Critical Mass, The Blog of the National Book Critics Circle

NBCC Reads: Lanie Tankard on Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Misérables’

by Lanie Tankard | Oct-17-2018

What are your favorite works in translation? That's the question that launched this summer's NBCC Reads series, which draws upon the bookish passions of NBCC members and honorees. We're posting the last batch thismonth. (Previous NBCC Reads series dating back to 2007 here.)

My favorite is not at all contemporary. Or, is it?

I first encountered Les Misérables by Victor Hugo in my freshman college English class—at least a section of it, the one in which the bishop hands Jean Valjean those candlesticks, having already told him when he arrived: “You are suffering; you are hungry and thirsty; be welcome. And do not thank me; do not tell me that I take you into my house. This is the home of no man, except him who needs an asylum.”

Intrigued, I wanted more. But… almost 2,000 pages? I put it off for decades. Saw the musical. Watched the movies. Finally I bought an abridged copy of close to 1,000 pages (B&N Classics; tr. Charles E. Wilbour; ed. Laurence Porter). Born in Rhode Island, Wilbour was a journalist in New York when he translated Hugo’s work, shortly after the original debuted in 1862. Now Les Misérables is available in over twenty languages. Eight English variations exist.

The antique wording in Wilbour’s translation moves me, even though it’s had criticism. One sentence has burrowed its way into my synapses. Fantine, traveling with three-year-old Cosette, first spies Madame Thérnardier sitting on the doorsill of her inn. The author, knowing where his plot is headed once Fantine leaves Cosette there, quietly muses: “A person seated instead of standing: fate hangs on such a thread as that.” Hugo seized the moment’s essence, ruminating briefly about its portent. Brilliant.

Set against the backdrop of Napoleon III, Les Misérables highlights numerous social problems. Hugo editorialized: “It is an imperative necessity that society should look into these things: they are its own work,” conveying the desperation that can drive people to undertake arduous journeys. “Sometimes we get aground when we expect to get ashore.”

Consider Valjean carrying the wounded Marius through the Paris sewer quicksand:

The water came up to his armpits; he felt that he was foundering; it was with difficulty that he could move in the depth of the mire that he was. The density, which was the support, was also the obstacle….He now had only his head out of the water, and his arms supporting Marius. There is, in the old pictures of the deluge, a mother doing thus with her child.


Imagine the novel Victor Hugo could write today.


Nothing is so like a dream as despair….

Maggie Nelson, Bernard Hooper, and Kathryn Harrison

by Taylor Anhalt | Oct-15-2018

Reviews & Interviews

The latest in NBCC's Craft of Criticism series is Tara Cheesman's Q and A with Ilana Masad.

NBCC Emerging Critic Natania Holtzman offers this week's NBCC Reads/Translation post, on David Albahari’s "Leeches."

Sarah McCraw Crow reviewed Deborah Blum’s “The Poison Squad” and Bart van Es’ memoir/family story “The Cut Out Girl” for BookPage.

Kathleen Rooney reviewed Samuel Park’s latest novel “The Caregiver.” She also interviewed poet Emily Jungmin Yoon.

Joshua Claybourn reviewed David Blight’s “Prophet of Freedom” for the Compulsive Reader.

Brian Haman reviewed Yan Lianke's "The Day the Sun Died" in Asian Review of Books.

In VP/Online Jane Ciabattari's Lit Hub column, Kathryn Harrison talks about her favorite LA Memoirs...“I think of L.A. as a floating world, less landscape than smoke and mirrors. When I think of L.A., of growing up there, I think of those mirages on the asphalt, heat that looks like water.” Ciabattari also talked with short story writer Simon Van Booy, author of the collection "The Sadness of Beautiful Things," re: five books about the sadness of love.

Elizabeth Block reviewed Maggie Nelson’s “Something Bright, Then Holes” for The Brooklyn Rail.

Ellen Akins reviewed Leif Enger's novel “Virgil Wander,” Kate Atkinson's “Transcription,” and Maureen Aitken's “Patron Saint of Lost Girls” for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

NBCC award winner Daniel Mendelsohn reviewed Volume 6 of Knausgaard’s “My Struggle” for the NY Times Book Review. He also wrote about Virgil's "Aeneid" in The New Yorker.

NBCC board member Laurie Hertzel reviewed Kate DiCamillo’s novel “Louisiana’s Way Home” and also interviewed DiCamillo for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. She wrote her weekly column on re-reading books.

Jenny Yacovissi reviewed Marvin Kalb’s recent “Enemy of the People: Trump’s War on the Press, The New McCarthyism, and the Threat to American Democracy” for the Washington Independent Review of Books.

Martha Anne Toll reviewed Esi Edugyan's "Washington Black" for The Millions. She also interviewed for the "Secrets of the Book Critics" series by the Lit Hub/Book Marks.

Balakian award winner Carlos Lozada reviewed Michael Lewis' “The Fifth Risk” for the Washington Post.

Hamilton Cain reviewed “The Shape of the Ruins” by Juan Gabriel Vásquez for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He also reviewed Lou Berney's “November Road,” a literary website curated by New York Times columnist Margaret Renkl

K. L. Romo reviewed “The Boy at the Keyhole,” Stephen Giles’ quiet twisty tale of madness and possible murder, for Washington Independent Review of Books. She also reviewed “Darling Girl,” a heart-moving tale by Terry H. Watkins, which chronicles 13 years in the precarious life of “DG” Pitre through 23 vignettes, for

Jennifer Howard reviewed "Reader, Come Home," neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf's new book on reading in the digital era, for The Washington Post.

