VICTOR HUGO'S INNER DEMONS: Automatic drawing, an octopus and authorship
For me, who until now has been living in Rome for several years, a visit to Sweden - to meet friends and sisters there - is a time travel. For two years COVID-19 had isolated me in Italy, but now I was back in our house in Bjärnum where I invited former colleagues from my time in a school in nearby Hässleholm, to a dinner, took a rowing trip on the lake and strolled in the woods. Memories appeared everywhere. I spent a few days with my good, old friend Leif in his new apartment in Malmö, sat on his balcony and enjoyed the view of Öresund, the strait between Denmark and Sweden.
At my my sister Nunno’s place in Lund, I found that the trees in her garden had grown bigger, otherwise everything was the same, just like it was in Peter Glas’ large book storage where he as usual gave me a lot of interesting books. Even at Mats’ farm in the forests of Småland, I found myself surrounded by books. From my sister Annika’s cottage in the Stockholm archipelago, we traveled in glorious sunshine with the family’s outboard between islets and skerries.
Everywhere, I was received with friendly openness and generosity. All my friends have lots of books and we indulged in conversations about these creations that contain worlds without which my existence would be so much poorer. Where a book can be read, every day becomes an adventure.
In the guest house by Didrik’s homestead within the forests by Grantinge, just north of my hometown Hässleholm, I found to my delight and surprise Victor Hugo’s The Toilers of the Sea. I had been on the lookout for it during several years. Yes, in fact, ever since my childhood, after reading an excerpt from the novel in My Treasury: Forest, Sea and Sky, in which the heroic fisherman Gilliatt in a sea cave fights for his life against a giant octopus.
It had been my introduction to Victor Hugo’s novels, which I then, after first becoming acquainted with them as Classics Illustrated, devoured with great fascination (I found them all in my grandfather’s library) – Les Misérables, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Man Who Laughs and finally The Toilers of the Sea, which in Swedish also is called Hero of the Sea. The novels were and remain great reading experiences. When Didrik became aware of my enthusiasm for having found The Toilers of the Sea, he gave it to me.
I have now read it once again – it was an easy read, endowed with an unforced flow and effective descriptions, which etch themselves into the memory. Its protagonist, Gilliatt, is one of those morally superior, yet misunderstood, scorned and marginalized heroes that Hugo excels at portraying. In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the tragically deformed Quasimodo is at the centre. A loner who through his appearance cannot be loved by any woman and thus hopelessly yearns for Esmeralda, whom he selflessly protects and supports.
When the light and hope of Quasimodo’s inner thoughts, actually the centre of his entire existence, has been executed, the deformed, despised and helplessly lonesome cripple sneaks down into the grave vault of slain criminals to die by the side of his beloved. Several years later, a skeleton is found, embracing the remains of a young woman:
they found among all those hideous carcasses two skeletons, one of which held the other in its embrace. One of these skeletons, which was that of a woman, still had a few strips of a garment which had once been white […] The other, which held this one in a close embrace, was the skeleton of a man. It was noticed that his spinal column was crooked, his head seated on his shoulder blades, and that one leg was shorter than the other. Moreover, there was no fracture of the vertebrae at the nape of the neck, and it was evident that he had not been hanged. Hence, the man to whom it had belonged had come thither and had died there. When they tried to detach the skeleton which he held in his embrace, he fell to dust.
As noble, strong and misunderstood as Quasimodo is the almost monstrously flawless Jean Valjean of Les Misérable, who by Victor Hugo was allowed to die in peace:
”I had still other things to say, but nevermind, Think a little of me. Come still nearer. I die happy. Give me your dear and well-beloved heads, so that I may lay my hands upon them.” Rosette and Marius fell on their knees, in despair, suffocating with tears, each beneath one of Jean Val jeans's hands. Those august hands no longer moved. He had fallen backwards, the light of the candles illuminated him. […] He was dead.
