The Establishment and the Novel
Hugo and Flaubert
Rather than Victor Hugo’s society-rocking fiction and daunting aesthetic achievement, today James Wood and many a writing circle celebrate the (by comparison) wan and dreary writing of Flaubert as seminal and essential – “Novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring; it all begins again with him.” Ignored is the complex more comprehensive and profound let alone liberatory writing of Victor Hugo in Les Misérables, and other works. Flaubert instead is pushed as a central writing workshop and establishment presence – a situation again that comes close to “tragedy manifesting itself as comedy.”
Flaubert has long been the (would be apolitical political) tool of the establishment, the obsessive stylist and yet dull shovel used to try to bury the literary and sociopolitical accomplishment and influence of Hugo and others. “It all begins again with Flaubert.” It’s laughable. Flaubert is a footnote to Victor Hugo (and Montaigne). Hugo writes in his great novel, “Geometry deceives; only the hurricane is accurate,” as if he is already countervailing, one might imagine, the contemporary establishment endlessly trumpeting (heedless of the irony) nuance and limnits and the denned in closets of subtlety by those who chew in prose more than they take in of life, the fastidious intimatists and obsessivists of status quo sensibility. Geometry is excellent where not blown away by hurricanes of reality that often far more fully inform narrative and reveal the human condition, the timeless universal and the profound today.
Again, Robb, noting the ethical, normative power, as well as the aesthetic multivalent approach employed by Hugo:
Les Misérables etches Hugo’s view of the world so deeply in the mind that it is impossible to be the same person after reading it – not just because it takes a noticeable percentage of one’s life to read it. The key to its effect lies in Hugo’s use of a sporadically omniscient narrator who reintroduces his characters at long intervals as if through the eyes of an ignorant observer – a narrator who can best be described as God masquerading as a law-abiding bourgeois….
The title itself is a moral test…. Originally, a misérable was simply a pauper (misére means ‘destitution’ as well as ‘misfortune’). Since the Revolution, and especially since the advent of Napoleon III, a misérable had become a ‘dreg’, a sore on the shining face of the Second Empire. The new sense would dictate a translation like Scum of the Earth. Hugo’s sense would dictate The Wretched. …
Every character struck a chord and had such a profound effect on the French view of French society that even on a first reading one has a vague recollection of having read the novel before.
The establishment – anxious to bury Hugo at his most talented and progressive, determined to beat back “a work of serious fiction for the masses…one of the last universally accessible masterpieces of Western literature, and a disturbing sign that class barriers had been breached,” devoted to fixing literary taste as not too liberatory let alone revolutionary – committed itself to defending the indefensible, and strained to clear its ignominious name.
The oxymoronic opinions of critics betray the unease created by Hugo – that the lower orders might also have their literature: “a cabinet de lecture novel written by a man of genius”, according to Lytton Strachey half a century later, still fighting “bad taste”. In other words, Les Misérables was a jolly good book, but Victor Hugo never should have written it.
Too potentially upsetting of the proper order of things. And so the establishment institutionally and individually does what it can to bury or, failing that, castrate Hugo’s work, not least by turning “Javert, the tenacious respecter of authority, ‘that savage in the service of civilization’, into the villain [rather than the oppressive social apparatus, which] is to deprive the novel of its dynamite, to point the finger at a single policeman instead of at the system he serves.” Again, there is no conspiracy; there is a vested culture that highly values the status quo. In literary circles, one hears or reads much about or of Hugo’s countrymen and contemporaries Balzac and Flaubert, who like fraternal twin blankets, one of renowned substance the other of renowned style function to disappear Hugo, at least to great extent in prominent US literary realms.
Preferring excess style to excess content, threatened by the master writer who combined great content with great style, the establishment presents Gustave Flaubert and Henry James and their kind, and a somewhat different contemporary sort of interior obsessive Philip Roth as “literature” in the preeminent ideal. And the people? Are they “antique,” “quaint,” hopelessly partisan? Long live Flaubert! and Bovary! that great adulterer, and suicide. Should we wonder that students “joke” that they enter lit studies so excited to read great literature and then within a few years feel instead “suicidal”?
Graham Robb notes in his tremendous biography:
The “dangerous” aspect of Les Misérables is almost as evident today as it was in 1862. If a single idea can be extracted from the whole, it is that persistent criminals are a product of the criminal justice system, a human and therefore a monstrous creation; that the burden of guilt lies with society and that the rational reform of institutions should take precedence over the punishment of individuals.
Compared to Les Misérables, the prose, the plot, the intellectual and normative scope of Flaubert’s most famed novels are often stultifying, petty, or worse, yet Madame Bovary “now stands virtually unchallenged not only as a seminal work of Realism, but as one of the most influential novels ever written…” to certain people. “A 2007 poll of contemporary authors, published in a book entitled The Top Ten, cited Madame Bovary as one of the two greatest novels ever written…” such is the general conclusion at Wikipedia and within establishment literature.
