The 22-year-old Flaubert, as yet only a bored law student in Paris, writing to his sister in Rouen to tell her of the evening he had spent with, among others, Victor Hugo:
I took pleasure in studying him closely; I gazed at him with astonishment, like a casket in which there were millions and a king’s diamonds, reflecting on all that had come from this man now sitting beside me on a small chair, and fixing my eyes on the right hand that has written so many beautiful things. Yet here was the man who has most set my heart beating since I was born, and the one perhaps whom I liked the best of all those that I don’t know.
A little improbably, this admiration stayed with Flaubert all his life, for a man who out-wrote him many times over, who thought the mot juste was the first one that came to mind, and who poured himself so freely into his verse, his melodramas, his novels, his family, his women and his politics that he presided over the literary world for sixty years. Hugo’s was a carelessness of expression unthinkable for the slow-writing Flaubert, but Flaubert was happy to pay this monster of transparency his respects, perhaps for making his own reserve appear the more virtuous. At the time of Flaubert’s death, in 1880, Hugo, at 78, was still absolutely alive, and Flaubert, never a hopeful man, could not have anticipated that the next century was going to find his role as a hung-up martyr to style a more fitting object of admiration and study than Hugo’s numbing spontaneity.
Hugo has come down to us as the dubious paragon of self-assertion, at home, where he had it easy, but just as much in politics or in literature, as a writer whose pen too readily outran his great intelligence. Too much, however, can be made of this arrogance, as if the satirical purchase that it provides were the one acceptable means to come at such an egotist. To tastes conditioned by the wariness of Modernism, Hugo is indeed oppressive, with his poetry capable of spreading like floodwater across all of human history, geography and the contrary natures of God and Satan; and his fiction tending to the digressive, the morally facile and the operatic – only the great size of Les Misérables can have kept it from being set to music for so long. Add to this his missionary optimism, in the future of human societies once they have been educated out of their present malignant state, and you can see why modern readers prefer the acrid, misanthropic company of Baudelaire or Flaubert.
Taste in fact recoiled from him soon after 1900, in France and in this country, too, where, Anglophobe though he made no secret of being, he had long been looked on as the French writer of the 19th century. In the new age of suspicion, he was trundled embarrassedly off into the wings; which was an injustice, because there is much that is good to read in Hugo, in that poetry where he stays closer to home, in the novels, all of which have magnificently strange episodes somewhere in them, and in his remarkable journalism. In compensation for being shelved as a back number – or perhaps as a final punishment – he was accorded an extraordinary place in French literary history, as the youth whose antinomian energies had been instrumental in liberating writing from the constraints transmitted to Restoration France by an arthritic classicism. This was the Hugo we heard about as students, the brave innovator, whose Odes et ballades and Les Orientals were as lavish verbally as they were in the subjects they lyricised, and the famously rowdy first night of whose bandit play, Hernani, was on record as the moment when Romanticism arrived on stage and an aesthetic revolution, from which the century never looked back, was under way. Hugo had done what the predecessor whom, as a young man, he most admired, Chateaubriand, had been too aloof and depressive a character to do: he had lowered the literary tone. The language that Hugo writes in, even at his most oratorical, is more inclusive and relaxed by far than Chateaubriand’s, it has turned its back on the salon and acknowledged instead the living facts of French as it was experienced lower down the social scale. He was writing bourgeois French for the bourgeois class that he always despised, looking on it as a dim and unfortunate interposition between the People – the untamed crowd, his frequently expressed love for whom he believed was reciprocated – and the aristocracy, glamorous for being both ancient and grand-seigneurial. The despised bourgeoisie it was, on the other hand, who bought and read what Hugo wrote and, as its numbers grew, made him within a short time into the first of the literary millionaires.
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