This after Jean Valjean had been forsaken by his beloved, adopted daughter Cosette who had been convinced about the truth of lies and malicious slander told about her self-sacrificing benefactor and foster father. The same man who had saved her from all sorts of misery and was doing everything to please her. The betrayal had occurred on the advice of her husband, who unknowingly had been saved by the same Jean Valjean he had come to dislike due to a belief that he actually was a criminal, accused of all kinds of injustices he had actually never committed. To put it mildly, Jean Valjean's life had been hell.
But he did not commit suicide like Gwynplaine in The Man Who Laughs, who had become something of a monster since he as a child had his mouth cut open to form an eternal grin and was subsequently shown in markets and miserable cabarets. Like Quasimodo, Gwynplaine was kind-hearted, though both mentally and physically maimed.
Gwynplaine is, however, restored to his rightfully elevated potion in society when it is discovered that he is the son of a deceased, but highly respected nobleman and thus has a seat prepared for him in the English Parliament. There, one of the novel’s tragic highlights takes place when Gwynplaine in a passionate speech describes the tragedy of his life and with it as an example points out the gross inequalities upon which English society is founded. He points to the fact that the construction of a social identity is based on a person’s class status, while completely ignoring her/his good and useful qualities. English citizens are judged on the basis of the cradle in which they once had been placed.
Like Gwynplaine, an unrequited love makes the mighty, hard-working, straightforward and naively gullible Gilliatt of The Toilers of the Sea to take his own life.
Sure… it’s all overly romantic and emotionally exaggerated, though nevertheless told in a skillful, thoughtful and highly original manner. Hugo’s prose has proven its worth across time, something I was able to ascertain when, after more than forty years, I once again read The Toilers of the Sea in the anonymous Swedish translation from 1925 that Didrik had given me.
My fascination with Victor Hugo and his sea toilers was renewed when I two years ago visited Jersey together with Rose and a pair of our good friends. Victor Hugo had spent four years in voluntary exile on this English Channel island, before moving with his family to nearby Guernsey, where he lived for another sixteen years, before he in triumph returned to Paris. By then he had on the islands written a large number of poems and the three novels Les Misérables, The Man Who Laughs and The Toilers of the Sea. The action of the last mentioned novel takes place on Guernsey, in Saint-Malo and their surrounding waters.
In the The Toilers of the Sea, the ocean is ubiquitous, brought to life by the violent shifts between ebb and flow, stillness and storm. The story envolves within a context of fishermen and seafarers, where Hugo lived as if he was part of the sea, he could even call himself The Ocean. Victor Hugo was an extreme narcissist.
There have been to great affairs in my life: Paris and the Ocean. At night it is the Sea that wakes me up and says, “To work!”
And Hugo certainly did work. His literary output is enormous, albeit of varying quality, though generally speaking it is quite good and has successfully withstood the test of time. Already as a young man, Hugo felt like a “chosen one” and early on he became successful; a prolific word smith, a gifted poet who with brio and self-admiration mastered drama in verse and prose, poetry, rhetoric, pamphlet - and novel writing. He loved watching Victor Hugo rise up in the spotlight and if it was not on the theater stage, it could be in the Parliament and the press. In politics, Victor Hugo took a bold stand in such a manner that he was well aware of the fact that his pointed statements and dramatic formations would arouse both hatred and boundless admiration. Hugo regarded himself not only as an incarnation of the Ocean, but also as a personification of the righteous France and his boundless claims certainly found a large number of adherents. As in the following caricature by Daumier where the prospective tenant states:
“Being located at Place Royale, I find this accommodation to be somewhat expensive.” “Somewhat expensive..... somewhat expensive ...... but I have already told you that from this window you will be able to see Victor Hugo get up, two or three times within a week!”
In 1881, to celebrate the titan’s eighty years a French National Day was declared, all punishments in school were lifted for week, while Hugo sat by his front door at Place Royal and waved at the 600,000 people who passed by in an enthusiastic procession. When Hugo was buried four years later, the more than two million people who in Paris witnessed the solemn funerary procession testified to the immense impact of his writing. There stood, side by side, mourning anarchists, feminists, war veterans, government officials, politicians and prostitutes – representatives of every social class and ideological belief.
