The Toilers of the Sea (1866) is Victor Hugo’s fifth novel, and his third masterpiece in a row. I should note that I have not read the first two, Hans of Iceland and Bug-Jargal, despite their immensely appealing titles. Notre-Dame of Paris (1831) followed those two, and Les Misérables (1862) came thirty-one years later. The number of novelists with a gap that long between their two best novels must be few. Admittedly Les Misérables is long enough for four or five ordinary novels, if one can say that anything about Hugo is ordinary.
In the meantime, in that gap, in those thirty-one years, Hugo had also written and published a body of poetry that should have made him the greatest French poet, as for a time it did, but gnawing worms named Baudelaire and Flaubert and Les Fleurs du Mal and Madame Bovary were at that moment undermining the firmament; these writers were well known to Hugo but not understood by him, or actually strongly misunderstood as followers of, who else, Victor Hugo. If I had a copy of the letters of Baudelaire with me I could give his exact response to being congratulated by Hugo on writing poems for the struggling People. I can paraphrase Baudelaire, though: “I hate the People!”
How Hugo loved the People; how they loved him.
The Toilers of the Sea, despite the first word of the title, is not about the People. It is not a political novel at all, even though it was written during Hugo’s exile from France. Unless – oh no, how awful – it is an allegory, and the shipwreck is France, and the octopus is Louis Napoleon. The novel is very much about the Sea, though. Hugo claims, in a Preface, that Notre-Dame de Paris is a denunciation of dogmas, Les Misérables is about laws, and Toilers is about things, the elements. All three are about “the fatality within [man]… the human heart.” Ah, how sad! This is why Hugo lost his readers.
That and the lack of actual story. The Toilers of the Sea has a ratio of story to non-story that may approach a 19th century novelistic record. In much of the story that the novel does tell, a man tries to salvage a ship in a superhuman feat of engineering. A rare genre: the novel of engineering.
The floor of the engine room was framed between the eight cables from the hoists, four on one side and four on the other. The sixteen openings in the deck and under the hull through which the cables passed had been linked with one another by sawing. The planking… (plenty more of this in II.3.vi, p. 300)
The other story is what may be – what must be – the greatest heist film of the century. Not a film, I guess. But there’s a hundred page stretch that bangs along like an Elmore Leonard novel. A Leonard novel that spends a surprising amount of time describing rocks.
In a Hugo novel, you get everything. Whether you want it or not.
Early on in Toilers, I was worried that Hugo was getting a bit stiff. He loosens up. The novel has some passages that approach unbelievability (not the one sampled above, not exactly). I could write about the book all week. I will.
I read the 2002 Modern Library / James Hogarth translation, an excellent edition all round. I read Les Misérables in the revised Wilbour version which goes back to 1862, and the Quasimodo novel in (I think) the Walter Cobb version from the 1960s. My tribute to all three translators: their books all sound and feel like they were written by the same writer.