In our time, as we watch the headless corpse of France flop in the shadow of a spiritual guillotine, it is difficult to imagine an age where Hector Berlioz and Saint-Saens, Bizet, Debussy and Offenbach filled the concert halls; Rostand, Feydeau, Brieux, Claudel, Labiche, de Vigny, and Daudet played upon the stage; the poetry of Musset and Mallarme, Coppee, Baudelaire, Verlaine and Rimbaud, was whispered in the chambers; the stories of De Maupassant, Proust, Sand, Balzac, Dumas, Flaubert, Zola, Verne, and dozens more filled the bookstalls; and in just a single year, the galleries were hung with new work by Cezanne, Monet, Renoir, Manet, Degas, and Gauguin. But it was in the midst of that age of giants that one man stood above and apart, as a poet, a dramatist, and preeminently as a novelist. And it is more difficult now to imagine a life so filled, so wholly well spent that he found hours at the corners to do so much else, and very well indeed—to design furniture, to paint, to become involved in the tumult of politics, to critique the work of others, to edit and to publish, to design theatre sets and homes, and to engage in a private life that alone would consume an average man. Such a character as Victor Hugo easily strikes awe in mere mortals. And, evidently, there is a recent hagiography by David Bellos that concentrates on just one of those protean accomplishments, the creation of Les Miserables.
However, the subject here is not the quality of that history, which I have not yet read, but instead to examine a mean accomplishment of criticism and character assassination that is the more common and base standard of our own time, and which recently appeared in The London Review of Books under the guise of a review of the Bellos book, by Tim Parks. Mr. Parks has long been touted as a literary wunderkind by the arbiters of our lesser age. I carried many of his slim titles in my bookshop because they were heavily reviewed but I have tried to read several of his books and never found cause to finish any of them. Though sharp and edgy, they were each bloodless and unsatisfying.
The misery of so many intellects today is that they understand (if only in the most shallow ways) their own mortality, and jealousy rules their souls as they come to comprehend their own smallness. Mr. Parks is a perfect example of this pettiness. But worse, he takes it upon his clearly miserable self to regularly disparage his betters. I seem to step in his criticism whenever I venture into the dark regions of what passes for literary review these days. I usually manage to wipe my shoe clean of him when I have stepped awrong, but here he was attacking one of my own heroes, so I held my nose and looked for forensic evidence in the undigested bits afloat in the offal. The question was not how he would manage to get so much wrong—that was a given—but whether he might get something right. Victor Hugo was an imperfect man after all and engaged as he was in so much, he made many mistakes. An examination of those flaws is worthy if for no other reason than to understand the greater human being.
Amidst his quibbles with Bellos for not mentioning this or that and his attempts to make those omissions more important than they are, Parks makes statements like “Imprecisions leap to the eye,” to describe broad statements such as when Bellos writes that Dickens spent his teenage years ‘putting shoeblack into pots,’ though the English writer had factually worked at this for only a year. For a year, by God! Worth mentioning in a book review, don’t you think? An apparent reference to Hugo’s use of the French word merde as being unique draws down the wrath of Parks for the fact that Rabelais had used the word numerous times in Gargantua et Pantagruel three centuries before—ignoring the fact that at the time Les Miserables was written, the use was in fact unusual.
But the pettiness degenerates to something even less as Parks adjudges Les Miserables as a good novel ‘because its purpose was good.’ A truly modern response in our moment when supposed intentions are more important than actions. Parks then re-dissects the title of the work itself which was apparently offered by Bellos as evidence of Hugo’s use of double entendre in a book that is imbued with them and attempts to belittle the accomplishment in the way a biology teacher can diminish the leap of a frog as mere contraction when its carcass is splayed in the lab. In the same fashion, Parks is taken with Bellos’ claims concerning the actual names of the characters Hugo created—the first syllable of ‘Fantine’ being a contraction of ‘enfant,’ or ‘Cosette’ being confused with chosette, a ‘small thing,’ etc. —and spends a long paragraph on these as linguistic devices but seems unaware of the depth of character those names represent (as Hugo so carefully, and lovingly, defined them). As if he never read the book, perhaps . . .
