Books: From bedrooms to barricades

Beneath the Hunchback and Les Mis lies a sunken continent swarming with sex and politics, farce and tragedy. Now we can see Hugo whole. Daniel Stevens hails a grand act of reclamation; Victor Hugo by Graham Robb Picador, pounds 20
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When it comes to crowd-pleasing funerals, the British have miles to go before they can hope to match the shambolic fiesta that gripped Paris for a fortnight after Victor Hugo's exit in May 1885. Two million mournfully merry citoyens staggered through the streets in a mood midway between orgy and revolution. (Hugo, of course, had plenty of form with both.) Souvenir peddlers flogged Hugonic kitsch by the barrowload as parliament rushed through a bill to deconsecrate the Pantheon, expressly for the great pagan's remains. Police sources even noted that "the whores of Paris had draped their pudenda in black crepe as a mark of respect".

In death, as in life, the shaggy titan of 19th-century French literature blended sex, commerce, incendiary politics and woozy idealism into a grandiose one-man show. Hugo's send-off, writes Graham Robb in his terrific new biography, amounted to "a great clanking platitude brought spectacularly to life". You might say the same of this deeply learned but fabulously entertaining book.

The melodrama that began in 1802 - when a wayward Napoleonic general fathered a boy whose feats of cultural strategy would stun the world - lurched between one hammy climax and another. From the manufactured uproar in 1830 over his rule-busting play Hernani to the octogenarian senator's twinkly double-act as both "a frisky, breast-grabbing old greybeard and as a role model for God", Hugo pursued his career as bard, rebel, rake and prophet on the public stage.

Pretty often, the performance spiralled into farce. It could also plunge into tragedy. Three children predeceased him (he first read about Leopoldine's drowning at a cafe table while on holiday). Another daughter sank into possibly schizophrenic delusion and ran off to Canada with (quel horreur!) an English officer. Meanwhile, Hugo's street-level bid to bust the Paris barricades and stop the revolution of 1848 from escaping bourgeois control made the socialist "directly responsible for the deaths of untold numbers of workers". So much for cute Gavroche.

Robb's wonderfully sprightly prose dovetails the grandeur and absurdity of this steaming, hooting, shuddering progress through the century. Hugo the Romantic superstar and Hugo the political whirlwind - who might have ended up as President, or else under the guillotine - entwine in every fact-rich but unpedantic paragraph. Robb has managed, as he hoped, to deliver "a mine of information without the slag-heap".

The pace and angle shifts as fast as the Channel Islands weather of Hugo's 19-year exile from Louis Napoleon's regime. Robb can stride in seven-league critical boots over vast tracts of epic verse ("the desire to comprehend may actually be an obstacle"). Then he can dramatically tighten his focus for (say) an hour-by-hour report from the barricades of 1830, 1848 and the Commune.

His vivid version of the Guernsey years, when Hugo "sat on the horizon like a great innuendo" as the gimcrack Empire tottered under his propaganda barrage, transforms our picture of this huge hiatus. From his perch at Hauteville House, Hugo wrote much of Les Miserables (as well as the unjustly neglected Channel Islands novel Les Travailleurs de la Mer) and reams of Blakean prophetic poetry. He dabbled in seances, painted visionary scenes, redesigned his home, fired off endless republican salvoes, masterminded their clandestine entry into France - and bedded a battalion of local girls. "Fornicating and interior decorating," Robb writes, "were just two aspects of a creative binge, much of which ended up on paper."

Robb makes a compelling case for the uncut Les Mis as "the most lucid, humane and entertaining moral diagnosis of modern society ever written". He brushes cobwebs off the Guernsey work and cherishes the lyric verse that filled French schoolrooms for 150 years. And he dusts down attics full of grime-encrusted prose. To Hugo, size mattered. (As did number: from 1847 to 1851, he "had sex with more women than he wrote poems.") Even a bulky warhorse such as Notre Dame de Paris emerges as a mere slice of juvenilia.

Yet a nagging doubt persists. So lively is Robb's Hugo, you wonder why newcomers should ever bother with the limp translations he scolds from time to time. This mesmeric biography will stand in for the writing at the top end of the Anglophone market, just as the Disney Hunchback and the song-and-dance Les Mis embody Hugo on the high street. Not for the first time, the legend may engulf the work. In the 1920s, the Cao Dai Buddhists of Vietnam installed Victor Hugo as a saint; the sect still has three million followers. Robb's rackety and passionate chronicle deserves to swell the ranks.

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