However, this was after Hugo’s triumphant return from his self-imposed exile on the English Channel Islands. There he had a more limited audience than the entire French population, especially his wife, his mistress, his daughter and two sons, as well as visiting admirers, but when his friend Delphine de Girardin appeared with a table with three legs, through which spirits could communicate through various knocks, Hugo’s fan base expanded with an addition of dead spirits. Among the distinguished visitors were Jesus, Muhammad, Joshua, Luther, Shakespeare, Molière, Dante, Aristotle, Plato, Galilei, Louis the Fourteenth, Isaiah and Napoleon, all of whom regarded Hugo as an equal, or even superior to themselves. These spiritual heavyweights were supported by more unexpected and even more remarkable visitors from the spirit realm, such as the donkey of Balaam, the lion of Androcles, and the dove from Noah’s ark. Incarnations of abstract phenomena also appeared, such as the Critique and the Idea. However, it could also happen that one or two demons appeared, or a bunch of evil spirits. Hugo portrayed some of them in a drawing presented below, taken from one of his “spiritual notebooks”.
Someone who often appeared during the sessions was the mighty Ocean, who explicitly requested that Victor Hugo had to be his mouthpiece and after each session Hugo carefully wrote down what the spirit potentates had said and then often used their statements in his poetry. He does not seem to have pondered about how it came about that he could so easily be convinced of the truthfulness of all that the spirits communicated to him. The most credible explanation is actually that all the session participants moved like obedient satellites around Victor Hugo. Therefore, it was perhaps not so strange that the knocks on the table to such a great extent seemed to reflect the great author’s thoughts and opinions.
Hugo went so far in his firm belief in the flattery of the spirits that he, on their advice, began to work out the guidelines for a religion that would “swallow Christianity, in the same way as it once had swallowed paganism.” The basic idea was that everything has a soul: “flowers are tormented by scissors and close their eyes just like we do.”
The universe and all the mini-universes within it, from the merest atom to the mightiest nebula, are prison cells on which crimes are horribly expiated.
Worst are the stones, “these dungeons of the soul.” Yet all this animated matter do strive upward, toward ever higher, more complete manifestations, driven by the strange power of Love: “Good deeds are the invisible hinges on which the gates of Heaven rest.”
Hugo’s peculiar concoction of politics, Buddhism, Christianity, karma and destiny resulted in a strong belief in “success” and “development”, something that one of his better biographers, Graham Robb, aptly has called “a kind of religion that could have been created by a UNESCO committee.”
Hugo has certainly been canonized by the strange Cao Dai religion in Vietnam. While living there, we visited Cao Dai's Disneyland-like temple in Tay Ninh outside Saigon. There we saw, among other peculiar things, an altarpiece presenting a Victor Hugo provided with a halo and dressed in the uniform of the French Academy while writing down the words: “God and humanity. Love and justice”.
It is thus not without reason that there was a certain truth in Jean Cocteau’s witty statement that “Victor Hugo is a maniac who believes himself to be Victor Hugo.” In response to such a remark, Hugo could have countered with the characterization he made of Shakespeare: “To appear mad is the secret of the sage.” A neighbour and occasional participant in the spirit sessions was a political refugee and inventor named Jules Allix. One day this man appeared at Hugo’s home, La Hauteville. armed with a loaded revolver while declaring that it was he and not Hugo who was identical with God. Before the madman managed to kill the literary titan, he was overpowered and taken to a mental hospital. After the incident, Mrs Hugo declared that she had had more than enough of all these stupidities, stating that she was tired of being forced to share her household with the Shadow of the Grave, the Dove of the Ark and a white shimmering ghost lady who her husband occasionally had glimpsed in the corridors and his bedroom. Unless the crazy sessions ceased immediately, Adèle Foucher-Hugo would leave her husband alone on his island and take their grown-up children with her. Hugo spent a few sleepless nights, but soon found a new, calming occupation – automatic drawing.
