Jean Cocteau’s line was “Victor Hugo was a madman who thought he was Victor Hugo.” André Gide had another good one. Asked to identify the greatest French poet, he replied “Victor Hugo, alas!” This is all hearsay, by the way, quite possibly apocryphal. But these jibes give a good sense of Hugo’s stature, even after his death. They suggest that Hugo was not simply a writer, or an influence, but a problem for other writers.
If I got the gist of the joke, I had never read a book that quite justified it, not even the massively discursive Les Misérables. Now, I have. Victor Hugo’s William Shakespeare (1864) begins:
A dozen years ago, on an island near the coast of France, a house, at every season of forbidding aspect, was growing especially gloomy by reason of the approach of winter. The west wind, which has full sweep there, was piling thick upon this dwelling those enveloping fogs November interposes between sun and earth. In autumn, night falls early; the narrow windows made the days still briefer within, and deepened the sombre twilight of the house.
The description of this house, and its environs, and the French exiles who reside within, goes on like this for four pages. The island is Jersey; the exiles are Victor Hugo and his family, washed ashore in Great Britain, although as close to France as they can physically be. One might wonder what this has to do with William Shakespeare.
Let’s advance to the end of that first chapter, where we find the father and son, “silent, like shipwrecked persons who meditate.”
Without, it rained, the wind blew the house was as if deafened by the outer roaring. Both went on thinking, absorbed, perhaps, by thoughts of this coincidence between the beginning of winter and the beginning of exile.
Suddenly the son raised his voice and asked the father, -
“What think you of this exile?”
“That it will be long.”
“How do you intend to employ it?”
The father answered, “I shall gaze at the ocean.”
There was a silence. The father was the first to speak: -
“I,” said the son, “I shall translate Shakespeare.”
Hugo’s exile would last nineteen years. During that time he finished Les Misérables as well as two more novels, published some of the greatest French poetry of the century, and wrote an introduction for his son’s Shakespeare translations, a piece which somehow expanded into a 400 page essay on creativity and genius that is hardly about Shakespeare at all, but is very much about its author, Victor Hugo.
I want to be absolutely clear: William Shakespeare is only rarely written like the above passages. A long Shakespeare book written like that, what an accomplishment! The book is rambling, wild, windy, crackpot, brilliant, boisterous, by turns, or all at once, 400 pages of uninterrupted Hugolian outpouring. It is hilariously inaccurate, as the outstanding, exasperated 1887 translator, Melville B. Anderson, points out again and again. It is the purest concentration of the essence of Victor Hugo I have ever encountered, or hope to. Great book. Bad book. Beyond categories.
Maybe just one more day on William Shakespeare’s Victor Hugo. Oops, I mean Victor Hugo’s Victor Hugo. No, hang on -