Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Please don't throw it on the fire: it's a library book - more of Hugo's Condemned Man

The story so far: in 1829 Victor Hugo wrote and published The Last Day of a Condemned Man as a protest against capital punishment. In 1832, he republished the story, adding a fiery preface that included grisly tales of malfunctioning guillotines and calls for prison reform.

But just a month or two after initial publication, back in 1829, Hugo had already added a sort of preface, one of the strangest I've ever seen. It's an 8 page play titled "A Comedy about a Tragedy". Characters include The Elegiac Poet, The Fat Gentleman, and The Philosopher. They debate the merits of the latest novel:

"The Ladies: Which novel is that?

The Fat Gentleman: Enough, sir, I know the one you mean. The title alone grates on my nerves.

Madame de Blinval: And on mine. It's a dreadful book. I have it here.

The Ladies: Oh, do let us see.

[The book is passed from hand to hand.]

Somebody [reading aloud]: The Last Day of a...

The Fat Gentleman: Madam, I beg of you!

Madame de Blinval: Quite so; it is a shocking book, a book that gives you bad dreams and makes you feel quite ill.

A Lady [aside]: I must read it."

Hugo gleefully skewers the idiots: the poet who wants to be Romantic, but not too Romantic; the lawyer who worries that the book will influence juries and undermine the social fabric; the reader who doesn't want to read about anything depressing; the philosopher who says that "[t]he subject required cogent debate", and "[a] play or a novel prove nothing." Hey, that one is me! Hugo is mocking me. My feelings are hurt. And at the end, the Philosopher is mostly concerned about whether there will be food at the party. That's also me.

I first supposed that this preface would be too topical, made up too much of inside jokes. On the contrary. The caricatures and reactions are instantly recognizable and still with us. The jokes are funny. The whole company has finished taking turns attacking Hugo:

"Ergaste: Oh, the vile book!

Madame de Blinval: Please don't throw it on the fire: it's a library book.

The Chevalier: Let's speak of the good old days. Everything has gone downhill since, both taste and standards. Do you remember what it was like in our days, Madame de Blinval?

Madame de Blinval: No, sir, I don't."

I know, it's just a joke in the "never mention a lady's age" genre. I have the highest respect for writers who, however serious their purpose, can't resist going for the joke. Always go for the joke.


  1. Sounds fun. I usually save the introduction/preface until after I have read the book. So many introductions, even ones by the author, are useless.

  2. Now this book has two prefaces by Hugo, one at the beginning and one that got bumped to the end. Plus, the Hesperus Press edition has two introductions and an afterword, each by a different person. Sort of amusing.

  3. You're right -- this little play is absolutely great. I love the self-reflexivity of it, and also the wonderful humor.