Thursday, June 21, 2012

Visual Hugo - imagining goffered seaweed and skull-like houses

The Toilers of the Sea is an intensely visual novel.  But do I “see” what Hugo wants me too?  He is describing an abandoned hilltop house, perhaps haunted, certainly used by smugglers:

The house turns its back on the sea.  The side facing the ocean is a blank wall; but if you look closely you can see a window that has been walled up. ..  On the first floor – and this is what strikes you most as you approach the house – are two open windows; but the walled-up windows are less disturbing than these.  They have lost their glass, and even the frames are missing.  They open on the darkness within.  They are like the empty sockets of two eyes that have been torn out.  (I.5.iv., 148)

Even with my omissions, I say the answer to my own question is yes.  Where is that walled-in window, to the right or left if I am facing the back wall?  Who cares?  Put it somewhere.  The empty windows in front, where do they go?  The final metaphor is not so original in and of itself, but I read it and know instantly where Hugo wants me to see those holes in the wall.

The skull that is suggested actually links the scene to another skull we will discover two hundred pages later, but that is a different kind of novelistic effect, not necessarily a visual one.

Let me try another one.  A ship has wrecked against a reef, and a subsequent storm has actually lifted the ship out of the sea, wedging it between two rock towers.

The two Douvres, raising the dead Durande above the waves, had an air of triumph.  It was like two monstrous arms emerging from the abyss and displaying to the storms this corpse of a ship.  It was like a murderer boasting of his achievement.  (II.1.i, 241)

These rocks, the Douvres, have already been described several times by Hugo – “two black columns… their roots were in underwater mountains.”  I think I see them.  Or, even though I have never seen a shipwreck suspended between two pillars, I can imagine it at a certain level of abstraction.  “The huge capital H formed by the two Douvres linked by the crossbar of the Durande stood out against the horizon in a kind of crepuscular majesty.”

The hero of the novel will clamber all over this reef.  He will scale the towers, store equipment on ledges, and construct a forge in a cave inside one of them.  My mental picture has to shift now.  The letter H is pitted with holes big enough for a man to walk into.  One of the columns is in fact is close to hollow.  Five pages is given to describing the cavern within the tower.

A luxuriant growth of moss in every shade of olive concealed and enlarged the protuberances in the granite.  From every projection hung slender goffered ribbons of varech, a seaweed used by fishermen as a form of barometer, their glistening strands swaying in the mysterious breathing of the cavern.  (II.1.xiii, 277)

I cannot imagine every shade of olive – hardly any, in fact.  I replace Hugo’s specific seaweed with my generic one.

A film would solve all of these visual problems for me.  A set designer would choose one plastic seaweed out of all of the possibilities at hand, spray it with some sort of oil, and hide an intern behind it to make it sway.  There it is; I see it now.  And he would discard the goffered ribbons and crepuscular majesty and empty sockets.


  1. Does he anthropomorphize everything in the book? It's creepy and cool. But maybe mostly creepy, the way all of these objects seem to be alive and self-aware. It's a threatening landscape your Mr Hugo offers us.

  2. Anthopomorphize everything, let's see, let's see. Yes. Yes, he does.

    Maybe I will write about the ecological side of the novel tomorrow.