Victor Hugo 
by Graham Robb.
Picador, 682 pp., £20, October 1997, 0 330 33707 6
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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.

The curricular version of Hugo, as the insolent youth who had set the agenda for Romanticism, made it too easy to overlook a less disorganised Hugo, who meant, like his debt-ridden contemporary, Balzac, to make his writing pay – and proved far cannier than Balzac in hanging onto the money, once it was made. What we heard nothing about as students was the Hugo who, at the same time as he was setting backward theatre audiences by the ears, was counting the box-office receipts, and who began the relevant entry in his Journal for 1830: ‘They have been doing Hernani at the Théâtre-Français since 28 February [actually, it was the 25th]. That makes five thousand francs a time.’ The play ran in the end for 39 nights, hooted at from the expensive seats for such gross, even seditious informalities as a king asking someone what the time was, disliked by classically trained actors, who found some of the less than strict alexandrines hard to say and the jeering hard to withstand, but doing well by the author’s pocket and, more important, helping to elevate him into his lifelong role as a political seismograph and prophet. For, a bare five months after that profitably fought-over first night, History underwrote Hugo’s radicalism in a truly dramatic way: after the ‘three glorious days’ of violent street theatre in July 1830, the last, illiberal Bourbon king, Charles X, was sent on his way and the embourgeoisé Louis-Philippe took his place.

His militant tendency Hugo had from his father, who, at the time of Victor’s conception – an alfresco event, held 3000 feet up in the Vosges mountains – was a major in the Napoleonic Army. Soon, he had gone up to being General Hugo, and was showing considerable brutality in occupied Spain, before establishing himself as a hero in his son’s eyes by his futile defence of Thionville after the defeat on the ‘morne plaine’ of Waterloo. The General gave his sons little time and not enough money; they had no reason to love him. Victor, however, could forgive his father everything for having been so close and so loyal to the great Napoleon, his own devotion to whom never weakened. Napoleon was the giant against whom later on he delighted in measuring the pygmy stature of such triflers as his nephew, Napoleon III; and Hugo contrived to see an armed expedition such as that into Spain as the forerunner of his own more peaceable mission as a moral improver: ‘That army,’ he declared, ‘carried the Encyclopedia in its knapsack.’ His heredity, then, and his nostalgic Emperor-worship, had a lot to do with the fact that when there was shooting, Hugo liked to get out and experience it from close to, as he did in July 1830 and again, much more dangerously, during the insurgency of June 1848, when, as an unarmed Parliamentarian, he led assaults on behalf of the Government against street barricades manned by the very People that he should have been supporting. This, says Graham Robb, was ‘the central event’ of Hugo’s life, the guilt attaching to his participation leading on to the increasingly populist views of his later years and to the writing of what is far and away his noblest piece of literature, Les Misérables.

In 1830, the skirmishing over, Hugo went back indoors for five months, to write his first best-seller, Notre-Dame de Paris, which is much inferior in its catchpenny sensationalism to Les Misérables yet much more than the rather daft ‘fantasmagoria’ (Kipling’s word for it) that it seems. Even as it Romanticises the 15th century, Notre-Dame has interesting things to say about the early 19th, for in it the novelist is on the turn politically as well as aesthetically, away from the authoritarianism of his ultra years and towards the liberalism that was to become more and more aggressive the older he got, and as one reactionary regime followed another. Hugo hated the perfidious English calling his novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, and perfidious it was, for who would expect ideological significance to be hiding behind a title like that, or be able to see that the sexy but heretical busker, Esmeralda, and the fantastically deformed Quasimodo are principles, not people, whose posthumous association, when their two skeletons are discovered locked in a bony embrace, represents for Hugo the promise of a harmonious future when all antitheses will be resolved. The cathedral itself counts for most in the story because it is just such a beautiful resolution, of the antithesis between a Romanesque style seen as appropriate to a dogmatic, hierarchical ordering of society and the Gothic style that succeeds it and is appropriate to an age of social ferment and spiritual aspiration.

