Boyd Tonkin: Yet another comeback for the superhero scribe - Victor Hugo, alas
The Week in Books
Boyd Tonkin is Senior Writer and a columnist at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Literary Editor at The Independent, and before that Social Policy Editor and then Books Editor at the New Statesman magazine. He has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes and has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize. In 2001, he re-founded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for literature in translation, and serves on its judging panel every year.
Saturday 05 January 2013
Zealous pub-quiz compilers might already know about the French writer who is worshipped as a saint - one of just three - in a Far Eastern faith. The eclectic Cao Dai religion began in Vietnam in the 1920s. It makes sense that the author of Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame should, after a barnstorming career devoted to social and spiritual uplift, ascend to become an ecumenical deity. Yet the extravagance of his post-mortem honours - not merely in the monumental Panthéon in Paris, but in an Asian pantheon of demigods - fits snugly with the larger-than-life role of the author on this earth. For Victor Hugo, nothing succeeded like excess.
Almost 130 years after his death (at 83, in 1885; two million people followed his cortège), Hugo's knack for the superlative still holds. After more than a quarter-century of record-busting stage acclaim, Boublil and Schönberg's musical of Les Mis opens next week as a lavish movie. The novel itself - largely written during Hugo's Guernsey exile from the detested regime of Napoleon III - exhausted the stamina of its earlier English translators.
Then in 2008, the Australian Julie Rose staggered over the finishing-line of this fictional mega-marathon to complete her - outstanding - unabridged version for Vintage Classics. Beyond this sprawling chronicle of Jean Valjean, the ultimate comeback kid, several of Hugo's other works sustain his outsize influence. From every production of Verdi's Rigoletto (taken from his Le roi s'amuse) to Disney's nicely animated Hunchback (with Demi Moore as Esmeralda), he still speaks.
Planet Hugo can host a bewildering array of devotees. The ardent social reformer who aroused so many high-minded radicals also inspired America's cult prophetess of individualism, Ayn Rand. Her favourite novel was the first work of fiction to explore the terrifying outcome of ideological fanaticism via the prism of a single year: no, not Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, but Hugo's saga of the Vendée revolt in 1793, Quatre-Vingt Treize. His life-long torrent of poetry supplied the words to a shoal of gorgeous songs from such composer-admirers as Bizet, Fauré, Liszt and Wagner.
But, beyond the syllabi of the Francophone world, is Hugo still much read? Excess baggage tends to carry severe penalties for posterity. Both the bulk of his individual works and their sheer profusion across fiction, poetry and drama may deter readers. Asked to name the greatest French poet, André Gide memorably replied: "Victor Hugo, hélas". That weary "alas" smacks of the reader with over-strained patience.
Translator Timothy Adès has just published a complete edition of Hugo's long poetic meditation from 1877 on the rejuvenating joys of grandchildren, and on the balance-sheet of his epic life: How to be a Grandfather (Hearing Eye Press, £12). Adès's translations read well and many shorter lyrics observing little Jeanne and Georges have a shadowed charm that recalls Blake. A piece such as "Penniless Children" might almost distil the essence of Les Misérables itself: "Men have angels in their power:/ Every innocent unfed/ Puts on trial the evil-doer./ Thunder's rage shall wake the dead." Then Hugo will jump on a rhetorical high horse and gallop off into the meaning of French, or human, history. It's all (in its way) magnificent, but is it verse?
So, if the movie kindles a Hugolian spark but you have limted time, where to begin? Graham Robb's wonderfully lively biography also serves as a kind of anthology. In fiction, one of the titan's briefest tales made the biggest waves. In 1829, Hugo - a fierce opponent of the death penalty - wrote The Last Day of a Condemned Man. Although no work ever did more to help end capital punishment, its mission remains partially unfulfilled. From China to the US, the old volcano might still spit fire.
Graphic galloper – and a poetic dark horse
Can a graphic work win the overall Costa Book of the Year Award? Dotter of Her Father's Eyes, by Mary M and Bryan Talbot, this week took the biography prize. Now their Joyce-inspired memoir will compete with other category winners. Hilary Mantel's Bring up the Bodies, victor in fiction, may be hot favourite. But in a contest known for its poetry-friendly final juries, don't overlook The Overhaul by Kathleen Jamie - a volume praised here by Fiona Sampson for its "leaping metaphorical clarity". The result comes on 29 January.
The high-and-mighty tax-avoiders
Meet the new boss, same as (or worse than) the old boss… Fans of online criticism used to laud the unpoliced free-for-all of Amazon reviews against the "gate-keeping" practised by newspapers, magazines and suchlike elitist throwbacks. Well, guess what? After scandal after scandal involving impersonation, "sock-puppetry", self-promotion and sabotage by rivals, Amazon has now instituted a system of review-control more rigid than anything in print.
Authors in any genre are now forbidden to post reviews of work within their own field. To have like reviewing like can lead to a cosy back-scratch or a spiteful feud. Equally, it can result in an expert, fair-minded piece. You need proper editing to tell the difference. As for Amazon, it growls about the improved "enforcement" of its policies. Enforcement! Who in Dante's hell do this jumped-up bunch of tax-shirkers think they are?
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