Sunday, February 26, 2017

Birthday: "He who opens a school door, closes a prison."

Victor Marie Hugo (1802-1885)
Poet, Author, Activist

He was born to a general who served under Napoleon, and a Catholic royalist mother. In Victor Hugo’s eighty-three years, the government changed six times between monarchists and republicans.

He spent nearly a fifth if his life in exile. In his views, Hugo moved from Catholicism to deism; from monarchist peer of the realm to republican senator. Through it all, he retained the adoration of the French as one of their greatest writers in any age.

His first collection of poems was so impressive the king gave him a lifetime pension. Hugo was twenty. His first novel came out when he was twenty-one, and he published five more collections of poetry through the 1830s. He could have died then and been remembered as one in the first rank of French lyric poets.

At twenty-six Hugo published The Day of A Condemned Man, which influenced writers from Dostoevsky to Dickens to Camus. He wrote hit plays about historical figures.

His 1831 novel, Notre-Dame de Paris, lives on as The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Set in the late Middle Ages as people struggled to adapt to whirling change, the book presents the arrival of the printing press as the death of religion and architecture, by removing knowledge from its custodians and opening it to any and all.

In the mid-Thirties he began work on a sweeping novel of social misery and injustice; it took seventeen years to finish and appeared in 1862 as Les Miserables. Critics panned it; the public loved it, and within a short time, issues it raised were being debated in the national assembly.

The book sold out in hours in most cities, backed by a six-month marketing campaign unusual for its time. For years, The Guinness Book of World Records listed the book as the cause of history’s shortest correspondence, in which Hugo, wondering about sales, allegedly telegraphed his publisher, “?”. The publisher, legend had it, replied, “!”

At 39, he was given a peerage and elected to the French Academy. Voters sent him to Parliament in the new Second Republic of 1848; he campaigned for free universal education, voting for all Frenchmen; and ending poverty. He launched a campaign to end the death penalty that won him worldwide fame and condemnation.

After the coup that brought Napoleon III to power, Hugo went into exile in the British Channel Islands, where he was forced to leave Jersey for Guernsey after backing a newspaper critical of Queen Victoria. He campaigned to save the lives of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico and the American abolitionist John Brown. When Napoleon III issued a political amnesty in 1859, Hugo turned it down. There were strings attached. He could come home, but he would have to be very well-behaved.

As soon as Bonaparte was overthrown in 1871, Hugo returned to Paris and survived the Commune (living on animals the Paris Zoo gave him) and the disaster of the Franco-Prussian War, before retreating again to Guernsey until 1873.

When he returned to France, he was promptly elected to the Third Republic’s Senate, where he was considered an ineffective gadfly, and was distracted by health and family problems. Nearly all his children died before him, and one was declared insane and institutionalized.  

Hugo’s eightieth birthday was a national celebration. The parade past his Paris home lasted six hours. When he died, three years later, the nation plunged into mourning. His funeral drew two million people, and he was interred in a crypt at The Pantheon, with Dumas and, later, Zola. He published 56 books in his life; another twenty-two were issued posthumously.

Few have had greater influence after death. In 1886 the Berne Copyright Convention, which created an international system for protecting the intellectual property rights of authors, went into effect. It was Hugo’s creation.

He was discovered to have been a first-class artist, leaving behind a collection of over four thousand drawings the equal of any in his time.

As in modern times, we have seen some writers’ works translated naturally as films, Hugo’s lyricism inspired music: over a thousand works to date, including over one hundred operas. Rigoletto, Ernani, La Gioconda and Lucrezia Borgia remain in the modern repertory. “Music,” he wrote, “expresses that which cannot remain silent and that which cannot be put into words.” The modern-day musical, Les Miz, opened in Paris in 1980 and in London five years later (for a book earlier critics condemned as popular fiction, the stage show was condemned by critics for popularizing a literary classic). It is the second-longest running West End play ever, and ran sixteen years on Broadway.

In 1959, Charles De Gaulle's newly-declared Fifth French Republic, to underline its continuity with French democratic values, issued new currency bearing Hugo’s likeness.

#LiteraryBirthdays #HenrBemisBooks #Charlotte #VictorHugo

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