Thanks to both Emma of Book Around the Corner and Guy of His Futile Preoccupations for choosing Ninety - Three by Victor Hugo as one of my Bah-Humbook choices for 2013. I read the Frank Lee Benedict translation.
Hugo’s work takes places during the French Revolution. Most of the narrative concerns itself with the antirevolutionary, pro-royalist rebellion that occurred in the region of Vendee, and with the revolutionary government’s attempt to suppress it. This was a real historical event. Though not Hugo’s most famous work, the novel is a strong artistic entry to the author’s catalogue.
Various characters, both the entirely fictional as well as the real historical personages, populate this novel. In telling his tale, Hugo presents us with an interesting cast of players.
Marquis de Lantenac is a Royalist nobleman organizing the forces of Vendee. Though he orders executions and outright atrocities, Lantenac shows some positive character traits and eventually rescues three children from imminent death at great sacrifice to himself.
Gauvain is the Republican General who fights the war honorably and humanely. Unusual in this conflict, he treats prisoners decently and eschews executions.
Cimourdain is the fanatical revolutionary ex-priest who is Gauvain’s former teacher and beloved father figure. His cruel treatment of Royalist prisoners eventually puts him somewhat at odds with Gauvain.
Michelle Fléchard is a peasant woman who is left for dead after a massacre propagated by Royalist forces. She spends most of the narrative attempting to locate her three children, who are being held hostage by the Royalists.
Tellemarch is a bagger who is wise, righteous and moral. Though he refuses to take sides in the conflict, he shows mercy to Lantenac while the Royalist is on the run, but later decries his cruel actions.
Several real historical figures, such as Maximilien Robespierre, Georges Danton and Jean-Paul Marat are also depicted in the book.
Most of these characters, with the exception of Michelle, often pontificate at length on various political, social and moral philosophies.
One striking aspect of this novel is how Hugo depicts not just the flaws, but outright atrocities committed by both sides in the conflict. Villages and farms are burned, children are kidnapped and used as hostages and combatants and civilians alike are executed. Several important characters are cruel or fanatical. The excess of both the Revolutionary and the Royalist sides are illustrated and scrutinized. Though balanced in this way, and harshly critical of its malign aspects, Hugo is ultimately sympathetic with the ideas and with the long-term results of the Revolution. In one of several passages dedicated to this issue, he remarks,
In this caldron, where terror bubbled, progress fermented. Out or this chaos of shadow, this tumultuous flight of clouds, spread immense rays of light parallel to the eternal laws. Rays that have remained on the horizon, visible forever in the heaven of the peoples, and which are, one, Justice ; another, Tolerance ; another, Goodness ; another, Right ; another, Truth ; another, Love.
As with such books, there is a lot going on here. Though Hugo does take the side of the Revolutionaries, he seems to be ultimately disgusted by the excesses of both factions; war, the executions that characterized the period and the ensuing political intrigues, and shown to be a form of irrationality. This is illustrated in a passage when Michelle’s children destroy a literary treasure in a spate of play – hostility that parallels the actions of the adults in the novel.
This rejection of warfare and strife seems to go hand in hand with an embracing of the innate goodness in people as well as the beauty of the natural world. A clue as to what Hugo seems to value in life can be found in the below description of Tellemarch, as well as in the masses’ reaction to the beggar.
They did not like Tellemarch. Tellemarch the Caimand was a puzzling man. Why was he always studying the sky? What was he doing and what was he thinking in his long hours of stillness? Yes, indeed, he was odd ! In this district in full warfare, in full conflagration, in high tumult ; where all men had only one business devastation and one work carnage; where whosoever could burned a house, cut the throats of a family, massacred an outpost, sacked a village; where nobody thought of any thing but laying ambushes for one another, drawing one another into snares, killing one another this solitary, absorbed in nature, as if submerged in the immense peacefulness of its beauties, gathering herbs and plants, occupied solely with the flowers, the birds, and the stars, was evidently a dangerous man. Plainly he was not in possession of his reason; he did not lie in wait behind thickets; he did not fire a shot at any one. Hence he created a certain dread about him.
Peaceful contemplation and harmony with nature, though scorned by the masses, is offered as a positive and healthy contrast to war and cruelty both in the above passage and elsewhere.
Later, the primal maternal nature of Michelle is analyzed and eventually extolled.
Maternity is inexplicable; you can not argue with it. That it is which renders a mother sublime ; she becomes unreasoning ; the maternal instinct is divinely animal. The mother is no longer a woman, she is a wild creature. Her children are her cubs. Hence in the mother there is something at once inferior and superior to argument. A mother has an unerring instinct. The immense mysterious Will of creation is within her and guides her. Hers is a blindness superhumanly enlightened.
Hugo seems to be pointing to an underlying, naturalist drive and virtue in people. There is something very basic in all of this. Eventually, Gauvain eloquently lays out his vision of an ideal society, melding the ideals of the revolution buttressed with strong naturalistic and humane values.
Hugo’s depiction of such human strife is more complex than I have been able to capture in this post. Though much of the narrative bemoans war and brutality, Gauvain, who I think speaks for Hugo, indicates that such ills may be an intermediate step to a society where peaceful, protective and nature-orientated tendencies predominate.
There is a lot more to ponder here in terms of philosophy, character and aesthetics. A huge portion of this work is dedicated to descriptions. As he does elsewhere, Hugo devotes many pages to tangents involving such issues as military strategy, perils of the sea, French geography etc. Hugo’s unorthodox writing style is worthy of study in and of itself, and any comprehensive discussion would need to include his other works. The numerous action sequences are innovatively spelled out and gripping.
This novel is full of important themes interesting characters. As it is unexpectedly filled with of all sorts of engaging action, it is also fun to read. This is a recommended novel, especially if one has enjoyed Hugo’s better - known works.