The pacing of The Toilers of the Sea is strange. Perhaps even stranger than Les Misérables, although the scale of the book is more manageable. Hugo does not have as much space to linger on the Waterloo battlefield or its aquatic equivalent.
Still, his basic method is to constantly break his own momentum. A hurricane approaches; our hero’s efforts – and mine, since I read about them for 100 pages – will likely be destroyed. “The abyss was making up its mind to do battle.” How does Hugo kill time waiting for the storm, which we can see in the distance, “a small unwholesome-looking stain,” what does he do while the hero and I are waiting? He tells me about storms for five chapters and twelve pages. Winds and clouds around the world. Science (“winds that construct circumcumuli, and those that construct circumstrati”) and metaphor (“[winds] that shake out of their clouds, like the tongue of a trigonocephalus, the fearful forked lightning”). I am wandering around Part II, Book III, waiting for the storm. Then it hits, in a single eighteen page chapter. This is Hugolian pacing. Frustrating, tense, profoundly satisfying. I am half convinced that, born a century later, he would have been a film director.
During the heist plot, a character arranges to buy a contraband gun. I have witnessed this scene before, more than once, although never in the setting in which Hugo puts it, in a sort of tenement rooming house in Saint-Malo that “no longer exists, having been caught up in improvements to the town.” The house and its occupants are described in some detail over five or six pages with sentences like this:
A dilapidated old novel and a witch are not unlike each other.*
This is the rubbish heap of souls, piled up in the corner and swept from time to time by the broom that is called a police raid.
This is the spittle of society rather than its vomit.
We should not, out of hand, value a Louvre highly or despise a prison.
Hugo writes interesting sentences. At this point, I do not actually know about the revolver and have no idea why Hugo is telling me about this place. The house has a courtyard with a well in the center.
Beyond the feet, in the semidarkness of the shed, your eye might distinguish bodies, forms, sleeping heads, figures lying inert, rags of both sexes, the promiscuity of the dunghill, a strange and sinister deposit of humanity. This sleeping chamber was open to anyone and everyone. The occupants paid two sous a week, Their feet touched the well. On stormy nights rain fell on those feet; on winter nights it snowed on those bodies… The order of society is complicated by such human debris. (I.5.vi., 164)
Ah, I don’t want to stop. “The rags and tatters seeded the rubble” (166). That’s something, right? “The multitude of spiders provided some reassurance against the immediate collapse of the building.” Why does Hugo give so much space to this house; why do I? The book is about the sea, and after the next chapter we never return here. But Hugo’s imagination created the space and then got tangled up in it. Once he saw the alley, he saw the house; the house gave him the well; the well gave him the feet, and the rags, and the spiders. Get on with it Hugo! But he is – “it” is everything, characters and stories but also clouds and poverty and Sri Lankan vipers.
* Hugo's word is actually "hovel," not "novel."