Monday, May 2, 2011

I shall gaze at the ocean. - Victor Hugo's William Shakespeare

Jean Cocteau’s line was “Victor Hugo was a madman who thought he was Victor Hugo.”  André Gide had another good one.  Asked to identify the greatest French poet, he replied “Victor Hugo, alas!”   This is all hearsay, by the way, quite possibly apocryphal.  But these jibes give a good sense of Hugo’s stature, even after his death.   They suggest that Hugo was not simply a writer, or an influence, but a problem for other writers.

If I got the gist of the joke, I had never read a book that quite justified it, not even the massively discursive Les Misérables.   Now, I have. Victor Hugo’s William Shakespeare (1864) begins:

A dozen years ago, on an island near the coast of France, a house, at every season of forbidding aspect, was growing especially gloomy by reason of the approach of winter.  The west wind, which has full sweep there, was piling thick upon this dwelling those enveloping fogs November interposes between sun and earth.  In autumn, night falls early; the narrow windows made the days still briefer within, and deepened the sombre twilight of the house.

The description of this house, and its environs, and the French exiles who reside within, goes on like this for four pages.  The island is Jersey; the exiles are Victor Hugo and his family, washed ashore in Great Britain, although as close to France as they can physically be.  One might wonder what this has to do with William Shakespeare.

Let’s advance to the end of that first chapter, where we find the father and son, “silent, like shipwrecked persons who meditate.”

Without, it rained, the wind blew the house was as if deafened by the outer roaring.  Both went on thinking, absorbed, perhaps, by thoughts of this coincidence between the beginning of winter and the beginning of exile.

Suddenly the son raised his voice and asked the father, -

“What think you of this exile?”

“That it will be long.”

“How do you intend to employ it?”

The father answered, “I shall gaze at the ocean.”

There was a silence. The father was the first to speak: -

“And you?”

“I,” said the son, “I shall translate Shakespeare.”

Hugo’s exile would last nineteen years.  During that time he finished Les Misérables as well as two more novels, published some of the greatest French poetry of the century, and wrote an introduction for his son’s Shakespeare translations, a piece which somehow expanded into a 400 page essay on creativity and genius that is hardly about Shakespeare at all, but is very much about its author, Victor Hugo.

I want to be absolutely clear:  William Shakespeare is only rarely written like the above passages.  A long Shakespeare book written like that, what an accomplishment!  The book is rambling, wild, windy, crackpot, brilliant, boisterous, by turns, or all at once, 400 pages of uninterrupted Hugolian outpouring.   It is hilariously inaccurate, as the outstanding, exasperated 1887 translator, Melville B. Anderson, points out again and again.   It is the purest concentration of the essence of Victor Hugo I have ever encountered, or hope to.  Great book.  Bad book.  Beyond categories.

Maybe just one more day on William Shakespeare’s Victor Hugo.  Oops, I mean Victor Hugo’s Victor Hugo.   No, hang on -


  1. I love the two quotes you lead off with. I can see how true both of the are. They remind me of an English professor I had once who describe Thomas Hardy as "a great writer, but not a good writer." After read Hardy for many years now, I see that he was right.

    1. I am reminded of American physicist Steven Weinberg's description of Werner Heisenberg, who headed the Third Reich's atomic bomb research as, "a man who managed to become a great physicist without ever becoming a good one." [Or some such.]

    2. That's a good one - "great but not good" is a real category. Hugo was often good too! But his greatness can swamp everything else.

  2. Oh good grief you've prompted me to look it up. Those billows, that ebb and flood, those inexorable comings and goings, that noise of all the winds, that blackness and that translucency, that vegetation peculiar to the deep, that democracy of clouds in full hurricane, those eagles flecked with foam, those wonderful star-risings reflected in mysterious agitation by millions of luminous wave-tops! And the queens knitting mittens.

  3. Good stuff, huh, Pykk? Good, good stuff. Maybe a leetle florid now and again.

    I'm with you on Hardy, C.B. Hardy will write a sentence with a perfect image or penetrating insight and follow it with a sentence that is barely competent. Then, back and forth, great, terrible, great, ordinary, terrible again, for 300 pages.

    Anyone else who wants to take a look at William Shakespeare can go right here.

  4. Well, you've certainly got me interested. I had no idea Hugo ever turned his talent toward Shakespeare, and by that I mean, wrote about himself while writing about Shakespeare. But it does sound like a fantastic, if bizarre, read.

  5. Yeah, that's about right. The funny thing is that Hugo's insight into Shakespeare are not so useful. But then there's the rest of the book.

  6. Brilliant stuff. I'm intrigued by the way he pushes two ideas together until they're borderline garbled, "eagles flecked with foam," for example. It's poetic compression, but he doesn’t do it preciously, he doesn't ask you to stop and look at this inventive little artifact he's wrought -- the whole force and rush of the sentence is working against a reader who wants to pause. He writes like a man on a motorbike whizzing you past explosions, shouting, "No, you can’t look at that, hey, there's another one." I think you call him "bullying" in the next post. It's a good word.

  7. Oh, yes, that's a good metaphor. I have no doubt that the 20th century Hugo would have been a film director, one unafraid of explosions, and not entirely ashamed of the occasional motorcycle chase.