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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Even the character of Bug Jargal himself


It

would be equally tedious and superfluous to go through the minor characters and incidents. The virtuous and imprisoned statesman Schumacker, Ethel's father, excites no sympathy: his malignant and finally defeated enemy, the Chancellor Ahlefeld, no interest. That enemy's most _un_virtuous wife and her paramour Musdaemon--_the_ villain of the piece as Han is the monster--as to whom one wonders whether he could ever have been as attractive as a lover as he is unattractive as a villain, are both puppets. Indeed, one would hardly pay any attention to the book at all if it did not hold a position in the work of a man of the highest genius partly similar to, and partly contrasted with, that of _Zastrozzi_ and _St. Irvyne_. But _St. Irvyne_ and _Zastrozzi_ are much shorter than _Han d'Islande_, and Shelley, whether by accident, wisdom (_nemo omnibus horis insanit_), or the direct intervention of Apollo, never resumed the task for which his genius was so obviously unsuited.

Still, it must be said for Hugo that, even at this time, he could have--in a manner actually had--put in evidence of not absolute incompetence for the task.

[Sidenote: _Bug-Jargal._]

_Bug-Jargal_ was, as glanced at above, written, according to its author's own statement, two years before _Han_, when he was only sixteen; was partially printed (in the _Constitutionnel_) and (in fear of a piracy) rewritten in fifteen

days and published, seven years after its composition, and almost as many before _Notre-Dame de Paris_ appeared. Taking it as it stands, there is nothing of the sixteen years or of the fifteen days to be seen in it. It is altogether superior to _Han_, and though it has not the nightmare magnificence and the phantasmagoric variety of _Notre-Dame_, it is, not merely because it is much shorter, a far better told, more coherent, and more generally human story. The jester-obi Habibrah has indeed the caricature-grotesquery of Han himself, and of Quasimodo, and long afterwards of Gwynplaine, as well as the devilry of the first named and of Thenardier in _Les Miserables_; but we do not see too much of him, and nothing that he does is exactly absurd or utterly improbable. The heroine--so far as there is a heroine in Marie d'Auverney, wife of the part-hero-narrator, but separated from him on the very day of their marriage by the rebellion of San Domingo--is very slight; but then, according to the story, she is not wanted to be anything more. The cruelty, treachery, etc., of the half-caste Biassou are not overdone, nor is the tropical scenery, nor indeed anything else. Even the character of Bug-Jargal himself, a modernised Oroonoko (whom probably Hugo did not know) and a more direct descendant of persons and things in Rousseau, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, and to some extent the "sensibility" novelists generally (whom he certainly did know), is kept within bounds. And, what is perhaps most extraordinary of all, the half-comic interludes in the narrative where Auverney's comrades talk while he makes breaks in his story, contain few of Hugo's usually disastrous attempts at humour. It is impossible to say that the book is of any great importance or of any enthralling interest. But it is the most workmanlike of all Hugo's work in prose fiction, and, except _Les Travailleurs de La Mer_ and _Quatre-Vingt-Treize_, which have greater faults as well as greater beauties, the most readable, if not, like them, the most likely to be re-read.

[Sidenote: _Le Dernier Jour d'un Condamne._]

Its merits


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