My suspicion of the concept of the value of the writer’s house museum does not stop me from visiting them whenever I can. The grounds for suspicion are obvious, I assume* – the attempt to squeeze meaning out of seeing the pen with which the author wrote his masterpiece, the chair on which he sat, the fainting couch on which he reclined, the chamber pot which he hurled at a yowling cat that had interrupted his concentration, and so on. In a painter’s house, we do what the artist did, we look carefully at interesting objects; in the writer’s house we look carefully at the contents of someone’s attic.
So I dunno. The literary boosters of Grenoble are currently renovating and assembling a Maison Stendhal in the house of the author’s grandfather. They have one great advantage – the local university curates the Stendhal archives, including his manuscripts – that may or may not overcome the endless obstacles to an interesting museum visit: Stendhal hated Grenoble, left it as soon as he could, and so on. He went to school over there; this plaza is featured in The Life of Henry Brulard; the vines on this trellis could be the ones planted by his grandfather, but most likely are not. All of this should be ready in – well, several years from now.
I am imagining, here, that the visitor is genuinely interested in the writer and has read some sample of his works. Picture, instead, the poor sap who is dragged into one of these museums with no knowledge or interest. Luckily for him, writer museums are typically small.
The Maison de Victor Hugo, on the charming Place des Vosges in Paris, has the enormous advantage of featuring the enormous Victor Hugo, not just a writer but a celebrity. A floor of the house is currently devoted to an extraordinary display of Hugo objects, the Hugobjets, a bewildering selection of Hugo kitsch: the Hugo fan could drink Hugo beer and gamble with Hugo playing cards; the aspiring sage could write with Hugo pens and Hugo ink. Trademark laws being what they were, none of this was generated by Hugo himself – there was no Hugo, Inc. – but by anyone who hoped that Hugo’s aura would help move his merchandise. A visit to Google Images should give an idea of the variety of stuff.
The ordinary objects with Hugo’s face pasted on them were most amusing to me, but the volume of commemorative plates, fans, cards, and busts, pictured above, were perhaps more instructive. Everyone wanted a relic of Saint Victor of Notre Dame. The Hugobjets date, mostly, from 1870 or later, near the end of Hugo’s life, when his popularity and stature somehow metastasized into a Hugo craze that continued for a decade or two after his death. He was no longer just the greatest French writer, peer of Shakespeare and Goethe, but something much larger, and sillier.
The Hugobjets exhibit was enormously instructive. It became obvious why writers like Verlaine and Corbière and Gide had to ignore or mock or reject Hugo, whether or not he was the greatest poet in the language, even if they had to jettison the poetry along with the plates and busts and playing cards. What a burden; what a monster.
* See, please, April Bernard on the topic.