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VICTOR HUGO.<i> By Graham Robb</i> .<i> W.W. Norton: 682 pp., $39.95</i>

<i> Douglas Johnson is emeritus professor of French history at the University of London. A considerably shorter version of this review appeared in the Spectator</i>

In March 1885, there was great excitement in France. It had been reported that the French army had suffered a severe defeat in Indochina. Prime Minister Jules Ferry was blamed for this supposed disaster, and his government was voted out by a noisily indignant Assembly. When he left the parliamentary building, he found himself surrounded by a hostile mob that threatened to throw him into the Seine River. When, nearly a month later, the placid and reasonable Henri Brisson formed his government, his priority was to restore calm, especially since parliamentary elections were to be held in the autumn.

Therefore, the news that 83-year-old Victor Hugo had taken ill on May 14 was unwelcome. What should the government do about his funeral? Many in the National Assembly thought that nothing should be done. Some 100 Royalist and Bonapartist deputies regarded him as an established enemy, and they were opposed to any official gesture toward him. The Catholics disapproved of someone who was ostentatiously not of their church. Left-wing Republicans were tired of hearing the anti-Napoleon III literature that Hugo had produced in 1848, and they were cynical about being too favorable to Hugo, who had become a millionaire.

Then there were those who had no high opinion of Hugo as a novelist. While former Prime Minister Guizot and fellow writer Prosper Merimee had sighed over “Les Miserables” in the 1860s and confessed that they were unable to finish it, many deputies in the 1880s had never looked at the book. Emile Zola and Alphonse Daudet were at the height of their reputations; Gustave Flaubert was the great figure of the past and Guy de Maupassant appeared to be the figure of the future. As for the stage, it was flourishing, but it no longer housed romantic drama in verse. Hugo, it was said, had outlived his time.

But, like the English monarch who apologized for being an unconscionable long time in dying, Hugo survived for more than a week. Crowds constantly gathered around his house in Paris, and newspapers throughout Europe and North America reported daily on the progress of his malady. Sometimes they were told of things that he had said, such as: “This is the struggle of day and night,” which they published. There were rumors of a last-minute conversion to Catholicism, which were invented. When he died, at 1:27 on the afternoon of Friday, May 22, the crowds were so vast that the police had to hold them back.

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In view of wide public interest and concern, Brisson and the president of the Republic, Jules Grevy, took matters into their own hands and ignored Parliament. They decreed that Hugo would be given state obsequies, and they withdrew the Pantheon from church control. (In order that Hugo could be buried there, they restored the Pantheon to its original function under the Revolution, the resting place for national heroes.) The night before the funeral, Hugo’s sarcophagus was placed under the Arc de Triomphe, which was veiled in black crepe. Soldiers on horseback carrying lighted torches gave warm and desolate flickers of light to illuminate the scene. The next day, Hugo’s body, placed as he had wished on the hearse of the poor, was carried through Paris. More than a million people watched it pass. Ten thousand troops guarded the route. As late as the 1950s and 1960s, one could find old people, from fishermen’s families in Brittany, for example, who remembered their first visit to Paris to attend the funeral of Victor Hugo.

Graham Robb, whose carefully researched and well-written biography of Hugo has just been awarded the prestigious Whitbread Prize for biography in England, has told the story of Hugo’s death and funeral in some detail. Robb’s portrait of Hugo’s last days affords an opportunity to admire the scope of his sources and the force of his writing. But he appears to regard the death and the funeral arrangements as something of a joke. In 1985, Jean Lacroux marked the centenary of Hugo’s death with a book detailing these events, and his research provides Robb with a number of humorous incidents. For example, there is the newspaper cartoon that showed the archbishop of Paris squatting on Hugo’s roof, armed with a butterfly net to catch the errant soul of the man who had refused the prayers of the churches.

But it is Robb who takes care to point out that the waiting crowds outside the house were there to see the visiting celebrities, notably Sarah Bernhardt. It is Robb who describes the news of Hugo’s death spreading in Paris “with the speed of gossip” and who tells us of people getting ready for the funeral that was to be “the biggest birthday of all.” Hugo’s catafalque, framed by the Arc de Triomphe, had the flimsiness of a stage set and was the occasion for “the spontaneous outbreak of carnival spirit.” Edmond Goncourt, the writer who was everywhere, claimed to have learned from the police that the brothels had closed and that the whores of Paris had draped their pudenda in black crepe as a mark of respect. But other prostitutes were hard at work in the grassy avenues surrounding Hugo’s sarcophagus, while traders were selling anything that could be thought of as having a connection with the poet, and drunken bodies littered the Champs-Elysees. This, we are told, was Hugo’s true apotheosis, an extraordinary display of erotic energy and commercial verve. Robb dismisses “the absurd procession that took place the next day.” He sums matters up: “Behind the bushes in the Avenue Victor Hugo, abominable outrages were taking place. . . . The mood of national mourning was being conjured away by fresh conceptions.”