Hugo was a constantly creative being – in thoughts, words and deeds. During long walks across the island and swims in the chilly Atlantic, he devised poems and stories, while planning a variety of political initiatives – the fight against the usurper Napoleon III, abolition of the death penalty, solidarity with the fighting patriots in the Balkans, and constant battles against social injustice and slavery (he was one of the few writers of his time who did not wallow in racism, but instead gave a positive image of black people). As a writer, Hugo could be swept along by his own creations, fully immersed in his depictions of nature and the drama developing in his plays, poems and stories. In a similar manner he entered into his drawings.
He could pour ink onto a sheet of paper and then, by turning it back and forth, let the wet ink stain spread. Or he could mix the ink with water and other water-soluble substances and then let it move across the paper.
He could also, like the surrealist painter Max Ernst did much later – press a white sheet of paper against another ink-filled one, so that an imprint was formed, or he could place a thin piece of paper on top of a rough surface, then spread ink over it, press it against the surface and thus obtain an imprint of it. Thus he created random patterns, which he let his imagination play with, imagining they created strange dreamscapes.
Hugo was far from being a bad draftsman and when he “improved” his imaginary creations, he could above, or through them, create contour-sharp and quite skillfully made drawings.
The one who best describes the techniques of Victor Hugo is actually the great Swedish writer August Strindberg (though I do not know if he was aware of them), who in many ways resembles Hugo – through his narcissism, his exquisitely detailed depictions of nature, his fascination with the power of the sea, a ruthlessness paired with a certain tenderness, an unbridled satirical vein, his play writing and a strong political will to battle generally accepted opinions and abuse of power. Not for nothing did Strindberg often mention Dickens and Hugo as his favorite authors.
Another similarity between the two literary giants was their practice of drawing and painting and the “random” procedure they then applied, not to mention their belief in spirits’ impact on human existence. In a short essay, Strindberg described his method of painting as follows:
An obscure desire dominates me. I am aspiring towards a shaded opening from which you can see the sea at sunset.
So: with the palette knife I use for this purpose - I do not own any brushes! - I distribute the colors over a palette, mixing them and apply so that I obtain a drawing, or something similar. […] What now? Above the water there is a white and pink spot, the origin and significance of which I am unable to explain to myself. Just a moment! - A rose! - The knife works for two seconds and the pond becomes framed by roses, roses, what an amount of roses!
A light touch here and there, with the finger, mixing the reluctant colours, melting together and driving away the hard tones, thinning out, dissolving and there is the painting!
My wife, who on this occasion is my good friend comes forward, watches and is seized by rapture […]
Eight days later we have again entered a period of angry antipathy, and in my masterpiece she sees pure dung!
Strindberg’s “wild creativity” is most often expressed in dramatic seascapes, just as the case was with Victor Hugo, when he like Strindberg in both words and images excelled in his sea depictions.
Their work is most often reminiscent of William Turner’s more professional creations:
I must admit that I prefer both Strindberg’s and Turner’s colorful and expressive art to Hugo’s often more murky variant. Yet Hugo’s artwork, like most of the other works he created, was admired by his contemporary groupies. Probably some of Hugo’s drawings have even been been inspiring more significant artists than himself. For example, the incomparable illustrator Gustave Doré, who in collaboration with Hugo illustrated some of his literary works, but who is better known for the masterpieces he created to accompany the Bible, Divina Commedia, Don Quixote, Baron von Münchhausen’s Adventures and many others classics, which Doré graced with his inspiring, often astonishing illustrations. I do for example recall one of Hugo’s drawing of a capsizing ship overtaken by an enormous wave and an illustration Doré made for for Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner.
