Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Reading Hugo

Reading Victor Hugo for the first time. When I was young, and first barreling through the classics, I obtained somewhere an absurd prejudice against French language and literature, and mostly skipped it. A couple decades later I had a limping reading-knowledge of French, and was waiting to read it all in the original. Now, with a clearer picture of my mortality, I've realized that if I'm going to read much French literature, I better read it now and in translation. If I get to it later in French, that will be gravy. But better get to it now.

Nearly through the second volume of Les Misérables. It's a bit trying, when he drones on about theology and monasticism. But it's illuminating even then. This is where I came from, where the American Democratic Party came from: all the glories, absurdities, and contradictions of liberalism are on display.

The belief in supermen, and the convenient now-you-see-it-now-you-don't deism, are the most striking things to me. Hugo is dazzled by Napoleon, and Jean Valjean is just Napoleon transposed to private life. The superhero motif sails on to the present day. 

God is indispensable, but malleable. You can make him be whatever you need to him to be at the moment. It's not, of course, Hugo's fault, but prosperity gospel and no-fault Christianity are already in the wings.

But this is the captiousness of hindsight. There's a great deal of sentimentality, and your shoes fill with it as you squelch your way through the novel, but Hugo does bludgeon home one of the great ideas of his time: that we are making criminals and prostitutes, that society is producing them on an industrial scale, that these conditions could have no other outcome. 

Whether Hugo ever set these insights against his own bargains with Eros, I don't know: I might look about for a biography. I suspect that the superhero shtick will have come in handy for him, there.


Nimble said...

I have very fond memories of reading Les Miserables in French while staying at a student hostel around the corner from St. Sulpice. It was moody and sentimental and vast and wonderful.

Dale said...

Yes! It is wonderful.

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Moi aussi. I read Victor Hugo, as well as De Maupassant and others of the French literary pantheon at the age of eight, sitting in the library of the American consul in Asunciòn, Paraguay. He and his wife, sophisticated Francophiles, were friends of my parents and we stayed at their house for a while when my mother broke her arm falling off the roof when checking the water tank at our house in the wilds outside the capital. Yes, this is all true. The adults were busy and left me in peace in the library where I picked books at random from the well-stocked shelves. Whether I picked Les Miserables or another Hugo book I don't remember but I do recall being totally engrossed and thrilled.
I spke only French and some Spanish at the time.

Dale said...

Wow, at eight? That's marvelous!