More Notes from Victor Hugo: a biography

p. 170 The idiom in which Hugo made his home was model of the world of opposites he had grown up in, characterized notoriously, by its heavy use of antithesis.  The practical advantage was that the vehicle had a high centre of gravity: any number of words and images could be piled on top of one another without collapsing the syntax.  But the obviousness of the device made him sound inherently insincere…His best defence was to point out that antithesis was ‘God’s favorite stylistic device’ – light and dark, male and female, good and evil.  A more enlightening comment is hidden in an apparently frivolous letters dated 15 June 1833.  It shows that, in Hugo’s mind, literature was not just a vehicle for ideas but a machine for transforming the world:

Poor old Paris continues to be very boring…Dead calm and sunny.  It’s very tiresome.  No crowds in the street, no clouds in the sky – Excuse me, I’m wrong: yesterday it poured with rain.  That’s what happens when you have a mania for writing symmetrical sentences.

p.184 Hugo quelled the revolt by convincing them that ‘it was the duty of Romanticism to renovate prose just as it had smashed the old alexandrine mould.

p. 197 In the Revue des Deux Mondes, Gustave Planche, who had his persona imposed on him by other people and was known as the ‘Danube Peasant’ suggested that Olympio-Hugo was the figurehead of a new religion called ‘Autotheism’ because the priest and his god were the same person.

p.205 The Brussels line had opened two years before, but passenger trains were still a novelty: in 1837, France had only 110 miles of track, much of it in industrial use.  The French railways were still the baby of a small group of socialist engineers, who saw them as the key to free trade and world peace – a view Hugo was soon to adopt and which is represented in Flaubert’s L’Education Sentimentale by an allegorical painting showing Jesus Christ driving a steam engine through a virgin forest.

p.214 The young Duchess Helena von Mecklenburg-Schwerin, turned out to be one of Hugo’s greatest fans.  In Germany, she told him, she had discussed his works with Goethe and knew his poems by heart, which is more than could be said for Hugo, who once complimented his daughter on a poem he had written himself.

p.220 In school Hugo was still considered a ‘Decadent’: a word which referred to the gaudy, ungrammatical period of Latin literature but was acquiring connotations of picturesque depravity.

p.233 As Baudelaire hinted by talking of a ‘conspiracy’, the bourgeois despotism of Napoleon III was already on the horizon, and Victor Hugo, still determined to inject the obscene products of a weird imagination into the mainstream of capitalist culture, was already being ushered into exile.

p.250 The noteworthy absence of drugs in Hugo’s life is misleading.  Leonie’s bed was the propagator of a new kind of hallucinatory composition.  Hugo’s letters are filled with what looks like Surrealist imagery and are even several years ahead of his own poetry.

p. 278 Anyone with a taste for extreme symbolic events might relish the thought that Baudelaire also took part in the June Days, but on the other side of the barricades.  He fired at the troops with his brand-new rifle.  The possibility thus arises that the last great poet of Romanticisim might have been murdered by the great poet of Modernism…The age of heroes has ended, and while Baudelaire chose the relatively simple expedient of aesthetic terrorism, Hugo decided to create a new heroic age.

p.285 This was all the more unexpected since he had recently been voting with the reactionaries.  It is a little-known fact that Hugo – the future champion of anticlericism – supported the education law proposed by the clerical apart in June 1849 (the Loi Falloux).  The reason this is not well known is that all the published versions of Hugo’s speech change his final phrase, ‘I support it’ to ‘I reserve the right to examine it.’

p.316 His encounter with the biggest city in the world was to produce one of the great Impressionist ubrna tableaux of French literature – an almost unknown passage which shows how much of Hugo’s electricity was passing through Rimabud’s optiv never when he wrote his English Illumniations.  Even in the midst of chaos, Hugo’s drawing habit gave his eye a grid of which to organize impressions.

p. 320 Napolen-le-Petit appeared in Brussels in less than two weeks after his arrival on Jersey: 8500 copies vanished in less than two weeks.  By the end of 1852, 38,500 were in circulation; they were read aloud at secret meetings all over France and passed around so that handwritten copies could be made.  The est of the Napoleon-hating world was served by three Napolen der Kelines, a Napoleone il Piccolo printed in London, a Spanish edition, and at least three pirated editions in French.  Two translations were published in Mexico alone, as if in anticipation of the French invasion of 1862: Napoleon el Chiquito and Napoleon el Pequeño.  None of these brought Hugo any royalties, though the Mexican Government did award him a chased gold pen.

p. 354 Held in the grip of Hugo’s tyrannical courtesy, Paul Meurice and Hugo’s other helper, Noel Parfait (once a ghost write for Dumas and Gautier) fought his battles with typesetters ‘lis’ (lily) should be spelt ‘lys’ because the y represented the flower and its stem, just as ‘trome’ should be spelt ‘throne’ because the h have a side view of the object itself;

p. 371 It is true that Hugo’s heroic image of John Brown as ‘a solider of Christ’ is a poor match for the historical truth.  It is also true that was unwilling to investigate the facts once they had formed themselves into a coherent story.  But his view of the symbolic truth is unquestionably accurate.  In the Republic of Haiti he became a national hero.  He corresponded with the President and with a newspaper editor who wrote to thank him ‘in the name of the Black race.’  Hugo called the editor ‘a noble specimen of Black humanity’ and used one of his favorite jokes: ‘Before God, all soul’s are white’

Since the other half of the island of Haiti had been the setting of Bug-Jargal in 1820, Hugo might be excused for considering his work a series of precise prophecies – not the final digest of influences, but the original nourishment.  Throughout Central and South America, the author of Hernani and Napoleon-le-Petit was now the principal European catalyst of a literary and political naissance which fully justifies his equating te Romantic revolution with the real one.

p.401 Meanwhile, Hugo´s renewed status as socialist bugbear was confirmed in satellites of the French Empire.  Copies of Les Miserables were burned publicly in Spain and, in June 1864, Pope Pius IX anticipated the choice of posterity by adding Les Miserables, Madame Bovary and all the novels of Stendhal and Balzac to the Index of Proscribed Books.

p.448 Despite appearances Hugo was making it up as he went along.  The American ambassador, Elihu Washburne, was in the crowd and caught a fragment which does not appear in Actes et Paroles:

Seeing our flag, he called attention to it, and said, ‘That banner of stars speaks today to Paris and to France, proclaiming miracles of power which are easy to a great, people, contending for a great principle; the liberty of every face and the fraternity of all.

In the storm of patriotic fervor, no one noticed the shocking implication of Hugo’s speech.  When he used the word ‘fraternity’ he intended it to include the Prussians…

p.495  Meatier stories came from those who were privy to Hugo’s table activities.  He drank cheap, heavily sugared win, mashed up mounds of eggs, vegetables and sauces into a fearsome, pork-based olla podrida, munched his way through lobsters (including the shells, which he claimed were an aid in digestion…), nibbled lumps of coal, and push whole oranges into his mouth, daring Georges and Jeanne to do the same.

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