Both Hugo and Doré, are occasionally almost erasing of the boundary between sky and sea, one example of this is another of Doré´s Coleridge illustrations, where a ship rests in a calm sea under a full moon.
Strindberg’s artwork sometimes reflect similar scenarios, where the border between sky and sea is vague or obliterated, as in his The Lonely Poison Mushroom, like so many other of Strindberg’s paintings made between divorces, occasions when he felt most alone and vulnerable. Many other artists and amateurs have like Strindberg allowed themselves to be swallowed up by their painting activities, to leave the torments of everyday life far behind.
When money flowed in through his diligent and esteemed writing, Hugo erected a fanciful abode on Guernsey – Hauteville, a multifaceted creation which like so many other of his works of art seemed to mirror Hugo’s kaleidoscopic being. He single-handedly decided on the interior design; a mixture of Orientalism, kitsch, overloaded, petty bourgeoisie taste and stunning, atmospheric minimalism.
In the upper parts of the house, Hugo had balconies and glazed verandas built, from which he could immerse himself in panoramas of the sea, its ever-changing character during ebb and flow, storm and silent tranquility. In these rooms he also entered into his writing, surrounded, but nevertheless pleasantly separated, by the vastness and force of weather/nature.
Like Strindberg, Victor Hugo could begin to write a story or poem and then let chance, or the “spirits” intervene and change it in accordance to something he had not planned from the beginning, thus making the writing of stories into a unique adventure. In the essay quoted above, Strindberg dramatically depicts such a procedure:
Once I felt inclined to make a small figurine of a praying youth in clay, following an ancient model. He stood there with his arms raised, but I was disappointed in him and in an outburst of despair I let my hand fall upon the defective head. And behold! A metamorphosis that Ovid could not have dreamed of. My blow has flattened the Greek hairstyle, it becomes like a Scottish beret, covering the face; the head and neck are pressed down between the shoulders; the arms are lowered in such a manner that the hands remain at eye level below the beret; the legs bend; the knees approach each other; and everything has been transformed into a nine-year-old boy who cries and hides his tears behind his hands. After some retouching, the figurine was completed, that is, the viewer got the desired impression.
Hugo’s preserved collection of manuscripts indicates a cross-fertilization between image creation and writins – his energetically written manuscripts are often filled with sketches. Occasionally, as seems to have been the case with parts of Toilers of the Sea, he first made a drawing which then became inspiration for a written description. Here, for example, is a sketch of the treacherous Captain Clubin, one of the novel’s two villains.
Just as Hugo was able to describe improbably noble personalities (often succeeding in doing so without becoming overly sentimental), his novels also contain insightfully described criminals:
Man’s innermost being, like his external nature, has its own electric tension. An idea is a meteor, in the moment of success the accumulated meditations that have prepared the way for that success become half-open and emit a spark. A man who, like some evil predator, feels a victim within his claws enjoys a happiness that cannot be concealed. An evil thought that has triumphed lights up his face. The success of some scheme, the achievement of some aim, some fierce delectation will momentarily bring to men’s eyes somber flashes of illumination. It is like a joyful storm, a menacing dawn. It is an emanation of a man’s consciousness, becoming a thing of darkness and cloud.
The false and scheming Clubin is the complete opposite of the solid and staunch Gilliatt. While describing the strong, sensible and helpful Gilliatt, Hugo uses the literary trick of adapting the perspective of bigoted, petty villagers. Each good trait of Gilliatt is thus by jealous and/or uncomprehending villagers considered to be a vice, superstition, or even a threat. Through this subtle irony Hugo is able to present Gilliatt as being far superior to his detractors and backbiters. It is excellence and strength of character that make Gillian an outsider.
Public opinion was not quite settled with regard to Gilliatt. In general he was regarded as a Marcou [werewolf]: some went so far as to believe him to be a Cambiou. A cambiou is the child of a woman begotten by a devil.
