SubStance 50 (1986): 116-119.

Brombert, Victor. Victor Hugo and the Visionary Novel. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984. Pp. 286.

[Reprinted with the permission of SubStance & the University of Wisconsin Press]

It will come as no surprise that the latest study by Victor Brombert again reveals the traits we have come to expect from his lucid criticism, namely, thorough scholarship coupled with insightful analysis. Brombert suggests that Hugo's fiction continues to pose difficult critical problems which can be best approached, if not resolved, with the tools provided by recent narrative theory--and he introduces this study by examining a particular guiding concept, the visional quality of Hugo's fiction. However, arguing that textual concerns cannot be estranged from the ideological and contextual domains, Brombert maintains that these "fruitful tensions among ideological, poetic, and spiritual needs" (p. 12) implicitly determine a threefold analysis of the "visionary" elements in Hugo's six major narrative works--Le Dernier jour d'un Condamné (1829), Notre-Dame de Paris (1831), Les Misérables (1862), Les Travailleurs de la Mer (1866), L’Homme Qui Rit (1869), and Quatre-Vingt-Treize (1874), a study which Brombert concludes with an epilogue entitled "Ego Hugo." The term which best qualifies the "visionary" perspective in these novels is "ambivalence"--the existence in Hugo's work of mutually conflicting feelings and values, a conflict which Hugo himself summarized in 1863: "Evil, in nature as well as in destiny, is a dark beginning of God continuing beyond us into the invisible." Brombert comments: "Because of its explicit formulation, the sentence reveals with particular clarity the inadequacy of a naive reading of Hugo as the reassuring bard of progress, of light, of redemptive love, and of Satan's ultimate salvation" (p. 242). Thus, Brombert's task consists of reading Hugo's fiction in order to define the subversive potential of the author's political, spiritual, and poetic ambivalence.

Brombert suggests that Hugo first signals a political ambivalence through his expression of the dominant message, the denunciation of capital punishment, in Le Dernier jour d'un Condamné. His apparent concern for the fate of le peuple is undermined by the existential "rift" of the Condemned Man's experience as a double spectacle: suffering the scornful ridicule from one group of the peuple, the fellow convicts, and then the cruelty of mob laughter during the moments leading up to the execution. This ambivalence toward mob action as the basis for social change and revolt expands in Notre-Dame de Paris where the destructive force of the rabble's forward march is presented both as threatening and liberating, and where the forms of laughter are multiplied, all containing the potential for cruelty, but also for renewal from below. In Les Misérables, the political charge of Gavroche's (i.e. the city's) "laughter of revolution" and the sublime grandeur of the "grotesque" combine to announce "that salvation is to come from the filth of the lower stratum, from the depths of misery and crime, from the social inferi" (pp.110-114). In Les Travailleurs de la Mer, ideological ambivalence is signaled, on the one hand, through the symbolic bond between revolution and progress, the steamboat, and on the other hand, through various references to this symbol as the "devil-boat," destroyer of the past (pp. 147-150). Hugo's political ambivalence seems even more pronounced in L’Homme Qui Rit: although the hero, Gwynplaine, incarnates "the grotesque as a positive force" (p. 176), the peuple on behalf of whom he would speak regard his monstrous, enforced "laughter" with thoughtless hostility. While apparently justifying violence on behalf of revolutionary progress through his examination of the Terror's "sacred horror" in Quatre-Vingt-Treize, Hugo continues to distinguish the peuple, that he "claimed to love and to serve," from the foule, "the crowd, the ignorant and violent rabble," responsible for the mob-inspired regicide of the Revolution and, more recently, for "the submissive plebiscite of 1851" which legitimized Louis-Napoléon's coup (pp. 227-228).

Brombert accurately links Hugo's fear of political violence to the "metaphysical dizziness" which he experienced throughout his career in confronting the vast historical horizon. In many ways, this vertigo was the source of his spiritual ambivalence. Through numerous "visionary" elements in Le Dernier jour d’un Condamné, Hugo links "the problem of evil to the social question," specifically in what Brombert calls the hidden "nightmare-wish" of violence, to substitute "the figure of the king for that of the Condemned Man" (pp. 45-47). This moral quandary underscores the spiritual dilemma implicit in the ambivalent conception of salvation which haunts each of the subsequent novels: Quasimodo incarnating Hugo's theory of the "grotesque," the "pandemonium of a total vision" which necessarily implies transgression (p. 54); Jean Valjean's transfiguration revealing Hugo's desire to make of Les Misérables the religious book of this proletarian Christ whose "spiritual adventure parallels the fall and rehabilitation of Satan in Hugo's mythology of universal pardon" (p. 122); Gilliatt's self-sacrifice in Les Travailleurs de la Mer and acceptance that "evil itself is part of creation" (p. 160); Gwynplaine's destiny in L'Homme Qui Rit "to live under a stigma," further suggesting that "evil remained a necessary and assimilable element in Hugo's metaphysics" (pp. 197-198); and in Quatre-Vingt-Treize, Hugo's suggestion that while "violence itself is part of the divine scheme" (p. 200), the historical event can nonetheless be viewed in a transcendental context-a conception which explains Gauvain's final antipolitical self-sacrifice (p. 229).

