Saturday, February 28, 2009

Toilers of the Sea - reprise

Warning: this post gives away the plot. But were you really planning to read it?

Note: at left, art by Victor Hugo: "The Lighthouse."

Oh damn. Toilers of the Sea is due back at the library and now I must deal with the many slips of paper stick out of the pages. What were those all for? I hope I can remember.

I do still remember what an inspiration this book was. The novel starts with a 55-page natural and cultural history of Guernsey and the Channel Islands (containing among other treasures a sentence fragment that fills an entire page and sports 27 semi-colons, 46 commas, and 4 dashes and is utterly readable). "The Archipelago of the Channel" was a thoroughly enjoyable section, and I was more than a little eaten up by envy as to how V.H. managed to get so intimate with Guernsey as to know so many of its grass species (!!) by name (not to mention everything else). Also I was thrilled to find such a precedent to a problem I've been working on, that of place-as-character. Whether Hugo wanted Guernsey to be a character in his novel is not clear but it does appear that the ocean - The Abyss, as was his first title to the novel - was meant to be a character. Does it work? Was it obvious enough without being too ponderous? I can't say for anyone else; me, if the ocean is a character, then I think the relationship between Gilliatt and the sea needed to be limned out more bright and clear in the early pages - but then I am quite profoundly dense most of time and capable of missing the most overt references. Hard work, but enlivening, this problem, because I think place-as-a-character can only work if the land (or sea) has a personality that is both described and yet so vast, so other, that it does not interact with humans in a recognizably human way. Which makes it kind of hard for a reader who has never thought of place, of locus (and its genius), as a character before to realize that this is what the writer is doing. Doing that - bringing in alien characters, even if they are of this world - is the work of speculative fiction, which one doesn't usually expect to be reading when curled up with "literature."

Back to Toilers: Later, the pinnacle of the story arc again pierces the envelope of what fiction usually does by casting the reader adrift upon a 146-page sea of dialog-free words that then reels you up, gasping, with a step-by-step how-to exposition. And d'you know what? It didn't drag. Admittedly, if I had half my dad's brains I would have enjoyed it more, because the how-to was a clever problem for engineering: How might one person all by his lonesome salvage the engine of a steamship when the ship has been wrecked in such a way that it is wedged up in the air between two lofty points of a reef. While the goal of the exercise may have been for Hugo to show off how much he knew about various sorts engineering (including hydraulics), it was still admirable -- to someone who used to publish a how-to zine that criss-crossed the boundary between fact and fiction, from time to time.

It was also during these sections that I was glad I had read the introduction. Left to my own devices, I never would have noticed that the ship wedged in the reef made a gigantic "H". If I had, I never would have assumed that Hugo meant it to be thought of as an H or for it to refer back to him or that the whole book was all about him. It's just not the focus I tend to have or to assume that someone else has. When I write fiction I'm writing about values and ideas, not about me or the state of my life. One of Hugo's biographers, though, suggests very strongly that Hugo was almost always writing about Hugo. Once I got the little point about the H drilled into my head, I could read the book as the story it is and also as Victor Hugo's epic struggle to salvage his life from the wreck of being exiled on Guernsey. This also explains why Gilliatt is not an illiterate fisherman from Guernsey but rather a genius from France.

I do have one quarrel with Hugo (or with him, his culture, his time, his way of being and seeing). Should I ever get to reading Les Miserables, I will be eager to see how Hugo casts Cosette. The female entity in Toilers is barely human and not very interesting as an animal. Hugo takes repetitive pains (but that is his style) to illustrate how mindless she is, how in the moment, how she has no idea of the consequences of her actions and nor any memory of them when the consequences happen. She is beautiful as the roses she tends (a tribute to Hugo's rose-growing mother) and more shallow than spilt water on a mirror. This is the thing that Gilliatt falls in love with. He salvages the engine to win its hand. But he never spoke to it, so it never knew that. While he is away, Deruchette falls in love with a clergyman suddenly made rich (and who is also not twice her age). Score! for thoughtless beauty. And Woe is me! for the multi-talented, brilliant, intrepid, and stubbornly toiling Giliatt.

The book ends with a second hydraulic marvel. Gilliatt, having relinquished his claim on Deruchette, goes to a place on the cliffs of Guernsey that is a sort of rock throne. A place that gets totally submerged during high tides (and from which Gilliatt once saved Deruchette's clueless love interest). As Deruchette and her rich husband head to England for happy-ever-aftering, Gilliatt sits in the throne, and the ocean slowly rises up his seated body until it covers his head and he unites with the Abyss. ... Maybe he had a really fierce grip on the rocks with his toes. And maybe the fact that he got starved down to a near skeleton while rescuing the steamship engine kept any part of him from floating. Oh, but what a dramatically tragic ending scene it makes. How very French.

Overall I loved the book and Hugo's rich language. Rich? It's clabbered cream; it's a napoleon pastry of prose! I can even excuse this amateur naturalist's demonizing of one of my favorite animals in the world (the octopus): I am willing to take that as a needed plot device. But I must say that regardless of any deeper symbolic meaning I should be applying to Deruchette, Hugo's female character really burnt my bouillabaisse.

1 comment:

  1. Okay, Loki, now I've figured out how to post a comment - I guess I have to be "anonymous" since I don't know what any of the other profiles mean.

    At any rate, I wanted to mention that you have come up with the tastiest as well as most idiomatic bouillabaisse metaphor I've ever read! I love it!

    Robin Bergman (one of the two nom de plumes given to me by authors of studies of Cottage Grove.) That's my compromise with "anonymous"!