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Simply splendid--perhaps the best account of Hugo's fiction anywhere in English. Princeton's Brombert (The Romantic Prison, Novels of Flaubert) engages all of Hugo's novels, from Han d'Islande (1823) to Quatre-vingt-treize (1873), in a reading so energetic, insightful, and eloquent it constitutes a major rehabilitation of a colossus in disrepair. As Brombert shows, all of Hugo's oeuvre is shaped and wracked by dialectical contradictions: between the people as a messianic force and a brutish rabble (les misÉrables are both unfortunate wretches and low criminals); between political revolution as a ""redemptive event"" and a source of inhuman violence (Notre-Dame de Paris anticipates the exultation and horror of an unleashed proletariat); between a succession of epic historical narratives and Hugo's persistent themes of ""effacement,"" his dream of history's dissolution. Older critics have often depicted Hugo as a titanic but complacent egotist, as the ""reassuring bard of progress, of light, of redemptive love, and of Satan's ultimate salvation."" But Brombert points out Hugo's deepening sense, in Les Travailleurs de la mer, L 'Homme qui rit, and Quatre-vingt-treize, of the link between literary creation and evil (e.g., Gernardus Geestemunde in L'Homme qui rit, the intellectual bandit-chief, ""whose ultimate scriptural message to posterity is the confession of a crime""). And if Hugo does see God, or the ""self of the infinite,"" mysteriously at work in the world, he also believed in a grim dualism that dared to define evil, in both nature and human destiny, as ""a dark beginning of God continuing beyond us into the invisible."" Brombert's eye for both pregnant symbolism (such as the clash of horizontal and vertical viewpoints in Notre-Dame de Paris) and large philosophical structures (poetic language ""as a system of vanishing traces,"" mimes the continuous birth and disintegration of reality) is admirably sharp. The only issue Brombert ignores is Hugo's place in the great tradition of the French novel. He notes that the plot of L 'Homme qui rit is (deliberately) a tissue of absurdities, but he doesn't address the usual complaints about Hugo's fiction (swollen rhetoric, improbabilities, muddy political thinking)--except insofar as he implicitly refutes them, which he very often does. Vigorously written and argued, Brombert's study is priority reading for anyone with a serious interest in modern French literature.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1984
ISBN: 0674935519
Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press