Yvonne Garrett reviewed Iveliss Rodriguez's "Love War Stories," Shelley Jackson's "Riddance," Roy Scranton's "We're Doomed. Now What? Essays on War and Climate Change," and Lydia Kiesling's "The Golden State" for The Brooklyn Rail. He also reviewed Judith Chernaik's "Schumann: The Faces and the Masks" for Publisher's Weekly.

Priscilla Gilman reviewed Haruki Murakami's “Killing Commendatore” for the Boston Globe.

Rayyan Al-Shawaf reviewed “Car Trouble,” a novel by Robert Rorke, for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Jenny Bhatt reviewed Professor Angela Leighton’s nonfiction book "Hearing Things" (Trinity College, Cambridge) for PopMatters.

Wayne Catan interviewed 1991 PEN/Hemingway Award winner Bernard Cooper for The Hemingway Review Blog. 

Robert Allen Papinchak reviewed Kevin Wilson's short story collection, “Baby, You're Gonna Be Mine” for the Washington Independent Review of Books. He also reviewed Rhys Bowen's “Four Funerals and Maybe A Wedding”; Roberto Saviano's “Pirahanas: The Boy Bosses of Naples”; and Louise Candlish's “Our House” all for Mystery Scene Magazine.

Madeleine Schwartz reviewed Caryl Phillips' “A View of the Empire at Sunset” for The New York Review of Books.

Harvey Freedenberg reviewed Stephen Fried and his new book, “Rush,” a biography of Founding Father Benjamin Rush for the October issue of TheBurg. He also interviewed David Kaplan on “The Most Dangerous Branch,” his new book about the Supreme Court.

NBCC board member Tom Beer reviewed “The Winter Soldier” by Daniel Mason for Newsday.

NBCC member Claude Peck reviewed "Oranges" by Gary Eldon Peter for the Star Tribune.

Heller McAlpin reviewed Nora Krug’s graphic memoir, “Belonging,” for NPR and Deborah Eisenberg’s “Your Duck is My Duck” for The Los Angeles Times.

Laverne Frith reviewed "Things as It Is" by Chase Twichell for the New York Journal of Books.

Joan Silverman reviewed Ben Marcus’ “Notes From the Fog” for the Portland Press Herald.

V. Joshua Adams reviewed Mark Polizzotti's “Sympathy for the Traitor: A Translation Manifesto” for The Los Angeles Review of Books. 

Lanie Tankard reviewed Irish author Peter Cunningham's novel “Acts of Allegiance” for her October "Eye on the Indies" column in The Woven Tale Press.

NBCC Balakian winner and former board member Ron Charles reviewed Mitch Albom’s “The Next Person You Meet in Heaven” as a video book review for the Washington Post.

Lydia Pyne reviewed “The Dinosaur Artist” by Paige Williams for the Los Angeles Review of Books.

VP of Membership Anjali Enjeti interviewed American Ferrera about her new book "American Like Me" for Newsday. Enjeti reviewed Nicole Chung's "All You Can Ever Know" for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and Barbara Kingsolver's "Unsheltered" for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Heller McAlpin reviewed Kathryn Harrison’s new memoir, “On Sunset,” for the Washington Post.

Katherine Coldiron reviewed Shelley Jackson’s newest novel “Riddance” for Popscure, Tana French’s “The Witch Elm” as an argument about privilege called the Lucky Loop for the Mantle, and “Codex” by Icelandic author Sjón for the Los Angeles Review of Books.

NBCC president Kate Tuttle interviewed Stephen L. Carter about his grandmother's life, which led to his new nonfiction book “Invisible” for the Boston Globe.

Anita Felicelli reviewed Esi Edugyan's "Washington Black" for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Jeffrey Ann Goudie reviewed Susan Orlean's "The Library Book" for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.


Other News

Justin Taylor’s longform critical survey of Mary Robison is in the new issue of The Sewanee Review (#504) and is also available for free on the journal's website.

Xujun Eberlein's translation of the renowned Chinese writer Wang Zengqi's short story  "Revenge" was published in New England Review.

Star Tribune books editor and NBCC board member Laurie Hertzel was interviewed for Poets and Writers magazine about life as a book critic. She was also interviewed on WTIP radio in northern Minnesota, explaining (among other things) how she chooses the books to be reviewed.

NBCC Member Anita Felicelli’s book "Love Songs for a Lost Continent" was published on October 1 by Stillhouse Press. 

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, winner of the NBCC's fiction award for her novel “Americanah”, has been honored with the PEN Pinter prize. Adhichie also opened this year's Frankfurt Book Fair with an impassioned speech calling for "new storytellers.”

NBCC member Fran Bigman wrote about being with the Haruki Murakami Superfans at a Midnight Launch Party for Lit Hub.



NBCC members note: Your reviews seed this roundup; please send items, including news about your new publications and recent honors, to With reviews, please include title of book and author, as well as name of publication. Make sure to send links that do not require a subscription or username and password.​ We love dedicated URLs. We do not love hyperlinks.

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From the Critical Mass blog

NBCC Reads: Lanie Tankard on Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Misérables’

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