Saturday, November 10, 2012

Victor Hugo and Les Misérables

This summer the girls and I paid a visit to Victor Hugo's home in Paris.

It is located at Place des Vosges and is free to visit.

According to my Michelin Paris Green Guide, which gives it one star, it was home to Hugo from 1832 to 1848 and was turned into a museum in 1903.  I'd been there a couple of times before, once with mon amie Mme M and once with the Ex-Ex when he came to visit Paris in November 2008.
Last January, I finally paid a visit to the Panthéon to visit his gravesite.  After he died in 1885, more than 2 million people joined his funeral procession from the Arc de Triomphe

to the Panthéon.

This is his final resting place where he shares space with Alexandre Dumas and Émile Zola.

My own personal relationship with Victor began in 1975-76 during my senior year of high school.  I took an independent reading English class and my teacher gave me a copy of Les Misérables.  I still have the book.

Was it a gift or did I borrow it and just not return it?

Je ne me souviens pas.  Absolutely cannot remember.  But I still have it and I am still in love with Jean Valjean.
A little background on M. Hugo first.  According to "my" book, published by Washington Square Press 1964 and translated by Charles E. Wilbur (price 75¢):  

Victor Hugo was a towering figure in nineteenth century literature who epitomized the French Romantic Movement.  His private life was as exuberant as his literary creations.  At twenty he married after a long courtship, but later in life was renowned for scandalous escapades.  In 1851 he was exiled for his passionate opposition to Napoleon III.  When he returned to Paris after the Empire fell during the Franco-Prussian War he was greeted as a hero and a prophet.

A few facts from my research--
  • His dad was a high-ranking officer in Napoléon's army until failing in Spain therefore his name is not inscribed on the Arc de Triomphe.
  • He did marry his childhood sweetheart, but not until after his mother's death since maman did not approve.  His youngest child, Adèle, is the subject of the movie The Story of Adèle H.
  • His second child, daughter Léopoldine, drowned along with her husband while Victor was with his mistress in the south of France.  Some say he never really recovered from this.  His poem, Demain, dès l'aube, written in 1847, is about visiting her grave.   In this poem, he says ...And when I arrive, I will put on your tomb, a bouquet of green holly and of flowering heather.
  • He was elected to the Académie Français in 1841 after three unsuccessful tries.
  • He was involved in politics for most of his life.
  • It is said that he was very selfish.  His wife, tired of bearing children and tired of his selfishness, turned to one of his friends for "comfort."
  • Hugo took Juliette Drouet, a young actress and prostitute, as his mistress, paying off her debts an forcing her to live in poverty, with him as the center of her universe.  It was Juliette who planned his escape from Paris to Belgium after he broke with the government of Louis Napoléon (Napoléon III) and spoke out against him.  He spent 17 years in exile in the Channel Islands, a productive, but, at times, dark period for him.  
  • He conducted seances in his home.
  • His most famous novels are Notre Dame de Paris, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Les Misérables.  He also wrote many poems.
  • He wanted to write a novel about the social injustices of his time and set out to write Les Misérables, taking 17 years to complete it.
Personally, I am not convinced that his personal life was "exuberant."  Maybe more research is needed?  Graham Robb has written a biography of Hugo.  I am currently reading Robb's Parisians, An Adventure History of Paris, Picador, 2010.  Perhaps that will be next on my reading list.  I definitely think Hugo merits more of my attention.
He is well-quoted and many of his quotes are very uplifting, though.  Here are some of my favorites:

  • Forty is the old age of youth, fifty the youth of old age.
  • An intelligent hell would be better than a stupid paradise.
  • All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come.
  • The greatest happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved; loved for ourselves, or rather, loved in spite of ourselves.
  • To love beauty is to see light.
  • Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.
  • What a grand thing, to be loved! What a grander thing still, to love!
  • To die is nothing; but it is terrible not to have lived.