This final phrase is unfortunately typical of the jocular sentences that Robb frequently uses, which can be irritating. But more important, this account of Hugo’s last days reveals Robb’s overall opinion of his subject. He appears to be fearful of taking the grandeur of Hugo too seriously. Perhaps he had sympathy with the actor, Michelot, who played Don Carlos in the premiere of Hugo’s “Hernani” and who, Robb tells us, smirked and overacted in case anyone thought he was taking the play seriously. One is reminded too of future President Valery Giscard d’Estaing. When General Charles de Gaulle asked if he could count on his support, d’Estaing replied, “Oui, mais, . . . " And if he were asked if Hugo was a great writer, one feels that Robb would reply, “Oui, mais. . . . “

It is true that Hugo had a keen commercial sense. The production of “Hernani” may have been a battle, but it was ordinary enough for Hugo to count the takings and boast about them. The receipts of the first two nights were 9,000 francs, which Hugo claimed to be unusually high. The publication of “Les Miserables” is on a different plane. It was a remarkable operation that was inspired by Hugo himself and included an advertising campaign in all the great towns of Europe, from London and Paris to St. Petersburg, and had even crossed the Atlantic. The results were gratifying: In England, even the small circulating libraries ordered some 50 copies each. In Pagnerre’s Paris bookshop, thousands of copies stretched from floor to ceiling, but within a few hours the crowd that had started growing in the Rue de Seine had bought them all. The only disadvantage, which Robb with his admitted sense of detail records, was that about 21 illegal editions were also in circulation.

Among Robb’s careful observations, he has also carefully detailed (and at times counted) Hugo’s many sexual encounters, making full use of the writer’s own records and the coded language that he used with his longtime mistress, Juliette Drouet. Robb tells us how, during the spring of 1885, in spite of his age, Hugo records eight sexual encounters. The last was on April 5, less than 40 days before the onset of his final illness. The last words that he ever wrote, on May 19, were “to love is to act,” which Robb describes as “appropriately ambiguous.” Some 10 years earlier, sex was supposedly everywhere in Hugo’s life and work. Forests were “orgies,” nature an “alcove” and the moon was the “bruised bottom” of the goddess Venus.

But there is a danger in seeing Hugo only in terms of “erotic energy and commercial verve.” This is too near to the popular image that exists in France and elsewhere of the man who said that a goose was a stupid bird because it was too much for one man to eat but not enough for two; who always commented as he emptied a bottle of wine into a glass that the last drop in the bottle was the best; who would put an orange whole into his mouth and swallow it in seconds; who always assumed that sex with the waitress was on the a la carte menu. In every way, Hugo was a more remarkable person than the man who appears in these anecdotes.

For example, Robb does not make much of Hugo’s persistent campaign against the death penalty. An English editor has recently brought together Hugo’s writings on this subject as propaganda against capital punishment. Americans, who in 1885 criticized Hugo as a verbose writer, remember him today as the author of a comment made in 1859, when he claimed that the principle of punishment by death had revised two notable gibbets, that of Jesus Christ in the Old World and John Brown in the New World. In any case, Hugo’s “Le dernier jour d’un condamne” remains a striking and moving work.

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In the 1820s, Hugo took a distinguished part in the movement to secure France’s architectural heritage, and he denounced vandalism with particular vehemence. His attack on Napoleon III’s coup d’etat, “Napoleon le petit,” is an outstanding political pamphlet, probably unequaled. Hugo’s relationship with “the people,” with the social ideas that he developed, with the notion of sacrifice, with “those who are orphans, poor, intelligent, strong, placed low in the scale and aspiring to move higher” (to quote from the preface to “Ruy Blas”) is a difficult series of attitudes and well worth studying. But authors such as Rene Journet and Guy Robert, who have studied these issues, do not appear in Robb’s bibliography.

As a biographer, Robb should be more interested in the life of Hugo than in his literature. At the same time, to appreciate Hugo, one has to explain how his works were a vital part of his life. As Hugo said, “Muse, there is no time your gazings do not embrace.” Hugo’s poetry can be intensely personal. But it deals with human destiny. God and man are his constant subject.

And, of course, Hugo was French. Before him, the French believed that France had a mission in the world, a mission of civilization. After Hugo, they are all the more convinced. Hugo wrote magnificent prose, always seeking to achieve the maximum of literary beauty. He believed in the importance of the French language. He sometimes appeared to despise other countries. What would happen to England, he once asked, without its idea that “time is money.” And what would happen to America, he asked (in the person of a student appearing in “Les Miserables”), without “Cotton is king”? Let other countries attend to matters of money and business, Hugo seemed to say, but the French are different. No wonder that when the French army invaded a country, “the soldiers carried the encyclopedia in their knapsacks.”


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