27 August, 2004

And in this corner...

As I mentioned before, it would be the coolest thing if Victor Hugo's brain and Fyodor Dostoevsky's brain were locked into a wrestling cage for a no-holds-barred match. The two were roughly contemporaries, and both wrote their most significant novels while serving a self-imposed exile. (Hugo feared Louis Napoleon; Dostoevsky feared his creditors.)

(Please keep in mind: this is partly tongue-in-cheek.)

In one corner, we have Victor Hugo, converted from a royalist youth to an unrepentant romanticist who never failed to emphasize the noble in noble savage. Hugo's idolatry of Napoleon Bonaparte reaches such appalling levels that he cannot find one bad thing to say about the man. The worst I have found in more than 500 pages of Les Misérables is a reference to a policeman's report that, after the Emperor, the average height of a Parisian man was reduced by a couple of inches. Hugo situates this remark in a chapter praising Parisians, as if he thinks this merits some praise for those hundreds of thousands of soldiers abandoned by the emperor on the frozen plains of Russia. A short while later, he will scold the common men of Britain for fighting so valiantly at Waterloo, thus ensuring that they will remain slaves of the British monarchy. Or maybe it was a short while before; I forget.

In the other corner, we have Fyodor Dostoevsky, who converted from a revolutionary youth to an unrepentant tsarism. I'm not sure what prompted Hugo's change of heart, but in Dostoevsky we have two certain culprits:

  • Tsar Nicholas I, who pardoned Dostoevsky after a mock execution;
  • the New Testament, the only book he was allowed to read in his Siberian prison.
As far as I can tell, Dostoevsky shares none of Hugo's romanticism. None of this noble savage rubbish for him; indeed, whereas Hugo's revolutionaries are invariably noble (if flawed, such as Marius' friends), Dostoevsky's revolutionaries are downright demonic, and at least one of them is beyond any hope of salvation (Pyotr Stepanovich).

Of course, for all Dostoevsky's tsarism, I don't recall reading any long elegies to the greatness of the tsar. I could be wrong; don't quote me on it. Hugo on the other hand will not shut up about Bonaparte's greatness, and the tragedy of his defeat. Hugo admires Bonaparte precisely because the latter marched through Europe, smashing monarchy after monarchy, replacing each with "democracies", in reality monarchies more or less, ruled by his relatives and/or military aides. When things went according to plan, these men ruled according to the principles of the Enlightenment. For his part, Dostoevsky wrote an entire novel (Demons) condemning the influence of Enlightenment ideas on Russian society, caricaturing the Francophile Stepan Trofimovich as a cowardly dandy who no longer speaks Russian correctly, and whose afore-mentioned progeny was a demonic nihilist.

How about religion? Hugo loved the Catholic Church... so long as it operated strictly as a provider of charity, and of the religious rites. He hated the Church for its fawning adulation of monarchs and its adherence to class distinction. Dostoevsky ridiculed the Catholic Church precisely because it engaged in charitable activities, arguing in The Grand Inquisitor that (among other things) the Catholic Church replaced Christ's spiritual bread with the bread line. I don't find any criticism on Dostoevsky's part of the Orthodox Church's role as a stabilizer of the status quo.

Hugo has nothing but contempt for monasteries; he dedicates an entire chapter of Les Misérables to hymning their impending demise. Dostoevsky on the other hand finds his very inspiration in monks: Alyosha and Stavrogin visit monks for direction, and their fates are largely tied to whether they follow the monk's advice.

Lastly, their writing. This is of course much more subjective than what precedes it (as if I betrayed any pretensions to objectivity!)

I have read several of Dostoevsky's works; I find them lively, riotously funny, and populated with fascinating heroes (and anti-heroes) who have substantive conversations. Dostoevsky argues with himself in many of these conversations, to the point that in The Grand Inquisitor Dostoevsky the atheist (Ivan) is arguing with Dostoevsky the Christian (Alyosha) whether God exists. The intellectual arguments appear to be on Ivan's side, yet Alyosha wins with a kiss.

