I have been pretending, writing about Les Misérables this week, that Victor Hugo was an avant-gardist, an author of postmodern fiction, a peer of Pynchon and Rushdie and their hyper-realist pals. My excuse is that Victor Hugo was, in fact, writing that kind of novel, an immense collage, a mixing of rhetorical modes, a mélange of high and low, convention and experiment. It’s an adventure novel that includes digressions on linguistics and architecture. It’s a novel of religious conversion that somehow also needs to describe, in detail, the battle of Waterloo and the Paris sewers.
The Modernist enterprise, the world of intense interiority and stream-of-consciousness writing, the followers of Flaubert, may not have needed Hugo for much (although I now am looking at Proust a little cock-eyed), but I am puzzled that more recent writers, the authors of cram-it-all-in fiction, have not championed Hugo. Perhaps they have.
Or perhaps they refuse to associate themselves with scenes like the one near the end of the novel in which two starving boys race the Luxembourg garden swans for a piece of half-eaten bread. It begins:
At that very moment in the Luxembourg gardens – for the eye of the drama should be present everywhere – two children were holding each other by the hand. One might have been seven years old, the other five. Soaked by the earlier rain, they were walking in the paths on the sunny side; the older one was leading the little one; they were pale and in rags; they looked like wild birds. The smaller one said; “I want something to eat.” (V.1.xvi.)
Here we have the very definition of novelistic sentimentality – wet, ragged, hungry children – if that definition is based only on content, not style. The swans, the tame birds who will contest with the wild ones, appear five pages later; in between, a complacent father and his over-stuffed son supply the brioche.
After establishing the setting in an ecstatic mode (tulips, bees, statues that “were all tattered by the sunshine; it hung from them in shreds on all sides”), the three-way encounter between the father and son, the urchins, and the swans is told in a plain, precise style that would not be out of place in a Zola novel:
[T]he older boy quickly lay down with his face over the rounded edge of the pool, and, holding on with his left hand, hanging out over the water, almost falling in, with his right hand reached his stick out toward the cake. The swans, seeing the enemy, made haste, and in making haste produced an effect with their breasts that was useful to the little fisherman; the water flowed away from the swans, and one of those smooth concentric waves pushed the bun gently toward the child’s stick. (V.i.xvi.)
It’s an earlier long paragraph, though, that colors the scene, a passage I have trouble imagining anyone writing today (this is just a bit of it):
The mother has no milk, the newborn dies, I know nothing about that, but look at this marvelous rosette formed by a transverse section of the sapwood of the fir tree when examined under the microscope! Compare that with the most beautiful springtide! These thinkers forget to love. The zodiac has such success with them that it prevents them from seeing the weeping child. God eclipses the soul.
And so on. “[T]he nakedness of the poor in winter” and “the rags of shivering little girls.” It’s all laid on a bit thick, except, and this is the crux, Hugo means every word of it.
Hugo believes that I, the aesthete and rationalist who marvels at the rosette, will, confronted with this passage, these ragged children, this immense novel, actually change my ways. I will be surprised into sympathy with sufferers, with convicts and poor children, and will do something. Do what? Yes, a problem remains. But sympathy is the first step. Hugo is a leader, a charter member, of the International Sympathy Project.
Many fiction writers still believe in this possibility, or so I assume, but many, and many readers, too, must regard it with great suspicion, as naïve or foolish at best. In Mary Barton, Elizabeth Gaskell seems to argue that an increase in sympathy is in and of itself ameliorative, or will inevitably lead to concrete changes that we cannot specify in advance. Hugo would agree, I suspect, as, secretly, do I, although I have doubts about the pace of change. The sympathies produced by reading are too distant, and fade too easily, but who knows what residue they might leave behind. Hugo and Dickens and others thought that their fiction would change the world. I suspect they were right.