Monday, 15 February 2010

The purpose of the Pantheon

For six weeks I've been too busy to blog. I've a number of excuses: work took over my life, my computer keyboard started playing tricks on me, and I slipped on black ice causing painful damage to my back.

Perhaps these are merely excuses. I may not have blogged but I found time - even when I should have slept - to keep reading Les Misérables. It gripped me in the way books caught and held me in my teens. As I neared the end of the final volume, I wasn't merely reading it on trains and buses, and in bed at night. I was reading while cooking and even while walking down the road. On one occasion I was so caught up in the story that I left a suitcase on a train. (Fortunately the helpful station staff ensured that the suitcase and I were reunited.)

I'm not sure what was so gripping about Les Misérables. A few years ago I tried to re-read it in the old translation I'd read in my early teens and was soon bogged down in the heavy prose. Reading in French should have been harder but I followed the advice to stay away from dictionaries and the story came to life through Hugo's words. Of course, every so often I would check a tricky word or phrase - but how bland the English seemed next to the French, and how untranslateable. A neatly-turned phrase loses so much in translation. There's no equivalent for "amourette pour lui, passion pour elle" or "Parfois insurrection, c'est résurrection" that echoes and dances as the original does.

Of course, reading in French demanded an unfamiliar level of concentration. My French O-level of many years ago didn't demand so high a level of expertise, although we were expected to read Camus's L'Etranger and easy extracts from older works. But the language alone wouldn't have held me for through three volumes and more than 1500 pages. And I already knew the story from that first reading and various film and TV versions. But I had missed so much.

In French, Hugo is sometimes funny, sometimes angry, and frequently moves me to tears. There was much I'd missed on that early reading: the chapter in praise of "le mot de Cambronne", for instance. The word attributed to Cambronne, spoken as he was taken prisoner at the end of the gruelling battle of Waterloo, is "merde". (The nearest English equivalent would be "shit.") Hugo dedicates a whole chapter to fulsome praise of the acuity and rhetorical brilliance of this word. My Victorian translation was too delicate to tell me what the word was, offering a myserious dash instead. Moreover, as a teenager I was insufficiently used to 19th century novels to realise how different French and British attitudes were. Hugo thinks it necessary to explain - at length - just why Cosette and Marius (aged 16 and 21) haven't had sex, even though they have met one another every evening for a whole six weeks without a chaperone.

Cosette and Marius are young, silly and more conventional than they realise. Hugo knows that and at times he invites the reader to laugh at them. I never found them as interesting as the wilder characters, Eponine and Gavroche, nor as sympathetic as the numerous elderly characters who are frequently at the centre of the story. Perhaps my age is showing.

What startled me most was Hugo the revolutionary. I remembered the depiction of the failed rising of 5th- 6th June, 1832 from film versions. It was exciting but not particularly important - part of the lead-up to the journey through the Paris sewers. But Hugo takes the rising seriously and asks the readers to consider both why it was necessary and why it failed.

Hugo believed in revolutions - not all revolutions but those on the side of progress. He discusses when revolutions are necessary. His characters tear up paving stones, seize vehicles, grab weapons and barricades the streets of Paris. Hugo may like individual kings and royalists - as human beings - but he believes a republic is necessary and that the royalist cause must, for the sake of freedom and justice, end in defeat. He is furious - far angrier than Dickens - at the ill-treatment of children who are left to roam the streets and starve. He sees that the poor are suffering. He's appalled by inhumanity. He wants a better world and understands why sometimes people might decide to die or kill so that the future can be happier and more just.

Les Misérables is also a love letter to the lost streets of Paris. Hugo wrote most of Les Misérables from exile. He knew that the dangerous, dirty and loveable Paris he described was being ripped apart by Napoléon III and his architect Haussmann. In place of the familiar mediaeval mazes, whose squalor Hugo condemned, they constructed new, broad boulevards that welcomed shoppers and armies and were harder to barricade.

Hugo wrote most of his novel during his 19-year exile from France. He didn't return until six years after the first (Belgian) publication of Les Misérables. His return was greeted by celebrations in the streets. He was now a Parisien. He died in Paris at the age of 83. His will set out his wishes for his funeral. His body was to be carried to Pere Lachaise on a pauper's hearse and buried in the part of the cemetery reserved for paupers. The government decided otherwise. The church of Saint Genevieve, otherwise known as the Panthéon, was restored to its revolutionary secular state so that Hugo could be buried there. Hugo's body lay in state under the Arc de Triomphe and the pauper's hearse was escorted down the new, broad streets by senators, academicians and a military procession. Most of Paris seems to have turned out to watch. There were no riots - the spectacle of Hugo's funeral was carefully ordered.

The account of Hugo's funeral, which I discovered in Colin Jones' biography of Paris, has made me reconsider the Panthéon - a place that has puzzled me since my second visit last year. There's something odd about this commemoration of greatness. Even revolution is solidified into marble. The Panthéon seems to offer the rulers of France a means in which they can attempt to curb dissent. The belated reburial of the elder Alexandre Dumas, like the recent memorial to Toussaint l'Ouverture, insists that France has recovered from the racism and cruelties of its colonial past - but I'm not sure that all French citizens would agree.

Recently President Sarkozy has attempted to move the remains of
Camus to the Panthéon. The account of Hugo's funeral has set me wondering what Sarkozy's agenda is - and why the demand to own the bones of the great persists. I can show my love of Victor Hugo by reading his books (Quatre-Vingt Treize and L'Homme Qui Rit) come next. And perhaps, if I'm lucky, I'll go back to Paris soon to explore what is left of the Paris of Les Misérables: not that cold monument the Panthéon but the lively warmth of the nearby rue Mouffetard.

But before I start on another Hugo volume, I'm back to blogging. And, in an attempt to improve my inadequate Italian, I've started on Pinocchio, that cruel and painful book for children which is quite unlike the cute neatness of the Disney film.

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