The Jean Valjean of Writers

Article excerpt

The Jean Valjean of writers

THERE are writers without whom the history of literature is inconceivable. There are those without whom history itself is inconceivable. Victor Hugo is among their number.

In his novel Les Miserables, there is a significant episode in which Jean Valjean, a former convict known for his prodigious strength, who has carefully concealed his criminal past and made a new life for himself as a "respectable, honest man', witnesses an accident in which a man is trapped under a cart. With a superhuman effort Jean Valjean lifts the cart to release the victim knowing that in doing so he will betray his true identity. If my memory from childhood days, when I read the novel, serves me correctly, it is at this moment that Police Inspector Javert, who for years has been on the track of Valjean, knows that at last he has found his man.

There are similarities between Victor Hugo himself and the hero of his novel. On more than one occasion he had the opportunity of resting comfortably on his laurels, and at such times he skilfully concealed his rebellious nature under a veneer of conventional literary respectability. But the sight of his fellow-men being oppressed, rather than arousing in him the instinct of self-preservation, evoked a noble attitude of protectiveness towards them. As stubborn an inquisitor as Javert, Hugo was a scrupulous, methodical, high-principled professional who did not shrink from plunging into the underworld of Paris in pursuit of an objective. Yet, at the same time, he was always on the side of the hunted, not the hunter. His was a dual, indeed a many-sided nature, capable of encompassing the characters not only of an Esmeralda or a Quasimodo, but of all the curious, teeming fauna of Notre-Dame de Paris. Like Jean Valjean, Hugo could not prevent himself from struggling to "lift the cart' even if this might mean being crushed under its weight himself.

In so doing he assumed the burden of history.

Hugo has been accused of being melodramatic and grandiloquent, and there is some truth in this accusation. But we can forgive every excess in return for scenes such as that in which the street-urchin Gavroche falls asleep in the belly of a statue of an elephant. For Hugo was Gavroche as well, drowsing from time to time in the impressive but hollow belly of his fame, knowing, like Gavroche, that his refuge was being nibbled away by mice, yet ready at the first sound of gunfire to leap down and take his place at the barricades. To the end of his days Hugo remained something of a Gavroche, a Paris street-urchin.

When, in his poem Le Proces a la Revolution (The Revolution on Trial), taken from his book L'Annee Terrible, he wrote, "O juges, vous jugez les crimes de l'aurore (Judges, you charge the very dawn with crimes), he was defending not only the Revolution but also himself. And in another poem, Ecrit sur un exemplaire de la Divina Commedia (Words written on a copy of The Divine Comedy), he wrote:

Puis je fus un lion revant dans les deserts

Parlant a la nuit sombre avec sa voix grondante. …