Portrait photograph of Victor Hugo. Photo: Edmond Bacot

Victor Hugo (1802–1885) was—and is—altogether too much. A prolific lyric and epic poet of stunning technical mastery, he was also a controversial dramatist (some of his plays have survived as subjects for operas of Donizetti, Verdi, and Ponchielli). He wrote two of the most enduringly popular novels, Notre-Dame de Paris and Les Misérables. Quasimodo the pathetic monster and Jean Valjean the ex-convict tormented by conscience are known—even if approximately and secondhand through numerous stage and film adaptations—to many who have not read the books and probably have no intention of reading them. Moreover, Hugo was a visionary artist not only in word but also with pen, wash, and mixed media. He appears as the bard of every regime except one—and France in his day saw a goodly number. At various times he also served as député and senator. Hugo towers with those nineteenth-century French contemporaries like Balzac, Dumas père, and George Sand, writers whose vast outpouring of words never ceases to astonish and overwhelm. Yet Hugo, or Olympio, as he was to call himself, self-consecrated genius and monumental egoist, gives the impression of being and displaying more of everything. While his literary influence is immense, he has also exerted a pervasive, lasting, less obvious, and not always salutary influence in spheres that are not purely literary.

Hugo was a visionary artist not only in word but also with pen, wash, and mixed media.

Victor Hugo was not born “an aristocrat and royalist,” for he was the son of a self-made man who rose from humble origins to be one of Napoleon’s generals. General Hugo was zealous in his relentless pursuit of counterrevolutionaries in the Vendée, and brutal in his suppression of guerrilleros during the French invasion of Spain. Hugo’s mother who, according to the poet, was an aristocrat, devoutly Catholic and monarchist, active in the antirevolutionary uprising in the Vendée, was in fact a Voltairean sceptic (whose family had connections with the infamous Carrier, notorious perpetrator of revolutionary atrocities). She did not have Victor baptized, and he himself never repaired the omission. Of Hugo’s two talented brothers, one faded rapidly from the scene while the other died obscurely in an insane asylum. As for Hugo’s parents, they quarrelled and separated. His father had a longstanding mistress (whom he would later marry). His mother became deeply involved in the conspiracy of General Malet against Napoleon through her lover General Lahorie, who was executed for his part in the plot.

Out of this extraordinary family saga of personal and political conflict, Hugo was to fashion his own private myths, with himself as the singular embodiment of all the contradictory elements of the age. Hence his cultivation of antithesis, in and out of season. Deeply attached to his mother, he was reconciled with General Hugo (and ever more responsive to the Napoleonic legend) after her death.

Hugo, studious and “pure,” who at long last married his childhood sweetheart, suffered a severe blow when he discovered that his best friend, the poet and critic Sainte-Beuve, had become his wife’s lover. After that, the scene changed radically. Caught flagrante delicto with Mme. Léonie Biard, Hugo escaped punishment while Mme. Biard went to prison for adultery. His love affair with the beautiful, long-suffering actress Juliette Drouet, who positively worshiped him, lasted for many years, until her death not long before his own. He kept her mostly as a sort of back street mistress and deceived her with countless actresses, courtesans, maidservants, and indeed almost any woman who came within his purview. Each token of his sexual prowess as a satyr was carefully recorded in his remarkable diaries, up to his final illness in his eighties.

After Voltaire, Hugo readily assumed the mantle of the fighter against injustice. There was scarcely a cause he did not take up, especially anything to do with capital punishment. He had long opposed it, ever since as a boy he had witnessed atrocities committed by Napoleon’s invading armies in Spain—those summary executions imprinted on the mind’s eye by Goya. Then there was the execution of his mother’s lover, Lahorie, his godfather whom he mythologized. Thus Hugo sought to prevent the hanging of the abolitionist John Brown, and called in vain on Juárez not to execute the Emperor Maximilian. He intervened on behalf of Fenians, persecuted Jews, oppressed Poles, and he was the only French writer of repute to speak out on behalf of the defeated Communards during the terrible repression of 1871. He supported the cause of the advancement of women and the rights of children. He urged the formation of a United States of Europe (naturally under the aegis of France)—and it was this that finally convinced one of his contemporaries that Hugo was mad.