Another odd character in the novel is the righteous, enterprising, but somewhat naive shipowner Lethierry, who through this success attracts resentment. Known for his contempt for priests and ingrained superstition Lethierry is constantly defamed and opposed . By introducing the first steamboat Lethierry is bringing modern times to the Channel Islands and despite the reluctance felt by those around him, the islanders soon make extensive use of the novelty. Both they and Lethierry are soon benefiting from this efficient and superior means of transportation.
Lethierry becomes a wealthy man and loves his boat Durande, though not as much as he is attached to his orphaned niece Déruchette, whom he has cared for since her infancy. Déruchette is the most striking beauty of the Channel Islands, mysterious in all her naive innocence. When she one winter evening notices Gilliatt in the distance, Déruchette bends down and writes his name in the snow. Even if she leaves the place before Gilliatt has arrived and reads his name, the incident does for him become a an obvious sign that the lovely Déruchette thinks of him and maybe even is attracted by him and he thus falls shyly and helplessly in love with the young maiden.
The desperate and ruined Lethierry promises his niece’s hand to anyone who can salvage Durande’s valuable machine. None of the Channel Islands’ inhabitants can imagine that the missing, but enterprising and extremely strong Gilliatt, month after month is engaged in a heroic battle against the forces of nature.
Famished and worn out he is single-handedly engaged in an almost impossible effort of salvaging Durande’s unwieldy machine. Gilliatt's inhuman struggle turns him into a some kind of savage. Most of Hugo's novel is dedicated to detailed descriptions of Gilliatt’s troublesome and life-threatening rescue work and his violent clashes with hurricanes and all sorts of natural disasters that continually threaten to annihilate his superhuman endeavor.
Time and time again, Gilliatt is close to being overcome by hunger and exhaustion. He appers to have become like an animal, a beast instinctively focused on surviving and the fulfilling his self-imposed task. Though a beast that nevertheless is a cunning and highly capable creature, equipped with an infallible ability of in due time anticipate every impending disaster and by various means ensure that there is a chance to overcome nature’s constant and ruthless attacks.
Gillian is close to succeeding when he finally is forced to endure the worst of all his life-threatening combats with an insensitive adversary. A struggle against the embodiment of all nature’s destructive and emotionally cold forces – the formidable and frightening Pieuvre, the giant octopus, also called the “bloodsucker”, the “devil fish”, or the "dragon".
”When God wills it, he excels in the execrable… All ideals being admitted, if terror be an object, the octopus is a masterpiece. The whale has enormous size, the octopus is small; the hippopotamus has a cuirass, the octopus is naked; the jararoca hisses, the octopus is dumb …”
”The octopus has no muscular organization, no menacing cry, no breastplate, no horn, no dart, no pincers, no prehensile or bruising tail, no cutting pectoral fins, no barbed wings, no quills, no sword, no electric discharge, no virus, no venom, no claws, no beak, no teeth.”
”A grayish form undulates in the water: it is as thick as a man’s arm, and about half an ell long; it is a rag; its form resembles a closed umbrella without a handle. This rag gradually advances towards you, suddenly it opens: eight radii spread out abruptly around a face which has two eyes; these radii are alive; there is something of the flame in their undulation.”
”The octopus on the chase or lying in wait, hides; it contracts, it condenses itself; it reduces itself to the simplest possible expression. It confounds itself with the shadow. It looks like a ripple of the waves. It resembles everything except something living.”
”The octopus swims, though he also walks, making use of his eight tentacles he crawls along the seabed.”
”It has no bones, it has no blood, it has no flesh. It is flabby.
”Gilliatt was the fly for this spider. He stood in water to his waist, his feet clinging to the slippery roundness of the stones, his right arm grasped and subdued by the flat coils of the octopus’s thongs, and his body almost hidden by the folds and crossings of that horrible bandage.”
”The octopus is cunning. It tries to stupefy its prey in the first place. It seizes, then waits as long as it can. […] All at once the creature detached its sixth tentacle from the rock, and launching it at him, attempted to seize his left arm.”