Through a fundamental poetic ambivalence, as well as a poetics of ambivalence, Hugo expresses the political and spiritual dialectic. Brombert describes in rich detail the Hugolian poetics, the stylistic, rhetorical, and thematic antitheses which Hugo develops throughout his novels. However, it is the subject of' writing, Brombert argues, that constitutes the hub of all Hugolian ambivalence, his reflection on the very nature and ambiguity of the poetic process. While writing is clearly the means by which the Condemned Man can recount his tale, the "printed edifice" of writing, the printing press which will kill the "book of stone," is the center of political and spiritual conflict in Notre-Dame de Paris since "writing ultimately involves a competition between author and auctor, between two creative principles" (p. 59). This moral conflict of writing is posed even more poignantly in Les Misérables: in a section entitled "The Self and the Text of God," Brombert discusses how the "implicit correspondence between the selfhood of the genius as author and the selfhood of God as supreme authority" constitutes the very basis for Hugo's narrative technique (pp. 124-128). The "cosmic toil" that is the subject of Les Travailleurs de la Mer relates directly to the ambivalence of the creative writing process, "the illusion that poetic language has an essentially mimetic function" through its imitation of nature's continual effacement/construction process, thereby providing Hugo with "a contextual system that comprises all his own texts (already written, or to be conceived), as well as the hypothetical text of the supreme author in whose name he speaks without appearing to do so" (p. 165). Yet, this creative authority is fraught with danger, for the seer's gift, the creative act, is associated with light and darkness; "what Hugo calls the 'enigma of evil' is at the heart of L’Homme Qui Rit" (p. 203) as well as underlying the antithesis in Quatre-Vingt-Treize between linear and cyclical time, between order and chaos of which God is "le rédacteur énorme et sinistre" (p. 208). Thus, Hugo's poetic ambivalence is summed up in his coat-of-arms, "Ego Hugo," which, as Brombert concludes, corresponds to the author's "intuition of tragic intimacy with darkness," the author and auctor thus meeting "in a common theology of darkness" (p. 239).

While my reading of Brombert's complex analysis is admittedly (and inevitably) partial, I should conclude by pointing out two difficulties which detract from an otherwise satisfying study. Methodologically, Brombert relies both on his skillful close reading informed by the wealth of Hugo scholarship and by his familiarity with the Hugolian corpus, and on appropriate intertextual discussions which support and clarify his development of the "visionary" perspective. Yet, Brombert succumbs at times to the temptation of psychobiographical criticism, suggesting, for example, that Hugo's obsession with the scaffold in the 1829 Le Dernier jour d'un Condamné is somehow linked to his father's death the previous year (p. 33); that Frollo in Notre-Dame de Paris resembles Hugo's self-image as an adolescent, not only in terms of the rivalry with his brother Eugene, but in terms of Hugo's own repression and concomitant "psychic danger" (pp. 62-66). Brombert mav well argue that the psychobiographical approach is merely one of the many available textual strategies which allow the "'lecteur pensif’, to whom Hugo at one point planned to dedicate all his works.... to read texts with multiple, even contradictory, lavers of meaning" (p. 231). It is revealing, however, that by resisting this temptation in his readings of nearly all the novels after Notre-Dame de Paris, Brombert makes a much more convincing case for the "visionary" progression on the basis of abundant textual and intertextual evidence. This brings me to a second, and major, difficulty in Brombert's study: its chronological organization. Given the variety of thematic and symbolic concepts which Brombert must juggle in developing his argument, he might have organized his study more effectively by following thematic chapter divisions. Not only would this course have allowed Brombert to follow the chronological development of these themes, it would also have established the basis for an adequate concluding synthesis which the epilogue, "Ego Hugo," does not entirely provide. However, these methodological and organizational shortcomings cannot obscure the overall power of Brombert's analysis. This study of Hugo's "visionary" novels offers a sophisticated lesson which joins elaborate and patient scholarly groundwork to a skillful, pedagogical demonstration.

Charles J. Stivale
Wayne State University