Hugo’s projection of himself as the voice and, above all, the conscience of his era required at times a certain sleight of hand. To this could be added barefaced forgetfulness of the facts, the sweeping of uncomfortable matters under the carpet, and juggling with dates here and there. “My life is yours, your life is mine,” wrote Olympio in the preface to his collection of poems, Les Contemplations, “when I speak to you about me, I am speaking to you about you.” Many—not only in France and notwithstanding changing literary and artistic modes and tastes— felt then the hypnotic power of that “sonorous echo.” Many continue to feel it, whether reluctantly or with gratitude, as well as something approaching awe.

Along with many of his generation, Hugo was obsessed with history, and he believed in the mystical power of imaginative literature to interpret it. In Hugo’s view, “we enter even more profoundly into the soul of peoples and into the inner history of human societies through literary life rather than political life.” Speaking of “the historical aspect and the legendary aspect” of his work, Hugo also proclaimed, in the preface to his series of poems La Légende des siècles, that the legendary element “is not less true” than the historical element. Such an attitude requires a strong sense of the mythical and mystical forces at work in human fate, the great Hugolian theme. Hence his endless struggle with the unanswered and unanswerable questions.

Always full of curiosity, he was a great witness and voyeur as well as a great visionary, hastening to see what was going on in the streets. Deeply distressed by the poverty and hardship he saw about him, he responded with generous compassion for the suffering underdog, with hatred of injustice and oppression. He has been criticized for paying little heed to the economic factors that Karl Marx (some sixteen years his junior) would declare to be the “scientific” explanation for the development of social structures. Instead, there is in Hugo a constant debate with conscience, something passionately human and humane, more elemental and more readily grasped by educated and uneducated alike. There is the stress on myth and mystery conveyed through resonant images with a hypnotic Wagnerian potency. Once those poetic images have taken possession of the imagination, it is difficult to dislodge them. Who can ever forget such visions as the dreadful black sun or the eye that inexorably follows the fratricide Cain wherever he goes? If it would be rash to overlook the power of myth in Marx’s system, with Hugo’s mythological stance as with Wagner’s it is the solar plexus rather than the intellect that is affected.

Hugo’s sense of a totality that arose out of his own literary and political diversity could certainly prove convenient. As an ambitious young poet under the Bourbon Restoration, he inevitably wrote poetry that was Catholic, monarchist, anti-Bonapartist. In those days, he called the French Revolution of 1789 “the saturnalia of atheism and anarchy.” Bonaparte was then qualified as scourge, despot, and false god. As a marker of literary revolution, his extravagant verse drama Hernani would become associated (with some help on Hugo’s part) with the revolution of July 1830, which took place a few months after the play’s famous, tempestuous first night. All the same, the Romantic literary revolutionary enjoyed the confidence of King Louis-Philippe and was elevated to the peerage. This did not prevent Hugo from becoming increasingly Bonapartist, singing the grandeur of Napoleon and urging the return of the Emperor’s ashes, much to the distaste of his fellow poet Alphonse de Lamartine, future ruling spirit of the provisional government that issued from the revolution of February 1848.

Declining Lamartine’s offer of the ministry of education, Hugo joined the republicans in 1849 as a député. Later he would move further to the Left, and he would unblushingly claim to have been a socialist since 1828—“old socialist that I am.” This happened after the coup d’état of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte on December 2, 1851. Hugo—distressed by the casualties, sympathetic as always to the defeated, and feeling that the new dictator had personally deceived him—became the mighty voice of exile and protest. He thundered anathema from Jersey and then Guernsey against the great Emperor’s nephew, “Napoleon the Little,” whose advent he had done so much to promote. After nineteen years in vocal exile, he returned to France with the establishment of the Third Republic, serving as senator and thorn in the side of his fellow republicans. Amid grieving crowds, his body was carried on a pauper’s hearse (according to his wishes—a final theatrical touch) from the Arc de Triomphe to its burial place in the Panthéon. The nationalist writer Maurice Barrès used Hugo’s funeral for the denouement of his once influential novel Les Déracinés (1897), portraying the poet-prophet as the hero of the French nation and source of its spiritual regeneration.