”He avoided the tentacle, and at the moment when the creature was about to bite his breast, his armed fist descended on the monster.
Gilliatt finds the villain Clubin’s skeleton in the pieuvre’s cave. Like the Beatles member Ringo Starr, Victor Hugo had heard fishermen tell him about how some octopuses collect shells and beautiful stones to create “gardens”, something that actually seems to be true. It is in such a garden that Gilliatt encounters the remains of Clubin, surrounded by seashells and shimmering rocks. A waterproof leather case with Lethierry’s stolen banknotes turns out to be intact.
Exhausted, with the appearance of a savage, calm and gratefully exhausted after all the great work he has done, but without a real sense of triumph, Gilliatt steered his boat away from the barren cliffs where he had spent such a gruesome time. Durande’s salvaged machine had been loaded and securely strapped on his Dutch sloop and early in the morning he moored the quay in St. Sampson, one of Guernsey's small port towns. No one except Déruchette was yet awake, something Gilliatt could ascertain while he sneaked up to Lethierry’s garden, where to his surprise and great despair he also found that he had rival for Déruchette’s affection. From a hiding place he had seen the lovely girl walking alone in the garden, though soon she was accompanied by the small town’s young and handsome Anglican priest, whose life Gilliatt once had saved. In reach of Gilliatt’s forlorn gaze and hearing the priest declared his love for Déruchette and found that his feelings were mutually answered.
The sleepless Lethierry has at the same time found his way down to the harbour and to his great happiness and surprise he found Durand’s salvaged machine resting firmly chained on board Gillian’s sloop. Radiant with joy Lethierry strikes the harbour bell and the town’s dazed population gathers around him. Gilliatt also shows up. The impulsive Lethierry floods him with praise that becomes even more overwhelming when Gilliatt hands over the stolen banknotes he had found at the Clubin’s carcass.
Déruchette appears and Lethierry asserts Gilliatt that he is now facing his future bride, but when Déruchette is confronted with Gilliat's wild looks – he has not yet changed his tattered clothes and months of hard toil, starvation and sleeplessness have ruined his features to such an extent that he looks like a madman – Déruchette faints.
Well groomed and dressed in his finery, the once again handsome Gilliatt seeks out the priest who is about to say goodbye to Déruchette, who desperately seems to have decided to submit to her uncle’s wish and marry the barbarian Gilliatt. However, Gilliatt sacrifices himself for the love of the young lovers and before he takes his own life, Gilliatt acts as a wedding witness at their marriage, that he has arranged on his own accord. While Gilliatt watches the disappearing ship that takes the young couple away from Guernsey, he lets the tide drown him. Resigned, but not in despair, he succumbs, engulfed by “the mighty tomb of the sea.”
Contemporaries had no difficulty in equating Gillat’s heroic struggle with Victor Hugo’s life and endeavours – his exile on the windswept Channel Islands and struggle against the corrupt French government (symbolized by Gillian’s heroic struggle against nature’s forces and not the least the ruthless, many-tentacled pieuvre). For sure, Hugo regarded himself as a noble, brave and shrewd loner, who after a fierce battle against merciless forces against all odds had emerged victorious, only to sacrifice himself in unselfish concern for the happiness of others. Instead of compromising and negotiate with a corrupt French regime, the righteous fighter and French patriot Victor Hugo remained on his isolated, English island.
Hugo’s own illustrations for The Toilers of the Sea seem to support such an interpretation. For example, we find among them a vignette with the boat Durante helplessly wedged between two rocks. The arrangement seems to reflect the signature that Hugo often used – a simple "H".
French cartoonists were not late in alluding to Gilliatt’s sad fate and portrayed how Victor Hugo, like his hero, allowed himself to be drowned on an isolated Guernsey.
But, but, maybe not everything was after all that simple. Hugo skillfully played the role of himself as humanity’s best friend and great philanthropist. For example, every Tuesday afternoon he arranged a sumptous, well-publicized, large dinner party for Guernsey’s most needy and poorest children, when he also handed out clothes and toys. But, suppressed demons were probably in place deep inside him … all the time.
