Tributes to Victor Hugo
by well-known artists and writers
Victor in Poesy, Victor in Romance,
Cloud-weaver of phantasmal hopes and fears,
French of the French, and Lord of human tears;
Child-lover; Bard whose fame-lit laurels glance
Darkening the wreaths of all that would advance,
Beyond our strait, their claim to be thy peers;
Weird Titan by thy winter weight of years
As yet unbroken, Stormy voice of France!
Of all the French writers that I have read, I like Moliere and Racine best. There are fine things in Balzac and passages in Merimee which strike one like a keen blast of sea air. Alfred de Musset is impossible! I admire Victor Hugo — I appreciate his genius, his brilliancy, his romanticism; though he is not one of my literary passions. But Hugo and Goethe and Schiller and all great poets of all great nations are interpreters of eternal things, and my spirit reverently follows them into the regions where Beauty and Truth and Goodness are one.
— Hellen Keller, "The Story of My Life"
"Like a page from Hugo..."
The Hague, 30 March & 1 April 1883
I am reading Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. A book which I remember of old, but I had a great longing to read it again. It is very beautiful, that figure of Monseigneur Myriel or Bienvenu I think sublime.
You spoke in your last letter of "exerting influence" in connection with your patient. That Mgr Myriel reminds me of Corot or Millet, though he was a priest and the other two, painters. ...You surely know Les Miserables, and certainly the illustrations which Brion made for it too, very good and very appropriate.
It is good to read such a book again, I think, just to keep some feelings alive. Especially love for humanity, and the faith in, and consciousness of, something higher, in short, quelque chose la-haut.
I was absorbed in it for a few hours this afternoon, and then came into the studio about the time the sun was setting. From the window I looked down on a wide dark foreground — dug-up gardens and fields of warm black earth of a very deep tone. Diagonally across it runs a little path of yellowish sand, bordered with greeen grass and slender, spare young poplars. The background was formed by a grey silhouette for the city, with the round roof of the railway station, and spires, and chimneys. And moreover, backs of houses everywhere; but at that time of evening, everything is blended by the tone. So viewed in a large way, the whole thing is simply a foreground of black dug-up earth, a path across it, behind it a grey silhouette of the city, with spires, and over it all, almost at the horizon, the red sun. It was exactly like a page from Hugo, and I am sure that you would have been struck by it, and that you would describe it better than I.
— Vincent van Gogh (in a letter to his brother Theo)
"Few books in the world can be compared with it"
... We look in vain for any similar blemish in Les Miserables. Here, on the other hand, there is perhaps the nearest approach to literary restraint that Hugo has ever made: there is here certainly the ripest and most easy development of his powers. It is the moral intention of this great novel to awaken us a little, if it may be — for such awakenings are unpleasant — to the great cost of this society that we enjoy and profit by, to the labour and sweat of those who support the litter, civilisation, in which we ourselves are so smoothly carried forward. People are all glad to shut their eyes; and it gives them a very simple pleasure when they can forget that our laws commit a million individual injustices, to be once roughly just in the general; that the bread that we eat, and the quiet of the family, and all that embellishes life and makes it worth having, have to be purchased by death — by the deaths of animals, and the deaths of men wearied out with labour, and the deaths of those criminals called tyrants and revolutionaries, and the deaths of those revolutionaries called criminals. It is to something of all this that Victor Hugo wishes to open men's eyes in Les Miserables; and this moral lesson is worked out in masterly coincidence with the artistic effect. The deadly weight of civilisation to those who are below presses sensibly on our shoulders as we read. A sort of mocking indignation grows upon us as we find Society rejecting, again and again, the services of the most serviceable; setting Jean Valjean to pick oakum, casting Galileo into prison, even crucifying Christ. There is a haunting and horrible sense of insecurity about the book. The terror we thus feel is a terror for the machinery of law, that we can hear tearing, in the dark, good and bad between its formidable wheels with the iron stolidity of all machinery, human or divine. This terror incarnates itself sometimes and leaps horribly out upon us; as when the crouching mendicant looks up, and Jean Valjean, in the light of the street lamp, recognises the face of the detective; as when the lantern of the patrol flashes suddenly through the darkness of the sewer; or as when the fugitive comes forth at last at evening, by
the quiet riverside, and finds the police there also, waiting stolidly for vice and stolidly satisfied to take virtue instead. The whole book is full of oppression, and full of prejudice, which is the great cause of oppression. We have the prejudices of M. Gillenormand, the prejudices of Marius, the prejudices in revolt that defend the barricade, and the throned prejudices that carry it by storm. And then we have the admirable but ill-written character of Javert, the man who had made a religion of the police, and would not survive the moment when he learned that there was another truth outside the truth of laws; a just creation, over which the reader will do well to ponder.
