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.
"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
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