So many changes, so many veerings, so much wavering between “yes” and “no,” “pro” and “contra,” so much careful weighing of opposites while insisting upon a fundamental unity—these are not gifts to the biographer. Avoiding prurience and debunking, those notorious pitfalls of modern biography, Graham Robb has mastered a vast mass of conflicting material. He has written with detachment, wit, and a fondness for aphorism what is certainly the best and most stylish literary biography of Victor Hugo in English.1 Robb tellingly suggests that there were times when Hugo was not as radical as he liked to appear. Moreover, he is assiduous in pointing out details of Hugo’s manipulation of his own record, though perhaps Olympio as a literary self-creator is not unique and leads in direct line to that celebrated twentieth-century mythomaniac André Malraux, who admired him so much.

However, Graham Robb does not appear to warm to French Romantic poetry, its “modernity,” its theatricality, its wilder and more extravagantly emotional elements. (“Romantic” is one of those challenged all-purpose words that are out of critical favor at the moment, but its use can surely be justified by the fact that nineteenth-century writers employed it themselves). Here were to be found the very qualities that struck not only Hugo’s young contemporaries but later writers like André Gide as immensely daring and innovative. For instance, Gide —who famously opined that Hugo was France’s greatest poet “alas”—used to read Les Orientales (poems he already knew by heart) before going to sleep. Gide was then, in 1929, nearly sixty years old. A certain lack of sympathy with French Romanticism at its extreme on the part of the biographer prompts an offhand tone on occasion. He is rather scathing about the much-admired musical effects in the poem “Les Djinns” in Les Orientales, for instance. And the actress Mlle. Mars, no longer young, who objected to some of her more bizarre lines as the heroine of Hernani, is called unkindly the “old war-horse of classical drama.”

A more serious consequence is the omission of one of the major clues to the poet’s stance. Essential to the young Victor Hugo’s poetic role was the idea of the poet as a priest and a prophet. This concept was far from new: it could be traced back at least to Pindar and ancient Greece. But Hugo in his youth rejected the classical canon that had been used as a political instrument under Napoleon. Instead, Hugo insisted on claiming the legacy not of the ancient Greeks but of the Hebrew prophets Moses and Isaiah. In Le Sacre de l’écrivain 1750 à 1830, a penetrating study of the secular-cum-spiritual consecration of the writer during the rise of Romanticism in France, the late Paul Bénichou showed how Hugo’s sense of poetic mission could be found even in his juvenilia. This means that Hugo did not, pace Graham Robb, begin to think of himself as a messiah and a prophet in the 1830s. It was Hugo’s consecrated role from the beginning, and he never departed from it. Olympio would be photographed in exile “listening to God.” The poet was “the favorite interviewer of God,” as Sartre was to observe. Toward the end of his life, Hugo could remark excitedly to a Russian woman poet, “I shall see God. See God! Speak to Him! … What shall I say to Him?” (He was clearly untroubled by what the Almighty might have to say to him.) The poet’s vatic stance sometimes led to a certain amount of obfuscatory nonsense. Hugo knew of his reputation for being stupid. Baudelaire, who like almost every younger nineteenth-century French writer felt ambivalent toward Hugo, both deeply indebted to him and anxious to break free, once saw him as proof that one could be a fool as well as a great man. Gide, however, would express the view that Hugo was by no means as stupid as he might appear. Maybe, as Graham Robb proposes, it would have been better if the poet had not attempted to extract a consistent philosophy from his inner divisions, but then he would not have been Hugo the nineteenth-century prophet with a direct line to the Almighty.

The fact is that messiahs of every sort were common enough in Paris in the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s, all bent on a quest for the religion of the future. Here were followers of “Gracchus” Babeuf and Filippo Buonarroti, Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and the rest. As the satirist Henri Monnier expressed it in 1842, “Never in any age did humanity have as many saviours as at present. Wherever you walk, you step on a messiah. Each one has his religion in his pocket and as regards formulae of perfect happiness you are faced only with embarrassment of choice.” He was speaking less of sacerdotal poets like Hugo than of utopian socialists, Communists, mystical political seers, and prophets of various colors, all dreaming of a post-Christian religion, a new man and a new redeemed world. At about twenty-five, Karl Marx, who was living in Paris in 1843–4, did not escape this heady ambience, in which he formulated the central role of the class struggle. (It is claimed that he first mentioned the class struggle toward the end of 1843.) He even said later that he had discovered it through his reading of “bourgeois” historians of the French Revolution like François Mignet, Adolphe Thiers, and Augustin Thierry. Without adducing any documentary evidence, Marx would declare that he had “proved” how the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat, which is only the transition to a classless society. At the time, the class struggle—which has remained a shibboleth of the Left in France (and elsewhere) to this day—was just one more philosophical theory among many.

