San Francisco Chronicle
Novelist Mario Vargas Llosa contributes to the canon with his provoking and insightful study of 19th century French novelist Victor Hugo's Les Misérables in his book-length essay, Temptation of the Impossible....Vargas Llosa's study reaches beyond an analysis of Les Misérables to help define the very essence of the novel and fiction.
— Robert Hicks
ForeWord
Part literary criticism, part biography, and part personal essay, The Temptation of the Impossible is the author's perceptive tribute to Hugo's Les Misérables. For Vargas Llosa ... Hugo's marvelous novel is a brilliant portrayal of 'a world blazing with extreme misfortune, love, courage, happiness, and vile deeds.'... Some literary critics may disagree with his provocative claims regarding the role of fiction in readers' lives, but Vargas Llosa argues so passionately that even dissenting critics will admire his zealous and meticulous reasoning.... For any student of world literature who is interested in an important and hugely readable, one-stop critical analysis of Hugo's canonical novel, Vargas Llosa's book is the perfect destination.
— Tim Davis
First Things
Vargas Llosa is ideally placed to lead a reconsideration of Victor Hugo.... [He] examines the providential vein in Les Misérables that runs through both individual destinies and the life of nations.
— Algis Valiunas
Choice
When one distinguished author critiques the masterpiece of another, the result is not always exceptional. But in this case, it is. In this expanded version of lectures he delivered at Oxford in 2004, Vargas Llosa offers both probing insights into the characters, themes, and ultimate significance of Les Misérables and powerful lessons on the art of fiction writing.
— C.B. Kerr
Magill's Literary Annual
Vargas Llosa's book is a significant addition to the criticism of Les Misérables and of Hugo as a novelist. Vargas Llosa makes Hugo accessible to the reader as an author who was not fettered by the time period in which he wrote. He also presents valuable insights into the genre of fiction and what 'reality' means in a fictional work. Since Vargas Llosa is himself a highly respected novelist, his book has been particularly welcomed by critics in the field.
— Shawncey Webb
The Complete Review
Among the things that most fascinate Vargas Llosa is how very fictional Les Misérables is—in the sense of not being true to reality. . . . Among the best parts are when Vargas Llosa goes at it from a writer's point of view—such as in explaining the necessity and use of the great lengths to which Hugo took this work—but even in professor-mode Vargas Llosa offers many useful tidbits (about Hugo, about the reception of the book, etc.) and opinions.... Even if [Les Misérables] is only a distant memory, Vargas Llosa's look makes one eager to pick it up again.
The Age
Mario Vargas Llosa, acclaimed novelist, critic and one-time conservative politician, has, in Hugo's epic, found the perfect vehicle for a study that is a combination of literary criticism, general essay and philosophical speculation. He dissects Hugo's style, emphasizing not just his larger-than-life characters, but, more importantly, his narrator—the biggest and most dangerous 'character' in the book of dangerous characters. What makes Hugo's book dangerous is that it just might stir the reader to pursue the ideals of a better world. Llosa, with an eloquent ease that has to be admired, relates this danger to the novel form itself, and how societies—especially repressive regimes of military, religious, left or right persuasion—have distrusted the novel.
— Steve Carroll
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691131115
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 4/3/2007
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Mario Vargas Llosa was born in Arequipa, Peru, in 1936. In 1958 he earned a scholarship to study in Madrid, and later he lived in Paris. His first story collection, The Cubs and Other Stories, was published in 1959. Vargas Llosa's reputation grew with the publication in 1963 of The Time of the Hero, a controversial novel about the politics of his country. The Peruvian military burned a thousand copies of the book. He continued to live abroad until 1980, returning to Lima just before the restoration of democratic rule.

A man of politics as well as literature, Vargas Llosa served as president of PEN International from 1977 to 1979, and headed the government commission to investigate the massacre of eight journalists in the Peruvian Andes in 1983.