With so gloomy a design this great work is still full of life and light and love. The portrait of the good Bishop is one of the most agreeable things in modern literature. The whole scene at Montfermeil is full of the charm that Hugo knows so well how to throw about children. Who can forget the passage where Cosette, sent out at night to draw water, stands in admiration before the illuminated booth, and the huckster behind "lui faisait un peu l'effet d'etre le Pere eternel?" [looked to her a little like the Eternal Father] The pathos of the forlorn sabot laid trustingly by the chimney in expectation of the Santa Claus that was not, takes us fairly by the throat; there is nothing in Shakespeare that touches the heart more nearly. The loves of Cosette and Marius are very pure and pleasant, and we cannot refuse our affection to Gavroche, although we may make a mental reservation of our profound disbelief in his existence. Take it for all in all, there are few books in the world that can be compared with it. There is as much calm and serenity as Hugo has ever attained to; the melodramatic coarsenesses that disfigured Notre Dame [de Paris] are no longer present. There is certainly much that is painfully improbable; and again, the story itself is a little too well constructed; it produces on us the effect of a puzzle, and we grow incredulous as we find that every character fits again and again into the plot, and is, like the child's cube, serviceable on six faces; things are not so well arranged in life as all that comes to. Some of the digressions, also, seem out of place, and do nothing but interrupt and irritate. But
when all is said, the book remains of masterly conception and of masterly development, full of pathos, full of truth, full of a high eloquence. ...
— Robert Louis Stevenson
in "Preface. By Way of Criticism" (The Art of Writing)
At Victor Hugo's Newspaper Office
Probably the most interesting newspaper office I have ever visited is that of the Paris Rappel, which is owned by Victor Hugo and his son. The Rappel is the largest of the radical journals of Paris; it is as ably written as any of the newspapers of that great city, which is no wonder, considering that the great poet himself is a regular contributor to its columns; and it has a circulation so extensive as to make it very profitable property.
I had a letter to Victor Hugo, and, not finding him at his residence in the Rue Deluc, drove to the office of the Rappel, where, I was told, I would be certain to meet him. Le Rappel occupies most elegant apartments in a new five-story building on the Boulevard Montmartre. The editorial sanctum is a splendid room on the second floor, with large windows, and a most delightful view of one of the finest portions of Paris.
... the door opened, and Victor Hugo himself stepped in. I recognized him at once, although nearly thirty years had passed since I had seen him last. That was in 1845, when he delivered a fiery speech in the Chamber of Peers. His hair then was black, now it was white as snow; but his bearing was still as proud and erect as then, and his eye still possessed that magnetic, wonderful brilliancy, which renders his face, although not exactly handsome, so remarkably attractive. Louis Philippe, with whom Victor Hugo was on excellent terms, always said of him:
"Whenever M. Hugo asks any thing of me, I grant it at once. I would not dare to look him in his great, curious eye, and refuse."
Let me add that Victor Hugo never asked anything wrong of
His welcome was cordial in the extreme. He informed me that Dickens, my poor, dear friend, had told him, in 1858, that I intended to visit him at his retreat on the island of Guernsey. How kind to remember it! We were friends at once. Not a trace of haughtiness is to be found in the manners of this prince of poets. He invited me to dine with him that day at six, and would not hear of any excuses.
He asked me to look at the papers a moment, rang a bell, and took from the entering boy a proof-sheet. I could not help watching him as he glanced over it. It was a brief editorial, but it evidently did not please him. Seizing a lead-pencil, he hastily wrote some lines on the proof-sheet, and then whispered to his son. The latter made a soothing remark to his father, which at once removed the frown from Victor Hugo's fine brow.
I asked him how he liked newspaper work. He laughed, and said he was hardly able to give a competent opinion about it, as he did so little of it.
"You must ask M. de Girardin about it" he said, good-naturedly. "He can tell you all about it. I never was much of a journalist."
"You write your editorials in verse," I said; and I complimented him with unfeigned admiration upon the magnificent lines he had recently addressed to the Count de Chambord.
To my astonishment, father and son looked at one another and smiled.
The son explained it all to me. "Father," he said, "blamed me for giving the poem to the printer. He was dissatisfied after finishing it. It was not good enough. I gave it, without his knowledge, to the compositors. Next day he was angry with me. I am glad, M. Andersen, that you side with me."
And thus we chatted on for over an hour. Assistant editors and reporters came in. The younger Hugo gave them their instructions in the kindest manner, his father interposing, now and then, with one of those caustic remarks for which he is noted.
In the course of the conversation he asked me about my eyesight. He said he had read somewhere that I had been in danger
of losing it entirely.
"I was twenty-two years old" he said, "when the doctors forbade me to read, under pain of becoming blind. Eighteen months I did not open a book nor write a line; but, when my eyes did not get any better, I pursued the opposite course. Then I did get better. For once the doctors were at fault."
A number of proof-sheets were brought to him, and I rose. He took both my hands.
"At six," he said, warmly to me; "and you must stay all evening."
— Hans Christian Andersen
Hugo writing at his desk
List of Victor Hugo's Works
This list is given to show the extraordinary output of Victor Hugo as an author. Some titles are given with English translation, some are only given in French.
Published during Hugo's lifetime
Published after his death
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