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Monday, April 8, 2013

Something Old


Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“THE LAUGHING MAN” by Victor Hugo (“L’HOMME QUI RIT” first published 1869)

            I am always amused by the cloth-eared way more antique translators used to do their work. On my shelves I have an old Collins Clear-Type Classics edition of one of Alexandre Dumas’s lesser novels Ange Pitou – translated under the title Taking the Bastille. When I read it, I couldn’t help chuckling as characters often said things like “Tranquillize yourself!” It was clear that the inept translator had simply taken very literally the French “Tranquillez-vous!”, which means something like “Calm down!

Tranquillize yourself!” indeed! It sounds like a command to a junkie.

In the same way, I note that even the best restored version of Jean Renoir’s film masterpiece La Grande Illusion still insists on calling it Grand Illusion rather than The Great Illusion, which is what the title clearly means, “grand” and “great” having different connotations in English.

But prize for silly literal translations would have to go to those English-language versions of Victor Hugo’s L’Homme Qui Rit, which call it The Man Who Laughs. This stilted title has been given to some more recent translations, as well as to Hollywood’s one attempt at filming it (a silent version made in 1928). The best English translation for L’Homme Qui Rit would surely be The Laughing Man; and with both surprise and delight I find that this is indeed what the novel is called in the battered Nelson and Sons anonymous translation – apparently dating from the 1920s – which I have on my shelves.

So, as I read my way through its crowded and over-wrought 573 pages some years ago, I was at least assured that the translator knew his (or her) business.

Having got that off my chest, what of the novel itself?

Victor Hugo self-consciously strove to be a titan of literature. He wanted what he wrote to be always on a grand scale, and so it proves here. L’Homme Qui Rit is the tale of one of his grotesques, those deformed outsiders whom he presented as the ultimate, and most sympathetic, critics of society. Dwarfish Triboulet the Jester in his play Le Roi S’Amuse (who became Rigoletto when Verdi and his librettists turned it into an opera). The hunchbacked Quasimodo in Notre Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame). And in The Laughing Man, Gwynplaine, whom cruel child-kidnappers have deformed by cutting his mouth into a permanent grotesque grin, so that he can serve as a fairground attraction or freak.

Allow me to give one of my notorious plot summaries to clarify things.

The story is set in late 17th and early 18th century England (of which more later). Poor Gwynplaine, with his obscenely grinning mouth, is left stranded on the shore as a ten-year-old in 1690, a year or so after King James II has been deposed. The villains who deformed him are beating a hasty retreat from England. In a chilly winter, Gwynplaine happens to discover a blind baby girl, who is still attempting to suck the breast of her dead mother who lies frozen in a ditch. Gwynplaine rescues the baby girl and determines to protect her and bring her up with the love of which he himself has been deprived. The two of them are taken in by Ursus (“Bear”), a fairground manager whose little cart is drawn by a wolf called Homo (“Man”). Ursus understands that he will one day be able to use Gwynplaine as a fairground attraction; but he does have some compassion, he gives the boy and the baby girl a home and food, and he christens the baby Dea (“Goddess”).

Flash forward to 1705. Gwynplaine is now 25, and is indeed a popular fairground attraction. Ursus has prospered (his cart is now drawn by two horses rather than by a wolf) and his troupe plays the provinces to great applause. Dea is 16 and Gwynplaine is hopelessly, chastely, purely and idealistically in love with her. She, being blind, is not repulsed by the sight of his grotesque grin. This love is presented by Victor Hugo as a positive value, in contrast with the crass and immoral world that surrounds them.

But the wicked world intrudes. There is intrigue at court. Queen Anne is now on the throne (presented by Hugo as a frumpish and foolish woman). At her court is (the entirely fictitious) Lady Josiana, bastard daughter of King James II and hence the queen’s half-sister. There is also the devious Lord David Dirry-Moir, who seems destined to marry Josiana and who also loves to slum it among commoners by going around under the assumed name “Tom-Jim-Jack”.

When Ursus brings his fairground troupe to London, their performance is seen by both “Tom-Jim-Jack” and by the Lady Josiana, who conceives a perverted sexual desire for the mutilated Gwynplaine. She writes to Gwynplaine, expressing her desire, and Gwynplaine spends many pages agonizing over the possibility of choosing between the glamorous duchess and the pure Dea.

But at this point, improbable melodramatic coincidence intrudes. A letter in a bottle is washed ashore. It was thrown (fifteen years earlier!) from the ship in which the child-kidnappers were absconding. It proves that Gwynplaine is in fact that son of the British Lord Clancharlie, who had been banished years before for his republican views. Gwynplaine is really a peer of the realm and half-brother to the illegitimate Lord David Dirry-Moir. Suddenly he is transferred to a stately home and the queen virtually orders her hated rival Lady Josiana to marry him. This is very much to the delight of the wicked court official Barkilphedro, who has constantly been scheming against Lady Josiana, and who delights at the thought of her being married to a freak. (Josiana suddenly finds she is no longer sexually aroused by Gwynplaine, when it is a question of marriage.)

