“Glory is like the bed of Louis XIV in Versailles. It is magnificent and there are bugs in it.”—Victor Hugo1


Early in his career, Henry James lived for some time in Paris. Since he needed money, he worked for a while as a correspondent for The New York Tribune.2 In his dispatch of January 1876, he reported on Victor Hugo’s latest political activities. The old poet-cum-prophet had been pleading with the representatives of all the municipalities of France for the restoration of Paris as the national capital—a status which the city had lost after the bloody suppression of the Commune by the Versailles government five years earlier. James wrote:

The newspapers for the last fortnight have contained little else than addresses and programs from candidates for the Senate and the Chambers. One of the most remarkable documents of this kind is a sort of pronunciamiento from Victor Hugo…. It seems incredible that Victor Hugo’s political vaticinations should have a particle of influence upon any human creature; but I have no doubt that they reverberate sonorously enough in some obscure couches sociales, and there is no reason indeed why the same influences which shaped Victor Hugo should not have produced a number of people who are like him in everything except in having genius. But in these matters genius does not count, for it is certainly absent enough from his address to the “delegates of the 36,000 communes of France.” It might have been believed that he had already given the measure of the power of the human mind to delude itself with mere words and phrases, but his originality in this direction is quite unequaled, and perhaps I did wrong to say that there was no genius in it. There is at any rate a genius for pure verbosity. What he has to say to his 36,000 brother delegates is…that “upon this Paris which merited all venerations have been heaped all affronts…. In taking from her her diadem as capital of France, her enemies have laid bare her brain as the capital of the world. This great forehead of Paris is now entirely visible, all the more radiant that it is discrowned. Henceforth the nations unanimously recognize Paris as the leading city of the human race.” M. Hugo proceeds to summon his electors “to decree the end of abuses by the advent of truths, to affirm France before Germanism, Paris before Rome, light before night.”3 Whether or not as a nation the French are more conceited than their neighbors is a question that may be left undecided; a very good case on this charge might be made out against every nation. But certainly France occasionally produces individuals who express the national conceit with a transcendent fatuity which is not elsewhere to be matched. A foreign resident in the country may speak upon this point with feeling; it makes him extremely uncomfortable. I don’t know how it affects people who dislike French things to see their fantastic claims for their spiritual mission in the world, but it is extremely disagreeable for those who like them. Such persons desire to enjoy in a tranquil and rational manner the various succulent fruits of French civilization, but they have no fancy for being committed to perpetual genuflections and prostrations. They read Victor Hugo’s windy sublimities in the evening paper over their profanely well-cooked dinners, and probably on leaving the restaurant their course lies along the brilliantly illuminated boulevard. The aspect of the boulevards, of a fine mild evening, is as cheerful as you please, but it exhibits a number of features which are not especially provocative of “veneration.”… [italics mine]

And more specifically, James continued, if the strolling foreigner were to watch one of the fashionable plays currently performed in the theaters of these same boulevards, he might ask himself “at what particular point of these compositions the brain of the capital of the world is laid bare. A good many other things are laid bare, but brain is not among them.”

There is a certain piquancy in watching Henry James engaged in upbraiding another writer for his verbosity; but it is not merely for the idle enjoyment of this paradox that I have quoted his Paris dispatch at such length. His comments are in fact highly revealing of an enduring and typical attitude toward Hugo, which to this very day seems to remain prevalent in the Anglo-Saxon world. (For instance, only a few months ago, the distinguished art critic Robert Hughes reviewed with his usual flair and vigor a remarkable exhibition of Hugo’s drawings in New York, but, characteristically, the title given to his article was a straightforward translation into modern vernacular of James’s suave sarcasm: “SUBLIME WINDBAG.”4

Windbag? Hugo would not have disliked that word. Wind—paraclete—breath—spirit—inspiration: the suggestive chain of etymologies and word associations that always fired and sustained his imagination would not have escaped him. Besides, the wind had inspired in him extraordinary pages (to find their match in the history of world literature, one would have to go back to the visionary writings of Chuang Tzu in China, 2,300 years ago). As regards Hugo’s “transcendent fatuity,” James was not the first to marvel at it: a number of French critics had already led the way. A fellow poet having said that Hugo was “as stupid as the Himalayas,” the great man sensibly replied that a Himalayan stupidity was to be preferred to the plain variety. (One is reminded of Muhammad Ali’s retort on failing the intelligence test in the Army: “I have said that I am the greatest, ain’t nobody ever heard me say that I was the smartest.”)


