How “Les Misérables” sent me to the emergency room
A few years ago, I ran across Italo Calvino’s essay “Why Read the Classics?” The author has long been among my favorites, and I generally read anything of his I can find. One of the elements of this piece was his idea of rereading books:
[T]o read a great book for the first time in one’s maturity is an extraordinary pleasure, different from (though one cannot say greater or lesser than) the pleasure of having read it in one’s youth. Youth brings to reading, as to any other experience, a particular flavor and a particular sense of importance, whereas in maturity one appreciates (or ought to appreciate) many more details and levels and meanings.
Jorge Luis Borges, another of my favorite writers, had similar ideas, which he summed up rather pithily thus:
[R]ereading, not reading, is what counts.
When Borges said this he meant that in reading a well-known book such as, say The Count of Monte Cristo, even if it is the first time you have done so, you already know about it. The story is so famous, so much referenced by other books, directly or indirectly, that in effect, you are actually rereading it. But he also meant it more literally, that a great work bears rereading, and he is well known to have repeatedly read the works of Poe, Stevenson, and Kipling, among many others.
At about the same time I read Calvino’s essay there was a thing going around on Facebook asking you to list “10 Life-Changing Books”. Mine were:
10. Ulysses, James Joyce
9. The Epic of Gilgamesh
8. Collected Fiction, Jorge Luis Borges
7. The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri
6. The 13 Clocks, James Thurber
5. Les Misérables, Victor Hugo
4. The Monkey King, Wu Cheng’en
3. The Masks of God, Joseph Campbell
2. Norse Gods and Giants, Ingri & Edgar Parin d’Aulaire
1. Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco
I’ve done pieces relating to several of them without referring to the list, because it was so true. The cut, which was quite painful to do—so many great books—only just missed Calvino. I’d have choosen The Nonexistent Knight and The Cloven Viscount (Il cavaliere inesistente and Il visconte dimezzato, really two short novels published in a single volume) as my favorite work of his. All of these I had reread, at least in part, and many of them several times, with the exception of Les Misérables, which suddenly stood out something I should do. And so I did.
Certainly it isn’t a quick or an easy read. The book contains five volumes and a number of appendices, with my copy running to some 1,232 pages. It covers religion, politics, philosophy, history, and ethics, as well as the epic tale for which these elements form the backdrop.
Nearing the revolution that makes up the climax of the book, we meet a group of republican students who have dubbed themselves Les Amis de l’ABC (Friends of the ABC). The group’s leader is Enjolras, and drawn to him, a misanthrope named Grantaire is also member. As they are waiting for the hour of the revolution to arrive, they are drinking. Most of them, in true French fashion, consume red wine, but not him:
But by midday, Grantaire had gone beyond wine, that moderate source of dreaming. To the serious drinker wine is only as appetizer. In this matter of insobriety there is black as well as white magic, and wine is of the latter kind. Grantaire was an adventurous drinker. The black approach of real drunkenness, far from appalling, allured him. He had deserted the wine-bottle and gone on to the chope, the bottomless pit. Having neither opium nor hashish on hand, and wanting to befog his mind, he had recourse to that terrible mixture of eau-de-vie, stout and absinthe, which so utterly drugs the spirit. Those three ingredients are a dead weight on the soul, three darknesses in which the butterfly life of the mind is drowned; they create a vapor, tenuous yet with the membranous substance of a bat’s wing, in which three furies lurk—Nightmare, Night, and Death, hovering over the slumbering Psyche.
Chope means “mug”. My comment when I read this passage was, “Wow, I have to try this.” For one thing, absinthe:
During high school, I did a massive paper on For Whom the Bells Toll. The subject was forced on me, and I found the book intensely dull. Perhaps I should put something of Ernest Hemmingway’s on my list of books to reread, but I’m not sure my opinion would change. In any case, I’m not sure how, when, or where I ran across a passage from Papa’s The Garden of Eden, but it fetishizes absinthe rather well. I didn’t actually read the book, as I was still actively avoiding its author in 1986 (and still am) when it was posthumously published. I remember this passage and literally nothing else about it:
[The waiter] came over now holding a glass and an ordinary Pernod bottle and a small narrow-lipped pitcher of water. There were lumps of ice in the water. “Pour Monsieur aussi?” he asked.
“Yes,” the young man said. “Please.”
The waiter poured their high glasses half full of the off-yellow liquid and started to pour the water slowly into the girl’s glass. But the young man said, “I’ll do it,” and the waiter took the bottle away. He seemed relieved to be taking it away and the young man poured the water in a very thin stream and the girl watched the absinthe cloud opalescently. It felt warm as her fingers held the glass and then as it lost the yellow cast and began to look milky it cooled sharply and the young man let the water fall in a drop at a time.
“Why does it have to go in so slowly?” the girl asked.
“It breaks up and goes to pieces if the water pours in too fast,” he explained. “Then it’s flat and worthless. There ought to be a glass on top with ice and just a little hole for the water to drip. But everybody would know what it was then.”
