Though Algis Valiunas' overview of Victor Hugo's life and work ("The Sacred Heart of Victor Hugo," August/September) made for an entertaining romp, one statement therein should not go unchallenged. Valiunas lists Balzac among nineteenth-century authors "soaked ... in skepticism or even nihilism," while he includes Victor Hugo among those who "upheld the old godly truths." Baizac's personal life was admittedly a mess--a problem he shared with other French Catholic writers of the Romantic era, including Chateaubriand, Mme. De Stael, and Barbey d'Aurevilly. But Balzac had a profoundly Catholic sensibility, perhaps best exemplified in his novel Le Cure de Village, which Balzac described as "the application of Catholic repentance to civilization" and in which critics have seen a forerunner of both Dostoevsky and Bernanos.
There was something of Old Catholic France in Balzac, something almost medieval; but Hugo was a true modern. When it suited him, Hugo could make use of the old religious symbols, but only as a way to express the new religion of self-worship. And his hatred of Catholicism was almost Voltairean in its intensity. Valiunas mentions without comment Quatrevingt-treize, Hugo's 1874 novel about the French Revolution. That novel is a vicious bit of propaganda that paints priests loyal to Rome as cynical manipulators of the ignorant masses and, in a disgustingly racist portrayal, presents as literally subhuman the heroic Breton guerrillas (Les Chouans) who rebelled against the revolutionary Terror in defense of the Catholic Church. Hugo goes so far as to make heroes of the revolutionary "infernal columns" the troops that introduced genocide into modern warfare, slaughtering hundreds of thousands of innocent Catholic men, women, and children in Brittany and the Vendee. It's rather as if someone were to write a novel today making heroes of the Nazi occupation forces in Poland.
Interestingly, forty-two years before Quatrevingt-treize, Balzac also wrote a novel about the Breton Catholic resistance to the French Revolution, Les Chouans. Though Balzac does not gloss over the faults of the aristocracy and of the Old Regime, he provides a much more well-rounded and human portrayal of the Breton resistance and of this tragic episode in French history.
University of South Carolina
Columbia, South Carolina
Algis Valiunas replies:
Mr. Hughes begins with a condescending flourish, then rapidly descends into pettifoggery...