When asked to name the poet with whom he felt the greatest affinity, Andre Gide memorably replied "Hugo - Helas!" Graham Robb clearly prefers, and to some degree empirically endorses, the bon mot of Cocteau, that "Victor Hugo was a madman who thought he was Victor Hugo" (one wonders what Hugo would have thought about Gide and Cocteau). But both remarks suggest that Robb's task in interpreting this extraordinary figure, to understand whose life is "to understand the 19th century", for the benefit of readers in the last years of the 20th is, in one respect, an unenviable one. It is thus a considerable achievement to have succeeded in portraying so persuasively the man whose Promethean energy lay behind a restless political commitment, a prodigious literary output and a voracious sexual appetite.
Hugo was involved, often directly, in virtually all the key moments of the 19th century, an engagement resulting most notoriously in his exile during the Second Empire to the Channel Islands, and concluding with a triumphal return to Paris in 1870, to a city he found transformed by the elegance of the Haussmann boulevards we know today. Blessed with an apparently effortless gift for versification, his writing encompassed the theatre, the novel and lyric poetry, as well as polemic (with the appearance of Napoleon-le-Petit in 1852 an "important moment in the history of modern democracy"), alongside other more ephemeral genres.
The vast corpus flowed, virtually uninterrupted, from his pen, reaching its high points in such lyrical masterpieces as Les Contemplations or in the epic novel Les Miserables, to say nothing of theatrical evenements such as the opening night in 1830 of the notorious tragedy Hernani, provoking one of the fiercest - and most physical - literary battles of the century.
He was adulated and vilified to an unparalleled degree during his own lifetime, as betokened by the coining of such terms as hugomanie and hugolatrie by the French language, and as signalled by his status in later years, in Robb's felicitous paradox, as "a court poet for post-monarchist France". Yet he saw his family disintegrate around him, most famously in the death by drowning of his daughter Leopoldine in 1843, and Robb's account of the devoted companionship of the actress Juliette Drouet culminates in a scene of pathetic domesticity.
He was a visionary (in one sense) in his lifelong campaign against the death penalty and in his advocacy of a united Europe, and (in the other) in his experiments with spiritism and metempsychosis; and his commitment to the poor was marked by the pauper's hearse on which he was carried in his hour of national apotheosis. Most bizarre of all is his posthumous status as the patron saint of a syncretic Vietnamese cult. More terrestrially, he was awarded the Legion of Honour in 1825, was elected to the Academie Francaise in 1841 and made a French peer in 1845. He lived in houses in Paris (in the Place des Vosges) and Guernsey (Hauteville House), which became museums to the glory of their occupant, and indeed Dickens remarked that the decor of Hugo's Paris home, "looked like a chapter out of one of his own books".
Each stage of the life is meticulously but readably investigated, with appropriate engagement with previous biographers, including the account of Hugo's wife Adele, and his own coded notebooks, which Robb fascinatingly deciphers. The solidity of the scholarly apparatus, for all that it is lightly used, is never in doubt. At the moments of greatest intensity, notably in the siege diary of 1870, the political activities are recorded day by day and even hour by hour; and the apparent inconsistency of Hugo's political allegiance, moving from legitimism to liberalism to republican socialism is aptly resolved in the phrase that "in the flesh his contradictions merged into a convincing whole".
On the literary front, Robb is notably perceptive on the poetic texts: on the implications for poetry of the visual experience of train travel; on the erotico-transcendent verse which is founded on Hugo's affair with Leonie Biard; on La Legende des siecles, "like a child's history written by the Marquis de Sade"; but also on the Litterature et philosophie melees, "a brilliant experiment in autobiography", and on certain of the (now) lesser known later novels, above all Les Travailleurs de la mer and L'Homme qui rit. The chapter on Hugo's paintings is particularly insightful.
One of the work's strongest contributions to modern literary studies lies in its awareness of the unconsciously anticipatory quality of certain strands in Hugo's writing, illustrated both in terms of the influence exerted on figures who have more directly marked modern sensibilities - poets such as Baudelaire, Mallarme or Rimbaud - and of parallels which may be drawn, for example between his posthumous Thetre en liberte and the theatre of Samuel Beckett or Eugene Ionesco. The case made for Hugo's "modernism" is thus persuasive (even though it is highly questionable as to whether "literature based on individual sensibility", is "what we now think of as literature"), with, as a rider, evidence of the disservice done to him by musicals and cartoons tellingly exposed. Hagiography is generally resisted, although it is hard to feel entirely comfortable with Robb's surprisingly tolerant approach to (and in-extenso quotation of) such mawkish utterances as L'Art d'etre grand-pere; and one occasionally suspects that he is too indulgent of Hugo's dismissive views of French literature before his own time (not to say his own writing).
The novels are (refreshingly) not paraphrased, but enough is told for a reader to grasp their character, and to follow the critical responses that ensued; translations are efficient and accurate, so that the astonishing linguistic bravura of the greatest poetry and prose is at the very least enticingly glimpsed. Robb's own prose is on occasion tinged with purple (do writers of biographies become like their subjects?), but just as often irresistibly ironic; and, overall, the coherence, conviction and sheer drive of the writing hold the attention of the biographically inclined reader over a remarkably long timespan.
From a more critical standpoint, there are arguably two problems with Robb's account: the first stems principally and perhaps inevitably from the uncertain nature of the genre of which he is a practitioner. Put simply, we must wonder whether we are being invited to look, somewhat voyeuristically, at Hugo as an historical phenomenon, as a museum piece of quite superhuman dimensions; or whether we are being alerted to the existence of a formidable oeuvre which still richly deserves our attention (which would indeed seem to be the tenor of Robb's concluding pages). At one point this tension comes to the surface of the text, as the biographer declares that, "were biographers not far more prone to the petty professionalism commonly ascribed to Hugo, readers should be advised immediately to put down this book and go and read Les Miserables".
The way of squaring the circle is of course to negate the problem, as we find in Robb's early assertion that he will explore Victor Hugo in his entirety "by using the work on which he lavished the greatest amount of love and ingenuity: his life". But although this conflation would work with certain writers (with Gide, as it so happens, particularly well), and is indeed supremely persuasive in evaluating aspects of Hugo's poetic output, it leads elsewhere to an effortful deciphering of concealed (Robb's term is "occult") autobiographical elements in the novels. Conversely, it gives rise to a series of hypotheses, for example, in the form of the premature deaths to which Hugo might have fallen victim, erected in an attempt to underscore the "novelistic" nature of his own existence (thus his return to Paris is "the best ending he had written for himself so far"). The victim of such a symbiosis is, inevitably, the possibility of fiction itself, other than as the adjunct of autobiography.
The second problem concerns the relationship of foreground to background, above all in the fact that, although we learn very early on that Hugo founded "two distinct phases of Romanticism", and although the epithet is applied thereafter to everything from imagination to indolence, we are not much wiser, five hundred pages on, as to what exactly such a statement means (and a readership which is presumed incapable of reading French will not get much of a frisson from an audacious enjambment).
But it is above all the improbable and exhilarating story of Hugo's life itself that remains in the memory, authoritatively but elegantly told, and refreshingly objective in its realistic assessment of the degree to which posterity might find the phenomenon credible and the writing accessible. Whether or not, in a post-hugolatrous age, the sales of Hugo's novels rise significantly as a result of this book, it seems more than likely that the turnstiles will be clicking faster at Hauteville House and in the Place des Vosges this summer.
Richard Parish is professor of French, University of Oxford
Author - Graham Robb
ISBN - 0 330 33707 6
Publisher - Picador
Price - £20.00
Pages - 682