Friday, March 26, 2010

My eyes delved further than the real world goes - big Hugo

I have been using two different collections of Victor Hugo translations, Selected Poems of Victor Hugo, E. H. and A. M. Blackmore, University of Chicago Press, 2001, and The Distance, the Shadows: Selected Poems, Anvil Press Poetry, revised 2004 edition.  I loved both books and have no particular interest in comparing them (although they're quite different).  I read both because I wanted more, More, MORE, a highly Hugolian response.  Victor Hugo is one of those writers who is always willing to give the reader more, even as far as too much.  I guess on the more, more, more principle, the Blackmore and Blackmore book is preferable, since it is longer.

This is a common response to Hugo.  On the left, please see an 1841 caricature of Hugo by Benjamin Roubard.  At this point Hugo is not the author of Les Misérables, is not the thunderbolt-hurling opponent of Louis Napoleon, is not the author of what are now his most-read books of poems.  Yet he is already the most famous, greatest writer in France.  He sits on a stack of already-classic books, leaning against Notre Dame, now one of his literary possessions, with one foot on the French Theatre and one on the French Academy, and creates.  The witches to his right are a nice touch.  He's the giant who occupies, and fills, literary France.  And he still has forty creative years ahead of him.

Hugo was ambitious enough to attempt the omnibook, the book that contains everything, meaning not just the bulbous Les Misérables, but a series of poetry books meant to bring all of human history and religion into Hugo's work.  The Legends of the Ages (1859-83), The End of Satan (1886), and God (1891), are what he calls those books.  They're full of stories from the Bible and classical mythology and Hugo's views on the meaning of all things.  The rhetorical pitch is high, the sense of humor or pathos mostly absent, the purpose entirely serious.  They're a bit of a trial, brilliant but exhausting.  I don't quite know what to do with them, or how to think about them.  Hugo's vastness exceeds my grasp here.

I'm going to retreat, and end the week near Hugo's beginning, with a bit of God and the sea from the 1829 collection  Les Orientales (Blackmore and Blackmore translation):


I walked the shore alone, one starlit night.
No sea-sails, and no sky-clouds were in sight.
My eyes delved further than the real world goes.
The woods, the hills, and nature all around
Appeared to question with a muffled sound
       The skies' flames, the sea's flows.

And, bowing down their crowns of golden fire,
The endless legions of the starry choir -
A thousand varying voices in accord -
And, curling the white spray down from their crest,
All the blue waves who never submit or rest -
        Cried: "It is God the Lord!"

The stars and waves are not bowing to Hugo, are they?  No, that's crazy.  Still read enough Hugo, and you begin to wonder.


  1. I have yet to read any Hugo-might start Les Misérables or Hunchback after Parade's End and Germinal and Georges-

  2. I've only read Les Misérables, and just admitted on the other thread that I knew virtually nothing of Hugo, but I still already had the sense of him as he is caricatured here. Still, the I certainly feel I have been neglecting him.

  3. And The Toliers by the Sea, don't forget that one. It's a must, if only for the octopus fight. See A Journey Round My Skull for the insane details, for example here and here. Or just see my current icon, courtesy of the multi-talented Victor Hugo.

    "A glutinous mass produced of a will...Glue filled with hatred." Should we have a group reading? "The tiger can only devour you; the octopus, oh horror! breathes you in." Ha ha ha ha!

  4. I would be up subsequent to Parade's End read along be up for a read along of Les Misérables-I think this was done two or three years ago, before I knew of the book blogger world-

  5. Should we have a group reading? .

    Of The Toilers of the Sea? Um, yes, definitely.

  6. Yeah, not of Les Misérables, no way! I'm going to need six months to read that one.

    Now, a readalong of The Toilers of the Sea, that's actually not crazy. The novel is not read as much as it should be. There's a recent, attractive translation published by the Modern Library. It's not too long - somewhere over 400 pages. And it features a climactic octopus battle!

    How does that work? Must ponder.