A closer look at Hugo

THROUGH THE story of the deformed bell ringer at the great cathedral and his devotion to the beautiful gypsy girl, Victor Hugo created an evocative picture of medieval life in France. "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" is a tour de force in the European literary canon, literature. Victor Hugo's novel has been made into plays, films and even musicals which draws repeat audiences throughout the world.

Tamil film producers have also succumbed to the lure of the poignant tale and filmgoers will recall "Mani Osai" made in the 1960s, which was based on Hugo's masterpiece.

A closer look at Hugo

Poet, dramatist, novelist Victor Hugo (1802-1885) was successful in many genres. His love of freedom and his passionate championing of the rights of the poor made him an important political figure as well, one who chose to be in exile for 20 years because of his republican ideals. His literary output was enormous and by the time of his death, Hugo had become a national figure in France. Recently when a sequel was written by a French author to Hugo's "Les Miserables", it caused outrage among his admirers who considered it a sacrilege to tamper with his celebrated work.

During this year, the bicentenary of Victor Hugo's birth, a number of events - festivals, readings, plays, spectacular shows and conferences - are being held in almost every town of France, said Jean-Marc Hovasse, author of a deeply researched and comprehensive biography on the writer. Hovasse gave a lecture on Hugo, the most important of the French Romantic writers and a man who revolutionised the theatre, at the Alliance Francaise on November 19 and also spoke to this correspondent on this multi-splendoured personality.

A closer look at Hugo

"I have always been interested in Hugo", says the 32-year-old Hovasse, whose doctoral thesis was on this great Romantic writer. "I am especially interested in his poetry, his last poems written when he was very old. But all over the world, as in India, it is the "Hunchback... " and "Les Miserables" which are read but mostly in abridged versions. Even in France with the reading habit having declined, not many make the effort to go through the originals. In schools, students study "The Last Day of a Condemned Man", a protest against capital punishment, as the book is not only very powerful but is also just 100 pages long. Hugo's name is world famous but his works are not very famous. Though everyone feels he has read "Les Miserables" or "The Hunchback... ", in reality he may have merely seen the films. If you pick up the originals, they are so gripping you just have to continue."

Hugo has been written about so much. So what is special about Hovasse's biography? "Usually biographies in France are written by journalists or novelists. This is the first time that a specialist like me is writing a biography. I have worked for ten years on Hugo and another two on the book. Hugo had a very interesting life-personal, literary and political. So a biography need not be about his work but can confine itself to his life. But I have dealt with how his personal life influenced his work and given details of his texts. When you read a line of his, you can immediately find out from my notes in which book or verse the text occurs, when and where he said it."

When you consider the quantum of his work that is really something, significant.. "Hugo's relationship with his wife Adele, his mistress, the actress Juliette Drouet, and his affection for his daughter Leopoldine, gave rise to many tender poems. He was the first French writer to focus on children. During a long life, Hugo changed his position often and evolved a great deal, changing his stance in politics from monarchist to republican. The writer was unique because he was an active political personality and this arouses interest in India. Hugo was member of two political assemblies."

A closer look at Hugo

The writer's political thoughts are very relevant today, says Hovasse. As a prophet, he envisioned the unity of Europe and the world. "In France this year his political speeches were discussed rather than his poetry".

Just before the brief interview at the Alliance Francaise, Hovasse had just returned from a visit to Pondicherry. "This is my first visit to India. But I knew a lot about Pondicherry before I came here", he says. For, in Paris, the scholar lives in an area near the Eiffel Tower which resonates with the history of the French in India. "I live on Pondicherry Street and the school I went to was Dupleix School!"

A closer look at Hugo

Hovasse finds it interesting and pleasant to be here but Indians, he finds, ask strange metaphysical questions "In Delhi, a woman journalist asked me `what do you think India will give you?' Well... ", he gives a typical Gallic shrug.

And no, the scholar does not think he will work on any other writer's biography. "I did this only because I admire Hugo so much," he taps the beautifully brought out volume in front of him (another volume will be out soon). "It is too difficult to write such a biography".

Ask questions, but...

THE LECTURE at the Alliance Francaise was attended by a discerning audience and the questions asked were intelligent and knowledgeable. Too often at such event - book readings or lectures - the audience and the writer have to mask their irritation while someone wants to air his knowledge or comes up with a question that defies an answer. A few seem to appropriate this role for themselves. Makes you think it is time that it is made mandatory to submit the questions to a screening authority, someone who knows the subject well.

The minutes tick by inexorably while the guest of the evening politely tries to untangle the most convoluted sentence, which finally amounts to nothing or else makes you squirm.

The Alliance lecture escaped this compulsive questioner syndrome... After the Director of the Alliance Francaise, Jean Pascal Elbaz introduced him as a "man who knows everything about Victor Hugo and his life", Hovasse spoke quietly and slowly about Hugo's childhood, his parents, his marriage and his development as a writer and dramatist. Believe it or not - his mistress wrote 20,000 letters to him, one each day!

The writer's most important novel is "Les Miserables", said the scholar. It represents his ambition "to tell everything to everyone in every possible way and escapes the limits of every single genre". It is a complex novel where the protagonists are the social outcasts.

The questions from the audience related to Hugo's scientific and religious beliefs and his equations with other writers - Baudelaire, Balzac and Alexandre Dumas.

"He really knows a great deal", affirmed a French woman as she left the hall.

Happily, so did the audience it appeared.