Speaking Volumes | Crying for Jean Valjean
By Josh Rolnick
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 Misérables.
I read Les Misérables 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, Aldous 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 pursued by the relentless Inspector Javert, Valjean tries to make good. He rescues the young Cosette from cruel innkeepers and becomes her guardian. In the end, in what surely must stand as one of the greatest acts of mercy in literature, Valjean saves his tormentor’s life—at great risk to his own—completing the circle of kindness that began with the bishop. Valjean, though, becomes estranged from Cosette when her husband Marius learns he’s an ex-con. In the final scene, the dying Valjean is reunited with Cosette and figuratively embraced by Marius, experiencing a fleeting moment of happiness before he dies.
When I finished reading Les Misérables, I cried. I don’t mean my eyes blurred with tears. I mean for the last 10 or 15 pages, I choked down sobs. I cried for Valjean, yes, but I also cried for myself—where was I headed in this crazy-hard life?—and I cried, to quote Bob Dylan, for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe. What had happened? What had prompted this response?
I finished grad school. Moved back to the States. Took a job with a newswire in Trenton, N.J. It should have been my dream job, with ample room for advancement—including, possibly, the foreign correspondency I thought I coveted. Only, something was missing. I was writing inverted pyramid style, most important to least important fact. My writing was devoid of meaning. So I started writing fiction. Eventually, I quit my job, and enrolled in a writing program in Washington, DC.
It was there, through the assigned readings, that I began to acquire both the context to understand my reaction to Les Misérables and the language to describe what it meant to me.
“Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation,” Anne Lamott explains in her memoir, Bird by Bird. “They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths…our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again.”
That’s what had happened to me, that day 16 years ago, alone in my London flat. My buoyancy was restored. My sense of isolation diminished. “Be strong and of good courage,” Moses exhorts Joshua, in one of my favorite lines of Torah (Deut, 31:7). It’s a stirring moment. Moses, confronting his own death, is urging Joshua—and by extension all of us—to choose courage in the face of life’s calamities. Sometimes, that’s not so easy. But reading a great book can help make us braver. “We no longer need Chicken Little to tell us the sky is falling, because it already has,” Lamott writes. “The issue now is how to take care of one another.”
In some small measure, that’s what I’m trying to shed light on every time I sit down to write. I want to reach people. To say something about the ways in which we take care of one another. My classmates at Iowa recognized this, I think. That’s what they meant by the comment about the hug, and that’s why I believe it was really an underhanded compliment, a sly note of encouragement. There’s something valuable in the soul of your work, they seemed to be saying. Keep going.