Novels that change things

Notre Dame: the VIPs are up the tower; outside all is photography. Here too, of course

“It is divided into three parts, the University, the Citie, and the Town by the noble river Sequana, commonly called la riviere de Seine, which springeth from a certaine hill of Bergundy called Voga, neare to the people of Langres, in Latin Lingones. The University whereof I can speake very little, (for to my great griefe I omitted to observe those particulars in the same that it behoved an observative traveller, having seene but one of their principall Colledges, which was their famous Sorbona, that fruitfull nursery of school divines)…

…“The Cathedrall Church is dedicated to our lady, which is nothing so faire as our Lady church of Amiens: for I could see no notable matter in it, saving the statue of St Christopher on the right hand at the coming in of the great gate, which indeed is very exquisitely done, all the rest being but ordinary, as I have seene in other Churches.”

Thomas Coryat

Victor Hugo speaks pretty good Japanese these days. He has a good story to tell as well, a different story from his own famous novels, poems and plays. In rue Scribe, close to the Opéra in central Paris he is the narrator of the “Paris Story.” In fourteen languages, he – or rather a computer generated Hugo – is the commentary for a multi-media history of the city, all the way back to the Romans. He is a good choice for the new media age, Hugo was a polymath; engagé too. A historian of the present, some say. He was, Wikipedia says, “novelist, playwright, essayist, visual artist, statesman, human rights campaigner, and perhaps the most influential exponent of the Romantic movement in France.” In later life he was a great “Republican”, in the days when that meant something quite different.

When he published “Notre Dame de Paris”, aka, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, it was a pioneering social novel: spurred the nascent historical preservation movement in France and strongly encouraged the Gothic revival in architecture. Ultimately it helped to preserve Notre Dame Cathedral, where much of the story is based, in its contemporary state. It also boosted tourism to the capital, and led to the restoration of Notre Dame’s roof.

“Dan Brown’s novel has done for St. Suplice what Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame did for the cathedral of Paris. In the early 19th century the cathedral was in a terribly poor state of repair. As a medieval monument, it was not held in high regard. At this period it was the monuments of the Renaissance that were considered worthy of attention.”

The Definitive guide to the Da Vinci Code. Paris Walks. Peter Caine

Outside St. Suplice, near to Agnès b

Like John Ruskin in England, Hugo’s championing of the gothic caused a sea-change (one of Shakespeare’s neologisms, I’m sure Tom must have liked it) in the way we see things. Though, as “seers” often do, the two were not in accord. In a letter to a friend Ruskin wrote:

“I never was thoroughly ashamed of you and your radicalism till you sent me that ineffably villainous thing of Victor Hugo’s. did you ever read “The Hunchback of Notre Dame? I believe it to be simply the most disgusting book ever written by man, and on the whole to have caused more brutality and evil than any other French writing with which I am acquainted.”

So no De Sade for Ruskin then. His marriage failed on the wedding night because he saw his wife’s pubic hair – it is believed.

Hugo’s desire was to change the way not just Bourgeois France thought about architecture, but politics, and the way we live now. To create a debate: that was the aim in Hugo’s work. He was exiled for it, and not always understood to this day. In “Victor Hugo in Exile,” an author – forgive me – writes:

“The collective memory of Western twenty-first century societies, and specifically of France, is imbued with the ideals Hugo professed. France has accepted, at least in part, the telling of memories that its ancestors did not want to hear.

What Hugo achieved, at his best, was an “updating” of the past; going back and looking with new eyes in order to change the way a contemporary society perceived themselves, their country, and the way of things. Of course, Hugo brings with this vision his own demons, his own memories. But in certain key events, such as the siege of Paris in 1870, he was present as “history” changed.

One hundred and seventy years ago Victor Hugo brought one of his grander mistresses, the the actress Juliette Drouet, to Montreuil. The poet and flagellator, Algenon Swineburne always said Hugo was the greatest writer since Shakespeare. As he sweetly put it: “There was never a more brilliant boy than Victor Hugo: but there has never been a greater man…”

I don’t think we know Hugo in England nearly well enough. Sitting in the Grand Place in Montrueil its hard to think of social revolution, but that what his novel Les Misérables was all about. It was set here, largely, and is a novel of multiple plot and identities; what unifies all is the story of the ex-convict Jean Valjean, known in prison by his prisoner number, 24601. He becomes a force for good, but cannot escape his past, as they say in the movie traillers.

“I am not a number, I am a Free Man.”

By the time Hugo published the novel he was 60; but he had known success all his life. He was a literary prodigy:had a pension of 1,000 francs a year from Louis XVIII after his first volume of verse was published at 17. Before he was 35 he had written six plays, four volumes of verse, and the “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”.