So to what, apparently, Victor Hugo intended as the novel’s climax. Gwynplaine has the right to speak in the House of Lords, and he chooses to do so. He gives a lengthy, impassioned oration on the indifference of the rich to the sufferings of the poor. He predicts that one day the whole rotten aristocratic edifice will come tumbling down. It is a magnificent speech but, alas, the House of Lords are merely convulsed with laughter at the sight of Gwynplaine’s obscenely, grotesquely, egregiously grinning face.

Symbolically, they cannot see the truth beneath the superficial appearance.

Humiliated, Gwynplaine flees, just avoiding a duel with his devious half-brother “Tom-Jim-Jack”. He cannot find either Ursus or Dea. He is in despair. He is about to commit suicide by throwing himself off one of London’s bridges when he is found by Homo the wolf and taken to where (for reasons too complex to relate) Ursus and Dea are about to embark into exile. They all set sail. But Dea is so overjoyed to be reunited with Gwynplaine that her heart bursts and she dies. Unable to live without her, and hoping for a mystic reunion with her in some after-life, Gwynplaine hurls himself into the deep dark sea.

And the novel ends.

Devious aristocrats have destroyed the hopes and the loves of the Wretched of the Earth, the grinning-faced jester and the helpless blind virgin. But Victor Hugo holds out the hope that one day the evils of aristocratic rule will be overthrown, and even perfidious Albion might concede to the wisdom of France and become an egalitarian republic.

Now about that English setting, let me dispose of one very obvious criticism of this novel at once. The French author badly misjudges. “Tom-Jim-Jack”? Gwynplaine? Barkilphedro? Since when were these anything like English names that ever were? And what of Hugo’s invention of a “wapentake”, a mysterious official with the power to point his staff and summon people to the royal court? And what of the caricature way he depicts both King James II and Queen Anne? And what of his tendency to depict late 17th and early 18th century England as if it were the received fictional version of early Renaissance Italy? And a thousand other “what ofs?”

The fact is, the English setting of this novel is so unlike any England that ever was, that it is hard for an English-speaking reader to take it seriously. Yet before we get too snooty, perhaps we should take it as a warning against trusting too closely the historical representation in any “historical novel”. I find myself asking whether intelligent French readers don’t convulse with laughter over the way non-French writers depict France in their historical novels – Sir Walter Scott in Quentin Durward, let’s say, or Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities. It’s quite probable that Francophones chortle at things in these novels that Anglophones think are quite credible.

Having diplomatically said that, though, my own reaction to L’Homme Qui Rit was to see it as being set in a non-specific fantasyland, which happens to have a few passing references to England, although Hugo clearly knows quite a lot about English political history. It is hard to imagine the characters of Thackeray’s Henry Esmond meeting the inhabitants of this version of Queen Anne’s England.

My next reaction was the one I have to all Hugo’s novels. They are not really novels at all. Each is a sketch towards the libretto of an opera, which nobody has yet got around to writing. Often absurd as prose fiction, this novel is really a series of tableaux which would make elaborate settings for arias and duets, and in which the music would justify all. For example, Hugo takes a full sixty pages (!!!) to describe the storm-battered voyage of the ship which, at the novel’s opening, takes Gwynplaine’s kidnappers way from England. There is no narrative reason for this, except that one passenger on the ship throws overboard the message-in-a-bottle, which is found years later. But a storm at sea would have made a wonderful orchestral overture. If there was the music of Verdi to back it, we might accept the grin of Gwynplaine as an anarchic challenge to society. But Hugo goes for obvious pathos – the lurid contrast of Dea (purity) and Lady Josiana (immoral aristocratic debauchery); Gwynplaine’s spiritual marriage; Gwynplaine’s death for love. His speech to the Lords is intended to be magnificent but, like so much in Hugo, is largely bombast and flatulence. For all its action, the novel is oddly static. Hugo has the habit of presenting a scene and then orating over it, often with bogus scholarship. You sense a desperate desire to be titanic and philosophic in every utterance as the wheels of the plot clank heavily around.

Oh dear, and there is the sentiment. Here is Hugo’s clearest characterization of Dea’s and Gwynplaine’s love:

They belonged to each other. They knew themselves to be united forever in the same joy and the same ecstasy; and nothing could be stronger than this construction of an Eden by two of the damned.” (Part 2, Book Two, Chapter Five)

Yet there is one element in the novel that I find very endearing. This is Hugo’s republicanism.

