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les travailleurs de la mer

19 November 2003

Halfway through Victor Hugo's 1866 novel Les travailleurs de la mer, the hero Gilliatt spends 160 pages trying to salvage an engine from a shipwrecked steamboat. He finally makes some progress, whereupon he is attacked by a giant octopus.

This doesn't sound entirely like the author of Les misérables to me either. But in his preface, Hugo explains why, in his third novel, giant octopuses take the place of lascivious archdeacons or implacable police inspectors.

L'homme a affaire à l'obstacle sous la forme superstition, sous la forme préjugé, et sous la form élément.
[People confront obstacles in the form of superstition, in the form of prejudice, and in the form of nature.]
Hugo explains that Notre-Dame de Paris deals with superstition and Les misérables with prejudice. Les travailleurs de la mer completes a kind of triptych by considering people in their struggle against nature: specifically, the untamed seas of the Channel Islands. Les travailleurs de la mer is translated into English as Toilers of the Sea, though it has been only intermittently in print in the U.S. It's now available in a couple of English-language editions, but has never been very popular or well-known. How odd, in fact, that the third major novel from the author of two of the greatest 19th-century sensations should languish on the edge of obscurity.

Or not that odd. Les travailleurs de la mer is similar to Hugo's greater novels in mixing essay with adventure, pontification with suspense. But there's something weak and written-out about it. The exposition is "front-loaded," so that the story isn't even touched on for the first 70 pages, which are pure travel writing. The next 125 pages or so contain plodding character sketches, until we finally get to "Livre cinquième: Le revolver" and we know something nasty is in store.

The aforementioned Gilliatt is an outcast, like Quasimodo. Like Quasimodo, he is desperately in love with a desirable but shallow young woman (Déruchette, "trop jolie et pas assez belle," "too pretty and not beautiful enough"). Also like Quasimodo, Gilliatt will move heaven and earth – or at least a stranded steam engine – to win her love. No points for guessing correctly whether this love is requited or not.

Hugo dedicated Les travailleurs de la mer to Guernsey

sèvére et douce, mon asile actuel, mon tombeau probable
[harsh and sweet, my current refuge and my likely grave]
and though the "likely grave" prediction was premature (Hugo was rehabilitated in style and now lies in the Panthéon), one can see his intense love for the island in its pages. But without a compelling story, that love is all that comes through. This is a moderately interesting travel essay yoked to a rather clunky plot.

Hugo, Victor. Les travailleurs de la mer. 1866. Paris: Nelson, 1963.