Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Ninety-Three by Victor Hugo

(Book Review)

This is another one of those books that has been on my reading list forever, and I picked it up several times before in the past before finally getting around to finishing it now. (For example, I listed it as a book I was reading in this blog post way back here, although in truth I got less than 50 pages into it back then).

Like a lot of classic books, then isn't a bad read at all, but it's not written in the modern style and therefore requires a bit of discipline to get started before you get hooked by the plot. If you can make it past the first 50 pages, you'll be hooked.

Although to be honest, I think it also helped that I'm a little bit more knowledgeable about the French Revolution than I was a couple years before. Like "The Gods Will Have Blood", this is a book on the French Revolution by a French author, and so gets a little more into the intricacies of the Revolution than say "A Tale of Two Cities". The book starts out in the middle of the civil war out in provinces in 1793, and the reader is more or less just thrown into the action. It can be a little bit confusing.

The action then swings back to Paris, and if you don't know who Robespierre, Danton, or Marat were, then it is going to get even more confusing. You don't have to be a scholar to understand this book (I'm certainly not), but a passing knowledge of the major figures of the French Revolution is certainly helpful.

Victor Hugo published this book in 1874, shortly after the Paris Commune, which is one of the reasons usually given for why this book never became as successful or as well known as some of his other classics; the theory being that after the events of the Paris Commune the French public was in no mood for a book which idealized the turbulent times of the original French Revolution.

(Victor Hugo himself, although his radical legacy is often forgotten these days, was one of the leaders of the movement for amnesty of the Paris Communards, for which he once had his house stoned by a conservative mob. He wrote poems about the Commune martyrs, and he had a long friendship (and rumored sexual liaison) with Louise Michel, the most famous of the Commune revolutionaries.)

In fact the quick eyed reader can catch a couple of passing references to the Paris Commune of 1871, such as when Victor Hugo talks about how men were buried alive in the fighting of 1793, and then adds "we have seen a return to this recently" ( a reference to the Paris Communards, who were thrown into mass graves and buried alive by the Versailles forces).

But passing references to the Paris Commune are just that: brief and passing. This is a book about 1793.

Although it has been several years since I read "Les Miserables", I remember one of the major themes of that book was the legacy of the French Revolution, and whether it was possible to separate the ideals of the revolution from its excesses. Needless to say this is a theme Hugo continues even more so in "Ninety-Three".

(Here again a little digression might be in order, because I have noticed in conversation that many people who are familiar with "Les Miserables" only through the Broadway musical seem to think the barricade scene at the end of that book takes place during the French Revolution. It does not. In addition to what we think of as THE French Revolution (1789-1793), France also underwent 3 other revolutions in the 19th Century: 1830, 1848, and 1871 (the Paris Commune).
But revolutions do not come out of nowhere, and so in the years in between major revolutions there were growing tensions, street demonstrations, and occasionally failed uprisings. The barricade scene in "Les Miserables" takes place during one of these failed uprisings in 1832, an incident so minor it doesn't usually even make the history books. Which is of course part of the tragedy of the story.)

Many other parts of "Ninety Three" are also reminiscent of "Les Miserables". The revolutionary and former priest Cimourdian, whose strict sense of justice and duty forbid any forms of mercy, is very similar to Javert.

As in "Les Miserables" the characters advocating cold justice are contrasted against other characters using mercy and forgiveness. But in "Ninety Three" Hugo adds an interesting twist. Whereas the Bishops kindness towards Jean Valjean in "Les Miserables" produces good results, in "Ninety Three" a beggar risks his life to shelter an aristocrat, only to regret it later when the aristocrat goes on to commit terrible atrocities.

And as with "Les Miserables", Hugo goes off on a few of his famous digressions at points. Fear not, however, they are not as long as the digressions in "Les Miserables" and, in my opinion, this time around they have more relation to the plot. But you just need to forgive him if in the middle of the story Hugo spends 10 pages talking about the Breton forests, or the French Revolutionary Convention.

For the history nerd, Hugo's portrayal of characters like Marat, Danton, and Robespierre are a real treat. When he gets into the sections on the Convention there is a lot of name dropping going on, and I didn't have a clue who most of the people were he was talking about were, but I was still able to appreciate the story.

Although this isn't one of Hugo's better known books, his perception and analysis as a writer are as brilliant as ever. This book is packed with brilliant observations and quotes. I actually wish I had written more of them down as I was reading, because so many of them seem like they would be perfect for framing on the doorway, or using in a paper. My favorite was when he was describing the various personalities of the French Revolution:

"Revolutions have two slopes, ascending and descending, and on these slopes they bear all seasons, from ice to flowers. Each segment of these slopes produces men adapted to its climate, from those who live in sunlight to those who live in lightning."
(As a history major, I think this perfectly describes the way a Revolution works.)

One final note: the edition I have contains an introduction from Ayn Rand who, it turns out, is a huge Victor Hugo fan, despite the latter's socialist leanings. She argues that Victor Hugo's books, in contrast to the Naturalist writers like Emile Zola, show man not as being controlled by his circumstances, but able to rise above them and realize true greatness.

It is an interesting perspective, although parts of "Ninety Three" do appear to directly contradict Rand's thesis at times:
"A Revolution is an act of the Unknown. Call it a good act or a bad act, according to whether you yearn for the future or the past, but leave it to him who did it. It seems to be the joint word of mingled great events and great individuals, but it is actually the resultant of events. Events spend, men pay. Events dictate, men sign....Desmoulins, Danton, Marat, Gregoire and Robespierre are only clerks. The enourmous and awesome author of those great pages has a name, God, and a mask, Destiny. Robespierre believed in God. Of course!"

I didn't quote the whole thing, but Hugo goes on in this way a little more. Looking at parts like this, one might think Hugo is in direct opposition to Ayn Rand. And yet when you look at the narrative as a whole, and the greatness that Hugo's characters aspire to, you just might think Ayn Rand has a bit of a point.

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