Notre-Dame sold three thousand copies in its first 18 months: good going for the early 1830s. Hugo, who had little or no inheritance and was now a father of four, needed the income. He was on the move financially also. Fifteen years later, so Robb reports, he was already worth a million of our 1997 pounds; and he must have died worth a great deal more than that – how much more, Robb doesn’t say, though more detail than he chooses to give about Hugo’s earnings would have rooted the writer more firmly still in his society as a man of business. It wasn’t after all every 19th-century writer who had the entrepreneurial nous to arrange that his new novel should appear on the same day in 13 cities in 13 different countries, one of them Rio de Janeiro. That, however, is what happened in 1862 with Les Misérables, a publishing coup made even more impressive by the fact that it was achieved by the remotest of controls, since Hugo was by then living in exile in Guernsey. He cared about his sales figures, not simply because they meant that he could buy more bonds on the London market, but because they reassured him as to his enduring presence as a force for good in public life. Empowered after 1852 by the official disfavour that he had gone out of his way to incur, he was being the more gratefully heard. When, a year after having had hurriedly to leave the country, he brought out his splendid blast against the despised Napoleon III, Napoléon-le-Petit, the sales, not least of the pocket, or smuggler’s, edition, were enormous, the translations soon and many, and Hugo could boast that they had soon passed a million copies, which could well have been true.

Napoléon-le-Petit is journalism that has endured as literature, a philippic richly transcending the transient genre of its birth for having been written in its author’s expressed conviction that ‘my function is somehow sacerdotal. I have taken the place of the magistracy and the clergy.’ This was something that his status as an exile made it easier for him to believe, since there were no French magistrates or clergymen nearby to represent competition. Twenty-five years later, his animus against the ludicrously un-Napoleonic Napoleon III refreshed by his new animus against the infant, and already repressive, Third Republic, Hugo published L’Histoire d’un crime, a much longer account of the coup d’état of 1851, which was less successful than its predecessor because time had lent a certain unreality to the events and, Hugo thought, ‘People will think they are reading a novel when they are reading history!’

‘What are you? Soldiers of a tyrant. The best of France is on our side. You have Napoleon. We have Victor Hugo.’ Leaflets bearing this message were used against French troops in Mexico during the preposterous expedition of 1862, and Robb quotes them as an example of how real and widespread Hugo’s effect was in making propaganda for causes that were genuinely enlightened. Robb is especially good on this aspect of Hugo, shrewdly justifying his ‘almost comical oscillation from the particular to the universal’ in his pronouncements as an ‘attempt ... to manage the transition from the “genius” of the Romantic age to the intellectual of our own’. The causes he took up do him every credit: capital punishment, for one, which he was campaigning against even in the 1820s, when he wrote Le Dernier jour d’un condamné, an awkwardly fictionalised but moving protest against the barbarity of the French penal system; and the demolition or ‘restoration’ – ‘scraping’ Hugo called it – of medieval buildings by architects, from the ubiquitous Viollet-le-Duc downwards, who lacked his own Romantic sense of the exoticism and integrity of the late Middle Ages.

Writing in this engagé mood, to some topical and humane end, serves Hugo well by re-inserting him more comfortably into the society of mere earthlings. Not that, in life, he was all that might have been feared. Meeting with him socially was by most accounts a more ordinary experience than meeting with him in the published version. He was, wrote Marie d’Agoult, the lover of the abbé Liszt, ‘the exact opposite of his works ... unpretentious, kind, above all charming, neither arrogant nor timid’, while Balzac, though more suspicious of him, found his conversation ‘absolutely delightful, a little like Humboldt’s, but superior and leaving a little more room for dialogue’ – room you would not have imagined the monological Hugo as wanting to leave. The conversationalist, if not the charmer, is on view in the most sociable part of his oeuvre, which is the two volumes of Choses vues, or extracts from his journals, first put together shortly after his death. Here, the sacerdotal presumption is held more or less in check by the attention he gives to his smaller concerns, to remarks made or overheard, to his dealings with his children and eventually his grandchildren, to his small acts of charity to the poor, to things that (literally) go bump in the night, which he took to be spiritist interventions on his behalf. Even in the privacy of a journal, however, he doesn’t doubt his born right to conduct an ‘immense tête-à-tête with France’, not to mention the one-sided tête-à-tête with his family, whose duty it is to look up to him, in life and, if called upon, in death. One testamentary note runs: ‘Should I happen to die, as is probable, before having achieved what I have in my head, my sons are to bring together all the fragments without any determinate title that I may leave, from the most extensive down to fragments of a single line, prose or verse, order them as best they can, and publish them under the title of Ocean.’