Baudelaire—who sent fawning letters to Hugo and wrote adulatory reviews of his books—repeatedly disclosed in his private correspondence his true opinion on the subject: “One can simultaneously possess a special genius and be a fool. Hugo provides us the best evidence of this.” And again (commenting on a newly published collection of Hugo’s poetry): “[These poems] are dreadfully heavy. In these things, I can only find further occasion to thank the Lord who did not give me such stupidity.” But the publication of Hugo’s greatest masterpiece, Les Misérables, incited Baudelaire’s most ferocious verve: the book, with its angelic prostitutes and sentimental criminals redeemed by the power of kindness, made him wince, and he even toyed with the idea of writing a satirical Anti-Misérables.5

Yet when you call a man a fool, the epithet acquires a very special dimension if you also happen to be his son and heir. Whereas the Jamesian irony on the same subject sounds merely flippant—and ultimately irrelevant—Baudelaire’s private outbursts have a sacrilegious quality and should illuminate rather than obscure the close filiation that links his poetry to that of Hugo. He himself knew all too well that, without the triumphant breakthrough of Hugo’s poetic revolution, which opened the way and cleared the field, his own Fleurs du mal could not have found ground on which to blossom. It is true that today, the acute modernity of Baudelaire’s voice still vibrates in our lives, whereas the passing of time has cruelly battered the great monuments which Hugo built in verse, and few visitors still care to wander amid these ruins. It is the distance between the two poets that strikes us now. But if one is within a same tradition, one tends to be more aware of the differences; in this respect, the perspective of a sensitive outsider may sometimes be more penetrating. Thus, for instance, Joseph Brodsky, commenting on the “gaudiness” and “eloquence” of the two writers within the French poetical “tradition of pathos and urgent statement,” was right in his boldness: “Hugo, Baudelaire—for me these are the same poet with two different names.”6 Some evidences are simply better perceived from a distance.

What has contributed to obscure Hugo’s role as the decisive pioneer of modern French poetry—down to its most elitist and hermetic twentieth-century expressions—is the vulgar institutionalization of his colossal fame that took place at the end of his life. In old age, he literally became the object of a popular cult. His white beard, his huge forehead pregnant with unfathomable visions easily lent themselves to be used as some kind of substitute image of God the Father—a god for the new secularized masses to which he preached the universal brotherhood of mankind and the forthcoming advent of a World Republic. (Meanwhile, we have seen famous writers serving worse causes.)

When he died, the funeral procession that carried his remains into the Pantheon—thus completing the deification process—was followed by a million mourners. The flamboyant bad taste of the ceremony presented a farcical mixture of melodrama and carnival—well summarized by the poisonous pen of Edmond de Goncourt, who noted in his diary entry for June 2, 1885:

The night before Hugo’s funeral—this night of desolate wake of the entire nation—was celebrated with a gigantic copulation: brothels having closed for the circumstance, their women went to participate in a huge priapic orgy on the lawns of the Champs-Elysées—and our good policemen refrained from disturbing these republican unions…. Another detail regarding the “fng” funerals of our great man—this information comes from Police sources—for the last week, all the prostitutes have been performing their services with a black crêpe draped round their private parts—cs in mourning!7

But the price of this popularity was a certain alienation from the intellectual and artistic elite. The intelligentsia usually leaves the frequenting of the National Monuments to country bumpkins, foreigners, and tourists. Retired schoolteachers in the provinces may perhaps still be able to recite Hugo’s verses, but the arbiters of literary elegance frown on hearing his name. Gide’s notorious bon mot has remained memorable. (I do not apologize for quoting it here once more: better than a long essay, it sums up the ambivalence of the critical Establishment on his subject.) On being asked who was the greatest French poet, Gide replied: “Hugo, alas!”


