Monday, June 18, 2012

The Toilers of the Sea, Victor Hugo's amazing heist \ engineering \ sea novel

The Toilers of the Sea (1866) is Victor Hugo’s fifth novel, and his third masterpiece in a row.  I should note that I have not read the first two, Hans of Iceland and Bug-Jargal, despite their immensely appealing titles.  Notre-Dame of Paris (1831) followed those two, and Les Misérables (1862) came thirty-one years later.  The number of novelists with a gap that long between their two best novels must be few.  Admittedly Les Misérables is long enough for four or five ordinary novels, if one can say that anything about Hugo is ordinary.

In the meantime, in that gap, in those thirty-one years, Hugo had also written and published a body of poetry that should have made him the greatest French poet, as for a time it did, but gnawing worms named Baudelaire and Flaubert and Les Fleurs du Mal and Madame Bovary were at that moment undermining the firmament; these writers were well known to Hugo but not understood by him, or actually strongly misunderstood as followers of, who else, Victor Hugo.  If I had a copy of the letters of Baudelaire with me I could give his exact response to being congratulated by Hugo on writing poems for the struggling People.  I can paraphrase Baudelaire, though: “I hate the People!”

How Hugo loved the People; how they loved him.

The Toilers of the Sea, despite the first word of the title, is not about the People.  It is not a political novel at all, even though it was written during Hugo’s exile from France.  Unless – oh no, how awful – it is an allegory, and the shipwreck is France, and the octopus is Louis Napoleon.  The novel is very much about the Sea, though.  Hugo claims, in a Preface, that Notre-Dame de Paris is a denunciation of dogmas, Les Misérables is about laws, and Toilers is about things, the elements.  All three are about “the fatality within [man]… the human heart.”  Ah, how sad!  This is why Hugo lost his readers.

That and the lack of actual story.  The Toilers of the Sea has a ratio of story to non-story that may approach a 19th century novelistic record.  In much of the story that the novel does tell, a man tries to salvage a ship in a superhuman feat of engineering.  A rare genre:  the novel of engineering.

The floor of the engine room was framed between the eight cables from the hoists, four on one side and four on the other.  The sixteen openings in the deck and under the hull through which the cables passed had been linked with one another by sawing.  The planking…  (plenty more of this in, p. 300)

The other story is what may be – what must be – the greatest heist film of the century.  Not a film, I guess.  But there’s a hundred page stretch that bangs along like an Elmore Leonard novel.  A Leonard novel that spends a surprising amount of time describing rocks.

In a Hugo novel, you get everything.  Whether you want it or not.

Early on in Toilers, I was worried that Hugo was getting a bit stiff.  He loosens up.  The novel has some passages that approach unbelievability (not the one sampled above, not exactly).  I could write about the book all week.  I will.

I read the 2002 Modern Library / James Hogarth translation, an excellent edition all round. I read Les Misérables in the revised Wilbour version which goes back to 1862, and the Quasimodo novel in (I think) the Walter Cobb version from the 1960s.  My tribute to all three translators: their books all sound and feel like they were written by the same writer.


  1. This is such a hilarious post.

    Many years ago now, I had a PhD student work with me on a thesis about Hugo and Sartre, and whether in consequence or not I don't know, but I find I have nothing to say about Hugo. Quite possibly of course because Hugo says it all himself, and then some. My PhD student said it was due to his early love for the TV series Dynasty that he got into 19th century novelists like Hugo. I think this probably has something to do with the Elmore Leonard passage you were discussing above.

    Oh and one more thing - when asked who the greatest French writer was, Gide replied 'Victor Hugo, helas.' (please imagine correct accent there - can't find them on this keyboard) I always rather enjoyed that remark.

  2. More and more parallels between Hugo and Melville, n'est-ce pas? Decades between the greatest novels (for Melville, I'll be uncontroversial and give him Moby-Dick and Billy Budd, but only for the purposes of this comparison). And talk about "a body of poetry that should have made him the greatest [X] poet." Okay, well that's controversial--but a TON of poetry, at least one poem of which, comprising what, 99.9% of the total, turns out to be really really good. And of course, no one cared and for all intents and purposes he may as well have been doing nothing all that time.

    So who, then, are the American Baudelaire and Flaubert?

  3. Also, meant to say, the engineering bit reminds me of In Hazard. And I note that you seem to have gotten the same Nabokov poetry collection that showed up at my door one day, months after a forgotten preorder :)

  4. Quite possibly of course because Hugo says it all himself, and then some.

    Ain't that the truth! All I can do is repeat him and shadow him. Writing about Hugo is huge fun; thinking about writing about him is strangely exhausting.

    You remind me that I have another great Gide bit on Hugo to use later in the week. Well, not as great as the one you supply, but still pretty good.

    Hugo and Melville have a lot in common, like their love of digression and facticity. And they are opposites - world-fame vs. obscurity. They both should be read carefully by so-called post-modernists, but I am not sure that Hugo is.

    Whitman fills the Baudelaire role pretty well, actually. In terms of international influence, the Flaubert is Faulkner.

    The Nabokov collection is a pleasing item. It is a much better book as such - less mish, less mash - than the collection of his translations.

  5. Just downloaded translation by j. Thomas moy from manybooks. I will ad this to my hopefully read in 2012 list. Thanks for motivating me to read another hugo novel.

  6. mel, this Hugo novel is so good it has me tempted by the next one - The Man Who Laughs or whatever it is called.