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 and royalists against the future emperor. Having failed, he went underground, where Sophie helped him to elude Fouché’s spies for seven years. A derelict chapel in the garden of her house on the rue des Feuillantines was his surest refuge until clandestine life became unendurable. On December 29, 1810, Lahorie surrendered to Fouché’s successor in the mistaken belief that time had made his mortal sin venial, and promptly found himself behind bars at the Vincennes prison fortress.
Nothing daunted, Sophie kept up the good fight. Through her machinations, Lahorie was eventually set free in what came to be known as the “Malet Affair.” Armed with a false report on Napoleon’s death in Russia, General Malet staged a coup d’état that enabled Lahorie to play one last public part. He did not play it long. The hoax was discovered within hours and the day after he became minister of police Lahorie lay dead on the plaine de Grenelle, alongside his fellow conspirators. Sophie mourned him, the story goes, by wearing white cambric and green shoes at Napoleonic rallies the better to “tread the colors of the Empire underfoot with each step she took.”
For Victor Hugo, the family romance was inherently a palace intrigue embracing all that revolution and empire could foster in the way of multiple loyalties, self-hatred, and ideological paradox. It is hardly surprising that “his deeper visionary tendencies” should have arisen from “the need to relate private phantasms to the thrust of external events” (writes Brombert), or that the perfect, revelatory moments he dreamed up in his fiction—for example, the convent scene in Les Misérables where Valjean and Cosette are enraptured by a sacred hymn—express an ideal of some universal merging. Throughout childhood and adolescence, virtually everything in his life bespoke division, with parent set against parent, ancien régime against the new, public face against private. As remote as the father whose terrible majesty he witnessed in visits to Naples and Madrid was the godfather he saw arrested on December 30, 1810.
The famous name of Hugo harbored a pseudonymous fugitive, and at age nine Victor played “brigand” while wandering through the vast Masserano Palace in Madrid (where Joseph Bonaparte put up General Hugo’s estranged family), acting out this theatrical predicament. A consequence for the young Hugo can be inferred from his adolescent verse, which often voices the fear that people are not what they seem, or might change overnight, himself included. Inside Hugo’s familiar world were hostile ghosts, guilty secrets, walls, gaps, memories of overwhelming loss.
Yet another conflict set brother against brother. Victor and Eugène Hugo had grown up side by side, yoked to the same heroine, their aggrieved mother, to the same teachers, and to the same ambition of achieving literary greatness. What held them together during childhood disintegrated when, at sixteen, Victor won an important poetry prize. Eclipsed by this prodigy whose verse drew praise from Chateaubriand and even from the king, Eugène competed with him for the love of Adèle Foucher, as if no prize had value unless it had been stolen from his brother. Here, too, Eugène lost out and the day after Victor got married, in 1822, Eugène went mad. Until his death fifteen years later, he was confined at the Charenton insane asylum.
Meanwhile Hugo himself swept toward fame. The incarceration of the hostile shadow of his brother, his mother’s death, reconciliation with his fallen father, and marriage—all these combined to release a creative power that generated poetry, stories, plays. “Victor turns out ideas and babies without pausing, he never allows himself a moment’s rest,” wrote one friend, and Lamartine, in 1824, beheld him as success incarnate: “You have never done a foolish thing in your life; my own, up to the age of 27, was all faults and profligacy…. Your heart belongs to the Golden Age, your wife to the Earthly Paradise. With what you have, a man may still live in this Age of Iron….” By 1829, the Odes et Ballades, Les Orientales, and his manifesto of poetic license in the long preface to Cromwell were cult books for the young literary generation. Having become disenchanted with Bourbon rule, but not yet noticeably enough to lose his pension from King Charles X, he enjoyed the benefits of royalism and the virtue of lese majesty. Sainte-Beuve glorified him. An entourage of reverent admirers accompanied him on his evening walks. But at night, he later wrote, he regularly dreamed about someone being buried alive.
In 1829, with revolution threatening again, such dreams inspired his first great novel, Le Dernier Jour d’un condamné, in which the nameless narrator, locked up for some unrecounted murder, is about to lose his head. A brief against capital punishment becomes a proto-Kafkian chronicle of spiritual despair as Hugo movingly evokes how the death of an isolated mind can foreshadow death itself. “The imprisonment in a futureless present, the radicalization of a confined subjectivity” is how Brombert describes what takes place. Surrounded by windowless walls with graffiti etched by his doomed predecessors, the inmate cannot reach beyond this book of last lines (he himself calls his cell a “book”) to find the past or address posterity in the person of his young daughter. Consciousness succumbs to stone, leaving only fossil imprints. The people who have passed through the prison, like those in the cathedral in Notre-Dame de Paris, have conferred upon it its aura of hollow immortality.
“Everything around me is prison: I encounter prison in all its forms, in humans as well as in bolts and bars,” he thinks. “This wall here is the stone prison, this door the wooden one, these warders the prison of flesh and bone.” It will survive because he will not, but even before he is guillotined, certain incidents force him to regard himself as absent, or “other” (his daughter is unable to recognize him, a cellmate confiscates his coat). Indeed, prison house and guillotine accomplish his death sentence on the first day of confinement, when he begins to serve time, rather than on the last, when he drops out of it for, in Hugo’s view, it is the fact of being caught up in a fatal sequence that unravels man’s soul. “Le mal est successif,” he declared in Notre-Dame de Paris, and days spent moving toward a godless Judgment Day are sequence pure and simple.
When, in a postrevolutionary preface, Hugo characterized Le Dernier Jour as a work born entirely of his passion for social justice, he could not have guessed how far that view would take him. By September 1848, he was inveighing against capital punishment in the republican legislature and propagating liberal opinion in his newspaper, L’Evénement. As deputy for Paris, the literary potentate whom Louis-Philippe had made a peer and the Académie Française an “immortal” moved increasingly leftward from conservative ranks and finally moved outside France altogether. Louis Napoleon’s coup d’état, which Hugo tried vainly to thwart in December 1851, provoked him to establish himself on the Channel Islands where he weathered the Second Empire, flashing messages of contempt at Napoleon III, reinventing his country in the epic poems of La Légende des siècles, and toiling over Les Misérables, which appeared in 1862, or twenty-one years after Notre-Dame de Paris.
Napoleon III had no sooner fallen than Hugo made his way back to Paris. What awaited the exile was exile once again. Out of joint with a “moral majority” whose wrath against the Communards knew no bounds, and with the Communards whose excesses he could not condone, Hugo wandered from Belgium to Luxembourg to Guernsey until something resembling peace prevailed at home. Among other appeals for national reconciliation he issued during the so-called Ordre Moral was his last novel, Quatrevingt-Treize. At seventy-two, Hugo had said all he had to say, and official consecration would come eleven years later, in 1885, when, under a liberal government, millions witnessed the funeral cortege that bore him to the Panthéon.