Book: Victor Hugo: A Biography

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Victor Hugo: A Biography

Author: Graham Robb
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company

The life of a writer whose books were such powerful social and political statements that he lived in exile from both France and England. Victor Hugo was the most important writer of the nineteenth century in France: founder and destroyer of the Romantic movement, revolutionary playwright, seminal poet, epic novelist, author of the last universally accessible masterpieces in the European tradition, among them Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. He was also a radical political thinker (and eventual exile); a gifted painter and architect; a visionary and mystic who conversed with Virgil, Shakespeare, and Jesus Christ—in short, a tantalizing, protean personality who dominated, distracted, and maddened his contemporaries.

Attempts to explain Hugo’s bewildering complexity have generated a literature of memorable paradoxes. If there were a being higher than God, wrote Ford Madox Ford, one would have to say that it was Victor Hugo. Andr Gide, asked who the greatest French poet was, replied, “Victor Hugo, alas!” And Jean Cocteau famously defined Victor Hugo as a madman who thought he was Victor Hugo.

Graham Robb has written a magnificent and magisterial biography that does full justice to the drama of his subject’s life. By grasping the giant in his entirety and in his many disguises, Robb rewards us with a panorama of French and European society from the Revolution to the dawn of the twentieth century.


It’s easy to see why Victor Hugo won the 1997 Whitbread Biography Award. Unintimidated by the epic sweep of Victor Hugo’s life (1802-85), British scholar Graham Robb analyzes it with intelligence, wit, and enormous verve. The author wears his learning lightly as he cherry-picks the vast Hugo archives to cogently chronicle his subject’s evolution from leading poet of the Romantic revolution (Hernani) to passionate novelist of the downtrodden (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) to majestic political exile (The Chastisements), thundering against the tyranny of Louis-Napoleon from the Channel Islands. Victor Hugo is a stimulating, opinionated reassessment of France’s most monumental writer.

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