Indeed, for the sophisticated connoisseur, the greatness of Hugo is a bitter paradox: France’s most famous writer is also the one who is most offensive to French taste. The French genius cultivates measure, lucidity, and perfection and Hugo is excessive, mad, and flawed. In a tradition that values order, harmony, and a sense of proportion, Hugo came to pitch the gaudy tent of his freak show: a nightmarish circus full of hunchbacks and dwarves and monsters, and fights to the death with crocodiles and giant octopuses, against a backdrop of dark sewers, Gothic ruins, stormy nights, fires, floods, and shipwrecks…. And the madness that accompanied him in life (both his brother and his daughter had to be confined till death in a lunatic asylum) constantly lurks in his works. As Graham Robb points out perceptively, there is evidence that at times Hugo was afraid of the outpourings from his own imagination, and would append reassuring conclusions to his most frightening poems: “Everyone is a lunatic in the privacy of his own mind, and considering the treasures in Hugo’s unconscious, his apparent sanity is a far more remarkable phenomenon.” Only in his drawings—most of which were not meant to be shown to the public—did Hugo (who was one of the most original graphic artists of his century, and of ours as well) dare fully to pursue some of his more disturbing visions.

At the end of the Hugolian century, the painter Degas once confessed his frustration to Mallarmé: “I have so many ideas for poems—if only I could write them down!” “My dear Degas,” Mallarmé replied, “poems are not written with ideas, they are written with WORDS.”8

Inasmuch as modern poetry can be characterized by this awareness that poems are generated by words rather than by ideas—that it is the “linguistic impulse” that drives the poet—it reflects an attitude that can be traced back directly to Hugo. “Any more or less serious poet knows…that he is writing because language is dictating to him.” This statement is actually by Joseph Brodsky, but it could as aptly describe Hugo’s revolution.9

With Hugo, for the first time, language is continuously put in command. He said, “Words are the Word, and the Word is God.” He deliberately allowed himself to be led by words, for “words are the mysterious passers-by of the soul.”10 Being the guardian of words, the poet is vested with prophetic powers: he is the guide who will take mankind to the Truth.

Hugo’s religion of language was built upon solid foundations: his mastery of words was unparalleled. This was a reflection of his innate talents much more than a result of his education. Son of a plebeian father who was a revolutionary soldier and became a general of Napoleon and of a mother with vaguely aristocratic forebears, Hugo received a traditional, yet rather basic schooling; with the exception of two memorable years spent in Italy and Spain (where General Count Hugo was sent on imperial missions), Victor grew up in Paris. By the age of fifteen, the stupendous precocity of his poetic genius was already showing—it received the official consecration of prestigious literary prizes, and under the Restoration, the young prodigy was soon rewarded with royal patronage. A friend of the family recalled the claim he once heard Hugo making: “There is only one classical writer in this century—only one, do you hear? Me. I know the French language better than anyone else alive!”

This was no hollow boast: with the richest vocabulary since Rabelais, his linguistic keyboard presents the be-wildering range of a grand organ—by turns, solemn, familiar, thundering, whispering, screeching, bellowing, murmuring, roaring. He could improvise effortlessly in all forms of regular poetry; impeccable alexandrine meter was for him a native language. He was a fluent Latinist and had a good knowledge of Spanish; and though his English remained quite atrocious (even after twenty years of exile spent in the largely English-speaking Channel Islands), he constantly toyed with it (foreign idioms are magic when you do not really understand the language). Technical terms from all sorts of trades and crafts stirred his imagination. He explored in depth the slang of the underworld, the jargon of criminals and of jails; his mastery of the technical language of the sea (navigation, naval architecture, ships, riggings, sails, maneuver, and seamanship) is exhaustive and astonishing—and professionally accurate.11

During his travels, he collected in his notebooks all the strange words and bizarre or ridiculous names that caught his attention in the streets, on posters, public notices, or shop signs. Puns, in particular, fascinated him no end (“A pun is the bird-dropping of a soaring spirit,” says a character in Les Misérables): starting with multilingual variations on his own name (“Ego Hugo,” “Hu(e)! Go!”),12 he displayed in his diaries a manic compulsion for playing with words. But he went further; far from confining this activity to his private notebooks, he sometimes extended this sort of exercise to his most solemn and formal poetic creations. In his justly famous Booz endormi (Proust, and he is not alone in this opinion, considered it the greatest poem in the French language, placing it even above the works of his beloved Baudelaire13 ), Hugo, at a loss to find a rhyme to complete the poem, made up a word that concealed an impudent pun. This could easily appear as a crude schoolboyish prank, and in the majestic context of the poem, the effect of such an intrusion should be grotesque: but it is sublime.14

