Victor Hugo by an Unknown Artist
“[…] such threadbare stuff as Les Misérables. But it is not permitted to say anything against it. One would have the air of a police spy. The author’s position is impregnable, unassailable. I, who have spent my life adoring him, am at the present moment indignant! I have to explode.
I find neither truth nor greatness in this book. As for the style, it strikes me as deliberately incorrect and low. It’s a way of flattering the populace. Hugo is taking pains to be nice to everybody. Saint-Simonians, Philippistes, and even innkeepers — the lot. […] Let truth take care of itself, if it can. Where are the prostitutes like Fantine, convicts like Valjean, and politicians like the stupid cocos of A.B.C.? Not once do you see them suffer in the depths of their souls. They are puppets, figures made of sugar, beginning with Monseigneur Bienvenu. In his socialist mantra Hugo slanders the church just as he slanders the poor. Where will you find a bishop who asks a conventionnel for his blessing? Where will you find a factory that would discharge a girl for having had a baby? Etc. And the digressions! So many! The passage about fertilizers must have enchanted Pelletan. This book is designed for the catholic-socialist rabble, for all the philosophical-evangelical vermin. What a charming character is Monsieur Marius, living only three days on a cutlet. And Monsieur Enjolras, who has given only two kisses in his life, poor chap! And for what they say, they talk very well, but all alike. Old Gillenormand’s drivel, Valjean’s last ravings, the humor of Tholomyès and Grantaire — it’s all from the same mold. Innumerable quips and jokes, artificial high spirits, and never anything comic. Endless explanations of irrelevancies, and none whatever of things indispensable to the subject. But instead, sermons to show that universal suffrage is a very fine thing, that the masses must be educated: this repeated ad nauseum. Despite its good passages, and they are rare, this book is decidedly infantile. Observation is a secondary quality in literature, but a contemporary of Balzac and Dickens hasn’t the right to depict society so falsely. The subject was certainly a good one. But it called for such unemotional handling, such broad, scientific consideration! It’s true that Père Hugo despises science. And he demonstrates just that…
Posterity will not forgive this man for wanting to be a thinker — a role contrary to his nature. What has he been brought to by his mania for posing as a philosopher? And such philosophy! That of Prud’homme, of Poor Richard, or Béranger. He is no more a thinker than Racine or La Fontaine, of whom his opinion is not very high. That is, like them he summarizes the drift and substance of the banal ideas of his time, and with such persistence that he forgets his own work, and his art. That is my opinion […] I am keeping it to myself, needless to say. Everyone who touches a pen must be too grateful to Hugo to allow himself to criticize. But — privately — I think the gods are growing old. What lack of regard for beauty! Just quote one page of the kind he used to write […]”
a letter from Gustave Flaubert to Mme. Roger des Genettes dated July 1862