Sunday,17 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1130, 10 - 16 January 2013
Sunday,17 February, 2019
Issue 1130, 10 - 16 January 2013

Ahram Weekly

Chapeau Hugo!

France has been generous in its myriad contributions to the Arts throughout history, and never more so than in the literary genius of Victor Hugo.  A decade ago, 2002, France celebrated the 200th birthday of their revered poet, with such fanfare and panache, as only the French can. Is Hugo not considered the greatest poet by many, and the most important of the French Roromantic writers?  It was a love fest, a sumptuous meal of everything ‘Hugo’ that the French as well as foreign visitors could not get enough of.

Museums all over Paris displayed his works with pictures, notes, documents and other personal belongings. The celebrations continue and in every French city, town or village you are sure to come across a Victor Hugo street.  In fact, a sweet Hugo air pervades Paris arcades, embankments and promenades.  That same air has reached Hollywood town which is about to release yet another version of his beloved “Les Miserables”.   This is a film adaptation of the highly successful Broadway musical that ran for an eternity.  The film stars Hugh Jackman as the ill-fated Jean Valjean with Russell  Crowe as his relentless nemesis, Inspector Javert.  The stellar cast includes Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried and Helena Bonham Carter.

Still reeling from his Oscar anointed production of “The King’s Speech”, director Tom Hooper is hoping to recapture the spirit of the 19th century Parisian tale, in his new assignment.  It is quite a challenge for the young director as many viewers still retain the memory of  the 1935 version with Frederic Marsh as Valjean and Charles Laughton as the heartless Javert.

Songs from the stage musical were well received, but were never hits. Written by Claude-Michel Schonberg, with lyrics by Alain Boublil, the transfer of the musical to the London stage was bumpy and lukewarm at first, but Brits soon warmed up to the mood and the meaning, making it a hit worthy of Broadway.

For years the idea of bringing the stage musical to the big screen was toyed with, until a rounded middle-aged English woman came on the hit show “American Idol” and belted out one of the songs from the musical. The song, “I dreamed a dream” was heard and applauded around the world.  The singer was Susan Boyle. The courage to make the film was renewed and it will premiere tomorrow, (Jan 11) worldwide.  The early buzz is that we are in for the season’s treat, and a veritable blockbuster.  Hugo would have enjoyed it.  This will be the 37th film adaptation of his great classic, and who knows how many more to come.

Born in 1802, Hugo was honoured by the Academie Francaise for one of his poems in 1817.  He was only 15..  Deeply aware of the social injustices of his beloved Paris, he would often take long walks in its cobblestone streets swarming with the pain and suffering of his fellow Parisians.  Their poverty and misery moved him to tears, and he expressed it all in his writings.

Once a political conservative and a staunch royalist, Hugo became increasingly liberal.  When Charles X restricted the freedom of the press and censors prohibited the stage performance of his play, “Marion de Larme”, (1829), Hugo retorted by writing “Hernani”, (1830), depicting a noble outlaw at war with society.  The play became the basis of Verdi’s opera “Ernani”.  Another play, “Le Roi  s’Amuse”, (1832), was transferred to Verdi’s masterpiece, “Rigoletto”.

His first international endeavour was “Notre Dame de Paris”, better known as “the Hunchback of Notre Dame”.  Filmmakers have adapted it 17 times for various media outlets, screen, TV, video- film, cartoon and video-game.  It is a haunting tale filled with his criticism for men of power, his pity for the persecuted, and his belief in true love’s endurance.

After the revolution of 1848, Victor Hugo supported President Louis Napoleon, but when he established himself Emperor, Hugo went into exile for 20 years, where he produced his best works.  It is said that he wrote 100 lines of verse and 20 pages of prose every morning.

“Les Contemplations”, contains his best lyric poetry, in which he revealed his deep chagrin over the loss of his daughter Leoppoldine, who was cruelly snatched away from him in a drowning accident.  This left Hugo with a gaping wound that would never heal.  On returning home from the grave, he picked an abandoned novel which he had started to write 20 years before.  In it he poured all the pain and torment his broken heart felt.  His tears would often wash away the words from many pages.  It was his therapy, his solace. When it was finally finished, he gave it the title of “Les Misearables’.

 Readers fell in love with the book, and they too cried with Hugo over the loss of Leopoldine, the loss of compassion and justice in a world made by humans, and supposedly for all humans. Valjean became everyman wronged, hurt, persecuted and accused unjustly by his fellow man.

We are grateful to Hollywood for turning to the classics every now and then, as a source of wealth, of passion and compassion.  For that it can be forgiven its multitudes of sins.

As for the French, Hugo is revered as their brilliant poet, the most powerful mind of the French Romantic period.

When Andre Gide was asked, ‘who was the greatest French poet’, he replied, “Victor Hugo, helas”!


Most joyful let the Poet be,

It is through him that all men see.

                      William Ellery Channing  (1780-1842)


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