At such a point, the servant of the word has truly become its creator and master. Someone once reproached him (in another context) for having fabricated a word that did not exist in the dictionary: “This is not French!” “Now it is,” Hugo replied.15

Half of the misery in this world is caused by people whose only talent is to worm their way into positions for which they otherwise have no competence. Conversely, how many talented people remain forever in obscurity for the lack of one ability: self-promotion? Hugo presents the rare example of a prodigiously gifted man who was also the shrewd impresario of his own talent. From a very early age, as Graham Robb shows in his recent biography, he learned how to please influential people, and he also knew when, and how far, he could judiciously offend them. At the age of twenty, he was granted a pension from King Louis XVIII (in reward for a sycophantic poem), but seven years later, he cleverly declined another pension from Louis’s successor, the most unpopular Charles X. During the 1840s, he cultivated fairly close and cordial relations with King Louis-Philippe, without ever compromising his independence or becoming a mere courtier. Thus, with a cunning mixture of respect and iconoclasm, he succeeded in securing the favors of the Establishment without alienating the enthusiastic devotion of his own young followers: he was simultaneously rewarded by the political and literary authorities, and idolized by poets with disheveled hair and crimson waistcoats. He was made a chevalier of the Légion d’honneur at twenty-three—an exceptionally young age for such an honor. (Shortly after, on a journey, wearing the ribbon of this much-coveted distinction, he was arrested by a gendarme who suspected him of impersonation!)

The tumultuous staging of his drama Hernani in 1830 consecrated his position as the guiding star of the Romantic movement—he was then twenty-eight. But being universally acknowledged as the leader of the literary revolution did not prevent him from entering a few years later the prestigious fortress of literary conservatism, the French Academy. Neither did the political right penalize him for his fashionable anticonformism: he was made a pair de France (more or less the equivalent of a life peer in the British House of Lords). Thus, before reaching the middle of life, he had achieved all the goals and reaped all the honors that ambitious writers and politicians would normally take twice the time to obtain.

Trollope famously observed that “success is a necessary misfortune of human life, but it is only to the very unfortunate that it comes early.” This is true, but only for most of us, who make up the plodding majority. For a man like Hugo, who was truly ambitious (I mean, who desired genuine greatness), early success was a blessing: he got success out of his system—it freed his mind for better things. The frantic race for the wretched baubles that keep us running on the social treadmill until we collapse of old age was already over for him while still young. Ribbons, honors, titles, prizes, medals—the paltry rewards, the laughable carrots which we docilely pursue on a lifelong chase—he won them all in the first part of his career; what would have been the point of slaving for another fifty years, merely to add a few more knickknacks to his dusty collection?

Halfway through life, he found himself free—free to risk everything, free to become himself, to be idealistic, brave, generous, reckless, and noble, free to take once and for good the side of Justice—this permanent “fugitive from the side of victory.” In 1851, when Louis Bonaparte (Napoleon’s nephew, “who stuffed the Eagle” with his “cadaverous face of card-sharper”) staged his coup against the Republic and restored the Empire, turning himself into “Napoléon-le-Petit”—as Hugo was to call him, with lethal wit—the Poet stood up against the despot (though he knew his cause was desperate) and lent his voice to the victims, the losers, the downtrodden, the misérables. He made a vain attempt to organize popular resistance against the usurper, but the secret police of Louis Bonaparte already had the situation under control. Overnight, Hugo had to forsake everything: his position, his public audience, his home, his country; he had to hide and to flee, he was a fugitive with a reward on his head—he was forced into permanent exile.

He escaped to Brussels, and from there went to the Channel Islands, first taking refuge in Jersey, then finally settling in Guernsey. His exile was to last nearly twenty years. Now he could say at last: “The literary revolution and the political revolution have effected their junction in me.” What a liberation! Youth had suddenly burst into his life: “Those who become young late in life, stay young longer.”16 He was to stay young till his death in 1885, at age eighty-three.