I saw Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical version Les Misérables on Broadway in either the late '80's or early '90's.  A non-musical movie version, starring Liam Neeson, came out in 1998.  On Christmas Day 2013, a new one is slated to open across the U.S.  It stars Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, and Russell Crowe (perfect casting for Javert, n'est-ce pas?)
Well, since ultimately much of what is on this blog has to do with eating and drinking, I asked Google "What would Victor Hugo eat?"  According to Bradley Woodrum's blog, Victor, while in exile in the Channel Islands, would get up at dawn, eat two raw eggs, drink a cup of cold coffee and start writing.  Berk... sorry, but not in the cards for moi.  I like my eggs cooked just about anyway possible and my coffee really hot.  In a couple of other places, it is said that as a young person, Hugo would eat half an ox in one sitting and then fast for three days.  Hard to find half an ox at Harris Teeter these days.  Unrelated to food, according to Academic Cog, Victor would take all his clothes off and tell his valet to hide them so that he would be unable to go outside when he was supposed to be writing.  During the 1870 Prussian siege of Paris when food supplies were cut off, Hugo ate animals from the Paris zoo and said that he was reduced to "eating the unknown."  I have no recipes for zebra, that goodness.  I am hitting a brick wall here, so I think that I will just suggest that you follow the advice of girlsguidetoparis.  When you are in Paris, visit La Place des Vosges and have a drink at one of the nearby cafés.  The Marais is closeby.

Rue des Rosiers is a street filled with Jewish bakeries and falafel, a newly discovered food pleasure of mine.

There is a lovely article, The Sacred Heart of Victor Hugo, posted by Algis Valiunas if you are interested in reading more about Hugo and Les Misérables.

Makes about 20 balls


  • 1 cup dried chickpeas
  • 1/2 large onion, roughly chopped (about 1 cup)
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2-1 teaspoon dried hot red pepper
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 4-6 tablespoons flour
  • Soybean or vegetable oil for frying
  • Chopped tomato for garnish
  • Diced onion for garnish
  • Diced green bell pepper for garnish
  • Tahina sauce
  • Pita bread

  • Preparation:

    1. Put the chickpeas in a large bowl and add enough cold water to cover them by at least 2 inches. Let soak overnight, then drain. Or use canned chickpeas, drained.
    2. Place the drained, uncooked chickpeas and the onions in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Add the parsley, cilantro, salt, hot pepper, garlic, and cumin. Process until blended but not pureed.
    3. Sprinkle in the baking powder and 4 tablespoons of the flour, and pulse. You want to add enough bulgur or flour so that the dough forms a small ball and no longer sticks to your hands. Turn into a bowl and refrigerate, covered, for several hours.
    4. Form the chickpea mixture into balls about the size of walnuts, or use a falafel scoop, available in Middle-Eastern markets.
    5. Heat 3 inches of oil to 375 degrees in a deep pot or wok and fry 1 ball to test. If it falls apart, add a little flour. Then fry about 6 balls at once for a few minutes on each side, or until golden brown. Drain on paper towels. Stuff half a pita with falafel balls, chopped tomatoes, onion, green pepper, and pickled turnips. Drizzle with tahina thinned with water.

    Sources for this blog:

    Bon appétit, Victor Hugo!  I hope you didn't catch a cold writing in the nude!


    Kevin Stilley said...

    When you said "My own personal relationship with Victor began in 1975-76 during my senior year of high school. I took an independent reading English class and my teacher gave me a copy of Les Misérables." it made me think of a quote from Henry David Thoreau who writes, “How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!”

    It really is amazing how new books or new authors can change our world. I am sure that you are grateful to the teacher who introduced you to Hugo.

    The Sabbatical Chef said...

    You are so right. I never thought that someday I would visit Paris or Hugo's home when I read that book. I am so grateful to that teacher and to all my teachers. Books still shape my life.
    Thanks for reading!

    Parisbreakfasts said...

    Inspiring post!
    Love Hugo's home in Place de Vosges
    Sumptuous and fabulous.
    As well he was a dynamite artist. His work is almost contemporary in style