Equally important in those days, perhaps more so, was the desire for reconciliation. Marx, whose powers of sarcasm were impressive, castigated Lamartine in The Class Struggles in France, 1848–1850 for his devotion to reconciliation between classes and his failure to appreciate what Marx considered to be the essential nature of the class struggle as an interpretive tool and as a revolutionary instrument. He also took Hugo to task in the second (1869) preface to The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte because, he said, unlike himself the poet made Napoleon III as an individual look great rather than little. “I on the contrary,” declared Marx with no little self-satisfaction, “demonstrate how the class struggle in France created circumstances and relationships that made it possible for a grotesque mediocrity to play a hero’s part.” It was in 1839 that Hugo spoke of giving precedence to social questions over political questions, four years after Lamartine found social problems to be urgently in need of solution. Poverty must be destroyed, thought Hugo, though how this was to be accomplished was unclear. Like Lamartine, Hugo belonged with those who desired harmony between the different sections of society, and who took seriously the third item of the revolutionary trinity, liberté, égalité, fraternité. Numerous were those who advocated fraternity before the failure of the Revolution of 1848. Apparently, Hugo did not much care for the idea of classes: he spoke of the “so-called” middle class, the “so-called” lower class. In short, he always declined to ascribe to class, that elusive quantity, any real significance.

Toward the end of his life, Hugo could remark excitedly to a Russian woman poet, “I shall see God. See God! Speak to Him! … What shall I say to Him?”

Nonetheless, it was toward the end of the Revolution of 1848 that Hugo underwent a severe crisis of conscience. This was during the suppression of the desperate popular uprising of the June Days. He had been returned to the Constituent Assembly in the elections of June 1848, and he was appointed one of the sixty special commissioners whose task it was to establish order during the insurrection. Recklessly defying danger under fire, he encouraged soldiers of the National Guard to take possession of a section of the barricades. There were many casualties. Moreover, due to him, arrests were made that led to people being imprisoned or banished to the colonies, a fate known as the “dry guillotine” since it all too often ended in death. His role in the affair continued to haunt him and disposed him gradually to alter his attitude to the theme of revolution.

The notion that there can be something romantic and exhilarating about revolution is not one that normally looms large. In 1832, at the time of the failed uprising in the cloître of Saint-Merri, Hugo had qualified it as “acts of folly drowned in blood.” Now in Les Misérables (1862), that mighty work, digressions and all, he placed firmly on the literary map the heroic myth of the unsuccessful revolution in his portrayal of the very same insurrection. Here, the pistol-waving youth of Delacroix’s painting Liberty Guiding the People turns into Gavroche, the marvelously brave urchin of the Paris streets and barricades, whose heroic death has caused many a tear to be shed. Years later, Simone de Beauvoir was still projecting the heroic romantic revolutionary failure of 1832 in an episode of her oppressive existentialist novel Tous les Hommes sont mortels (1946). Why the romance of the unsuccessful revolution? It is because in all likelihood the successful revolution will end sooner or later in disillusion for the utopian idealist, whereas the abortive revolution, with the noble supreme self-sacrifice of its participants, retains the sublime hope of an ideal to be fulfilled in the future.

In his Antimémoires, André Malraux, who owed something of his dazzling but often obscure romantic revolutionary rhetoric to Victor Hugo’s, declared that he had seen copies of Les Misérables along with the anarchist works of Bakunin on the Ramblas in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War. For the former Byronic icon of the Left and (by then) Gaullist and nationalist Malraux, “the lesson of the French Revolution, the exaltation of the fight for justice proclaimed from Saint-Just to Jaurès, by way of Victor Hugo, preserves a prestige at least equal to that of Marxism.” According to Malraux, writing in 1967, the French revolutionary tradition that included Hugo coexisted with Russian revolutionary technique in Latin America and Africa. Malraux’s juxtaposition of Hugo’s revolutionary influence with that of Marx, oddly far-fetched as it may well seem at first glance, is immensely suggestive. Malraux was not speaking of analysis but of revolutionary fervor and “exaltation” as found in Hugo, a kind of emotional rapture, in a context of grandeur and sublimity that in his eyes embraced Saint-Just, the ruthless young “Angel of the Terror.” Melvin Lasky, editor of the now sadly defunct literary and political journal Encounter, once told me that he had seen Les Misérables on the bookshelves of dissident Ethiopian colonels who ultimately engineered the regime of Mengistu, the Marxist-Leninist dictator. One may hazard a guess that more people have read Les Misérables to the end, and have been held and deeply moved by it, than have finished Das Kapital.

