Et tu, Hugo

Victor Hugo
Victor Hugo; drawing by David Levine

The poet who unsmilingly designed for himself a coat of arms that featured the motto “Ego Hugo” would seem to have earned Jean Cocteau’s epitaph: “Victor Hugo was a madman who thought he was Victor Hugo.” But as Professor Brombert demonstrates in his astute examination of Hugo’s novels, the mirror images, redeeming abysses, and inverted perspectives from which Hugo created his fictional universe reflect a mind incessantly at odds with life. Truth might have been better served had Cocteau proposed that Hugo was never quite mad enough to hear archangels whisper cues to him or sober enough to relinquish his dream of transcending his divided self. “Totus in antitheti,” he wrote in an essay on Shakespeare, implying that between Ego and Hugo there was, at times, almost unlimited room for doubt.

In Hugo’s life, which Brombert does not recount, the original antithesis was the mismatch that produced him. His father, Léopold Hugo, an army officer who styled himself “sans-culotte Brutus Hugo” during the Revolution, met his mother, a dowerless Breton girl of royalist sympathies, while hunting down counterrevolutionaries near Nantes, and, despite her aversion to the blue-uniformed invaders, he prevailed upon her to marry him. By 1802, when Sophie Hugo bore Victor, her third son, it was obvious that the few apparently peaceful years they had spent together in Paris under the Directory were a time of truce rather than union. Léopold remained passionate, but Sophie found his bed as uncongenial as his politics and seized every opportunity to avoid it. After Victor’s birth, the couple saw each other only fleetingly, and at wide intervals.

Léopold’s career took him far afield in territory occupied by the grand army. From the Rhineland he was posted to Elba, where he might have languished had not Joseph Bonaparte, whose acquaintance he made at Lunéville, recruited him for action against the kingdom of Naples. With Calabrian brigands running French troops ragged, experience in guerrilla warfare was what Léopold could bring to the campaign. His men caught the rebel leader “Fra Diavolo,” and as a result Joseph promoted him to colonel and appointed him governor of Avellino. Bloodier skirmishes and more munificent preferments lay in store. Soon after Napoleon put Joseph on the Spanish throne, Léopold was summoned once again by his padrone, who wanted a rough hand to govern the obstreperous provinces around Madrid. He performed this service for three years, living in Guadalajara with a concubine. Colonel Hugo had become General Hugo, count of Sigüenza, when Wellington stripped the gilt off his trophies.

While Léopold upheld the imperial standard abroad, in Paris Sophie did her utmost to subvert it: she became the mistress of a revolutionary general named Victor Fanneau de Lahorie, Victor Hugo’s godfather, whom she had known since childhood. During the power struggle from which Napoleon emerged as first consul, Lahorie stood behind General Jean Moreau in a plot to unite republicans…

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