As for Les Misérables... I am trying desperately to convince myself that, after 500-some pages, I should invest the time necessary to finish it, instead of moving on to Oriana Fallaci's Insciallah (English edition). At first I was excited to be reading Hugo's masterpiece, but now it's laborious. Do I really need to know all these details of the gamins of Paris? Do I really need to know every reason that the monasteries will surely be gone within a few decades?

It's certainly not the length of the novel; I willingly spent two years reading Eugenio Corti's 1200-page Il Cavallo Rosso (English edition) but for all his anti-Communist tirades Corti at least packs narrative punch into every chapter, and like Dostoevsky (whom he admires) Corti gives his characters thoughtful conversations about God, war, the consistent failure of Italian political leadership, etc. In Hugo's book, conversations serve as little more than transitions between the narrator's soapboxes. I may happen to agree with much of Hugo's opinions on class, law, the penal system, etc., but he still comes across as a colossal, self-important bore. Perhaps this is because I am too familiar with the story; the novel does get interesting whenever I approach a narrative passage whose details I don't recall. It's hard to keep that in mind though, when Hugo is dawdling for 40 pages on the supposed nobility of the gamins of Paris. (The story about Louis Philippe helping to draw the pear was admittedly charming.)

Of course, Dostoevsky's furious efforts to thwart revolution and to exalt Christianity in general, and Russian Orthodoxy in particular, were in vain; Lenin came to power, and while Christianity was not entirely suppressed, the traditional religions of Russia were certainly not free to operate as they liked for the next seventy years, and to an extent they were persecuted.

Hugo's Bonapartism, meanwhile, has become the effective state religion of Western Europe — speaking metaphorically of course. This is illustrated by some flags, even: besides France, Belgium, Italy and Ireland all modeled their flags on Bonaparte's tricolor.

The reader may protest, Hey, you promised to reach for heaven, but this is purely earthly.

A salient point, but we're only getting started here. This is only the first round of the match; I hope to make a running commentary based around what little I know of these authors. Maybe I'll bring in some others as well (no reason we can't have a tag-team match in the cage).

The reader will observe: You had promised to try to make shorter posts.

I know. Check my next post.


Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Perry,

Interesting proposition. I've found enormous difficulties with both writers. Dostoevski's chief sin is that his novels could have been about half the length they presently occupy.

However, neither holds a candle to Proust for sheer length and audacity and minimal output. One seven volumne novel. Only one slight problem--Proust could probably due with some contact with everyday morality, or someone with some objective moral sense. However, the prose is a dream in both good English translations and in French, and he is ever a delight to read. A Dreyfussard, like Peguy, but from the other side of the fence.



jack perry said...


I used to think that about Dostoevsky, too, until I started reading Les Miserables. Ohhhhh... :-( Will the agony never end?!?

I'll keep Proust in mind.

Thanks :-)

Anonymous said...

Oddly enough, I just finished reading Les Miserables and so I can sympathize. My impression was that Hugo didn't like Napoleon quite as much as those effusions in the first half of the book would make you think - he opens him up to some criticism further on, thanks to Marius' revolutionary friends. In the end he seems to say: "Napoleon was great, but great like Caesar - which means he was monstrous."

The digressions sure are onerous sometimes, and they seem to get weightier and less interesting as the book progresses. (Just wait until he starts going on about romantic love!) His hyping of France is irritating, but the most depressing parts for me, anyway, are his optimistic pronouncements on Progress and the idyllic utopia that the 20th century is destined to be. I found myself wincing and thinking "It's just as well the poor idiot never saw the 20th century."

In retrospect, I think the book would have been much, much better if he had stopped writing after Jean Valjean's encounter with the saintly bishop. Shorter too! But I don't regret reading it.

jack perry said...

Ahhhhhhhhhh! That's NOT what I wanted to hear!

Hugo has a bit of a reprieve though. I decided to buy a hardcover of Dostoevsky's "Demons" (which I read this year) instead of "The Brothers Karamazov" (which I haven't read for some years, and want to read again). He has yet the chance to justify my finishing the novel.

Round two should be coming soon though. Honest.