In the press, his poetry and novels, Victor Hugo fought for the rights of the poor and downtrodden, declaring that he was adherent to a religious belief that placed love of thy neighbour and compassion with the needy as its greatest ideals. However, that did not mean that he relinquished his privileged luxury life and in connection with that was able to demonstrate a certain greed. For example, he rejected his regular publisher’s bid of 150,000 francs for the rights to Les Misérables (equivalent to the annual salary of sixty civil servants) and instead sold the eight-year publishing rights for 300,000 francs to a Belgian publisher.
A certain greed, however, was not Hugo’s greatest crime. If there had been a Metoo-movement during his time, Hugo would undoubtedly have been frozen out from society’s appreciation after being branded as a perverted predator. Like several other narcissistic and libido possessed writers, Hugo kept a coded diary, in which he recorded his erotic escapades. It was discovered and deciphered in 1954.
While Victor Hugo sits and fantasizes around his ink blots, a strange creature emerges. What can it be? An octopus! The Pieuvre.
Hugo’s inner demons are in full swing, stretching their tentacles into his sensitive and receptive consciousness. True to his habit, he processes the visual messages emerging from his spirit universe, which in fact do not seem to be anything less than manifestations of his own, deeply hidden subconscious. The place to which doubts, shame and bad conscience have been banished.
Perhaps Victor Hugo, just as he described stones, “these dungeons of the soul” was a chilly person, though well-polished on the outside. Who could have guessed his inner tumult? Hugo was probably himself incapable of accepting his moral shortcomings and even less able to expose them – except in the disguised form of his writing. True to his habit, he prepared his ink blot creation and the formidable and horrifying Pieuvre takes shape. Among the mnster’s upper tentacles its creator’s initials might be discerned – V.H.
The pieuvre who in his hidden cave lurks on his victims is a relentless force of nature; intelligent, colour-changing, multifaceted, flexible, monstrous, cold and ruthless, and futhermore equipped with eight tentacles, which seem to have a life of their own and which even have the ability to recreate decapitated limbs. What is this monster, constituted by head and arms? If not a frightening image of Victor Hugo’s own carefully hidden demons?
When the great author projected his own shortcomings on others and described their constant changes of position, harsh attacks on adversaries and concealment of weaknesses, it was at the same time himself he described. He depicted others’ reluctance of confronting themselves as “crayfish souls forever scuttling backward into the darkness”. Replace the crayfish with the pieuvre and we get a picture of Hugo’s fear of his inner conscience, which in the The Toilers of the Sea took the shape of giant slimy monster that his alter ego Gilliatt so successfully fought and vanquished.
Already several of his contemporary zoologists found Hugo’s depiction of the octopus as a malicious predator to be extremely misleading. The French conchologist (mollusk researcher) Joseph Charles Hippolyte Crosse, author of over 300 scientific works on mollusks, published in 1866 the critical work Un Mollusque bien maltraité, ou comment Monsieur Victor Hugo comprend
l´organisation du poulpe, An Ill-treated Mollusk, or How Monsieur Victor Hugo Understands the Octopus’ Organization. The literary titan dismissed such criticism as “sun spots”.
Zoological inaccuracies did not prevent Victor Hugo’s fictuous creation from unleashing a monster that for a number of years came to haunt people’s imagination and nightmares. However… more about this in the next blog post.
Georgel, Pierre (1993) Victor Hugo Pittore. Milano: Mazotta. Grossiord, Sopie (2008) Victor Hugo ”Et s’il n’en reste qu’ un ...” Paris: Gallimard. Hugo. Victor The Toilers of the Sea. New York: Modern Library. Robb, Graham (1997) Victor Hugo. London: Picador. Vargas Llosa, Mario (2004) La tentación de lo imposible. Madrid: Punto de lectura.