Books: Inspiring lesson of les miserables

VICTOR HUGO by Graham Robb, Picador pounds 20
Three years ago, Graham Robb published a well-received biography of Balzac; now he turns to that other "Napoleon of literature", Victor Hugo, to give us the best life of the writer available in English (and likely to remain so for some time). But Balzac must have been a relatively straightforward task beside Hugo, a monster of fecundity and longevity, poet, playwright, novelist, politician, political dissident, a literary prodigy in his teens, a sexual prodigy in old age, adored, reviled and lionised, an enormous egotist and a model of humility, "a madman," as Jean Cocteau said, "who thought he was Victor Hugo."

It would be hard to overestimate the problems caused by Hugo' success, not least for the man himself - as Cocteau's aphorism implies. An acknowledged leader of the Romantic movement in his twenties, a member of the French Academy before the age of 40, he was never out of the public eye and, when he died, was followed to his resting-place in the Pantheon by a crowd estimated to have been larger than the entire population of Paris.

Not that he was without enemies; on the contrary, he had plenty, all through his life; and his own technique for dealing with the consequences of his success was more often than not condemned as hypocrisy. After he abandoned the ardent royalism of his youth, he identified more and more with the most destitute in society; yet he was proud of having made a fortune from his writing. Whenever he attributed his talent to some force beyond himself, he was inclined to adopt the grandiloquent tones of a latter-day prophet. As a monarchist in the 1820s, he was accused of time- serving; as an opponent of Napoleon III, he was accused of sulking in his island exile; as an old man, he played the old rogue - in a collection of poems called "The Art of Being a Grandfather". And nothing, in the end, could have been more ostentatious than the pauper's hearse that he demanded for his funeral.

There were any number of inner contradictions: Hugo's life, Robb says, is "an inspiring lesson in the art of surviving one's own personality". But the biographer, too, needs techniques to cope with the subject's fame, to avoid either partisan hostility or the Hugolatry that comes from an uncritical acceptance of the public image: virtually every town in France has a street named after this man. Robb's stance of quizzical detachment can seem like lack of enthusiasm. Occasionally, he is more eager to look clever than to talk sense; for example, when he sees Hugo, in his final years, starting to speak in "last words": "it was a literary genre in which he proved to be as prolific as in all the others; perhaps it was the genre he had been practising all along."

Overall, he is better on the life than on the work; and he is especially informative on the least public side of Hugo, his many sexual affairs. Not that there was much effort at concealment: Hugo himself kept a record written in a code which, as Robb's many extracts show, was, quite easy to unravel (his mistress, Juliette Drouet, wasn't long fooled by Hugo's Spanish and Latin abbreviations). Prostitution, Robb claims, was "one of his major sources of information an the class of miserables and "a statistical analysis shows that, from 1847 to 1851, he had sex with more women than he wrote poems" - the kind of small item of factual information that one is often grateful to have (though we would like to know more, eg the length of the poems). Even in his lifetime, most Frenchmen found Hugo's sexual exploits admirable rather than otherwise, especially when they knew that their national poet was still at it well into his seventies - another "inspiring lesson" from the great man.

Nowadays, Hugo's seduction of chambermaids, his interest in his daughter- in-law, his treatment of his wife and mistress, and what the biographer calls his ''insights into childhood sexuality", appear rather differently. At the same time, it is important to see them in the context of the 19th century (and, for example, to point out, as Robb fails to do, that Hugo's maids on Guernsey were not penalised if they refused to sleep with their master). Hugo family life was not consistently happy, but it was definitely unhappy in its own way, and in the end only contributes to the general impression of profane monstrosity.

The English reader, who is likely to think of the work in terms of two novels - the one that gave us Disney's Hunchback of Notre-Dame and the one that inspired the musical known to ticket touts as Les Mis - may wonder what the fuss was about. Robb tells us that he was first inspired to write this biography to overcome his countrymen's unjust neglect of Hugo's "English" novel, L'homme qui rit. Yet he compounds a distorted view by continuing to imply that Hugo's best work was in the novel. He devotes several pages to the notorious "battle" around the play Hernani in February 1830, but gives only a sketchy idea of Hugo's actual contribution to Romantic drama. Worst of all, though he quotes a fair amount of the poetry, this is usually to illustrate the life and only in English (most readers of this book would surely have enough French to appreciate the original words, with the help of a translation).

Without the poetry, it is impossible to grasp Hugo's influence on his age, particularly on those later figures who so willingly acknowledged and reacted against it: Baudelaire, Flaubert, Mallarme ... : hence Gide's famous "Victor Hugo, alas!" when asked who was the greatest French poet of the 19th century (an answer that makes no sense if, as Robb does, one turns it into a question about Gide's favourite poet). Where Hugo was productive, the dominant figures of the second half of the century were parsimonious: Sartre's description of Baudelaire's disgust at the warm fecundity of nature, his cult of sterility and frigidity, his liking for cold, clothed women, defines precisely the reverse of Hugo, who wrote with a spontaneity that is equally far from the precise, perfectly controlled chisellings of Mallarme.

Baudelaire and Mallarme are the "modern" poets of the 19th century, yet one can argue, as Jacques Roubaud did in his essay "La Vieillesse d'Alexandre" that all modern French poetry stems from Hugo, who revolutionised the line at the core of French verse and rightly boasted (in a perfect example of the form) that he had "unhinged that great booby", the Alexandrine:

J'ai disloque ce grand niais d'alexandrin

- an achievement that is hardly comprehensible to those who were not brought up under the tyranny of its 12 syllables.

At the same time, some of Hugo's finest poetry is written in language so simple that it could be used to teach GCSE French; for example, the poem on the death of his daughter Leopoldine, "Demain, des l'aube...", an ironically neat example of the future tense which Robb calls "heart-rending" - before heartlessly wringing its neck with his English translation. His fascinating, totally readable Life will introduce Hugo to many readers who know him only as a name. They will learn a lot about sex and politics in 19th-century France, have a better appreciation of Hugo's role as an opponent of the Second Empire and a campaigner against capital punishment, and perhaps be inspired to read or re-read his novels; but they will still have a very imperfect idea of his contribution to literature and to the French psyche.