“I had to drink up fast before because two G.N.’s [sic] were in,” the girl said.
“Whatyoumacallits nationals. In khaki with bicycles and black leather pistol holsters. I had to engulp the evidence.”
“Sorry. Once I engulped it I can’t say it.”
“You want to be careful about absinthe.”
The elements that struck me were: 1. It’s illegal—if the Gendarmerie Nationale catches you with it, you’re in trouble. 2. It involves a ritual of adding water and watching the color change. 3. It’s delicate, if you do it wrong you’ll ruin it. 4. It’s dangerous—you shouldn’t drink it too quickly. I should also note that the booze referred to is the Pernod et Fils that was practically synonymous with absinthe, not the Pernod anise liqueur that was created when absinthe was banned.
Sometime in the ’90s it started being manufactured in Europe again, and though the ban was lifted in the US much later, I discovered I could get it shipped here. It arrived in boxes labeled “printed material” that sloshed when you shook them. Since then I graduated past flaming sugarcubes to ice water, and to cocktails like Sazerac, Corpse Reviver №2 and my favorite, the Green Beast.
Stout, of course, is excellent: on a trip to Kerry with my brother and his Princeton crew buddies, we’d learned to ask, “How’s the Guinness?” We’d sip the dark, cool, frothy stuff if the reply was positive and resort to the not entirely disagreeable and apparently less finicky alternative of Smithwick’s if not.
Eau de vie, I’ll admit, I had to look up. I had a vague idea of what it was, but found that it’s essentially a highly distilled brandy, generally made from fruit other than grapes. It’s role in the recipe is not to impart any kind of flavor but simply to booze it up, so a decent vodka would have the same effect. In fact, the definitions of vodka and eau de vie overlap, such that essentially anything fermented and distilled to 80 proof is vodka, hence Cîroc (made from grapes) is an example of an eau de vie vodka.
I looked around for a recipe and came up empty: all the searches simply pointed back to the Hugo passage. I checked it in French, which did not reveal anything new. So I looked at beertails for something similar.
Most beertails are… lame. Apart from the classic Snakebite, most of them involve watering down beer, which was the opposite of what I was trying to do. Snakebite is simply equal parts hard cider and beer. Shandy is a more typical beertail: beer and a citrus soda. Then I found Hangman’s Blood.
Like Grantaire’s drink, Hangman’s Blood was a literary one, described by Richard Hughes in his 1929 novel, A High Wind in Jamaica.
[Captain Jonsen] went on board, and mixed several gallons of the potion known in alcoholic circles as Hangman’s Blood (which is compounded of rum, gin, brandy, and porter). Innocent (merely beery) as it looks, refreshing as it tastes, it has the property of increasing rather than allaying thirst, and so once it has made a breach, soon demolishes the whole fort.
It sounds awful—like something we’d have made in high school by skimming from 10 different bottles of booze with the idea that our parents wouldn’t know. I tried Hangman’s Blood—for science—it’s surprisingly not terrible. And here, the evil captain is using it to make people drunk so he can take advantage of them at an auction—Hughes even goes so far as to use the word “poison” to refer to it.
And yet Anthony Burgess seems to have sworn by the drink (in the ’60s, William S. Burroughs seems to have been Anthony Burgess’ frequent drinking buddy—quite possibly members of the “alcoholic circles” Hughes mentions), writing in 1960:
Into a pint glass, doubles of the following are poured: gin, whisky, rum, port and brandy. A small bottle of stout is added and the whole topped up with champagne… It tastes very smooth, induces a somewhat metaphysical elation, and rarely leaves a hangover.
Boiling all that down, here’s the recipe:
- 1 2/3 ounces gin
- 1 2/3 ounces whiskey
- 1 2/3 ounces rum
- 1 2/3 ounces port
- 1 2/3 ounces brandy
- 6 ½ ounces Guinness Extra Stout
- 4 ounces Champagne
- Pour all the liquors into an Imperial pint glass.
- Add the stout.
- Add the champagne.
Based on this information, I took a stab at the appropriate formulation, fiddled with the results a bit and so created, or recreated the abyssal drink of Les Misérables. I began drinking them, and inflicted them on all my friends. Since it never was given a real name—only the vessel it’s imbibed from is described—I dubbed it La Chope Hugo.
The recipe runs thus:
- 12 ounces stout
- 2 ounces eau de vie
- 1 ounce absinthe
- Pour cold stout into a chilled glass
- Pour eau de vie and absinthe into a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake until chilled. Strain into glass over stout.
While I have provided these recipes here, please understand that this is not to say that I recommend that you make, or worse yet, imbibe them. Please recall for a moment the subtitle of this piece, and also the words of Hemingway—a man who literally drank himself to death (OK, technically Hemingway used a shotgun to off himself because of his ill health, but his damaged liver and unwillingness/ inability to stop drinking was a major reason for that. And technically, those are the words of a character in his book, but it appears to be more or less autobiographical):
You want to be careful about absinthe.
Goddamn right and the Chope absolutely will drown the butterfly life of your mind.