Today, nearly a century and a half on, we might wonder why no novelist has so well created a Les Misérables for our time, if such is the case. Or we might wonder why no novelist has so well imagined Jonathan Swift’s contemporaneously explicit brief masterwork “A Modest Proposal” at epic length, with its scathing criticisms, marvelous wit, and most especially the (landlord-despised) pointed “solutions and panaceas” (basic remedies) mixed with great touch – as literary as popular, as explicit as subtle, as clear-cut as nuanced, as cyclonic as limned, as elucidating as “mind-melding,” a revolutionary work of epic fiction. Someday may such novels come if they have not already, thumping good reads that limn the hell out of nuance, in nontrivial ways that clarify and churn with power. Explosively subtle and subtly explosive, powerfully analytical and analytically powerful, emotionally charging and charging emotionally, with critics worthy of the contents and contents worthy of critics, epic liberatory works that may be transformed to film, video and stage, works that rally people and help force or engender change. This too may be the style and voice of the novel and criticism, at least outside the dens of the establishment. Such is the force and potential of fiction – fact rich to fuel hunger, metaphor drenched to intensify thirst for what may and must be. This is why it matters most how fiction works – and that it does.
In the Great Deluge, Historian Douglas Brinkley has closely researched and written (and partly lived) a remarkable nonfiction account of the week of the 2005 Hurricane Katrina catastrophe in the US, easily one of the great narratives of today. Fortunately, the prose not only limns aplenty and dances in nuance and subtlety, not least of analysis, but also necessarily spouts, even spouts off, and rocks and booms too. And it would have done well, done better, to do so all the more, in liberatory partisan popular fashion. After all, the phenomenon of Hurricane Katrina was not only a great event of nature (worthy of tremendous limning in its own right), the carnage, the slaughter wreaked, and waged, was far more crucially a great crime of the establishment that deserves to be emblazoned on the everlasting page as an orgy of essentially premeditated state-corporate killing, mass murder. That it was. And that is centrally how it must always be known. Novelists should be tasked to bring home this reality in far greater force than has yet been achieved.
Future creation of liberatory fiction involves nothing so simple as solely the documenting of history, or solely a reproducing of Classical, Victorian, Romantic, Enlightenment, Modern, Postmodern, or other forms, say, Progressive, Liberatory, or Revolutionary. Hugo was no partisan hack but a great artist in both his complexity and simplicity, and his works fomented liberatory, even revolutionary impressions and helped create progressive effects, at the least. Though his accomplished aesthetics and ground breaking roles are often slighted, not only noted establishment scholar Victor Brombert “finds in Hugo’s novels” (as reported by the New York Times a quarter century ago, in an apparently unattributed article):
an anticipation of a distinctively modernist sensibility, at least insofar as such a sensibility presupposes a collapse of the distinction between history and myth, thought and emotion, external perception and inward mood – the kind of world found in the novels of Joyce, Woolf, Kafka, and Proust. Far from being the late romantic he is conventionally thought to be, Hugo appears in Brombert’s account as one of the first modernists…[especially] in the fascination with inscriptions, traces, effacements, mirror effects, and dissolving processes, and in the belief that not only history but reality itself is a “text”. Hugo as “deconstructive” novelist? The suggestion is shocking, and in fairness to Mr. Brombert it must be admitted that he only suggests this thesis indirectly….[yet] a case may be made for Hugo as a postmodernist.
A case may well be made that Hugo’s fiction was both more clearly pointed (or communicative) and more complex than Flaubert’s work (or that of modernism and even much Victorianism, etc). Some of the work of Hugo – including his 1829 short novel The Last Day of a Condemned Man is described as “starkly modern” by Peter France, the editor of The New Oxford Companion to Literature in French, a work of fiction that “would have a profound influence on later writers such as Albert Camus, Charles Dickens, and Fyodor Dostoevsky,” who called it Hugo’s “masterpiece,” a work that Hugo pitted contemporaneously against the death penalty, nothing quaint about it, an act of utility discouraged by Wood and apparently depressing to him, a state that suits the status quo. Rather than spring, Flaubert may be much more of a fall of fiction.
In Victor Hugo and the Visionary Novel, Victor Brombert notes that in Hugo’s early novel, the condemned man’s
imprisonment in a futureless present, the radicalization of a confined subjectivity, called for a special control of narrative technique. Well before modern writers had developed a rhetoric of existential immediacy, Hugo…created a disrupted yet associative mental discourse that allowed for no respite from the self…[which impressed] Dostoevsky, as it had impressed Flaubert…. The “diary” rhythm seems to point forward to the rhetoric of disjunction achieved by Sartre in La Nausée…. The structural and rhetorical complexity of this apparently simple account is evident from the very first chapter, which is locked in on itself by the verbless exclamation “Condemned to death!” … [The novel] blurs all distinctions between object and subject.
A double metaphor transforms the image of captivity into an inner psychological space, as well as into the imaginary space of writing. The key metaphorical inversion, turning the prison image upside down, appears as early as the third paragraph: “my mind is imprisoned in an idea.”
Brombert notes that in an 1852 letter Flaubert “expresses his admiration” for The Last Day of a Condemned Man and “praises the total absence of didacticism in Hugo’s novel. It’s impact, according to Flaubert, is directly related to the absence of authorial commentary,” but Brombert points out that
Flaubert was not quite correct when he stated that only the preface – written several years after the novel – was didactic. For the text is reader-conscious, and reader-oriented, in morally committed terms. The Condemned Man explicitly hopes that the diary of his anguish will provide a memorable lesson…for all those who judge and condemn.
As Brombert notes “the pervasive voyeurism” in Hugo’s famed 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame), one may wonder if there is so very much in the works of Flaubert that cannot be found in the early works of Hugo (Notre-Dame and Condemned were written when still in his twenties). One wonders further if “modernism” is not something of a neurotic or immature literature, a regression or reversion from presenting the real, the full human condition. …