- Claude Gueux by Victor Hugo
It remains the case that, despite the enduring popular success of Les Misérables or Notre Dame de Paris, Hugo’s œuvre suffers from critical neglect in comparison with contemporaries such as Flaubert or Baudelaire. Moreover, critical attention is directed overwhelmingly at certain well-known Hugolian works to the detriment of others. Nevertheless, Le Dernier Jour d’un condamné (1829) has become better known, perhaps especially in the anglophone world where Geoff Woollen’s vivid translation (The Last Day of a Condemned Man (London: Hesperus Press, 2002)) is accompanied by an Epilogue by Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International. Allen writes powerfully of Hugo’s abiding relevance to the ongoing campaign to abolish the death penalty. But Laster’s edition reminds us that very early editions of Claude Gueux were prefaced by a letter from one Charles Carlier, a reader of the first edition in la Revue de Paris, who wrote to the editors of the journal, asking: ‘Rendez-moi, je vous prie, le service d’en faire tirer à mes frais autant d’exemplaires qu’il y a de Députés en France, et de les leur adresser individuellement et bien exactement’ (quoted on p. 41). Long before Amnesty International, long before the reception of Les Misérables, readers were aware of the potential of Hugo’s work to influence government policy. In many ways Claude Gueux, first published in 1834, is the partner text to Le Dernier Jour; but whereas the protagonist of Le Dernier Jour is an anonymous, fictional character, Hugo used the story of a known criminal, Claude Gueux, to serve as the material of this second narrative inveighing against the evils of capital punishment. Arnaud Laster’s edition contains only Claude Gueux, and is produced as an attractive, accessibly priced paperback. The majority of the book is paratextual—we are given a Préface, Chronologie, Bibliographie, Notice, and Notes. This critical apparatus is well researched and lucidly presented. However, my one quibble about the book is that it could have taken more critical scholarship into account, especially as there remains really very little devoted to Claude Gueux. Loïc Guyon’s treatment of the book in his [End Page 605] monograph, Les Martyrs de la veuve: romantisme et peine de mort (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2010) would have been a useful addition to the bibliography, as would articles by Sandy Petrey and Briana Lewis. Nevertheless the Préface is particularly valuable in unearthing gems of contemporary reception, such as Franz Liszt’s delight upon reading the book for the first time in 1834. Furthermore, through careful reading of Hugo’s fiction, combined with a probing analysis of the biographical context, Laster demonstrates how Claude Gueux is imbricated into the narrative of Les Misérables. Indeed, Hugo’s introduction of Claude Gueux points irresistibly to one of his afterlives as the prototype of Jean Valjean. But Laster’s Préface does far more than simply rely upon such striking parallels to indicate the importance of Claude Gueux to the genesis of Les Misérables. He offers a compelling and persuasive account of the ways in which the plight of such prisoners haunted Hugo throughout his life, and reaffirms the importance of this text to any attempt to understand Hugo’s political thinking.