Vargas Llosa has produced critical studies of García Márquez, Flaubert, Sartre, and Camus, and has written extensively on the roots of contemporary fiction. For his own work, he has received virtually every important international literary award. Vargas Llosa's works include The Green House (1968) and Conversation in the Cathedral (1975), about which Suzanne Jill Levine for The New York Times Book Review said: "With an ambition worthy of such masters of the 19th-century novel as Balzac, Dickens and Galdós, but with a technical skill that brings him closer to the heirs of Flaubert and Henry James . . . Mario Vargas Llosa has [created] one of the largest narrative efforts in contemporary Latin American letters." In 1982, Farrar, Straus and Giroux published Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter to broad critical acclaim. In 1984, FSG published the bestselling The War of the End of the World, winner of the Ritz Paris Hemingway Award. The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta was published in 1986. The Perpetual Orgy, Vargas Llosa's study of Flaubert and Madame Bovary, appeared in the winter of 1986, and a mystery, Who Killed Palomino Molero?, the year after. The Storyteller, a novel, was published to great acclaim in 1989. In 1990, FSG published In Praise of the Stepmother, also a bestseller. Of that novel, Dan Cryer wrote: "Mario Vargas Llosa is a writer of promethean authority, making outstanding fiction in whatever direction he turns" (Newsday).

In 1990, Vargas Llosa ran for the presidency of his native Peru. In 1994, FSG published his memoir, A Fish in the Water, in which he recorded his campaign experience. In 1994, Vargas Llosa was awarded the Cervantes Prize, the Spanish-speaking world's most distinguished literary honor, and, in 1995, the Jerusalem Prize, which is awarded to writers whose work expresses the idea of the freedom of the individual in society. In 1996, Death in the Andes, Vargas Llosa's next novel, was published to wide acclaim. Making Waves, a collection of his literary and political essays, was published in 1997; The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto, a novel, was published in 1998; The Feast of the Goat, which sold more than 400,000 copies in Spanish-language, was published in English in 2001; The Language of Passion, his most recent collection of nonfiction essays on politics and culture, was published by FSG in June 2003. The Way to Paradise, a novel, was published in November 2003; The Bad Girl, a novel, was published in the U.S. by FSG in October, 2007. His most recent novel, El Sueño del Celta, will be published in 2011 or 2012. Two works of nonfiction are planned for the near future as well.

The Nobel Prize in Literature 2010 was awarded to Mario Vargas Llosa "for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual's resistance, revolt, and defeat".

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi
Introduction: Victor Hugo, the Ocean 1

Chapter I. The Divine Stenographer 11

Chapter II. The Dark Vein of Destiny 34
The Law of Chance or the Order of Coincidence 34
The Irresistible Traps 41
The Ambush in the Gorbeau Tenement 43
The Barricade at la Chanvrerie 45
The Paris Sewers 47
Elusive Freedom 52

Chapter III. Touchy Monsters 56
A Character without Qualities 57
The Saint 61
The Just Man 65
A Puritan World 70
The Fanatic 75
An Angel with a Dirty Face 80
Collective Characters 84

Chapter IV. The Great Theater of the World 87
Adjectives to Describe the Show 89
Performance, Beauty, and Life 92
Light and Shadow 95
Sets 96
The Victor at Waterloo 97
Human Putrefaction 98
Life as Fiction 102

Chapter V. Rich, Poor, Leisured, Idle, and Marginal 105
Reformist Idealism 110
The Just 114
A Society Rebuilt 118
The Victims: Confinement and Women 120
A Source of Social Injustice: The Law 122
A Stupid and Cruel Monster 124

Chapter VI. Civilized Barbarians 131
Long Live Death! 132
Slow-Motion Progress 134
Victor Hugo and the Insurrection of 1832 138

Chapter VII. From Heaven Above 146
The Enumeration of the Infinite 148
Attempting the Impossible 154
The Total Novel or the Deicidal Impulse 156

Chapter VIII. The Temptation of the Impossible 165
Notes 179
Index 185

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