cover image Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo

Graham Robb. W. W. Norton & Company, $39.95 (682pp) ISBN 978-0-393-04578-9

Acclaimed biographer Robb (Balzac, 1994) has produced an intensely dramatic biography of Victor Hugo laced with devastating wit and irony, which brings the great Romantic author down to earth from his Olympian heights without reducing him either to a megalomaniac opportunist or to a sheer force of nature. As a National Assembly deputy, Hugo (1802-1885) led assaults on workers' barricades in the revolution of 1848, during which untold numbers of insurgents died. Three years later, as a self-proclaimed revolutionary socialist opponent of dictator Louis-Napoleon, he went into exile, first to Brussels and then to England's Channel Islands, where he completed Les Miserables, which Robb considers ""the most lucid, humane, and entertaining moral diagnosis"" of modern society's corrupt institutions. Returning to France in 1870, Hugo mostly occupied himself with casual sex during the Prussian siege of Paris but also turned out inspirational political poems and pleaded for convicted Communards. A conservative who espoused liberal causes, an upholder of bourgeois values with one foot in the avant-garde, Hugo was full of contradictions, and Robb plumbs the messy reality of his life, illuminating many facets of his personality scarcely known outside France. He gives us Hugo the visionary poet and painter who held seances to commune with the spirits of Shakespeare, Jesus and Socrates; Hugo the sex addict and voyeuristic dandy; Hugo the guilt-ridden father of a schizophrenic daughter; Hugo the apostle of an incoherent new world religion; and Hugo the anarchist playwright, forerunner of Brecht and Beckett. Son of a brutish, philandering Napoleonic general and an erratic mother who dragged her brood into Spanish exile, Hugo, by age 16, saw his family fall apart and a whole society destroy itself. From this wreckage, Robb suggests, he produced prescient novels about the gradual suicides of civilizations, making him a prophet of modernism. In addition to presenting an absorbing account of Hugo's life and a critical appraisal of Hugo's work, Robb enriches his entrancing biography with his own unvarnished, unrhymed, highly effective translations of Hugo's verses. Photos. (Feb.)