Hugo’s writings are full of prophetic insights on his own destiny. Some twenty years earlier, commenting on the life of Rubens during a first visit to Belgium, he observed: “A great man is born twice. The first time as a man, the second as a genius.”17 Exile was to be Hugo’s second birth—the chance of his life. And he had the wisdom to see this. Three years into his new life, he noted:

I find increasingly that exile is good.

It is as if, without their knowing it, the exiles were near some sort of sun: they mature quickly.

These last three years,…I feel that I am on the true peak of life; I can distinguish the real lineaments of all that people call facts, history, events, successes, catastrophes—the huge machinery of Providence.

At least, for this reason alone, I should thank Mr. Bonaparte who exiled me, and God who chose me.

Maybe, I shall die in this exile, but I shall die a better man. All is well.

Five years later:

What a pity I was not exiled earlier! I could have achieved so many things which I fear I shall not have the time to complete.

Eight years later:

In exile, I said the word that explains my entire life: I grew.18

In his dashing early days in Paris, he had been the center of an ebullient court of admirers, fellow writers, followers, idlers, and parasites. His house was invaded by endless cohorts of visitors, he did not even have the time to answer his mail, and from dawn till night his door was simply left open. Now, however, not many of his fair-weather acquaintances would still find the courage to brave the mists and storms of the Channel to make a pilgrimage to the exile’s rock, or be bold enough to run the gauntlet of the spies and secret police who kept Hugo’s outside contacts under close surveillance. As a result, the poet found himself left with only two interlocutors—but with these at least, he felt on the same footing: God and the ocean.

No wonder these years of solitude and contemplation were the most productive of his life; they were also happy years—for himself at least, if not for his family (his daughter Adèle went insane; his wife19 and grown-up sons could not bear the loneliness and eventually moved back to Brussels, where Hugo would from time to time pay them a visit, on the way to one of his occasional continental jaunts).

Most of his masterpieces date from this period, climaxing in 1862 with his monumental novel, Les Misérables—less a novel than an immense prose poem, perhaps the last and only genuine epic of modern times. Hugo’s passion for language found here its hugest and wildest outlet. The book is like a foaming and thundering Niagara of words; it is also a dumbfounding patchwork in which philosophico-socio-political dissertations constantly interrupt the narrative. There are passages of comedy, of drama, of satire, of breathtaking action; there are tender elegies, realistic sketches, huge historic frescoes; there are essays on the most disparate topics, such as the linguistic structure of slang, the economics of recycling sewage—a prodigious display of encyclopedic interests (which influenced Jules Verne), and yet these heteroclite fragments are all swept together and eventually merge in one powerful poetic stream.

By its very nature, such a book should be untranslatable. And yet it was soon to become a part of the main cultures of the world and to touch millions of readers in many different languages.20 What is the power latent in the original that enables it to survive translation and to remain compelling, even in a mutilated form? Les Misérables has a mythic dimension that directly taps into the deeper sources of our common humanity. It is popular literature in the same sense as Homer is popular literature: it addresses all mankind.

The book was first printed in Brussels (April 1, 1862); other editions immediately followed, nearly simultaneously, in Paris, Madrid, London, Leipzig, Milan, Naples, Warsaw, St. Petersburg, Rio de Janeiro.21 From the start it exerted a universal appeal: the original publication was delayed at the printers by the tears of the typographers who were reading and composing the galley proofs. Their emotion and enthusiasm were soon to be shared by the most diverse readership—French and foreign, young and old, naive and sophisticated. At the remotest end of Europe, Tolstoy secured without delay a copy of the book and was overwhelmed. One may say without exaggeration that Les Misérables triggered War and Peace. 22 Giants breed giants.


Hugo’s prodigious creativity during the years of exile found another outlet—more intimate, but no less intense and powerful—in his pictorial activity. Though critics have not ignored it, it seems to me that this aspect of his genius has remained somehow underestimated; for instance, instead of talking of Hugo’s drawings, it would be much more accurate to speak of his paintings—borrowing a concept from traditional Chinese aesthetics, which would be particularly appropriate in his case.23 For the Chinese, all the graphic improvisations or “ink-plays” which scholars and literary men execute during their leisure hours, simply using the basic tools they need for their daily writing (calligraphic brush, ink, and paper), are not only considered as full-fledged paintings, but, more than the large-scale, showy productions of professional artists, they achieve the very perfection of what a true painting should always aim at: they are a visible “imprint of the heart” of the painter.

