Translated by Carolyn Betensky and Jonathan Loesberg
Penguin. 1,366 pp. $17.45
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nolead ends One might not think that a gargantuan Parisian novel, published in 150 newspaper episodes in the middle of the 19th century, would fill anyone's 21st-century bill as an absolute ripsnorter - but Eugène Sue's The Mysteries of Paris does exactly that.
Sue's 1,366-page scuzzy epic - a novel of back alleys, hidden rooms, and an underground bar - was a triumph of the burgeoning city mystery genre. His readers always needed another hit of the stuff, and you will, too.
The plot involves the dashing, mid-30s Rodolphe, one of those noblemen in disguise who doles out justice that is sometimes beyond the law. But he is one weird guy, too, who joneses for a kind of moral voyeurism. Do-gooding is titillating for Rodolphe, and into the lairs of the poor we go, for one wonderfully earthy scene after another.
Sue loves to break hearts, and then show you the pieces of yours after some scene of horrible suffering. Even the vilest criminals get broken, like the intense Schoolmaster. (Everyone has a nickname or two. The reader wants to get one for her- or himself.) The Schoolmaster has no nose, having deformed himself to avoid recognition and capture. Later, he loses his sight, courtesy of some of that beyond-the-law Rodolphian justice, and when his gang - a villainess called the Owl, and the most noxious kid ever in a human rat named Gammy - kick him about the shins or threaten to leave him in a remote field, you feel bad for the guy, even though you know exactly what he's all about.
The pace is akin to something like Candide. You can be sitting in a cafe reading along and laughing at the top of one page, worrying that you're too loud - and crying before you get to the bottom, the people around you thinking you're mad. Few books are more earnest, and few read so fresh, so gloriously now. Part of that freshness comes down to the laurel-winning translation by Carolyn Betensky and Jonathan Loesberg.
The form is that of a serial, so at the end of every section we need to have some resolution, and some forward tune-in-next-week momentum. You have reveals in which we learn X is the child of Y - but you never see them coming. And when they do, a readerly double take is not uncommon, eyes scanning back over previous paragraphs in disbelief.
One of the good guys, who used to be a bad guy, is called the Slasher (because he liked carving up animals and people). He remarks, "It's pretty funny, when you think about it, how a handful of words - a handful of words - has done so much. But really, you plant a handful of grains of wheat in the earth, and big stalks will grow."
He might as well be offering an advance blurb for this book, and for the rewards and revelations on every page of this Proustian exercise in literary populism. Even a bibliographic-centric Schoolmaster will not find for you a better novel in this annum, or most others. Sharpen the blades, boys.