Post Road Magazine #14

Essay: Observing Victor Hugo

Jeremy Mercer

I didn’t like the way Victor Hugo was looking at me in the mornings. His eyes were full of contempt and exasperation. It made me feel like I’d just trod dog feces across his carpet.

Hugo has occupied a prominent corner of my head for more than a year now, ever since I began a book on the last man guillotined in France. The idea is to combine a true crime thriller (the story of how Hamida Djandoubi, a one-legged Tunisian immigrant, savagely tortured and murdered a Marseille woman in 1974) with a historical and philosophical overview of the death penalty (from the Code of Hammurabi to the Bible to Albert Camus and the end of capital punishment in France). By the book’s final pages, I want the reader to be asking both if Djandoubi deserves to die and whether the death penalty will be abolished before he is led to the guillotine.

When I began my research in the fall of 2005, it didn’t take long for Hugo to sprout up. Until then my impressions had been clouded by popular adaptations of his novels: Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Andrew LloydWebber’s Les Misérables. Certainly, I knew Hugo was perhaps the most significant French writer of the nineteenth century; I’d just never realized he was also one of themost politicized.

Hugo embraced a myriad of causes: universal suffrage, freedom of the press, and,most dramatically, the opposition to Napoléon III’s democracy- ending coup d’état in 1851. Hugo actually exiled himself for the entire eighteen-year rule of Napoléon le Petit and waged a fierce literary campaign against the dictator from his adopted home on the Channel Islands.

Yet nothing consumed him like capital punishment. Hugo was first confronted by legal death while crossing Spain with his mother as a young boy. The heads of convicted robbers were hammered into roadside trees as warning to other highwaymen; Hugo was especially mesmerized by a man who’d been dismembered and re-assembled in the shape of a crucifix.

As a young poet in Paris, Hugo decided the death penalty was neither Christian nor politically justifiable: he believed in a literal interpretation of ‘Thou shalt not kill’ and was aghast that any government had the authority to kill its citizens. Hugo was further mobilized by the blatant gore of the guillotine.One story he often employed was the time the blade stuck halfway through a condemned man’s neck. In the resulting confusion the man freed himself and stumbled off holding his spurting head in place with his hand. The bloody spectacle ended when the executioner’s assistant jumped on his shoulders and finished hacking his head off with a pocket knife.

Hugo’s convictions led to Le dernier jour d’un condamné (The Last Day of a Condemned Man). Published in 1829, when Hugo was twenty-seven years old, the book is the fictional journal of a man waiting to be guillotined. It advanced two radical propositions: that the condemned man, despite his guilt, should be treated with compassion; and that the wait to be guillotined is torture in itself.

“They say there is nothing to it, that you don’t feel the pain, that it’s a merciful release, and that in this way death is made easy,” the unnamed protagonist laments. “Is that so? Then what about this six-week death agony and this day-long death rattle? What about the mental torment endured through this fateful day that passes so slowly and so fast?”

The Last Day of a Condemned Man became gospel to the abolitionist movement, was translated into a dozen languages, and would influence the likes of Dostoevsky. Hugo said he found the story “lying in a pool of blood under the red stumps of the guillotine,” but he was equally inspired by the growing body of anti–death penalty literature. Most important was Cesare Beccaria’s watershed On Crimes and Punishments, published in Milan in 1764. Beccaria was the first to argue that capital punishment had no place in civilized Europe.

“The laws, which are intended to moderate the ferocity of mankind, should not increase it by examples of barbarity,” Beccaria wrote. “Is it not absurd, that the laws, which detest and punish homicide, should, in order to prevent murder, publicly commit murder themselves?”

On Crimes and Punishments was read by everyone from Voltaire to Benjamin Franklin, and Hugo paid glowing tribute, saying, “It is with pride that this insignificant man now aims his axe into the widening notch marked 66 years ago by Beccaria on the old gibbet that has towered for so many centuries above Christendom.”

Hugo wanted the guillotine replaced with lifetime solitary confinement, and for the next five decades lobbied on behalf of condemned prisoners. When Napoléon III was finally deposed, Hugo even stood for parliament on an abolition platform. “Blood doesn’t wash away blood; tears wash away blood” was the most succinct and elegant of his arguments.

As my work progressed, Hugo became something of a hero. Not just a talented writer, but an engaged one. In short, everything I aspired to be.

It was this past winter that I found the picture. I was in London and had the luck to stay with the playwright Adrian Hornsby. A mostmeticulous fellow, he has, along with his careful collection of recycled plastic bags and perfectly alphabetized library, a desk drawer filled with dozens of obscure postcards bought to pre-empt future correspondence needs. Clearly, whenever I’m in theHornsby home, I rifle through and pilfer the most appealing. The sense of destiny was overwhelming when I saw Hugo looking up at me.

The postcard is a reproduction of an Edmond Bacot portrait of Hugo. The two men met in the 1860s when Bacot travelled to the Channel Islands to deliver funds to French exiles. Hugo was quickly impressed by Bacot’s photography—he famously congratulated the sun for a having such a “collaborator”—and agreed to sit for a series of photographs. This particular portrait shows Hugo leaning against a wall with his arms folded and looking away from the camera in what appears to be a fit of perturbation.

For nearly a year this postcard accompanied me to various research stations across Europe and America. Taped above my desk, it was supposed to serve as inspiration.

Instead, as my ambitions began to feel too ambitious and I spent untold days paralyzed by fits of self-loathing, I only felt his scorn. During a three-week bout of illness that kept me from the computer (it turned out to be pinworms, courtesy of unwashed Greek tomatoes) I was sure he was mocking my weakness.Worse was the World Cup. I spent the summer in residency in Marseille, interviewing the lawyers and officers involved in theDjandoubi murder case.As France bundled along into the final, I found myself spending far too much time watching soccer and drinking pastis in bars. The week France beat Brazil 1–0, I removed Hugo’s postcard out of shame.

I needed help, and as providence had it, I was in precisely the right spot. My atelier was in an artists’ residence managed by the Atelier de Visu, Marseille’s leading photography gallery. The director, Soraya Amrane, would certainly sort things out for me.

She only laughed.

Whereas I’d focused on the eyes, Soraya absorbed the entire photograph: casually folded arms, bent knee, curious eyebrows. “He looks like a Buddha,” she said. “Wise, willing to wait.”

And didn’t I know? Hugo was a merrymaker himself. One famous anecdote has Hugo urinating on his own house after a night at the brasserie; a passerby, not recognizing him, nearly assaulted Hugo for peeing on the home of a national treasure. Then there were the ladies: Hugo had successive mistresses, was a lifelong client of brothels, and seduced the granddaughter of his close friend. At the age of sixty-nine he even slept with forty women in three months to celebrate his return from exile. As his biographer the superb Graham Robb wrote, “[Hugo’s] addiction to live pornography and the campaign to create a humane society were mutually dependent, like God and Satan.”

So maybe that wasn’t contempt in his eyes. Merely bemused understanding. Needless to say, Hugo is greater inspiration than ever.

Hugo, Victor. The Last Day of a Condemned Man. London: Hesperus Classics, 2004.
Robb, Graham. Victor Hugo. London: Picador, 1997.

Jeremy Mercer is an author, journalist, and co-founder of the Kilometer Zero arts project. His recent memoir, Time Was Soft There, recalls his stay at the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris. He now lives in Marseille and is finishing a book on the last man guillotined in French history.

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