Notes from Victor Hugo: A Biography

Just finished Graham Robb’s Victor Hugo.  It is certainly one of the best biographies recently, and     I´ve been reading alot of them lately.  Robb´s erudition, humor – a rare thing in a the world of biography -, and scholarly rigor are admirable.  The work on a whole should make a top ten list of literary biographies, not only for the importance of the subject (by which I mean world-wide influence in various languages).

I need to find something like this about Goethe.  The only noteworthy one I see is by the philosopher and biographer Rudiger Safranksi, but it hasn’t been translated and I don’t speak German. Scheisse!

Here is the first part of my notes from Victor Hugo.  (The book is near six hundred pages with tiny font, so I decided to break up my notes into two entires.)

p. 27 This symbolic scene in the garden brings to mind – as it was certainly supposed to – another, more famous scene of revolutionary history: Benjamin Franklin taking his grandson to see Voltaire so that he could receive the gram man’s ‘blessing,’ ‘Dieu et la Liberte’.  But it also shows how a political ideology could be used to make sense of a confusing childhood.  ‘This word,’ says Hugo in his capacity as champion of democracy-in-exile, ‘was the counterweight to a whole education.’

p. 109 Soon the salvoes would turn into a barrage of insults.  The poets of La Muse Franciase might be political reactionaries, but they were fomenting a revolution in literature, writing in a style which appealed to a large and poorly educated audience, opening the gates to another foreign invasion.  Hugo’s first attempt to resolve the contradiction, in the preface to the Nouvelles Odes of March 1824, us notably feeble and betrays a sense of contaminated origins: ‘Modern literature,’ he decreed, ‘may be the result of the Revolution, without being its expression.’

p.120 The last benefit of the trip to Rheims was far more valuable than royalties, prestige and a dinner service that was too good to use.  Hugo had spent a week in the company of the man who came to be known as ‘the Schoolmaster of Romanticism’ and learned his lessons so well that he effectively banished Nodier to the suburbs of literary history.

The word ‘influence’ normally conjures up a pleasant image of collaboration or natural affinity.   Hugo engaged in a literary equivalent of asset-stripping.  Virtually every new aspect of his work from 1824 until the Romantic putsch of 130 can be traced back to Nodier: the back on the classical unities, the deification of Shakespeare (whose works Hugo did not discover from himself until the 1850s) parodies of the classical style of the Nouevelles Odes, an erudite interest in folklore and the supernatural, a subversive sense of humor, and the detection of vanished civilizations in the ruins that were being cleared away in the name of progress and for profit.

p. 131 The announcement of General Hugo’s death …was the first public appeared of ‘Baron Von Hugo’ an adopted title which generated hundreds of pages of pious sneering, perhaps conforming Baudelaire’s sarcastic aphorism: ‘The immense appetite we have from biography comes from a deep-seated sense of equality.’

p. 135 The Preface de Cromwell is designed to be read once and enjoyed for its invigorating effect.  Anyone who reads it twice is condemned to read it a hundred times.  Walking back down te tracks along which Hugo’s ghost-train has just propelled us shows it be a muddle of hastily erected placards, and there is something of a cruel joke in the fact that generations of students have been asked to the Preface de Cromwell and come up with a coherent description of the Romantic movement.  Ideas which are still sometimes considered revolutionary, such as the natural fluidity of language, or art as a deliberate distortion of reality, go hand in hand with a defense of monologues and the classical unity of action; verse as a damn against ‘vulgarity.’

p.141 Hugo himself believed in a progressive softening of the Western brain and saw a new center of energy forming, not in Europe but in the United States.

p.147 In this way, as the first night drew near, Hernani became the banner which united a generation, many of them still in their teens.  Gautier who claimed to have given up painting for poetry when he read Les Orientales; Petrus Borel, the ‘Lycanthrope’ who dressed like a Spanish grandee and recited section of the Preface de Cromwell without the text; an artist and melodramatist, Joseph Bouchardy, who memorized all five acts of Hernani; a sculptor known as Jehan du Seigneur, who dressed in black and parted his hair on both sides to form a pointed crest above his forehead symbolizing ‘the flame of genius.’  The best known Hernaniste was Gerárd de Nerval, who had just adapted Han d´Islande for the stage and was seen at a restaurant called the Petit Moulin Rouge, sitting with a skull to which a brass drawer-handle had been screwed, ordering ´sea-water´ because that was Han of Iceland´s favorite drink.


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