Part I of II

Getting involved with Victor Hugo

Pierre Ferrand


have been in the "Maison Victor Hugo," the museum in Paris, a number of times. It is located on a corner of the magnificent Place des Vosges, perhaps the most beautiful plaza in Paris. I did see it again in 2002, since in February of last year, Victor Hugo was 200 years old. This should not faze him or us, for, warts and all, he is immortal.

The special 2002 exhibit in his former residence of the Place des Vosges did not feature the many books he wrote, but a number of his haunting and visionary drawings and watercolors (he made about 3,500 of them). They were appropriately shown together with contemporary “modern” artists, for they were truly in advance of their time. Hugo’s graphic work is not as familiar as much of his multitudinous literary production, but some of it is greatly admired by connoisseurs today. He was truly a man of many gifts.

During my lifetime, I have visited several other Victor Hugo museums, notably Hauteville House, his residence in the Channel Island of Guernsey during most of two decades of exile from France. He had rebuilt it in accordance with his own designs, making with his own hands some of its elaborate furniture and remarkable decorations. These include a number of his On the top floor is his “Lookout,” his office surrounded by glass windows with an ocean view. It was there that he wrote on three separate desks, always standing upright, some of his most impressive poetry and prose. In the garden below, there is the “Tree of the United States of Europe” he planted in 1870.

Victor Hugo was very much a part of my childhood memories in the France of the 1930s. Like everybody else in France, I learned a number of his poems by heart in school. Unlike some of my schoolmates, I did not mind it, for his verbal gifts are incomparable in French, and a sheer joy to those who love the language.

I also was fascinated by several of his half a score novels, particularly accessible to me as a boy because they do not attempt to please finicky esthetes and are not in depth psychological studies. At one level, they can be read as epics in prose for popular consumption, with a dramatic and indeed melodramatic sweep and verbal gusto. Many of his characters may strike unsympathetic readers as cartoon-like, but they are memorable, and what remains is a vision of goodness ultimately prevailing over evil, a faith worth keeping.

Victor Hugo’s first outstanding success as a novelist, Notre-Dame de Paris (known in Anglo-Saxon countries as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame), was published in 1831. Poorly characterized by its English title, it is an incomparable evocation of the Middle Ages far more striking than the medieval novels of Walter Scott and his many imitators. The book, which became one of my favorites, inspired me, a teenager in Paris, to make innumerable pilgrimages to this grandest of medieval cathedrals.

Ninety-Three, Hugo’s last major work in prose (1874), is a visionary account of the first French Revolution, far more impressive to me than Dickens’ Tale of the Two Cities. The magnificent saga of the pursuit of Jean Valjean by Inspector Javert over many hundreds of pages, Les Miserables, (1862) is, in the end, a grand hymn to the triumph of goodness over blind “justice,” and remains inspiring. Victor Hugo also wrote an early anti-slavery novel, Bug Jargal (1820), about a slave revolt in Santo Domingo and several impressive stories attacking the death penalty, one of his life-long preoccupations.

Late in the 1930s, my father published in Paris a radio play, written by one of his friends, The Voice of Victor Hugo, compiled from the French poet’s eloquent statements. This introduced me to the principled champion of peace, freedom, and democracy, who remained in exile for nearly two decades in protest against the seizure of dictatorial power by Napoleon III. Hugo had tried to organize resistance against it by fighters on the Paris barricades on December 2, 1851, risking his own life until the troops crushed all opposition. He then escaped from France.

While Napoleon III was no Hitler, his military coup was not bloodless and was followed by deportations and the exile of opponents. Victor Hugo’s powerful indictments of the French ruler and his supporters sounded very timely as applied to the Nazis, and many of his own ideals still appeal to me after all these years.

Victor Hugo was also the object of an early bibliophilic disappointment of mine. Though I spent a lot of time looking through the book stalls of the “bouquinistes” on the quais along the Seine, it was my older brother and not I who found there a thumbnail copy of Hugo’s violent 1852 pamphlet, Napoleon le Petit, against the ruler of France. It was a two-by-one inch edition in very fine print of this most subversive text, designed to be smuggled into France from Belgium. He had bought it for a couple of dollars, and I have been informed that it would be worth several thousands of dollars today. It was a most exciting discovery, and I had pangs of jealousy, though my brother, nice as usual, allowed me to read it. (Like my own library, it was lost to the Gestapo, which took over our apartment after the Germans entered Paris in 1940.)

Over the six or more decades that followed, I have read a lot of Victor Hugo, and a lot about him. He had human faults and has irritated some by what they felt was an inflated ego. However, much of his self-conceit was justified. He is one of the world’s literary titans. His faith in man and the ultimate triumph of human decency was not a based on any bland denial of the existence of evil, pain, or suffering, with which he had much personal experience. It was in defiance of it.

Though he conquered his place as the leader of the romantic movement in France and managed to earn a great deal of money from his many books, his life was one of many personal tragedies. His parents exploded in mutual hostility shortly after his birth. On the very day he finally married his childhood sweetheart, despite parental objections, his talented elder brother became irremediably insane. About a decade later, his wife, whom he greatly loved, the mother of his five children, became the mistress of one of his best friends. His favorite daughter drowned with her husband shortly after her own marriage; another daughter became insane, and he survived his sons.

He did insist in his “literary testament” that his heirs should publish everything he wrote, including his drafts and notes, and his entire correspondence. He was quite right. More than most writers, he should be considered as a whole, and in the context of what he experienced. His greatness is reflected in the way he met the major challenges of his life, and is primarily expressed in his magnificent poetry and some of his novels.

To be continued.

Victor Hugo

Photographic portrait of Victor Hugo (1862) by Edmond Bacot, in Maison de Victor Hugo, Paris. From the collection of Pierre Ferrand.

Read the poetry of Victor Hugo

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