Lewis on Boulard and Georgel (2022)

Boulard, Stéphanie and Pierre Georgel. Hugographies: Rêveries de Victor Hugo sur les lettres de l’alphabet. Éditions Hermann, 2022, pp. 158, ISBN 979-1-0370-1679-9

Victor Hugo, calling for universal public education in Les Misérables (V, 1, v), demanded “[l]e droit à l’alphabet”; meanwhile, in his poem “Réponse à un acte d’accusation,” he facetiously called himself “le dévastateur du vieil A B C D” for his refusal of literary authority. For Hugo, the alphabet and all it provides access to—language, literacy, education—can be simultaneously a tool for creating equal opportunity and an authority to be questioned. Stéphanie Boulard and Pierre Georgel, in their elucidation of Hugo’s vision of the alphabet in Hugographies: Rêveries de Victor Hugo sur les lettres de l’alphabet, note this apparent paradox and have produced a unique and fascinating text that expresses this tension about Hugo, their own authorship, and language itself. 

Hugographies is a consideration of the letters of the alphabet through the lens of Hugo’s ideas about these most basic elements of the arts with which he is most associated. Each short chapter discusses an individual letter or a group of letters brought together by Boulard and Georgel’s analysis, rooted in Hugo’s writings and drawings. The chapters are in an order that the authors describe as “largement aléatoire” (5), as Hugo’s mind “suit les libres associations, les détours, les zigzags, les retournements” (5). These detours are reinforced by the text’s practice of indicating connections among the chapters, inviting the reader to experience the text non-linearly, and thus to question the authors’ ordering of the letters as well as the alphabet’s. This order does not call on Hugo as an authority either, even as the authors use Hugo’s ideas to form a theoretical basis for their approach, noting, for example, that “Pour Hugo, penser l’alphabet […], c’est avant tout discerner les liens qui existent nécessairement entre les lettres et inscrivent chacune d’elles dans la ‘solidarité de tout avec tout’” (35). All of this makes Hugographies less a definitive analysis of Hugo’s thoughts about the alphabet than the beginning of an unveiling of the connections among letters, and between letters and the rest of the world, available to a poet and visual artist of Hugo’s creativity. 

The mode of Hugographies is explication; it emphasizes association and connection over conventional academic demonstration. The letter H brings to mind the significance of the edifice as it resembles Notre Dame; T and F, by their shapes and their use in the branding of prisoners, draw us into Hugo’s arguments about criminal justice and capital punishment; K and W evoke Romantic exoticism; N is first and foremost for Napoleon. Even as the authors clearly demonstrate this breadth and depth of familiarity with well-established themes in Hugo studies, the vast majority of their references are to primary sources. This explicative approach is a strength of a text that aims to explore Hugo’s complex mental universe. Moreover, it would be a mistake to assume that the focus on primary sources results in simple analyses; Hugographies reads meaning as multiple, contradictory, interconnected—and appropriately so. The book’s conceit is similarly post-modern, as it explores the meanings of elements of French—letters—that are not generally taken to make meaning on their own. By grounding this approach to the alphabet in Hugo’s own work and arguing compellingly that their approach reflects Hugo’s, the authors make an innovative contribution to the ever-growing idea that Hugo anticipated twentieth-century philosophical developments. 

The text’s richness is further enhanced by its multimedia and multisensory approach, as it takes Hugo’s drawings and writings as part of a single œuvre. This is perhaps best theorized during the authors’ consideration of the letter O and Hugo’s connection between its shape and meaning. The text provides a reproduction of a fragment in which Hugo sketches circles with various associations, from a zero, to the spherical earth, to the infinite, to the human eye. From here, the authors turn to the sense of sight, well established to have great significance in Hugo’s work: “Il ne s’agit pas de voir tout ce que l’œil signifie, mais à quels autres signes il s’ajoute pour former un réseau continu. Telle est, en toute rigueur, la raison pour laquelle pour lire Victor Hugo et comprendre comment s’inscrivent les lettres de l’alphabet dans son œuvre, il faut aussi passer/penser par le dessin” (60). In doing so, the volume contains over eighty high-quality reproductions of Hugo’s drawings, adding an invaluable dimension to the authors’ analyses. In this way, Hugographies gives us a more complete picture of Hugo’s relationship with the visual, as well as phonetic and semantic, elements of the alphabet.

The complexity and emphasis of the treatments of the letters vary, and creating parallel discussions that treat all letters through the same lens is, appropriately, not among the authors’ priorities. Some analyses are more visual in emphasis—of the eighty reproductions, twenty-one represent the letter H, and another ten represent the letter V—focusing on the letters’ shape (U, D & B, Z as well as O, T, and F), whereas others might emphasize their sound (I, E, and L) or their position in the alphabet (Z, Y, and A). This approach, with its many benefits, necessarily comes at the cost of comprehensiveness. For example, after an interesting discussion of the letter G that emphasized character names, I was curious to read how C might be approached in juxtaposition, thinking of Claude Gueux, of Combeferre and Courfeyrac at the barricade in Les Misérables alongside Grantaire and Gavroche, and of the links between Cimourdain and Gauvain in Quatre-vingt-treize; such a discussion might have incorporated Q as well, via Claude Frollo, Quasimodo, and Gringoire in Notre-Dame de Paris. Hugo’s daughter Léopoldine, so present in his writing after her tragic death, is absent from the chapter on the letter L.

In the end, these absences are a small price to pay for what the brevity, focus, and variety of the chapters accomplish, which is to offer exemplary glimpses of the endlessly meandering pathways that we might take through Hugo’s expressions of his mind. Boulard and Georgel do not present themselves as final authorities on the meanings they explore any more than they do Hugo or the alphabet; they provide us with a starting point for rêveries that they seem to expect us to continue on our own. Our ability to see places where these paths might continue beyond what Boulard and Georgel have mapped for us serves to increase the interest of this text and of the authors’ unique approach, and invites us to continue reflection in the same mode as part of our never-ending exploration of Hugo’s work.