Who can assess the influence of Hugo? It is both literary and political, and vast as the ocean with which Hugo used to commune on Guernsey. A certain young Georgian seminarist named Dzhugashvili was punished by his superiors on being found in possession of Hugo’s forbidden novel, Quatrevingt-treize (1873), set in the Vendée in 1793 during the revolutionary Terror. Doubtless it did not require Hugo’s single-minded fanatic Cimourdain to turn Dzhugashvili into Stalin, but it could have helped, along with the words of the young idealist, Gauvain. “What the revolution does at this moment is mysterious,” says Gauvain. “Behind the visible work there is invisible work… . The visible work is savage, the invisible work is sublime… . It is strange and beautiful… . Beneath a scaffolding of barbarism a temple of civilization is being built.” In effect, this temple is constructed out of blood sacrifice and self-sacrifice.

The notion that something good, progressive, and sublime can come forth from chaos, barbarism, and evil is central to Hugo’s way of thinking. “It is through evil that we must issue from evil,” he once wrote in a poem. It is but a short step from here to the idea that the horror is “necessary” in order to produce the sublimity. Hugo had taken this step very early, in 1828, in Odes: “A chaos is necessary for one who desires to make a world.” A few years later, in 1832, in Les Chants du crépuscule, he inquired of the Lord whether lightning and thunder were not necessary to produce “the pearl formed by the seas.” In Quatrevingt-treize Cimourdain asks Gauvain, whom he is about to have guillotined, “So you absolve the present moment?” Gauvain replies, “Yes.” “Why?” queries Cimourdain. “Because it is a storm,” says Gauvain. “A storm always knows what it is doing. As against one blasted oak numberless forests are purified. Civilization was in the grip of plague, this gale comes to the rescue… . Faced with the horrendous infection, I understand the fury of the blast.” Curious image, and even more curious logic, this personification of the wise and knowledgeable storm. Many have accepted it, and with it—after Gauvain— their own elimination for the sake of the utopian religion of the future.

Lest it be thought that the idea of the necessary storm of revolution perished with the Soviet regime, here is the Chinese dissident, Harry Wu, sustained throughout his long imprisonment in the Laogai by Hugo’s potently humane work, Les Misérables. He was punished for concealing his copy of this “bourgeois” novel, had his arm broken, and saw the book publicly burned. “As Hugo pointed out,” related Harry Wu afterward in 1996, “the storm of revolution could be necessary and even unavoidable truly to reform a society. Filth could hardly be cleansed thoroughly without such a storm.” Through Les Misérables, the message of concern for humanity could lastingly coexist in the courageous idealist with the view of the necessary revolutionary storm.

Graham Robb speaks of “the dangerous aspect” of Les Misérables, but he confines it to the fact that guilt is shown to lie with society and that the reform of institutions comes before punishment. Much earlier, and for a different reason, Lamartine had declared that “this book is dangerous.” This was because, in his view, “The most murderous and most terrible of the passions to give to the masses is the passion for the impossible.” Hugo, somewhat disconcerted, called Lamartine’s criticism “the bite of a swan.” There was a certain irony in Lamartine’s comment, for he himself had helped to glamorize the Terror in his history of the Girondins. By now, though, chastened after his bitter political failure, Lamartine saw politics as the art of the possible. That was far too dull and commonplace for Hugo. For him, there had necessarily to be high drama, catastrophe, thunder and lightning on high, and horrible darkness and destruction here below before the bright pure new day could dawn. It is the paradox of the impatient humanitarian.

  1.  Victor Hugo: A Biography, by Graham Robb; Norton, 682 pages, $39.95.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 16 Number 10, on page 29
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