Against this old man of the sea, however, you have in fairness to set the alternative man who is well able, when he wants, to look outside himself and to write up long, graphic entries, whether descriptive or narrative, relating to the Princess Diana-like occasion in 1840 when Napoleon’s body was brought back from St Helena to be reburied at Les Invalides, and when, according to Hugo, the People did its instinctively Romantic bit by acclaiming the late Emperor while the bourgeoisie and besashed members of the Government could hardly be bothered to remove their hats as the coffin was drawn past; or else to a bad moment in the Channel Islands, when one of his fellow exiles and a presumed dissident turns out to be a government spy – a story supremely well told by Hugo and a reminder of how haunting the grander, man-against-the-sea and man-against-octopus, sequences are in the novel that he set in Guernsey, Les Travailleurs de la mer.

There is sex in the Choses vues, but in coded form for the most part, as Hugo keeps count of his de-haut-en-bas couplings with prostitutes and housemaids. This was the patriarch in tireless action. ‘Love and think freely’ was one of his slogans, implying that freedom was indivisible and that the campaigner against all censorship of the mind was by the same token free to enter the bed of whoever made herself available to him. To sleep with Victor Hugo was prestigious: in one awkward episode, when the vice squad broke in on him in mid-adultery, it turned out that the love-nest had been booked in the Olympian name of M. Apollo.

Neither of the two women who had good reason to object to this over-literal love of the People appears to have done so. His wife, Adèle, had quickly learnt to keep her distance from him and early in the 1830s had had a celebrated affair with the critic, Sainte-Beuve, who had written friendly and influential things about Victor’s poetry, had called on the poet at home and had taken a fancy to his wife. To be cuckolded by Sainte-Beuve was improbable: he was, in Robb’s unkind picture of him, ‘a distractingly ugly and timid young man with ginger hair, huge ears, a “proboscis” and a tendency to dribble’. M. Apollo, who never quite believed his wife had been unfaithful, would not have felt flattered. He, however, by this time had a mistress, Juliette Drouet, who stayed devoted to him, as he in a less adhesive degree to her, for nearly fifty years, living never with him but always close by, surely the safest arrangement bearing in mind the hardships of cohabitation with an egotheist.

Adèle seems to have found her husband’s neglect preferable to his attentions, and settled for a role as his and their childrens’ ‘stewardess’ (her word). The children, alas, were to be a source of great sadness. First, the older daughter, Léopoldine, on whom Hugo doted, was drowned six months after she married, in a boating accident that he learnt about from a newspaper when travelling in the south with Juliette. Then, the two sons, who had variously collaborated with him and followed him into exile, both died in their forties, years before their father; and the one child to outlive him was the poor demented Adèle, the ‘Adèle H.’ of Truffaut’s melancholy film, who had followed an English army officer whom she imagined loved her to Nova Scotia and then to Barbados before being brought back to France and life in care. The bereft patriarch was left to become in his old age the author of L’Art d’être grand-père, or what Robb, who is no sentimentalist, calls ‘a 68-poem hymn to his favourite form of human being’.

Robb has written a sardonic but thoroughly successful Life of a subject who has crushed a fair number of the biographers that have attempted him. The book is lively, argumentative and moves easily between psychology and history in making of Victor Hugo a man of his century. The jaunty, verging on knockabout, tone can grate, when Robb is too set on showing Hugo up for a ham or else a fraud, but I suppose the degree of exposure required before you can write five hundred-odd pages about him might make anyone want to mock someone never known to have mocked himself. Robb has surprisingly little to say about the writings, though he is ready now and again to come to their defence, not least on the excellent grounds that Hugo is in one important respect a Modern, having acknowledged that there must always be more in the poetry than there is in the poet, the infinitely resourceful medium of language having conjoined the two.

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