At some point, when I was a student at the Iowa Writers' Workshop five years ago, my classmates started referring to me as "the writer who ends his stories with a hug."
It could have been a devastating critique. But I never took it that way. It pointed to a certain tendency I had toward the tidy ending in early drafts. Real life is messy, defying happily-ever-afters; over time, I learned that stories should resist them, too.
And I think my classmates were also saying something more fundamental about what I was attempting to do with my stories. Which brings me to Victor Hugo's Les Miserabks.
I read Les Miserabks when I was 25, studying at the London School of Economics. I was searching for my path. I'd spent several years as a journalist and was considering trying to make a go of it as a foreign correspondent. But I was also flirting with a parallel track: enrolling in a Ph.D. program, studying history, becoming an academic.
Each morning I took a bus through the neat, working-class boroughs east of the city, over the Thames on the Tower Bridge with its castle-like lookouts, to the Tower Hill Underground station on the north bank, where I caught a tube to campus. It was an hour-long commute, so I always brought a book. But I didn't read history or the British newspapers. I read fiction. I read Truman Capote, James Salter, AJ-dous Huxley and John Steinbeck--books I'd always wanted to read and never made the time for; it was one of the most joyful reading experiences of my life.
I don't know why I picked up Victor Hugo's epic. Maybe I understood that at no other time in my life would I be unfettered enough to read and absorb a 1,400-page French masterpiece. Length, I'm sure, was part of the allure.
The novel begins with the release from prison of Jean Valjean, who has spent 19 years in jail--five for stealing a loaf of bread, the rest for various attempts to escape. For a while after his release, he sleeps on the streets, raging at life's injustice. Eventually, he is taken in by the beneficent Bishop Myriel, but--unable to escape his criminal nature--he steals the bishop's silver. He is quickly caught; however, instead of fingering Valjean as a thief, the bishop tells police the silver was a gift, and gives him two more candlesticks, chiding him for forgetting the most valuable items.
Bishop Myriel extracts a promise from Valjean to use the candlesticks to become an honest man. Throughout the rest of the novel, as he is...