Victor Hugo

By Matthew Josephson
To those of us in or past middle age it is a strange experience, even a shock, to confront the suggestion that Victor Hugo is no longer universally read. The assumptions in which we grew up were (1) that those who had read much of anything knew Les Misérables, Notre-Dame de Paris, L’Homme qui rit, and Travailleurs de la mer, together with a selection of the poems and, probably, Hernani; and (2) that the first of these was familiar to all who had read anything whatever. Mr. Josephson’s life, an excitingly valuable book, denies or at least by-passes all such assumptions. It is written throughout to make Victor Hugo fully alive outside his books, and the great books are presented as but incidental disclosures of the great man, by means of deft synopses that serve equally well as reminders to a generation that has read Hugo and as rudimentary information to one that has not.
Many sources of material of the first importance have become available in recent years, and Hugo may be said never before to have been presented in English with both wholeness and truth; indeed, even the modern studies of him in French have tended to be partial and topical rather than comprehensive. Mr. Josephson is clear and satisfying — also, for the ordinary non-specialist reader, near enough to final — on aspects that used to be either hopelessly enigmatic or almost blank; for example, the history of Hugo’s parents, including especially the son’s peculiar and really important relations with each, and the baffling riddle of Madame Hugo’s involvement with the incredible Sainte-Beuve. W. F.