As usual, while playing around with The Toilers of the Sea I have paid little mind to the characters and plot and ethical conundrums and that sort of thing. The story I have mentioned, at least. There is a long stretch in which Hugo relates every single little thing that has struck him as unusual about Guernsey:
On all the walls of Guernsey is displayed a huge picture of a man, six feet tall, holding a bell an sounding the alarm to call attention to an advertisement. Guernsey has more posters than the whole of France. This publicity promotes life; frequently the life of the mind, with unexpected results, leveling the population by the habit of reading, which produces dignity of manner. (33)
Sometimes Hugo writes the oddest things.
But then comes the heist plots, zip zip zip, and then Gilliatt and the shipwreck and the storm and the octopus, most of which is amazing, and then a romantic plot, a Romantic romantic plot to round out the book. Most of the best writing is in the long sea-related section.
The hero is another of Hugo’s super-strong characters. I have read three Hugo novels, and all three star strongmen, Quasimodo, Jean Valjean, and now Gilliatt. They are also super-resourceful and super-agile. The latter two are super-knowledgeable. They are Batman, basically, as is the Count of Monte Cristo and Balzac’s super-criminal Vautrin. The hero of Flaubert’s Salammbô is also superhumanly strong, although that character is certainly not like Batman, but is rather a forefather of Conan the Barbarian. This is a peculiar feature of 19th century French fiction. I have no explanation. Victor Hugo was a sort of superhero himself, but his powers were super-energy and super-imagination.
And this is as good a time as any for you, gentle reader, to learn that I can wander a bit while storytelling so that the very imminent digressive passage on the judicial creation of Miranda warnings can be entirely skipped by the uncurious without the slightest loss of narrative steam.
Now this is the narrator of Sergio de la Pava’s A Naked Singularity (2008, p. 5) behaving in a typically Hugolian manner. Hugo should be a deity to the postmodernists, the Pynchon and Wallace readers, the information overload crowd. Is he? I have doubts.
I also recommend The Toilers of the Sea in particular to the readers of W. G. Sebald, who was clearly a powerful influence on Hugo. Hugo is always careful to tell me what I can still see, what is left from the time of the story, forty years in the past. Can I see Gilliatt’s house, for example? No, it is gone, as is the land on which it rested.
… the island of Guernsey is in course of demolition. The granite is good: who wants it? All its cliffs are up for auction. The inhabitants are selling the island by retail… (52)
Guernsey is being systematically blasted apart and shipped to London. But the story is more complex than predatory man versus helpless nature. English is replacing French. Can we find the boarding house in St. Malo I mentioned a couple of days ago? No, “[i]t no longer exists, having been caught up in improvements to the town” (162). Can I see the rock towers that trapped the shipwreck, the Douvres, the setting of most of the novel? Well, the tallest tower is gone: “on October 26, 1859, a violent equinoctial gale overthrew one of them” (186).
Man versus nature, man versus man, nature versus nature. Perhaps Henry Adams is the relevant precursor. Hugo’s endlessly energetic and profligate novel is a classic of entropy, of the passing of all things.
The solitudes of the ocean are melancholy: tumult and silence combined. What happens there no longer concerns the human race. Its use or value is unknown. Such a place is the Douvres. All around, as far as the eye can see, is nothing but the immense turbulence of the waves. (186-7)