Sunday, March 2, 2014

Ninety - Three by Victor Hugo

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.


Guy Savage said...

You've made me think I'd better get to my Bah Humbook 2013 choices here soon...

Have you read Balzac's The Chouans?

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you enjoyed this historical novel. It's always a risk to pick a book for someone else!
I think Hugo was influenced by the ideas of the 18thC (Rousseau and nature, novels like Paul et Virginie) but also by Romanticism.

I'm not a great Hugo fan (I truly dislike Notre Dame de Paris) but I enjoyed this one a lot.
His plays are worth reading and he excelled at poetry.
There's a lot more to him that Les Misérables and Notre Dame de Paris


Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - I have not read any Balzac yet. However your commentary on his works makes me want to read him soon.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Emma - I really did like this one. Without a doubt Hugo was developing ideas that Rousseau postulated as well as Romanticism. The entire championing of nature, maternal feelings, etc. exudes it. In fact reading Hugo has really helped me to understand Romanticism.

I have only read this and Les Misérables. Of course I want to read more.

James said...

I am a fan of Hugo and Les Miserables is one of my favorite historical novels. But both this one and Notre-Dame de Paris are not far behind it.
Your precis of the characters is insightful and brings back fond memories of reading the novel. It is interesting to note the dislike of Tellemarch for,among other things, unreasonable behavior. It seems to me that the many characters inflamed by their passions are those who betray their reason.
Your review reminded me why I enjoy Hugo's novels.

joyce said...

Hi Brian...Just wanted to let you know there's a review on my blog about Doris Kearns Goodwin's new book. I know you are a history buff so this is right up your alley.
Congrats on your blog...always so informative.

Lindsay said...

Brian I knew nothing about this work before reading your thoughts - I think I'm only familiar with Les Miserables - thanks for introducing me to this one.

Caroline said...

I hated Notre Dame de Paris so much that I never picked another Victor Hugo novel. I just saw Emma's comment and so maybe I would like this after all.
I'm not so sure though. I find him a bit dry. Did you think the characters really came alive?

Sharon Wilfong said...

I have not read this particular book by Hugo but it seems to carry a theme common in many of his books. Namely the atrocities of war and man's inhumanity to man.
I loved Les Miserables so I will try to read this book as well.
Thanks for a great review!

So many books, so little time said...

Not a fan of historical or rather it is never my first choice but I often find after reading your reviews I want to go hunt something down.


Heidi’sbooks said...

Another book and author to put on my TBR pile. The more I read, the more I realize how much I haven't read. This sounds awesome. They picked a great book for you.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Joyce - Thanks!

I will stop by and take a look.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lindsay - For whatever reason this one seems relatively obscure. I thought that Les Miserables was a stronger work, but this one is well worth the read.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - I did not find the characters dry.

However, the odd thing about this book is how many pages that Hugo spends on descriptions and on tangents that do not directly advance the story. In terms of percentage of the work, this stuff takes up a huge share. This gives an odd sense to the book. Almost as if it were non - fiction and perhaps makes it a bit dry.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - Indeed and unfortunately such human cruelty that is reality, is mirrored in so many literary works.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lainy - thanks for the good word.

I myself have some issues with historical fiction that depicts real characters and events. In terms of style however, this work is so out of the box that it transcends the genre.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Heidi - This was indeed a great choice. I agree, there is so much to read and the list grows and grows.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - I have not read Notre-Dame de Paris but i obviously want to.

Without a doubt many of the characters in this book get carried away. It seems that both Tellemarch and Gauvain represent reason, virtue and moderation.

Anonymous said...

I hated Notre Dame de Paris but I really liked this one.
It's worth a try.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

I'm afraid my experience of this authors works mirror those of Caroline in that I really disliked his Notre Dam novel to such a degree that I'm ashamed to say I was put off reading any of his other novels.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

On publishing this comment I repeatedly got a message saying there was some kind of messaging conflict and I was to try again. Apologies if you later get several repeats posted.

Delia (Postcards from Asia) said...

It looks like you enjoyed this book a lot. I haven't read this one but I loved the passage about Tellemarch - unsettling how people fear those who do not conform to the ideas of the times, whose actions are not guided by the same percepts. I already like Tellemarch and I haven't even read the book!
I've read The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and Les Miserables but it was so long ago I only remember enjoying them but not much else.