But as usual Parks supposes more than he knows and it is in those flights that he gets it most wrong. Parks writes, “Hugo . . . had always sought favours from whatever monarch was on the throne,” and then insinuates that Hugo somehow abandoned his lover Leonie Biard to jail, or was insanely jealous for insisting that his teenage wife, Adele (or does he mean the daughter?) “keep every inch of her ankles properly covered,” and that he was a hypocritical womanizer who enjoyed “the charms of every chambermaid he could lay his hands on.” All interpretations that belie the facts and ignore the actual history of Hugo being faithful until his wife betrayed him, and that the author supported his mistress, Drouet, until the end of her life.
Much then is made of Hugo’s singularly great failure during the Paris uprising of 1848. This was, indeed, a key moment that Hugo relived and regreted for the rest of his life. He had taken the part of authority against the rebels. There were reasons, of course. The revolutions which were challenging the social order all over Europe were endangering more than simply monarchs and royal prerogatives. Unlike most other European nations, France had already suffered greatly by the failure of such anarchistic armed rebellion only a generation before. Parks quotes Bellos saying ‘He was a dutiful man,’ and then counters this with the comment of another biographer’s judgment: “This means that [Hugo] was directly responsible for the deaths of untold numbers of workers.’ Never mind that Hugo did what he thought and avowed was his duty and, already a successful author with much to risk in a confrontation that took numerous lives, he in fact placed himself on the front line to put an end to it.
In that Parks’ literary analysis of the novel Les Miserables is so lacking in substance or originality, pairing obvious facts with unsupported evaluations, my own faults as a critic make a further parsing of that study pointless. Simply stated, he gets that mostly wrong as well, but not before several long tendentious paragraphs. I doubt if many readers of The London Review of Books suffered through it. But he then resorts to anecdotal recounting from Hugo’s known biography to cast aspersion, like salt more than seed. Several times Parks refers favorably to a 1998 Graham Robb biography of Victor Hugo for evidence and I find that telling. I gave up reading the Robb book about half way after suffering one too many psychological interpretations of Hugo’s motivation by an author who obviously needed to get a life.
Despite its flaws, the Robb biography did seemingly give substance to Parks’ appreciation of the actual publication of Les Miserables, as a feat which was unequalled in its time. This, remember, was before copyrights and common practice was to pirate a known author’s work and republish it immediately on the great steam presses then in use. Dickens was dismayed at seeing his own latest work copied and for sale in America only weeks after his publisher had released it. Hugo’s answer to this was to risk an overwhelming international publication of Les Miserables that would make pirating unprofitable—for a time. And it worked. But he had to have the goods. And the book was a truly amazing international bestseller.
Parks concludes his argument with the brilliant assessment that Les Miserables did not end poverty. Amazing! If the man was a sophomore in high school he could be excused for naivete. But I must assume that he assumes his own readers to be as shallow as he is, or he might have been embarrassed at the conclusion. This he finishes with the bald statement that “At his death, [Hugo] left less than one percent of his considerable fortune to charity. Miserable.” I am not sure, but I must guess Parks lifted this factoid from his soulmate Mr. Robb. As I say, I didn’t get very far in the book. However, the extent of Hugo’s wealth at the time of his death is irrelevant. Though I have read it reported that this fortune was far less than supposed, and he had an invalid daughter in need of future care, his circumstances and obligations were many and he was not a man to leave his fate to chance.
What is far more telling in Parks’ lengthy onslaught, a hundred and thirty two years after the great author’s death, is that it matters to the literary authorities of our time to defile the man. The ad hominem attack is the critical currency we are now too familiar with. When critics and scholars are not maundering over the meaning of ‘is’, this is what literary studies have become. That is miserable. But more importantly, Victor Hugo is still a force to be reckoned with.