Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Hugo Objects at the Maison de Victor Hugo

My suspicion of the concept of the value of the writer’s house museum does not stop me from visiting them whenever I can.  The grounds for suspicion are obvious, I assume* – the attempt to squeeze meaning out of seeing the pen with which the author wrote his masterpiece, the chair on which he sat, the fainting couch on which he reclined, the chamber pot which he hurled at a yowling cat that had interrupted his concentration, and so on.  In a painter’s house, we do what the artist did, we look carefully at interesting objects; in the writer’s house we look carefully at the contents of someone’s attic.

So I dunno.  The literary boosters of Grenoble are currently renovating and assembling a Maison Stendhal in the house of the author’s grandfather.  They have one great advantage – the local university curates the Stendhal archives, including his manuscripts – that may or may not overcome the endless obstacles to an interesting museum visit:  Stendhal hated Grenoble, left it as soon as he could, and so on.  He went to school over there; this plaza is featured in The Life of Henry Brulard; the vines on this trellis could be the ones planted  by his grandfather, but most likely are not.  All of this should be ready in – well, several years from now.

I am imagining, here, that the visitor is genuinely interested in the writer and has read some sample of his works.  Picture, instead, the poor sap who is dragged into one of these museums with no knowledge or interest.  Luckily for him, writer museums are typically small.

The Maison de Victor Hugo, on the charming Place des Vosges in Paris, has the enormous advantage of featuring the enormous Victor Hugo, not just a writer but a celebrity.  A floor of the house is currently devoted to an extraordinary display of Hugo objects, the Hugobjets, a bewildering selection of Hugo kitsch:  the Hugo fan could drink Hugo beer and gamble with Hugo playing cards; the aspiring sage could write with Hugo pens and Hugo ink.  Trademark laws being what they were, none of this was generated by Hugo himself – there was no Hugo, Inc. – but by anyone who hoped that Hugo’s aura would help move his merchandise.  A visit to Google Images should give an idea of the variety of stuff.

The ordinary objects with Hugo’s face pasted on them were most amusing to me, but the volume of commemorative plates, fans, cards, and busts, pictured above, were perhaps more instructive.  Everyone wanted a relic of Saint Victor of Notre Dame.  The Hugobjets date, mostly, from 1870 or later, near the end of Hugo’s life, when his popularity and stature somehow metastasized into a Hugo craze that continued for a decade or two after his death.  He was no longer just the greatest French writer, peer of Shakespeare and Goethe, but something much larger, and sillier.

The Hugobjets exhibit was enormously instructive.  It became obvious why writers like Verlaine and Corbière and Gide had to ignore or mock or reject Hugo, whether or not he was the greatest poet in the language, even if they had to jettison the poetry along with the plates and busts and playing cards.  What a burden; what a monster.

* See, please, April Bernard on the topic.


  1. I still don't know quite to make of Hugo. It takes a village to read all of those alexandrines. But there is still something positive about him.

    As for writers' houses: Almost directly across from the cafe where I drink coffee most mornings (in midtown Manhattan) is one of the apartment buildings that Charles Fort lived in. And so I sometimes look at it, and think about the fact that Fort and Dreiser used to drink beer and talk on the top floor; and reflect on that sweet friendship between those two odd and soulful characters. There's no plaque or museum; I just know the address from their letters. Maybe that's the best.

  2. There's that passage in To the Lighthouse, in which Cam looks back from the boat and thinks how "all those paths and the lawn, thick and knotted with the lives they had lived there, were gone"—that's what I always think of in writer's house museums & other writerly pilgrimage sites. There was, for someone whose work I admire, a density of experience layered onto this place. Their footsteps traced back and forth in an everyday routine; I imagine them leaving a kind of ghost-trail with their movement, that becomes "thick and knotted" as it is repeated over the years. Can I actually perceive this with my eyes? No. Does it add depth or authority to my reading of these authors' works? Maybe sometimes, but likely as not it doesn't. But for me it remains a powerful imaginative exercise. Walking in a path so well-worn by other feet, specific other feet.

    Why bother to read the author’s work at all, when you can just put your hand on a tree and feel “connected” instead?

    I find strange Bernard's assumption that visitors to this kind of site are making these trips instead of reading the books. My assumption would be rather that they're doing it in addition. Certainly I would only be interested to visit the home of a writer whose work I have actually read and admired. But I'd be interested in the degree to which that's actually the case.

  3. Now that you have me thinking about it, I have been to quite a few writer's homes: Hugo's in Paris, Twains in Hannibal and in Hartford, Harriet Beecher Stowe's (she lived nextdoor to Twain), Edith Warton's, The Bronte Parsonage and Jack London's ranch in Glen Ellan where I live. I've enjoyed them all, as has my partner who does not read their books for the most part. They tend to be small, as you say, but full of interesting stuff none-the-less. The only one that really moved me, in a ridiculous fanboy kind of way was the Bronte Parsonage.

