Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Les Travailleurs de la Mer

I'm reading Victor Hugo's The Toilers of the Sea. Mostly because when I thought - as I have from time to time and usually to little avail - that it might be a good idea to read some works of the giants, and then I went to the library to get a copy of Les Miserables (because I had fond, if hazy, memories of the story as a late-night b&w movie on television at my parents' house), I found that there were no copies of Les Miserables and this copy of Toilers had the best and most evocative cover. (Yep, that's how I choose books.) Also this book was of the perfect heft and construction for reading in bed. I've become a firm fan of trade paperbacks.

I've also become a faithful reader of introductions, whenever provided. The introduction to Toilers was written by a fellow who won the 1997 Whitbread Biography Award for his bio of Victor Hugo. This point is going to be significant. Victor Hugo was a learned man from a very good family (his dad was an officer and then a general and that means he was born to the upper classes). He also hit it off right from the start as a writer, so one must admire that he turned from being a royalist to a populist and that he wrote of such people as Jean Valjean. Still as I read the introduction to him and to the book and came upon the sentence: "'Nineteenth century novel' was not yet synonymous with dainty drawing rooms and etiquette, although, even in 1866, a novel about an illiterate sailor ... was considered somewhat eccentric[,]" I was impressed. What a feat of the imagination it was for Hugo to get into the head of someone so extremely different from himself. I could hardly wait to see how he handled it. Especially after I read about the "house" he lived in while he was exiled on Guernsey: "a typical Georgian townhouse" later described in the same paragraph as "a homemade Gothic cathedral" and "a seven-story poem in bricks and mortar." Seven stories! Typical? I googled the house right away and found that it was only a typical Georgian three-storey (and then the lookout or cupola as a not-quite fourth), but BIG, and when I saw the inside (Google: images: Hauteville House) I was blown away by the opulence that seemed to mirror and mimic ... royalty. So, even more, I wanted to see how he cast a character so seemingly different from himself - without ever forgetting his character's boundaries. (Just try writing about an illiterate character today. Words so infest and guide our lives, we read phrases, directions, etc., so habitually, that it isn't that easy to block them out as they would be for an illiterate character.)

But ...

... I noticed in Hugo's 55-page introduction to Guernsey, its natural history and the culture of its human inhabitants, that he stressed at some length how literate and how well-read just about every blinking peasant on the island was. I thought, ho! is he going to make his main character even lower than the average cattle drover? Wow! Cool! I love underdog stories and this is sounding more and more underdoggy by the page.

And then ... I was finally introduced to Gilliatt, the fisherman, and the very first thing he does is read his name written in the snow (NOT with pee, shame on you!) by the hand of his future love interest. Then ... a few short chapters later Hugo makes it plain that Gilliatt can read much more than just his name. He has many books. He cannot read Latin, however; he is illiterate in Latin. He is not from Guernsey, though. (Hugo hints heavily that Gilliat's mother was from Paris, and from the monied classes.) Nor is he poor. In fact, he has cash to burn that he inherited (he buys birds from people in order to let them go - something any decent peasant would see as beyond merely daft) and seems to fish as a sort of hobby. By page 126, I got to watch Gilliatt spend the ENTIRE summer - the high work season for Guernsey fishermen because the seas around the Channel Islands are so notoriously violent - hanging around outside the garden of this young woman who wrote his name in the snow. Obviously this is not a story about a poor and illiterate working man.

I really must wonder if the biographer of Hugo who wrote the intro to Toilers of the Sea ever even read this book (or counted the stories of Hauteville House). As for others who have come up with the same notion that this is a story about a poor fisherman who prevails (if he does, I haven't finished it yet) against man and sea, I don't know what book they're reading. At the moment it seems safer to me to cleave to a different interpretation: that this is a symbolic tale about a fictional Victor Hugo and his battle against the abyss (whatever that turns out to be) and the men and politics of his time.

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