Victor Hugo and the Visionary Novel
In a celebrated response to a question concerning the state of French literature in the generation that preceded his own, André Gide replied, “Victor Hugo, hélas!” Hugo may have lacked a Rodin to sculpt a tribute to his magnificence, as Auguste Rodin did for Honoré de Balzac, but Hugo looms large above the landscape of nineteenth century French culture. His funeral in 1885, followed by entombment in the Pantheon, was truly a state occasion, outstripped only by the transferral of the remains of Napoléon I to Les Invalides. Familiar to all students of French literature and to the legions of readers of such imposing novels as Notre-Dame de Paris (1831; The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1833) and Les Misérables (1862; English translation, 1862) is the figure of Hugo towering over his contemporaries, just as he preferred to write standing up and facing the sea in his own “tower” atop his famous place of exile, Hauteville-House on the island of Guernsey. Unforgettable as well is the high-flown language, as if Hugo spoke on behalf of God—or the other way around. The grandeur of such language, like that of Hugo’s contemporary, the historian Jules Michelet, is something of an embarrassment in the twentieth century. Gide, whose generation stood on the other side of Symbolism and several other waves of the literary avant-garde from le maître Hugo, articulated in his “hélas!” the discomfort “moderns” experience in the presence of such strong authorial confidence in one’s mission and in the steadfast belief that one will be read; that literature “matters.”
All of which means that Victor Brombert, with a number of distinguished books behind him, including much experience in writing of Hugo, has his work cut out for him when it comes to making Hugo “new” and immediate for a late twentieth century literary public. Much of the difficulty Brombert has faced simply comes with the territory. To begin with, there is the impossibility of reducing the vicissitudes of such a complex life, spanning the periods of Empire, Restoration, July Monarchy, short-lived Second Republic, Second Empire, and beginnings of the Third Republic, to some general formula of characterization. Hugo triumphed in every literary genre: There is the young poet and dramatist, writing under the spell of Romanticism, whose play Hernani premiered in 1830 on one of the most tumultuous evenings in the history of the French theater. There is also the energetic author of novelistic epics intended to move and revitalize the French reading public, awakening them to the nobility of the cause of le peuple. Politically, there is the young defender of monarchy and would-be “second Chateaubriand.” In a much less typical trajectory for an admired author’s personal political evolution, there is the Victor Hugo who scorned “Napoléon le petit,” his scathing label for Napoléon III, and who chose exile rather than existence in a France that had betrayed the ideals of 1848. This same man would move much further to the Left, eventually championing the cause of the Paris Commune, expressing outrage at the massacre of the Communards in 1871.
Perhaps wisely, Brombert does not seek to resolve such contradictions with a too-neat summation, although his choice of the label “visionary” for Hugo is a strategic one which furthers his aim of winning over those who, having cut their teeth on Symbolism or Surrealism, have learned automatically to scoff at Hugo, or gleefully to quote Jean Cocteau’s waggish epigram, “Victor Hugo was a madman who thought he was Victor Hugo.” Use of the word “visionary” in referring to modern French literature places one along the register established by Arthur Rimbaud, who, in his famous letter of 1871 to Paul Demeny, insists that the poet must be a voyant, a prophet, a visionary. By usurping this label and applying it to such a seemingly...
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