Thursday, April 7, 2011

Eternal city, unfathomable sewer - a Hugovian omni-metaphor

Paris has another Paris underneath herself; a Paris of sewers, which has its streets, its crossroads, its squares, its blind alleys, its arteries, and its circulation, which is slime, minus the human form.

The sewer is the conscience of the city…  All that used to be painted is besmirched.  The last veil is rent.  A sewer is a cynic.  It tells all.

At times this stomach of civilization had indigestion, the cloaca flowed back into the city’s throat, and Paris had the aftertaste of its slime.

The sewer is the taint the city has in its blood.

Imitate Paris, and you will be ruined.

I’m near the end of Les Misérables.  A couple of characters have escaped a fraught situation by escaping into the Paris sewers.  Hugo decides that a twenty page digression on sewers is in order.  Hugo is right.

The above lines are fragments, plucked from here and there.  Much of the passage is written like this, although I have omitted the hideously disgusting lists, some of which I can barely believe were publishable in England (some startling objects can be found under those ellipses).   I can hardly reproduce the bulk of Hugo’s rhetoric, the solidity of some of it, the gaseousness of the rest.

Hugo is preparing the ground for an action scene, one that must be a high point of any movie version.   He wants the reader to trace out the map, and I’m not sure that I don’t mean that literally.  Hugo is going to follow his characters through the sewers while keeping track of what they’re under, and I am expected to follow along as best I can.  But that hardly explains the passages about the ancient history of the sewers, not just of Paris but of Rome:

When the Campagna of Rome was ruined by the Roman sewer, Rome exhausted Italy, and when she had put Italy into her cloaca, she poured in Sicily, then Sardinia, then Africa.  The sewer of Rome engulfed the world.  This cloaca offered its yawning depths to the city and to the globe.  Urbi et orbi.  Eternal city, unfathomable sewer.  (V.2.i, 1259)

Or how about Hugo’s crackpot idea about collecting the human waste of Paris for fertilizer (“Paris throws five million a year into the sea”), or the point where a separate adventure story pops up, an account of the actual exploration and rebuilding of the ancient sewer that took place from 1805 to 1812, or the detailed statistics, geology (“seams of very fine clay and laminar schistose beds”), and geography of continued construction, up to Hugo’s present – “Today the sewer is neat, cold, straight, correct.”

Hugo wants our understanding of the sewers to be complete.  No part of the novel is allowed to exist only vaguely, and everything has to exist not just visually, as with Flaubert, but in space and time, in history.  And, perhaps most importantly, the sewers then become an enormous, all-encompassing metaphor for any number of aspects of the novel – the weight of history, the suddenness of change, the forgotten miserables.   Every line I excerpted is built out of metaphors.   I know another writer or two as good as Hugo in this regard.  Not many more.  I think I’ll save that for next week.


  1. While I trust you about how unpleasant this must be to read in some ways, I have to confess that I admire the nerve of Hugo's effrontery here. Maybe I shouldn't write this book off after all!

  2. Effrontery - absolutely. It's not unpleasant at all - instead, exhilarating. The sewer chapter may be my favorite in the whole monstrous book. It is something else.

    About writing off the book - you know you just read one of its Modern descendants, yes?

  3. You mentioned Pynchon in one of your other posts on Hugo-interestingly sewers play a big part in his first novel V-

  4. There's a short and utterly repulsive trip through the sewers in Gravity's Rainbow, too.

    I didn't want to belabor the issue, but the direct connections between Hugo and Pynchon were so blatant that I was left scratching my head. Why don't readers of the big pomo novelists champion Hugo?

  5. I think I need to read Hugo-do I start with the Hunch Back?-any suggestions on Translations?-

    regarding Pynchon-yes really blatant-and dont forget the very graphic Brigadier Pudding scene-

    Hugo also sounds like an encyclopedic author as meant by Edward Mendelson-another Pynchon similarity-

  6. Selfishly, I would like you to begin with Bug-Jargal. Can any novel with a title that bad be any good?

    But, more disinterestedly, start anywhere. Notre Dame de Paris, Les Misérables, Toilers of the Sea - they are all 100% Hugo.

    No idea about translations.

    Encyclopedic author - yes, exactly - that's what I mean when I say "omnibook."

  7. Hugo's graphic work is similarly omnivorous and additive. He used ink, coffee, wine; splashed, scratched, wrote. My favorite pieces are the ones imprinted with a piece of lace. Lace! And some have lettering on them, prefiguring, oh, say, Ed Ruscha.

  8. So, Amateur Reader, what was your opinion about this great masterpiece of Western literature? I'm in the middle of reading it myself (in Julie Rose's 2008 Modern Library translation), and I am awed and exhausted and overwhelmed and enlightened by the operatic digressions and the sweeping scale and the Hugolian high-style of oracular rhetoric and dense visual imagery and metaphor.

    How does this compare to Hugo's other work? And have you read Hugo's poetry? If so, would you consider this Hugo's best work alongside the best of his poetry?

    And would you call Hugo's style high style? I would, for its lofty, gothical, detailed nature, for its essentially baroque and sweeping scale, and its love of visual imagery, metaphor, figurative language, homiletic flourishes, grandiloquence, and detail.

    Les Miserables, like The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, Paradise Lost, War and Peace, Moby-Dick, The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandry, Bleak House, and The Brothers Karamazov, remains one of the richest, fullest, and most monumental epics of the human spirit. It is that fantastic.

  9. Anand, you are in luck! Whether good or bad luck I leave to you. I have now written thousands of words on VIctor Hugo. I believe I address every one of your questions at some point.

    That is a good list you have there at the end.