Friday, June 6, 2014
Ninety-Three by Victor Hugo
An absolutely superb novel, but a tough history lesson
1793 was one of the most turbulent years of the French Revolution. A republican government was put in place following the execution of Louis XVI, but a counterrevolution erupted in the northwestern regions of Brittany and the Vendée. An army consisting mostly of peasants, loyal to the monarchy and their Catholic faith, waged a guerrilla war against the republican forces of the Parisian government. In his final novel, Ninety-Three, originally published in 1874, Victor Hugo vividly captures the devastation and the glory of this epic conflict.
The book opens with a troop of republican soldiers marching through a Breton forest, where they find a recently widowed peasant woman and her three children hiding in the brush. Though the sergeant of the troop at first sees them as enemies, he ultimately shows them compassion by adopting them into the care of the troop. Meanwhile, in the English Channel, the royalists are attempting to land their leader, the Marquis de Lantenac, on the shores of Brittany, in hopes that he will unite their scattered bands and lead them to victory.
Ninety-Three is perhaps the most Romantic of Romantic novels. By that I don’t mean love story, because there’s none to be found here, but rather Romanticism as opposed to Realism. Every emotion evoked in this book is bombastically larger than life in its intensity. The honor, the glory, the bravery, and the brutality are all idealized to the utmost degree. All events come full circle, each character fulfills his destiny, and everyone’s a hero, though their heroism is directed toward opposing ends. Although Hugo primarily sympathized with the republican cause, he expresses equal admiration for the Whites (royalists) and Blues (republicans). He manages to celebrate the highest ideals of both factions, yet he also doesn’t fail to criticize both parties’ shortcomings and attribute to each their own contributions to the horrors of civil war.
One obstacle to enjoying this book for the general (American) reader is the immense amount of historical detail that Hugo crams into the story. You’d have to have a master’s degree in French history to understand everything Hugo is saying. If a French person were to read a book about the American Revolution, they would certainly be familiar with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, but might scratch their heads at supporting characters like Patrick Henry, Ethan Allen, or Nathan Hale. In Ninety-Three, American readers will likewise recognize Robespierre, Danton, and Marat, but in his section on the National Convention, Hugo must rattle off the names of at least 200 French Patrick Henrys, along with anecdotal references that you’re expected to know and understand. He assumes a high-level of prior knowledge on the part of the reader, which makes a couple sections in the middle of the book really tough going. I don’t fault Hugo’s book for my own ignorance of the subject matter, however. I only wish I knew all the myriad details required to fully appreciate this great work.
Ninety-Three not only provides a detailed lesson in French history, it also brilliantly encapsulates the spirit and ideals of the French Revolution. I still think Notre-Dame de Paris (a.k.a. The Hunchback of Notre Dame) is Hugo’s greatest work, but Ninety-Three is even better than the more famous Les Misérables. The latter work is better known likely because it’s more accessible to the non-French reader, and its social concerns are more universal than those confined to the Revolution. In terms of plot, characters, and emotional power, however, I think Ninety-Three has Les Mis beat. I highly recommend you read all three great works and judge for yourself.
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