Friday, May 29, 2015

Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo

A terrific story, though hampered by digressions
Victor Hugo’s novel Toilers of the Sea was originally published in 1866. The story takes place in the 1820s and is set mostly on the island of Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands between France and England. Hugo, who lived in Guernsey for 15 years, depicts the island with obvious fondness, but also portrays it as a rather backwards place where the residents cling to long-held superstitions and are wary of outsiders. Into this insular society comes a boy named Gilliatt, brought to Guernsey by his mother. His father is unknown, his background a mystery. Mother and son move into a house reputed to be haunted, which only increases their unpopularity among the locals. When the boy reaches manhood, the mother dies, and he is left to himself. Gilliatt demonstrates a remarkable ingenuity in all he undertakes—sailing, fishing, carpentry, blacksmithing, even medicine—which only causes the locals to suspect him of sorcery. Nearby lives a merchant named Mess Lethierry who initiates the first steamship service from the island to mainland France. This prominent citizen of Guernsey has a beautiful daughter named Déruchette. One Christmas morning Gilliatt spots Déruchette walking before him along the road, and he immediately falls in love with her. Over the course of the book, this love inspires him to undertake a perilous mission which pits his almost superhuman fortitude and inventiveness against the merciless forces of nature.

That synopsis barely scratches the surface of this book’s fascinating cast and intricate plot. As usual, Hugo hits it out of the park by delivering an epic story. More than any other writer I can think of, Hugo’s novels have a timeless, legendary quality about them that transcends literature and approaches mythology. The biggest problem with Toilers of the Sea is that Hugo often departs from his spectacular story and venture off into often tedious digressions. Like Hermann Melville’s Moby-Dick or Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the novel is interspersed with nonfiction interludes. These might take the form of a catalog of Channel Island superstitions, a comparison of ship designs, or a poetic and profound philosophical essay on mankind’s relation to the natural universe. (Part II, Book II, Chapter V, entitled Sub Umbra, is a phenomenal example of the latter.) Just when you’re getting thoroughly involved in the characters and plot, Hugo will go off on some tangent and draw an extended analogy from some culture on the other side of the world. Another problem is one of precision versus clarity. Much of the book’s action takes place on rocks out in the middle of the sea. Hugo minutely describes every nook, cranny, bay, and inlet in beautiful prose, yet still it’s difficult for the reader to visualize. He goes into the same level of intricacy in depicting the riggings of a ship or the construction of a block and tackle, often employing arcane terminology. The reader ends up feeling lost through many of these passages. Yet, just when you begin to feel bored or exasperated with such episodes, the next chapter will deliver a powerful and indelible scene that knocks your socks off. Despite all the distractions and difficulties, the indomitable humanity of Hugo’s novel shines through.

Hugo was a master—perhaps “the” master—of the French language, and the 1911 English translation by W. Moy Thomas really does justice to his superior prose. Each sentence flows beautifully, while preserving the power and poetry of Hugo’s literary voice. Toilers of the Sea may not be as well known as Notre-Dame de Paris or Les Misérables, but if you appreciate the heroic romanticism of those great classics, you’ll likewise enjoy this unsung epic.
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