To complement our retrospective on ‘Les Miserables’ our second ‘Death of the Author’ features the larger than life self-regarding genius of Victor Hugo
Whilst it is ‘Les Miserables’ that truly cemented his reputation, at the time of its release Hugo’s fame had already reached something equivalent to Beatlemania. The advance on the novel, estimated at three million pounds in present day currency, is still the largest for any author ever received. He won his first literary prize at the callow age of 15 and from that point onwards the laurels simply kept accumulating: first for his poetry and then his fiction. He was held up as one of the premiere men of letters of the 19th century, with his literary impact on his beloved France being compared to the difference between B.C. and A.D. In death he rests amongst the heroes of his nation in the Paris Pantheon and is even literally worshipped as a saint by the, admittedly bizarre, ‘Cao Dei’ religion in Vietnam.
He was notably smug with it all too. For the greater portion of Hugo’s life he would entertain up to thirty guests every single night and would hold court over them by loudly and systematically explaining why he was superior to every other French writer, alive or dead. He’d then follow this up with his signature party trick: Shoving an entire orange in his mouth, filling his cheeks with as many lumps of sugar as possible before swallowing the whole mess with the aid of two glasses of kirsch. Presumably this whole escapade must have been a blessed relief for any fans of anything not written by Victor Hugo who happened to be at the table. His titanic ego was buoyed by the fact that pedestrians were known to pick up stones he’d tread and spirit them home as if they were holy relics. Whilst not writing he was frequently a slave to a truly Herculean sex addiction, to the point that when he died the brothels of Paris reportedly closed their doors as a mark of respect to such a frequent and well-regarded customer. Literary critic Edmond de Goncourt even reported that a police officer had told him that sex workers had draped their genitals in black crepe in mourning. It is perhaps this larger than life quality that led Andre Gide, on being asked who was the greatest French poet, spat ‘Hugo, Alas!‘.
The convention that an artist must starve for a while to produce work of genuine social worth is clearly meaningless here. For Hugo it was the times he lived in that shaped him almost more than his literary influences. His father was a fervent Bonapartist who rose to the level of general in the Napoleonic wars, whilst his mother was a staunch Catholic Royalist who brought her son up to adore the deposed [and decapitated] Bourbon monarchy. Throughout his life Hugo was pulled between these two great influences, which often led him to take political positions that would amaze those who only know him by his great novels. In perhaps the most infamous incidence he commanded a royalist battalion against the very barricades he described so movingly in Les Miserables. After the rise of Napoleon III which caused the passionate patriot to disgustedly leave France for a 15 year exile in Guernsey. He finally abandoned the politics of both of his parents and adapted the freethinking republicanism and concern for the poor which shines through Les Miserables. He was a man of many bizarre and contradictory facets all illuminated by a consuming genius. Perhaps Jean Cocteau best summarised the many faces of the author when he wryly stated that ‘Victor Hugo was a madman who thought he was Victor Hugo.’