VICTOR HUGO'S descendants seek to halt 'Les Miserables' sequel

Wednesday, May 23rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PARIS (AP) _ Several months after the ending of ``Les Miserables,'' Cosette and Marius are living happily ever after. But did Javert, the police inspector, really drown in the Seine?

More than a century after Victor Hugo penned his famous work, a new French novel is angering his descendants by reviving _ and in one case resuscitating _ these legendary literary characters.

Hugo's family says ``Cosette or the Time of Illusions,'' by journalist Francois Ceresa, is a betrayal of the national classic and a violation of intellectual property rights. Others call it an act of creative expression. A Paris court will hear the case on June 27.

The debate was aired Tuesday in the French newspaper Liberation, where writer Antoine Audouard defended the new novel under the headline: ``Long live the pillage of 'Les Miserables.'''

``The history of literature is full of sequels, of reprises and borrowing,'' he wrote, adding that this was a natural part of ``the dialogue that, from one period to another, from one theme to another, writers continue between themselves.''

What has most angered Hugo's descendants is the change to the original ending, where Javert, who has furiously pursued Jean Valjean for violating his parole, jumps in the Seine.

They maintain the author was particularly attached to his ending, once writing that ``if this ending is not moving, I will never write again.''

In the new novel, Ceresa revives Javert as a character.

``It is not a sequel, but instead a rewriting of the lives of the characters of Victor Hugo,'' says a legal complaint by Hugo's great-great-grandson, Pierre.

Pierre Hugo seeks to halt publication of the book and is asking for $594,000 in damages from the publishing house, Plon, said Emmanuel Pierrat, his lawyer. The money would be given to charity, earmarked for ``preserving literary heritage.''

According to the family's complaint, the novel ``does not seek to deliver a single particular message but instead represents a pure commercial order based on the violation of the respect for Victor Hugo's work.''

``Les Miserables'' is not the first literary work that has brought an author's descendants into court to defend it.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta is set to hear arguments Friday over whether a federal judge was correct in stopping publication of ``The Wind Done Gone'' by Alice Randall.

Earlier this year, that judge ruled that the novel violates Margaret Mitchell's ``Gone with the Wind'' copyright, following protests from Mitchell's estate.

Randall says her novel is a parody. It is an account of life at a plantation named ``Tata.'' The narrator, the daughter of a slave and the plantation's owner, is portrayed as Scarlett O'Hara's half-sister.

Lauretta Hugo, the wife of Hugo's great-grandson, Jean, and her five children have sent letters to French President Jacques Chirac and to the ministers of culture and education to express their dismay over ``Cosette.''

``Can one imagine commissioning the 10th symphony of Beethoven?'' they asked in an open letter to Liberation last week.

``The misuse of works of heritage for commercial use should be stopped or abandoned in all humane and intelligent societies that are concerned about protecting and enriching their culture.''

Ceresa said he finds the controversy unfair.

``One has the impression that Victor Hugo is an idol that cannot be touched,'' Ceresa said in a telephone interview.

Eric Laurent, the editor of ``Cosette,'' says most of the criticism is coming from people who haven't even read it, and that those who have describe it as ``remarkable.''

``I believe that the great novels, the great works, are not at all like mausoleums or cathedrals that no one has the right to visit, in which no one can enter,'' Laurent said.

He noted that ``Les Miserables'' has also been retold and adapted many times before. The book is the subject of a long-running musical on Broadway and in London.

Pierrat, who represents Pierre Hugo, says the difference is that Ceresa's work was presented as a sequel to the original.

Despite the legal wrangling, Plon plans to release Ceresa's second installment, ``Marius or the Fugitive,'' this fall.