Delacroix said that the highest feat for a painter is to inject reality into a dream.24 Here lies precisely the haunting power of Hugo’s visionary works: his imagination, however bold and wild, was always sustained by a technical proficiency acquired through a long practice of sketching after life (during his early journeys through Belgium and Germany, Hugo recorded with vivid accuracy, in pen or pencil, monuments and scenic spots: his sketchbooks were to him what cameras have become for today’s travelers).

Hugo said that “every great artist, at his beginning, remakes the whole art to his own image.” This is particularly true for Hugo’s paintings. Most of these were not shown in his time, and for good reason: the public for such an art was not yet born—it is only now, through a familiarity with the developments of twentieth-century painting, that we are able at last to appreciate Hugo’s graphic experiments. (Some of these are presented in the magnificent catalog of the recent exhibition in New York.)

Hugo’s exile came to an end with the fall of the Second Empire. His return to France was triumphal, and the last fifteen years of his life were one long protracted apotheosis. He continued to produce: poems, political addresses, polemical essays (the eloquence and ferocity of Histoire d’un crime [1877] contributed to saving the Republic from the menace of a new coup), and one last magnificent novel, Quatre-vingt-treize. But not even death could put an end to his career: posthumous publication of his private papers (notebooks, drafts, prose and verse fragments, diaries, correspondence, etc., which equal the published works in quantity, and sometimes even exceed them in interest) have occupied another three quarters of a century.

Four years ago, Graham Robb published a splendid biography of Balzac. He has now applied the same winning methods—sharp judgment, wit, lively style, and vast information—to the writing of a new biography of Hugo. If his Victor Hugo does not afford the same delights as Balzac, it is, I think, through no fault of the biographer. It simply would be unfair, and foolish, of us to expect that the same methods applied to a different object may achieve identical results.

Balzac is an essentially endearing character. But if one had to describe Hugo’s multifaceted personality, a hundred adjectives may come to mind, yet “endearing” would certainly not be one of them. In fact, it is precisely when dealing with figures such as Hugo that one feels obliged once again to question the desirability, if not the very feasibility, of literary biography.

It is not simply that giants do not bear close scrutiny (as Gulliver discovered to his utter discomfort when he had to climb into the bosoms of the court ladies of Brobdingnag), but more essentially, there is this basic evidence: the only thing that could justify our curiosity is precisely what must necessarily escape the biographer’s analysis: the mystery of artistic creation. Hugo’s long exile was the climax of his life, but these momentous twenty years could be described in merely one sentence: He sat in front of the ocean and he wrote.

The thesis that literary biography is doomed to fail by its very nature is not new, and creative artists have expounded it most persuasively. Proust wrote an entire treatise on the subject, Contre Sainte-Beuve, and it would be rather fatuous for me to attempt rehashing it here. Closer to us, Malraux summed up the issue quite pointedly: “Our time is fond of unveiling secrets—first because we seldom forgive those whom we admire; secondly, because we vaguely hope that, amid these unveiled secrets, we may find the secret of genius. Under the artist, we wish to reach the man. But when you scrape a fresco, if you scrape it down to its shameful bottom layer, all you get in the end is mere plaster.”25 But well before him, the indignation which a poet must experience before our indiscreet appetite for biographical information was most memorably expressed by Pushkin: “The mob reads confessions and notes, etc. so avidly because in their baseness they rejoice at the humiliations of the high and the weaknesses of the mighty. Upon discovering any kind of vileness they are delighted. He’s little, like us! He’s vile, like us! You lie, scoundrels: he is little and vile, but differently, not like you.” 26

Note that I am quite aware of my own contradictions. If my readers derive any enjoyment from this little article, they should also keep in mind that a great deal of its information was directly drawn from Robb’s work. And even as I question the point of writing literary biographies, I know all too well that I shall continue to read them—especially when they are as intelligent and readable as this one.

J’entends en tous lieux sur la terre
Un bon tutoiement compagnon,
Et du Hu de la France au Go de l’Angleterre,
Les deux syllabes de mon nom.
(Everywhere on earth/I hear a familiar address/Calling with a French
Hu [Hue=”Gee up”] and an English Go/The two syllables of my name.)

This Issue

December 17, 1998