Monday, January 15, 2018
The Man Who Laughs by Victor Hugo
About a short story’s worth of plot, very slowly told
The Man Who Laughs, a novel by Victor Hugo, was originally published in 1869 under the French title of L’Homme qui rit. The story begins in 1690 and takes place in England. Hugo starts with a lengthy explanation of a class of criminal known as the Comprachicos, who would kidnap children and sell them into slavery. Sometimes they would alter the physiognomy of the children they captured, surgically or otherwise, giving them a freakish appearance suitable for employment as court jesters, circus performers, and the like (Hugo makes this sound like it was a common thing). As the narrative opens, a band of such Comprachicos is boarding a boat, fleeing England in order to avoid a Comprachico crackdown. Not wishing to get caught with any evidence, they abandon the child they have abducted, leaving him on the shore to die as they make their getaway. This homeless, hungry, poorly dressed child trudges through the snowstorm of a dark January night, eventually stumbling into the caravan of a traveling carnival performer named Ursus, who raises the boy as his own son. The boy grows into a young man named Gwynplaine, and joins his adoptive father in the career of a traveling performer. Gwynplaine’s unique physical appearance makes him particularly qualified to entertain the crowds. When a boy, in the hands of the Comprachicos, they surgically altered his face, leaving him with a startlingly large permanent smile.
Though that’s but the beginning of the story, the verbose telling of these few scenes is lengthy enough to constitute an entire novel in and of itself. By the time you get to this point, you have already endured several protracted, minutely described chapters about a shipwreck. As is often the case with Hugo’s novels, the fictional narrative is interspersed with nonfictional asides which establish the historical context or just give Hugo the opportunity to say whatever he wants to say. When a character gets angry, for instance, you get an essay on anger. Hugo also goes into great detail chronicling the history of England, its peerage, and its laws. As a fan of Hugo’s work, I’m used to these lengthy digressions from previous reads like Ninety-Three and Toilers of the Sea. In his greatest hits, Notre-Dame de Paris and Les Misérables, Hugo’s propensity for rambling is toned down a bit and effectively augments the fictional narrative. In The Man Who Laughs, however, he really takes it too far, to the point where the book is so busily descriptive that nothing much really happens for great lengths of time. When the fiction does take center stage, Hugo often relates the events in a pace that’s slower than real time.
The story culminates in a statement chastising the nobility for its treatment of the lower classes. As in Les Misérables, Hugo expresses a great deal of sympathy for the common man, and he vehemently repudiates the privilege and divine right that comes with noble status. If that’s the message he’s trying to get across, however, why does he spend page after page detailing the intricate structure, titles, trappings, and ceremony of the English peerage? In this book, Hugo positively fetishizes the regalia of royalty, much as a religious fanatic reveres the symbolic ritual of the church.
As a fan of Hugo’s work, I’m usually quite willing to put up with his long-haul approach to storytelling. For most of The Man Who Laughs, I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and endure his lengthy asides. Ultimately, however, my patience ran out. The overwrought ending, intended to be moving, just feels like a phoney contrivance and leaves the reader disappointed after all the time and effort taken to get there. Though the characters are memorable, after all is said and done I’m not sure if this book was worth the trouble it took to read it.
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