At the Maison de Victor Hugo

by John Broening (May 2013)

The Place des Vosges is the coziest and most expensive square in Paris. Identical, high-ceilinged 17th century apartments on four sides. An arcade that runs all the way around and houses a Michelin three-star restaurant where lunch can run you a thousand Euros. A gated park, full of fine gravel and poodle-like topiary, that takes up most of the square and expresses the French mania for placing a strict order upon wild things; for some reason, it makes me think of classic French poetry, with its elaborate officially sanctioned taxonomy and precision-cut alexandrines.

In one corner is the square’s chief attraction: Victor Hugo’s Paris residence, which for many years has been a free museum. There’s a gift shop on the ground floor and on the second floor is the apartment where Hugo and his wife lived off and on for fifteen years. On the ground floor and on the stairs leading up to the apartment are a series of framed, illustrated front pages from the magazines of Hugo’s time. Here are the riots at Hugo’s play Hernani, the long-haired young Romantics duking it out with the grizzled Classicists with their fitted waistcoats and pince nez. Here is a caricature of Hugo as a giant straddling Paris, one hose-clad shoe propped on the Theatre Nationale and another on the Academie Francaise. Daumier’s sharp drawing of the Second Empire eagle crushed by a copy of Les Chatiments, Hugo’s book of anti-imperialist poems. A sea of black-clad backs, bowlers and straw hats at Hugo’s funeral. A cartoon of laurel-wearing Hugo on Parnassus, flanked by his peers Shakespeare, Dante and Racine.

On the second floor are two rooms that allude to the styles of some Hugo’s most popular literary works: an emerald-walled salon decorated in chinoiserie, recalling Les Orientales, as pure a reflection of Orientalism as Edward Said could wish for; a neo-Gothic dining room with vaulted ceilings, a tribute to Notre- Dame de Paris, one of Hugo’s biggest popular successes. In the back is Hugo’s bedroom; the filigreed desk where Hugo, like Nabokov, wrote standing up; the canopied, four-postered mahogany bed that is, incredibly and poignantly, no bigger than a child’s.

If all of his contemporaries and literary successors could agree on one thing about Hugo, it is that he was deeply full of shit. ’More of an orator than a poet.’ ‘My poet of choice? Victor Hugo, Alas. - a genius and a simpleton at the same time.’ ‘A madman who believed he was Victor Hugo.’

And Hugo existed for modernist writers less as an object of worship or inspiration than as a figure of the establishment to rebel against and a marble monument to deface with their graffiti. In his book-length broadside Hugoliad, subtitled The Grotesque and Tragic Life of Victor Hugo, the absurdist playwright Ionesco calls Hugo’s poetry a “thick rhetorical gravy” and elevates as more genuine the artless outpourings in her diary of Hugo’s wife Adele. When Auden writes of the poet Rimbaud that “in that child the rhetorician’s lie/ burst like a pipe,” the rhetorician he had in mind was probably Hugo.

‘Victor Hugo was a madman who believed he was Victor Hugo’, these were Cocteau’s profound words. A madman believes the world centers around himself, that everyone is closely watching him and commenting upon everything he does, and that unseen forces are plotting against him. But, one wonders, what if this is actually true, as it was in Hugo’s case-- is he still mad then?

Consider this: after he became famous at 29, every major event in Hugo’s life had a Lady Di-like public reverberation. When his daughter Leopoldine drowned it was national news. So was it when Hugo’s friend the critic Saint-Beuve cuckolded Hugo with Adele. And when Hugo joined the barricades in the 1848 revolution. And when Hugo left the country in self-imposed exile after the restoration of the monarchy in 1851 by his political enemies.

From today’s vantage point, one admires less the work itself than the sheer abundance and energy of it, and marvels less at Hugo’s high stature and public pronouncements , which were full of lofty, semi-coherent language and  often shifted with the political tides, than the fact that once a mere writer could so confidently command such attention and adulation.

Hugo had a genius for putting himself right in the middle of political and cultural life. Paris was, after all, the city that Walter Benjamin called the ‘capital of the 19th century’, and French art, music and above, all literature were at the very center of it.

This is of course true no longer, and not just for Paris. It’s hard to imagine, say, a million New Yorkers turning out for Philip Roth’s funeral, or riots erupting in Brixton because of some intemperate remarks J.K. Rowling has made about David Cameron’s government, or Barack Obama conceiving a vendetta against Don DeLillo.

The mass literacy that produced a Victor Hugo and in which reading was intimately linked to the people’s desire for social betterment and for the realization of their political hopes has come and gone, and if Hugo is known by a larger audience today it is mainly through extra- literary adaptions such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame or Les Miserables, works that survive because they are the ur-texts for so many clichés of modern popular culture: the lovable freak with the noble heart, the poor man who is the natural aristocrat, and so on.

It occurs to me, as I descend the broad staircase and walk out into the sunshine, that Hugo is modern not in what he wrote, but in who he was. Long before Truman Capote or Madonna, here was a media-savvy public figure (a guide tells that he was beloved by painters and photographers because he could hold the same pose for hours) always conscious of the figure he cut and aware that for a large public, whom they believed him to be was as important as the art he produced. In this, Hugo is our contemporary.

John Broening is a freelance writer based in Denver, Colorado. His writing has appeared in GastronomicaDepartures, The Baltimore Sun, The City Paper, The Faster Times and The Outlet and his article on the Noble Swine Supper Club was featured in Best Food Writing 2012

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