Take, for example, his sarcastic description of England’s Restoration era:

Everything was falling into its proper place. Dryden above, Shakespeare below; Charles II on the throne, Cromwell on the gibbet. England was raising herself out of the shame and excesses of the past. It is a great happiness for a nation to be led back by monarchy to good order in the state and good taste in letters!” (Part 2, Book One, Chapter One)

            Doubtless this crack at imperious monarchs and their taste was motivated in part by Hugo’s justifiable spleen at Napoleon III, during whose dictatorial reign he wrote this novel while exiled in the Channel Islands.

            Even more pointed is his view that it was stupid of the English to lapse back into monarchy after they had had a republic. Thus:

            “One idiotic habit of the people is to attribute to the king what they do themselves. They fight. Whose the glory? The king’s. They pay. Whose the generosity? The king’s. Then the people love him for being so rich. The king receives a crown from the poor, and returns them a farthing. How generous he is! The colossus, which is the pedestal, contemplates the pygmy, which is the statue. How great is this myrmidon! He is on my back. A dwarf has an excellent way of being taller than a giant: it is to perch himself on his shoulders. But that the giant should allow it – there is the wonder; and that he should admire the height of the dwarf, there is the folly. Simplicity of mankind! The equestrian statue, reserved for kings alone, is an excellent figure of royalty: the horse is the people. Only that the horse becomes transfigured by degrees. It begins in an ass; it ends in a lion. Then it throws the rider and you have 1642 in England and 1789 in France; and sometimes it devours him, and you have in England 1649 and in France 1793. That the lion should relapse into the donkey is astonishing; but it is so. This was occurring in England. It had resumed the pack-saddle, idolatry of the crown. Queen Anne, as we have observed, was popular. What was she doing to be so? Nothing!” (Part 2, Book One, Chapter Five)

            And so on, for many pages.

Especially enjoyable is Hugo’s belief that England had attained at best rule by an aristocratic oligarchy, which was a poor prelude to the greater glory of France’s real democratic revolution. Ingeniously, he describes the English Bill of Rights as “a sketch of the French Droits de l’Homme, a vague shadow flung back from the depth of futurity by the revolution in France on the revolution in England.” (Part 2, Book Seven, Chapter Two).

Getting beyond the novel’s melodrama and bombast, then, my chief pleasure in reading The Laughing Man was the pleasure of finding such political commentary, chauvinistic and na├»ve though it sometimes is.

I would hate to give the impression here that I am “cutting Victor Hugo down to size”. One of my most cherished teenage memories is of discovering his Toilers of the Sea (Les Travailleurs de la Mer) in the school library, and swallowing its self-pitying melodramatic story whole, fight with “devil-fish” (octopus) and all. But I do think that L’Homme Qui Rit is not a novel that can be judged by the standards we usually apply to novels. You have to accept that it is melodrama, that it is wildly improbable, that it is operatic, that it has little relationship with anything resembling history. And that if you were literate, and capable of reading long novels when you were eleven, twelve, thirteen or fourteen years old, you would have missed all Hugo’s republican polemic but you may well have loved it.

Cinematic footnote: Thanks to the modern miracle of Youtube, I have recently been able to watch all of the 1928 Hollywood film version of The Man Who Laughs – a silent film, although made at the time when movies were converting to sound. It was directed by the German director Paul Leni and stars as Gwynplaine the great German actor Conrad Veidt. All pop-culture histories will immediately point out that the grotesque grinning make-up devised for Veidt in the film was later copied by the creators Batman, and became the face of The Joker in that comic strip. I really enjoyed this film, in part because silent pantomime, and the dark shadows and high contrasts of Paul Leni’s expressionism, so suit Hugo’s fantastical style. I was also surprised that the film follows Hugo’s plot very faithfully – complete with a (for its day) surprisingly rampant seduction scene where Lady Josiana gets her claws into Gwynplaine. But there are two deviations from Hugo’s plot. Gwynplaine is laughed at in the House of Lords simply because he has dared to be seen among aristocrats – there is no hint of his republican speech and all Hugo’s political subtext is drained from the story. Secondly, in the very last second, a happy ending is imposed. Gwynplaine and Dea meet joyfully after their trials and sail off into a sunset. If you are inclined to mutter that this is typical Hollywood moonshine, I would agree; but then Hugo’s original pathos-driven double death at the end is no more probable.

Interesting final point: this intriguing silent film is called The Man Who Laughs, but the fairground handbills announcing Gwynplaine’s performances in the film clearly call him “The Laughing Man”. At least the film-makers knew what idiomatic English was.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting that you note something 'operatic' in some of Victor Hugo's plots since several critics of the stage musical adaption of his "Les Miserables" have labelled it as 'poor man's opera".

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