VICTOR HUGO by Joanna Richardson


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Joanna Richardson's critical biography of Victor Hugo is thorough, detailed, and massive. Overwhelming. It considers each of Hugo's works first singly, and then as collected (and each of his astonishingly numerous love affairs, prolonged or casual), with ali the heavy paraphernalia, the big guns, of scholarship. Hugo was a complex man. His personal relations were shaky, his political ambitions absurd, and even his literary output--the reason for our interest--a very uneven achievement. He dreamed of political office, even of becoming chef d'etat, and as Bourbons succeeded Bonapartes and democracy in uneasy succession, he was willing to rouse any rabble, make terms with any dictator in his search for personal power. His apotheosis came in his very old age, when the citizens of Paris honored him, and at his death, aged 83, when they gave him a day-long funeral--and why? Because his best poems are compelling, among the most musical in any Western language. He is an imagist, a lyricist, not a metaphysician. . . . Joanna Richardson has cultivated the 19th century, with big books about Gautier, Verlaine, Stendhal, and many others. Why did she choose to write about Hugo, for whom her dislike is evident on almost every page? ""There is something disturbing in his need to record his conquests and set down his imaginings."" ""Indeed, the publication of Les Miserables showed him in an unpleasant light."" Sometimes the footnotes are pedantically frequent, moreover, sometimes sweeping statements are undocumented. ""I had to be careful not to bury my hero under a pile of evidence,"" said Andre Maurois in the foreword to his 1956 Life of Victor. Hugo. This is a precaution Joanna Richardson has not taken.

Pub Date: Feb. 16th, 1976
Publisher: St. Martin's