The Lengths of Misery

In the first two weeks of January, I finished Les Misérables by Victor Hugo and Levels of Life by Julian Barnes. (As well as Hōkago by Keigo Higashino, which we will not discuss today.) The two novels are 1,232 and 118 pages respectively and published in 1862 and 2012, exactly 150 years apart.


The unlikely pair had in fact come into being through the joint forces of serendipity and, somehow, Eddie Redmayne. I added Levels of Life to my Goodreads “Want to Read” back in 2016, when it appeared in a listicle titled “5 Books Recommended by Eddie Redmayne.” Two years later, upon watching Redmayne in Fantastic Beasts and subsequently re-watching him in Les Misérables, I decided it was high time (as in, I had just left New York and returned to my parents’ home in Taipei to recuperate from health issues that I cannot afford to have with American health care) for me to tackle Hugo’s tour-de-force, which I had only ever read abridged.


This effort began near Christmas, and I resolved to finish before the new year—with the superstitious foreboding that if I did not, my Miséries of 2018 would follow me into 2019. But the completely un-portable tome defeated me.

The first week of January brought a wave of unprecedented depression that made even reading feel like a chore. I enlisted a friend to help me out of my swamp, and he took me to a secondhand bookshop in an old Taipei neighborhood. I found, for the equivalent of less than $2, a copy of Levels of Life that was nearly pristine due to the plastic wrapper—commonly used by Taiwanese elementary school students—that its previous owner had meticulously applied.

I dived in to the model-thin Levels of Life as a break from Les Misérables. It begins, “You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed.” This is the premise that ties together the book’s three sections: “The Sins of Height,” an essay on the 19th-century hot air ballooning craze; “On the Level,” a fictional romance between a two historical balloon lovers; and “The Loss of Depth,” Barnes’ personal account on coping with the death of his wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh.   

10 pages in, while describing the balloonist-photographer known as Nadar, Barnes writes: Another enthusiast, Victor Hugo, said that a balloon was like a beautiful, drifting cloud—whereas what humanity needed was the equivalent of that gravity-defying miracle, the bird.

The French photographer and balloonist Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, widely known as Nadar (posing in a studio).

The French photographer and balloonist Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, widely known as Nadar (posing in a studio).

I grabbed the other book on my desk. Sure enough, there it was on page 1004 (lol): We have tamed the hydra, and its new name is the steamship; we have tamed the dragon, and it is the locomotive; we have not yet tamed the griffin, but we have captured it and its name is the balloon.

I felt thunderstruck. By something grand, like Destiny. Naturally, I began to read too much into this.

Hugo took twenty years to write Les Misérables, and he did so with the aim to shed light and change hearts. The epigraph declares, “While ignorance and poverty persist on this earth, books such as this cannot fail to be of value.” He is not only referring to Jean Valjean’s incarceration, Fantine’s prostitution, or the myriad children who suffer in the book. Those familiar with the book will roll their eyes fondly at Hugo’s 100-page digressions on the Battle of Waterloo, French convents, and the Parisian sewer as a common denominator of human society.

Hugo was far from being the only 19th-century author of social novels that address society’s darkest corners (Charles Dickens, Harriet Beecher Stowe, etc). What sets Les Misérables apart is its structure—the almost systematic separation of unapologetic digressions and plot. The novel shifts between chunks of what can be called “societal exposition” (Napoleon, nuns, sewers), “character exposition” that summarizes lives, “interior exposition” that dissects the characters’ current psychology, and “action” that somehow moves at a breathtakingly fast pace.

The earliest surviving aerial photograph, taken by Nadar on a hot air balloon.

The earliest surviving aerial photograph, taken by Nadar on a hot air balloon.

This style seems to me like the antithesis of our Information/Innovation/Influencer Age. To be sure, there are still hefty historical epics being published (Pachinko, A History of Seven Killings), but these are half the length of Les Misérables at best. And the people who read them probably all know the lyrics to Do You Hear the People Sing.

My lament is far from original, but here it is: We are oversaturated with words. (Thank you, by the way, for taking the time to read these particular ones.) When I’m trudging through Hugo I feel guilty about my under-read subscriptions. Then I’m reading the New Yorker and feeling out of the loop on social media. Then I’m browsing Instagram confessions while catching up on podcasts and growing increasingly convinced that I should really be reading about Brexit or Trump. Then I start to panic that this is all for naught and I should be reading in other languages I’ve studied so as not to “lose” them. I flit between tabs, apps, and pages—constantly guilt-ridden and absorbing little. 

My point: Who nowadays would invlude 100 pages on the sewage system in a 1,200-page novel? Who would write a 1,200-page novel? Who would read it?

But I—digress. Julian Barnes may not write 1,200-page novels, but he does dedicate 64/118 pages to 19th-century hot air balloon enthusiasts. Levels of Life is thus a short but massive work. Its span is remarkable temporally, geographically, thematically, formally, and emotionally. Its heart is in its final section, with Barnes’s unsentimental, aphoristic sentences that pierce you whether or not you have grieved. Each paragraph, from the first, is a quotable gem:

You put together two people who have not been put together before. Sometimes it is like that first attempt to harness a hydrogen balloon to a fire balloon: do you prefer to crash and burn, or burn and crash? But sometimes it works, and something new is made, and the world is changed. Then, at some point, sooner or later, for this reason or that, one of them is taken away. And what is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there. This may not be mathematically possible; but it is emotionally possible.

Barnes’ book is a “holistic” one. No excerpt, not even the one above, can demonstrate its full brilliance, because its threads run so seamlessly through the fabric of its pages. Its self-references, gradual transformations, and evolving motifs weave together the three sections into one whole. Anything less than the whole is worse than the whole—the work clings to every part of itself.

I am not sure if I can say the same of Les Misérables (the poetic translation by Norman Denny straight-up exiles 30 pages of digressions to the appendix), but the fundamental idea is similar. To convey something as a whole, we should not necessarily avoid mixing genres or going on tangents or focus on swiftly delivering punchlines. Everything from endless scrolling to TED talks can be blamed for our impatience with/constant thirst for content. We want our information in capsules, we want guarantee that we will learn 7 new things in 7 minutes if we click on a 7-minute video.

I am guilty of all this and aspire not to be. I want to read with a greater aim than discursively learning a little bit about everything the internet has to offer me. To know enough about ballooning so as to write about it when discussing the loss of the Love of His Life seems to me as astounding a feat as lighter-than-air flight. 

Pat Kavanagh and Julian Barnes.

Pat Kavanagh and Julian Barnes.

Last week, my parents and I went to Pingxi to set off 天燈, sky lanterns. The tradition is to write wishes on them, light a small fire underneath, and send them skyward—the direction in which all cultures agree wishes should go. It occurs to me as our lantern soars off with poorly calligraphied hopes that this, too, is an optimistic act of ballooning.

EssaysLin King