- Victor Hugo
It has become customary to begin a discussion of Hugo with a joke at his expense. For anyone familiar with Hugo’s life and works, such jokes are almost irresistible, if only to reassure the reader that one recognizes how much the ridiculous coexists with the sublime in his writings, how much megalomania and mythmaking with a life truly larger than life, how much naïveté with genius. Perhaps the most famous joke is Gide’s response to the question “Who is the greatest French poet?” (“Victor Hugo, alas!”), followed closely by Cocteau’s quip that Victor Hugo was a madman who thought he was Victor Hugo. Baudelaire believed Hugo proved that one could be simultaneously a genius and a fool. To these remarks one might adopt T. S. Eliot’s criticism of Tennyson: “[He] had a brain (a large dull brain like a farmhouse clock) which saved him from triviality.” Eliot’s comment applies to Hugo not only because it arguably captures an important truth about him through a vivid image, but also because of the phrase, “which saved him from triviality.” For after one has had one’s joke on Hugo, one needs to perform a more difficult task: accounting for his success, literary and otherwise.
Graham Robb’s biography is admirable in part because it does more than tell the life (and what an interesting life it is) of France’s most dominant literary figure of the nineteenth century: it attempts to account for everything from the sources of Hugo’s artistic drive and development to legends and silences about his life. The book is a true critical biography, a narrative told with even-handedness and a judicious sense of how an artist’s life and works can be mutually illuminating. Robb also knows how to tell a good story. He is fortunate, of course, in having wonderful material on which to base his tale, and alludes to as much when explaining his aims: “The book is an attempt to explore Victor Hugo in his entirety by using the work on which he lavished the greatest amount of love and ingenuity: his life” (p. xv). Who else, but Hugo, [End Page 230] witnessed at first-hand (or a close second) all of the changes of government in nineteenth-century France, sometimes serving as a national representative or senator? Who else not only wrote voluminously in virtually every genre, but also had popular and critical success in all of them? In addition, Hugo’s personal life is filled with enough material for a score of movie scripts: a brother and a daughter going mad, another daughter who drowns not long after her marriage, an almost nineteen-year exile, seances to talk with departed loved ones and the famous dead, a wife’s affair with the century’s most eminent critic, a married woman with whom he is caught in bed by detectives, a mistress who devotes her life to him, countless sexual encounters recorded in secret code, an eighty-three year life outlasting wife, mistress, and all four children but the insane daughter, a funeral attended by two million. For his biography alone, one would think that Hugo would have attracted more attention in the English-speaking world. Yet another mystery to add to the many surrounding him.
Robb succeeds in telling a thought-provoking and entertaining story by introducing discussions of Hugo’s work in unobtrusive ways. At first the reader looking for critical discussion may feel that, understandably enough, literary interpretation takes a back seat to the story of Hugo’s life. But even Robb’s untangling of facts from myths tells us something about Hugo’s intellectual concerns. Hugo needed to emphasize that he was the son of a royalist and a general in Napoleon’s army, for example, if only to plot his own life onto that of France, and to justify his political changes of heart (which in retrospect, of course, weren’t changes but consistent developments). Perhaps Hugo’s mind was so multiple because he felt a need to contain...