The grand American critic, Harold Bloom, wrote in 1979 that Hugo was a writer who remains “absurdly unfashionable and neglected by his nations most advanced critics…”

Others are not so sure about the character of the man: in “The Fall of Paris”, Alaistair Horne’s definitive account of the Siege of Paris in 1870 he describes Hugo talking a lot, grandly, and sleeping with a large number of women. A Goncourt brother confirmed things with on the spot reportage. Of Hugo, he said: his main preoccupation during the siege – sex. In the introduction to Horne’s book I seem to remember Richard Cobb calling Hugo a fool. Somethere in the middle of all this is the French surrealist and general art-dandy, Jean Cocteau who gnomically states that Hugo: “He was a madman who believed that he was Victor Hugo…” And there are all those musicals…

Anyway, years after the love-tyrst here with Juliette Drouet, in exile in Guernsey, Hugo wrote Les Miserables, and set much of the action here. It is a novel using fiction as a weapon against another out of touch Emperor. An emperor who would fall in 1870, after a disastrous campaign against the Prussians.

Like Thomas Coryat, Hugo loved the classical poet Virgil.

“In Virgil, that almost angelic god, the high
Peaks of the lines are lit with a mysterious glow.
Dreaming beforehand things that we have come to know,
He sang almost when Jesus first began to cry.”

Hugo, Virgil

But what drove him on was a desire to change things. In the Place des Voges his house is now a museum, as with the Maison Jules Verne in Amiens, it is easy to understand the writer’s life here. Not so easy to understand why the museum is almost empty, when down the road the Café Hugo is overflowing. But it is a holiday.



Place des Voges, holiday time

His first novel, in 1829, Le Dernier jour d’un condamné (Last Days of a Condemned Man) influences such writers as Albert Camus, Charles Dickens, and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Soon afterwards he wrote, Claude Gueux, a precursor of In Cold Blood: a documentary short story about a real-life murderer who had been executed in France, a precursor to his most famous work on social injustice, Les Misérables.

As the computer generated Hugo takes us through the history of Paris, the idea of a socially committed novelist echoes; this haunting appears to have disappeared from twenty-first century life. What novelist changes things now? Answers please: but not the Code guy, please.

Or this.

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4 Responses to Novels that change things

  1. How about Dave Eggers’ What Is The What? Haven’t read it yet, but from the looks of things it’s aiming in the social conscience direction in a bigish way.A number of crime novels come to mind, since a large subsection of the genre focuses on social injustice, though they’re bound to have little effect unless they break out of the mystery market, which few do.

  2. Robin Hunt says:

    I think a lot of books take people to places, like Captain Corelli, or Vikram Seth, or early Rushdie. You know I think Bret Easton Ellis is a “social novelist” – the best satirist we have. Friends of mine tells me he means it. In Glamorama his “terrorist models” blew up the Ritz. Says something. I suppose what I’m getting at is that the agenda of “24” means more than most modern novels, perhaps the social has to be visual these days to get a message across. I don’t know, I’ve been reading old novels for too long, Les Mis and Voltaire and Sterne. That’s the problem with this journey, it forces you back into a past that can make the contemporary seem cheap and superficial. When we know that in many many places it isn’t. In a bookshop yesterday there was an entire table dedicated to popular sociology, everything from Aristotle (i know, i know) through some new book about the american crisis. Pristine and untouched of course.But published. What else, who else? Michael Moore?

  3. I think maybe we’re talking about book wherein the social conscience trumps, if necessary, the style or the visual action. Form serves the conscience entirely. That is hard to find these days outside Moore.Completely agree about Easton Ellis, though he too refuses to express his social outrage directly at the cost of storytelling, which gives his books an almost amoral sense to those not willing to look beneath the sheen.

  4. Robin Hunt says:

    Yes, I think that is right. Conscience reads badly at the moment; and it is much easier to enjoy an older novel when we can see that things “improved” after its publication. I suppose as I flaneur around chic central Paris and name-drop Umberto Eco I’m hardly contributing, but now back in St.Denis, where around the corner from the shopping mall there are plenty of tough times going on for the young, often immigrant, kids – they wander late at night in small gangs, the police sit in vans in Victor Hugo square (irony 101), and France elects a hard-liner on immigration. There probably are novels about these issues being published now; it is a far stretch from Camus though. Social injustice has moved on to documentaries, I guess. Here it is mostly Grey’s Anatomy and Dr. House on the television. They screened Duras’ “L’Amant” – The Lover – on tv last night, the on screen ident said: “suitable for over 12”. It’s a steamy sort of film, I felt a little old and crusty, wondering if that was ok for 12 year olds. The hardest thing on the trip is feeling a pulse; I’m steeped in history, hearing its hauntings, and feel I am probably missing the point of the moment now.Hmm.

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