A novel for the barricades

Issue 

Cosette: The Sequel to Les Misérables
By Laura Kalpakian
HarperCollins, 1997. 652 pp., $14.95 (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon

"The Republic belongs to Property, Profit and Order. That's what they're setting in place of the King. New government, same old enemies — want, poverty, ignorance and disease." So declares Marius Pontmercy during the ruthless, frenzied repression of the 1848 revolution in France by the bourgeois republican government which had been brought to power by a popular insurrection.

Marius has been plucked from the pages of Victor Hugo's novel Les Misérables, where he was a student and barricade-fighter in the revolution of 1830, and turned into a radical journalist and revolutionary in a new novel by Laura Kalpakian about the 1848 revolution and its aftermath.

With Marius is another of Hugo's characters, Cosette, rescued from a life of pain and poverty by the fugitive convict (arrested for stealing a loaf of bread) turned city mayor and wealthy manufacturer, Jean Valjean, one of Hugo's greatest humanitarian rebels.

With Valjean's financial generosity, Cosette and Marius start a radical newspaper, La Lumière, which takes up the fight against king and poverty, church and restricted franchise, and state and censorship.

Whilst Marius gets to know the inside of jails, Cosette keeps the presses rolling, helping to ignite the revolution in February 1848 which compels the king to flee to England, and which forces concessions from the new bourgeois republican government such as universal (male) suffrage, freedom of assembly and press, a moratorium on debts and a reduction in the working day to 10 hours.

The euphoria of the workers who made the revolution, however, is short-lived. The alliance falls apart after a few weeks, as Marx had predicted, when the bourgeois gentlemen of the government begin to fear for the rights of property, eventually handing dictatorial powers to General Cavaignac in June. He, with skills honed in the massacre of rebels in Algeria, puts the workers back in their place with sabre and grapeshot.

Marius had seen it coming — the frockcoats "believed in liberté, yes, but egalité, fraternité? Those might be more difficult. There were men here who believed it was the natural order of things that some should starve, that blunted lives and stunted hopes, empty guts and filthy hands entitled people to egalité only in heaven." As Marx saw it, the sharp new class boundaries were drawn in workers' blood.

With the urban proletariat pacified by firing squad, prison and transportation, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, the emperor's nephew, sweeps to victory in the subsequent polls, relying on his name and the peasant vote (three-quarters of France's population still worked the land), even mesmerising La Lumière with his humanitarian rhetoric.

La Lumière soon withdraws its support for Bonaparte, however, and pays for its opposition when Bonaparte stages a coup d'etat in 1851, declaring martial law, arresting any dissenters and dissolving the elected assembly.

Louis-Napoleon's so-called Second Empire was "brilliant, amoral, shallow, splendid and repressive. It granted few liberties but many fetes and fireworks."

Whilst police spies hound Cosette and other survivors of 1848, capitalist boom provides the social stability for Bonaparte's reign. This was the period when Marx retired to the British Museum to write Capital instead of overthrowing it, as revolutionary politics went into long-term retreat.

Apart from dodging police spies, propaganda is all that Cosette can hope for, writing pamphlets so that "the ashes of dissent might yet blow and the cinders ignite in the wind".

She does strike a chord — liberty, equality and fraternity may have been "erased from all public buildings but they had not been erased from people's hearts or minds" — but the symphony of revolt won't start up for two more decades, until the Paris Commune of 1871.

Kalpakian's novel is a largely successful sequel to Les Misérables, despite some shaky moments when it teeters on the edge of stereotyped historical romance fluff — "Love is the greatest prize of life", "'Never leave me', she murmured, 'never, never leave me'", "a woman in love who went naked towards his arms" — but Hugo was no slouch, for that matter, at melodrama.

In the second half of the novel, as post-revolutionary political quietude descends, the predominance of the romantic affairs of Marius and Cosette creates an exaggerated feeling of political inertia which was not as uncontested as all that: the working class was organising, slowly, hesitatingly and with setbacks in a climate of legal uncertainty, but the labour movement was stirring, at least during the latter part of Louis-Napoleon's reign.

As well as melodrama, Kalpakian shares with Hugo a radical liberal politics. "Socialist" is too strong a word — Hugo, who shed his early royalism for radical republicanism, and who was forced to leave France for his opposition to Louis-Napoleon's coup, was a self-declared socialist although at a time when the term could be applied to anyone who believed in social reform.

Kalpakian is less a scientific than an emotional socialist, with theories of class, party and organisation of less importance to her novel than a denunciation of ruling class brutality and greed and a sympathetic portrayal of the poor and wretched, the outcasts and underdogs, the rejected and the rebels — "the people with the least" where Cosette finds "the most kindness and connection".

Which is a rare enough quality, these days, in a desert of angst-ridden, inward-looking, studiously apolitical fiction. Kalpakian's novel has Hugo's compassion and anger and revolutionary heart, and a good deal of his talent. Good for a lazy summer read or on your next street barricade.