Thursday, April 25, 2019

Review: Quatrevingt-treize by Victor Hugo

“Au-dessus de l'absolu révolutionnaire, il y a l'absolu humain.” 
"Beyond the revolutionary absolute, there is a human absolute."

To me, the above statement perfectly summarises the theme of this amazing book set in France's terror years during the French Revolution.

Written in 1874, Quatrevingt-treize is Victor Hugo's last novel. He was 72 years old when it was published. Consider that Hugo was only 29 when he published Notre Dame de Paris.

In Quatrevingt-treize, Hugo reprises the thorny question of what one should choose when faced with a moral decision. At the climax of this story, three men encounter situations that will challenge their core beliefs. Two of them choose to uphold humanitarian principles over and above any revolutionary concerns-even at the cost of their own lives or mission. The third, however, cannot override his convictions, and as a result, his conscience and his failure to act in a humanitarian manner will lead to his demise.

Illustration for Quatrevingt-treize
by Caumont, Robert (circa 1922 - 1924)

The third man, Cimourdain, also functions as an anti-Javert while meeting the same end as Javert.
At the end of Les Misérables, Inspector Javert, who has shown humanity in letting Jean Valjean escape, will suffer enormous cognitive dissonance; through his lenience, he has acted against the grain of his perceived moral duty and cannot reconcile his benevolent behavior with the opposing rigid lawful attitude. His subsequent suicide is a desperate means to escape from a fraught self-integrity.

On the other hand, in Quatrevingt-treize, the character, Cimourdain does not allow humanitarian concerns overtake duty; but here again, dissonance arises because deep down, his emotional attachment to Gauvain reminds him over and over again that he has made the wrong decision. Facing the impasse between his broken conscience and the duty he was forced to obey, Cimourdain takes the same deathly path as Javert.

Danton, Robespierre, and Marat at the wine shop
Wood engraving by Paterson.

What is revealed in his writings is that Hugo was painfully conscious of moral dilemmas and of the human distress that surfaces when people are forced into a choice that offers no solution - whether the choice is in line or goes against strongly held beliefs. Could this have resulted from his upbringing? I mentioned this before in an earlier post - Victor Hugo's parents could not have been more at odds. Could this tension between opposites have created a domestic climate of guilt where every decision was fraught with anxiety?

It is easy to imagine it. His father, Joseph Léopold Hugo was loyal to the French army. In his earlier years, long before the family lived in Spain where his son spent his early childhood, Joseph Hugo had fought in Western France against Bretons rebels, or Chouans, as these were called. Meanwhile his mother, Sophie Hugo, a Breton royalist from Nantes was firmly against the revolutionaries - she sheltered counter-revolutionaries - like the Chouans.

Or perhaps, the tumultuous times during which the author's parents lived were filled with stories that later inspired Victor Hugo? I noted that while depicting the tragic war and violence pitting Chouans against Republication soldiers, Victor Hugo emerges from his narrator's voice and chooses to remind the reader of Quatrevingt-treize that his father fought this war. It is intimate and marked with emphasis.

No matter its origins or the inspiration behind it, I felt that, more strongly than in Les Misérables, Quatrevingt-treize is the author's attempt to reiterate that we are doomed if we hold on too tightly to our convictions. Fanaticism harms the human soul and the human absolute must prevail.

La Tourgue, 1835
llustration by Victor Hugo for Quatrevingt-treize

The book is beautifully written. Like L'Homme qui rit, each chapter stands alone as a masterpiece. Through Hugo's vivid descriptions, I was fascinated by the landscape of Brittany's forests and the extensive network of subterranean caves, some of which date to the 9th century. I found a book published on this same subject, and which covers the terrain in La Roche-sur-Yon, not far from where my uncle lives today. Curious about Western France's subterranean network, I began to research the underground caves of the Vendée and have since featured these in my historical novel, Julien's Terror.

Beyond the rich historical insights of Quatrevingt-treize and the author's deep understanding of moral conflicts, I enjoyed Victor Hugo's rendering of the Breton culture and his colorful, immersive writing. It was a pleasure to read this book and to rediscover my grandfather's homeland. It was enriching to be inspired and moved by this great author.

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