Tuesday, January 13, 2009

This was not on the agenda! - choice bits from The Last Day of a Condemned Man

The Last Day of a Condemned Man, whatever its political purpose, is a fine work of art. The range of moods and variety of ideas impressed me. The story if only 67 pages long, but it's broken into 49 chapters. The prisoner rages and consoles himself; he describes his cell and his guards; he hears a song, watches other prisoners leave, and gives away his coat. The short chapters allow Victor Hugo to squeeze in everything he can think of. If he rarely develops an idea, or leaves fragments scattered around, he simply reflects the emotional state of the prisoner.

One of the longest chapters, over six pages, is one of the best. The condemned man is watching a group of prisoners depart for the prison at Toulon, where they will serve out their time doing hard labor. It's also a death sentence for most of the prisoners, but who knows, maybe they will survive, like Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, or Balzac's master criminal Vautrin, or a couple of bad dudes I'm currently reading about in The Count of Monte Cristo. I guess if you were a fictional prisoner, you were pretty likely to survive, actually.

Here's a bit of Chapter 14, when the prisoners are assembling. There's an audience to see them off:

"Some of them, as convict celebrities, were greeted with cheers and applause, which they acknowledged with a kind of becoming modesty. The majority of them had hats of a sort that they had woven themselves from the straw in their cells, always bizarrely shaped so that the wearer would be recognized by it in the towns they passed through. The applause for these men was even greater. One in particular, a young man of seventeen with the face of a girl, received a rapturous ovation. He had come from the cell where he had been in solitary confinement for a week; from his bale of straw he had made a garment that clad him head to foot, and he came cartwheeling into the courtyard with snake-like suppleness. He was a strolling player convicted of theft. There were waves of clapping, and joyful shouts." pp. 41-2.

The acrobat in the straw suit - that's good stuff. As the chapter continues, the mood darkens, as does the weather. One more quote:

"Only one old fellow remained cheerful. He shouted out, as he tried to dry himself with his wet shrt, that this was not on the agenda; then he started to laugh, and shook his fist at the sky."

An example of a completely different tone, as, in a later scene, the prisoner imagines the afterlife:

"I feel that the sky will glow with its own luminosity, that stars will be dark speckles, and instead of being golden spangles on black velvet, as they are for living eyes, will appear like black spots on a cloth of gold...

Or perhaps I shall awaken after the blow to find myself on some flat and slimy surface, on hands and knees in the darkness and turning round and round like a head as it rolls. With a high wind at my back, and buffeted every so often by other rolling heads... When my eyes swivel upwards, they will behold nothing but a pitch-black sky, its heavy layers bearing down on them, and in the far distance will loom up great arches of smoke that is blacker than the darkness. Tiny red sparks hovering in the night will turn into birds of fire as they draw closer. And thus it will be for all eternity." p. 79.

These visions of heaven and hell has some relation to Dante, I suppose. But they sound original to me; the context is certainly original.

Hugo would return to the subject of The Last Day. Notre Dame de Paris, written just three years later, ends with an execution, and a good part of Les Miserables is about crime, punishment, and injustice. Come to think of it, The Red and the Black, published in 1830, also features a prisoner condemned to death. Stendhal's treatment of the subject could hardly be more different than Hugo's. Curious.

I mentioned yesterday that Hugo later added a polemical preface to the original story. He added something else as well, something very peculiar. I'll save that for tomorrow.


  1. Coincidentally, I'm in the midst of the first part of Les Miserables and enjoying it immensely. It's my first big French novel since I read The Hunchback of Notre Dame back in junior high.

    And, I've given you an award!!! You can find it here:


    I've been enjoying your blog for some time now, and have moved my own reading list closer to the classic end of the spectrum in part because of your posts. Thanks

  2. Hey, thanks. I need to read Les Miserables sometime soon. It's one of my greatest Humiliations.

    I'm about two-thirds through another big one, The Count of Monte Cristo, which is like Les Miserables's older brother. Its more popular, more athletic, more stupid older brother.

  3. First, I love the guy with the straw suit.

    Second, I look forward to hearing about Le Comte. That's on the almost-totally-not-happening-anytime-soon list for me. But I promise that I feel really bad about it. On the other hand, I have read Les Mis. I think it still counts as my longest book ever. I used to have so much more staying power.

  4. Yeah, the straw suit. It does everything I want a novelistic detail to do. First, it's vivid and memorable in and of itself. Second, it efficiently builds the character - basically creates him, here. Third, it tells us something about the world of the novel. Fourth, it has a symbolic function in its parallel and contrast with the condemned man's writing of his account. Excellent.

    Please, break your promise to feel bad about not reading The Count of Monte Cristo. That book is ridiculous. Worth reading once, don't get me wrong, but ridiculous.