Victor Hugo - Writer Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Victor Hugo - Writer

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During his life which spanned from 1802 to 1885, Victor Hugo was the French author of seven novels, 21 plays, 18 volumes of poetry, and roughly 3 million words of history, criticism, travel writing and philosophy.


At different stages of his life he was a militant monarchist and a revolutionary socialist. He coined the phrase 'The United States of Europe' which, as phrases go, was a dismal failure, but the idea was extremely catchy and, over a 100 years after his death, the European Union was born.

Hugo was elected as a Representative of Paris in 1848. On 2 December, 1851, he woke up to the news that there had been a coup d'etat. Sixteen Representatives had been arrested while they slept and had been sent to prison. The National Assembly was occupied by troops. Hugo's quarter was one of the few to erect barricades.

To the People Louis-Napoleon is a traitor!
He has violated the Constitution!
He has outlawed himself...
Let the people do their duty!
The Republican representatives will lead them.
To arms! Vive la Republique

Thousands of copies of this decree, which was attributed to Hugo, were pasted up on the buildings of Paris only to be torn down by soldiers.

Hugo stayed at large longer than most of the representatives. On 11 December, he finally fled France into a 20-year exile. The new government enforced the first half, though the latter half, after a general amnesty in 1859, was completely voluntary.

Some of Hugo's greatest works, including Les Miserables and Les Chatiments1, were written while in exile.


Cao Daism, a religion with over 1,000 temples in Vietnam, considers Hugo to be one of their primary saints, though not for this reason. Cao Daists have employed a process called Spiritism to converse with many important figures in world history, several of which, including Hugo, they have canonized.

During the 1850s, while in exile, Hugo spoke to several spirits through this same process of Spiritism or Table-Turning. Through this process he discovered that Shakespeare, Jesus, Mozart and Sappho, among others, all thought very highly of his literary work.

The Novels

Victor Hugo's seven novels include, in no particular order: Les Miserables, Notre Dame de Paris, Toilers of the Sea, Bug Jargal, The Man who Laughs, Hans of Iceland, and Ninety-Three.

While the modern English-speaking world is perhaps most aware of the first two through several movies and musicals based on the works, several critics2 believe his final novel, Ninety-Three, to be his best.

During the years 1872 and 1873, Hugo wrote his final novel using a routine some might consider slightly eccentric. Every morning, on the roof of his house on Guernsey in the Channel Islands, Hugo would stand naked and pour a bucket of cold water over his head. He would then enter a glass cage he referred to as his 'lookout' and write while standing at a lectern.

The greatness of Ninety-Three perhaps lies in Hugo's family upbringing. His father was an important general in Napoleon's army in Spain. His mother was a member of a conspiracy to depose Napoleon. Hugo was able, through his upbringing, to write a novel on perhaps the most crucial event in French history at that time - the French Revolution - from as close to an unbiased point of view as possible. Different readers have come away from the novel identifying with and siding with different characters. Even one of the primary villains of the novel, Cimourdain, a nightmarish ex-priest, has had at least one defender.3.

In the novel, The Man Who Laughs, the character Gwynplaine is sold as a child to a band of Russian Gypsies and horribly mutilated, his face 'carved' into a permanant, hideous grin. The novel was made into a silent movie in 1927. Gwynplaine's face in the movie served as an inspiration to Detective Comics' cartoonist Bob Kane when he created the villain, The Joker.

The Poetry

Hugo's literary career began when he submitted a poem to an annual poetry competition of the Académie Française at the age of 15 (1817). He admitted within the poem to having 'scarce seen three lustres', a lustre being equal to five years. The Académie refused to believe his age until Hugo showed them his birth certificate. Some have suggested that if he hadn't admitted to his age, he may have won the competition.

Hugo's greatest commercial success was Contemplations (1856). He referred to it as his 'Great Pyramid' - a reference to the tomb of Cheops. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was so enamoured of the collection that she wrote to Napoleon III asking him to pardon Hugo: 'What touches you is, that no historian of the age should have to write hereafter, while Napoleon III reigned, Victor Hugo lived in exile4'.

Equally famous is Hugo's, Les Chatiments (1853). Defined by Hugo as 'God's vomit', Les Chatiments contained 97 poems attacking the reign of Napoleon III. It was one of the most popular forbidden books of poetry in the generation of French schoolchildren that included Zola, Verlaine and Rimbaud and included:

The Worst Treason
The deepest infamy man can attain
Is to strangle Rome, or France enchain;
Whate'er the place, the land, the city be,
'T is to rob man of soul and liberty;
'T is with drawn sword the senate to invade,
And murder the law in its own court betrayed.
To enslave the land is guilt of such black dye,
It is ne'er quitted by God's vengeful eye;
The crime once done, the day of grace expires,
Heaven's punishment, which, howe'er slow, ne'er tires,
Begins to march, and comes serene and calm,
With her steel knotted whip beneath her arm.5

Victor Hugo Island

Hugo's grand-daughter Jeanne married Charcot, the son of Freud's teacher. Charcot was an explorer of the Polar Regions, which partly explains why there exists a Victor Hugo Island off the coast of Antarctica.

A Final Quote

The author, who some have claimed has had greater influence on French literature than any single source besides The Bible, is perhaps best summed up by the French poet, Jean Cocteau:

'Victor Hugo was a madman who thought he was Victor Hugo.'
1French for The Punishments, a collection of poetry.2Eg Robert Louis Stevenson and André Maurois.3Admittedly, this defender was Dzhugashvili, who later changed his name to Stalin.4Graham Robb, in Victor Hugo, A Biography, notes that Browning's letter may never have been sent.5Translation from Victor Hugo's Works: Edition de Luxe, publishers Estes and Lauriat, circa 1890s.

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