Richard said...

I have a different Hugo novel (hopefully) slated for later in the year, but your post helps steel me for the "pontificating," the descriptions, and the digression onslaught to come. Glad you enjoyed this less-famous Hugo title, though: your gifters chose well for you, it would seem!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - i have not read Notre-Dame de Paris but it seems to cause strong reactions. With that said, Hugo is an odd and in some ways challenging writing. As I have mentioned he spend enormous amounts of words on descriptions and sidetracks.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Richard - I look forward to your commentary on Hugo. Without a doubt if one is prepared for Hugo's eccentricities one is likely to do better with him.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Delia - I think that the thing about Tellemarch and people's reaction to him is disturbing because it is sometimes reflective of the way people act in real life.

Though slightly different, it is amazing how I have seen folks react one others who even very subtlety and carefully question war when war fever is brewing.

Unknown said...

Great review! I love Victor Hugo, and am tempted to read this book. However, I think it would probably be better for me to reread Hunchback and Les Mes first. Especially the first, which I read when I was around 14 and didn't really understand. I read the latter one more recently (probably about 6 or 7 years ago), but it's one of my favorite stories.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Rachel - I read Les Mes a few years ago myself. I still have not read the Hunchback. I really do need to get to that one. Les Mes was indeed an incredible and different book.

Maria Behar said...

I have never heard of this novel before. It sounds like a fascinating read, and, from what you've stated in your excellent commentary, it deserves to be better-known.

It's the mark of a great writer this his/her characters are not flat, stereotyped ones, but instead, have the same combination of good and evil that real people do. I can see that this is the case with Hugo's characters in this novel, especially where Gauvain is concerned. However, Tellemarch, who is mostly good, does not come across as stereotyped. He does seem to be more on the side of a saint, as well as a nonconformist. He follows the beat of his own drummer.

I love the paragraph dedicated to maternity! It's absolutely beautiful! Although I've never had children myself, I know I would have been a fiercely protective mother. It's unfortunate that there are women who actually consider 'the man of the moment' as more important than their own children. In sad cases where a stepfather -- or the mother's current boyfriend -- happens to harm one of her children, this type of woman will actually believe the man, and not her own child!!! Oh, this makes my blood boil!! So yes, I would have been VERY fierce, indeed! NO man could possibly be more important than a woman's own child, who is literally flesh of her flesh, blood of her blood!!

I especially love these lines in this paragraph: "A mother has an unerring instinct. The immense mysterious Will of creation is within her and guides her. Hers is a blindness superhumanly enlightened." This is sublime, indeed!!

It's interesting that Hugo sided with the Revolutionaries, in spite of their horrible atrocities. Still, he was objective enough to see the evil being perpetrated by both sides. And I like the fact that he sees human nature as basically good, in spite of all the evil and wars across the centuries. I like it, yes, but I do think it's overly optimistic....sad, I think, but true.

In short, I have to do the same thing with this novel that I'm doing with all the Trollope novels you're reviewed: add it to my Goodreads shelves, and my Amazon historical fiction wish list!

Thanks for your great commentary!! :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - Thanks for the great comment.

The writing on maternity is indeed fantastic. There is something special about Hugo's writing style.

Those sentiments as well as Hugo's optimism about humanity seem to stem from his Romanticism. That is he seems to be saying that if people just follow their instincts that the world would be a better place. I would argue that while some instincts are indeed wonderful, case in point the maternal ones, some are terrible.

The man of the moment over one's children tendency that you refer to is indeed terrible and seems unnatural. Indeed it is infuriating as well as depressing one thinks of it.

Anonymous said...

Those digressions are like commercials which can be skipped if you get impatient. Even more daunting in French as Hugo created some new words.
The hero in L'Homme Qui Rit is obviously Hugo himself. But the story is way too melodramatic with a blind heroine and a mutilated hero for today's reader I imagine. Good movie version came out a few years ago.
The Toilers of the Sea has a lot of specialized vocabulary for sailing. A lot of incredible images such as the giant octopus. Don't know if movie has ever been made.

Brian Joseph said...

Thank you for stopping by. I may be a bit of an oddball, but I like the strange tangents in this book. The boon was obviously melodramatic, but I actually think that can be a bit fun. I really need to see the film version of this.