    I used to take my 7th graders on a field trip to Jack London's ranch after reading Call of the Wild. In fact, the main reason why we read it was to justify the trip. I can't say that it changed anyone's life seeing the man's grave, etc. but any excuse to get out of the classroom for the day is a good one as far as my students and I are concerned.

  4. Emily - that strange assumption of Bernard's is not an assumption at all but a conceit.

    CB - that's just where I am at. However skeptical I am, I won't stop visiting them! I have hardly been to so many, though. Poe in Phildelphia, Lessing in Wolfenbüttel, Jiro Osaragi in Yokohama. Maybe I have not visited the right museums!

    I like Doug's more muted personal response, too. Although I am not sure where all of those alexandrines are coming from. In the two Hugo collections I have read, which are admittedly just a paltry selection of the huge bulk of Hugo's verse, the forms and meters are enormously varied. Here's the last post of Hugo poetry week. Those two collections contained some fine, fine stuff.

  5. I was thinking of Hugo's big works, the plays and long poems, which are all in alexandrines. He wrote fine alexandrines, but his output is enormous!

  6. The Hugobjets make me think of Pamela. People's taste in literary action figures has certainly been interesting...I will now enjoy thinking of Victor Hugo as the 19th century Stephenie Meyer for a time.

  7. Hi A.R.:

    Two views of art.

    A poet once wrote that after he wrote a poem, the poem belonged to the universe. His poems took on a life of their own. He was no more an expert on their meaning than anyone else. With this view of art it makes little difference how or where the author lived.

    There is another view that the artist cannot separate himself from his art. The art is an extension of himself. The extreme view might be expressed as the medium (the artist himself) is the message. With this view everything we learn about the author colors how we ‘see’ that author’s work. Under this second view visiting an author’s home can be as significant as visiting the locations in which the literature is set.

    I would love to read Proust last books in his cork-lined bedroom where he spent his last years writing. The reading experience would be far different.


  8. nicole - the big difference is this - imagine the Twilighters primarily buying posters and statuettes of Stephanie Meyer!

    Vince - The reading experience would be far different, yes. Far more uncomfortable, plus there is the risk of developing cork-lung. Tomorrow, the cork-lined room! Thanks for the reminder.

    I have no doubt that visiting an author's house can be deeply significant, moving, insightful, etc. But I suspect that it rarely is. Another view of art would be more like the response Emily describes, a powerfully subjective imaginative combination of who knows what, with the meaning of literature generated internally and only resembling the meaning others find by coincidence.

  9. I have been to two Author's House Museums-both in London and one in the Philippines-the one here is the home of Jose Rizal, also a patriotic hero

    In London I went to the homes of two of my literary heros-at the Charles Dickens House Museum there are a lot of items, some tacky, for sale but it was interesting to imagine Dickens there-

    I also went to the Samuel Johnson House Museum which I found much better curated-it was thrilling to imagine Samuel Johnson lumbering up and down the stairs and it was great to be in the room where The Dictionary was composed-I admit the most moving experience was having a few in one of the 100s of year old taverns where Johnson and his circle spent there time

    There was a group of tourists in the Johnson museum who I am pretty sure had never heard of him and looked real bored-

  10. The Rizal house, how interesting, and that reminds me that I forgot one, Léopold Sédar Senghor's childhood home in Joal, Senegal. Of course, he was also the first president of Senegal, so the ambiance was more along the lines of visiting George Washington's childhood home rather than a writer's house.

    Johnson's house is so vividly described by Boswell and others that it would be well worth seeing. Perhaps in visiting writer's houses, the books we learn about are not the ones they wrote, but their biographies.

    I was preceded into the Hugo museum by a group of English-speaking college students who went in because it was free, which it was not, but paid anyways and then sprinted through the exhibits. Otherwise, for a Tuesday afternoon there was a good, attentive crowd.

  11. The author houses I've visited have been played up as part of greater tourist attractions than as museums-- Stratford upon Avon and Green Gables (which is actually a national park). I felt both were well worth visiting, but in viewing the actual houses, did wonder, "what do I do here?" I saw plays in Stratford and wandered the paths on PEI that Anne Shirley wandered (I know she is fictional, but I felt I was connecting with her, not with Lucy Maude) and that was great-- but the actual houses? Meh.

  12. A visit to a "real" "fictional" setting - now that's a whole 'nother thing. The Anne of Green Gables example is a great one. Sitting at L. M.'s desk - interesting, maybe; walking in Anne's steps - that fires the imagination. Imagining Quasimodo up there in the Notre Dame bell tower with you seems far more juicy than imagining Hugo imagining him.