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Victor Hugo

The Temptation of the Impossible: Victor Hugo and Les Misérables 
By Mario Vargas Llosa 
Princeton University Press, 208 pages, $24.95
The most potent philosophers and scientists of the nineteenth century—Schopenhauer, Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche—saw their main undertaking as dethroning the Christian God and relegating the soul to a mere adjunct of the body, if not abolishing it altogether. Some of the finest artists of the time—Balzac, Flaubert, George Eliot, Turgenev—took the latest intellectual news to heart and soaked themselves in skepticism or even nihilism, as flamboyant suicides douse themselves with gasoline before striking the match. 

There were, however, other and greater artists who upheld the old godly truths in the face of the most advanced thinking and for whom it is not going too far to say that writing was their most ardent form of worship: Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Victor Hugo. Among these, at least in the English-speaking world, Victor Hugo might seem not quite worthy of such rich company: He is known for having written the novel on which a monster hit musical is based, but the novel itself enjoys neither high critical esteem nor popular love. 

In much of the rest of the world, it is a different story. As the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa writes in The Temptation of the Impossible, “After Shakespeare, Victor Hugo has generated across five continents more literary studies, philological analyses, critical editions, biographies, translations, and adaptations of his work than any other Western author.” One does not wish to incite the Anglo-American academic industry to Hugolian riot, but one would be happy to see increased regard, and an expanded readership, for so great a writer—and so great a religious writer, though one with a theological turn peculiarly his own. 

Victor-Marie Hugo was born in 1802, and even his conception, according to his father’s account, foretold poetic grandeur, taking place “almost in mid-air,” atop a mountain peak in the Vosges; a sandstone memorial, the brainchild of a puckish museum director, now marks the spot. As Graham Robb notes in his invaluable 1997 biography, Victor Hugo, the novelist’s father, Léopold, was a soldier who had renamed himself Brutus during the Revolution and taken part in the bloody subjugation of refractory Brittany; he would rise to general in Napoleon’s army and be titled Count Siguenza for his heroism in Spain. 

His father was the godless republican antithesis of Victor’s Catholic royalist mother, according to the son’s telling; in fact, the maternal family was strongly republican and proud of its modernity. There must have been some truth, however, to the politicized chiaroscuro of his parentage: When Sophie Hugo’s lover, and Victor’s godfather, Victor de la Horie, was executed for conspiring against Napoleon in 1810, Sophie Hugo apparently averted deportation only by blackmailing her chief political enemy. In any case, the family was riven by marital discord more than by great politics: The father was a sexual rover, and the parents separated for the first time before Victor was two; the separation became final when he was in his teens. 

Literature consumed Hugo from the start. “I want to be Chateaubriand or nothing,” he wrote in his journal in 1816. With the jetting abandon of schoolboy ambition, he wrote verse in a fervent daily routine: fables, popular songs, extravagances after the Ossianic manner, mock epics, odes to the steamship and hot-air balloon. At fifteen he submitted a poem, on the happiness of the life of study, for a prize sponsored by the Académie française, and his prodigious success—the Academicians could not believe his youth—won him immediate renown. At eighteen he produced an ode to the duc de Berry, son of the future king, Charles X, who had been assassinated by a Bonapartist; this gushing tribute earned him a five-hundred-franc honorarium from King Louis XVIII and an invitation to meet with Chateaubriand—whom Hugo would later disparage as “a genius, not a man.” 

Being a man, endowed with a full measure of heart and soul as well as of mind, was essential to Hugo, and he devoted himself to love as fully as to literature. He was seventeen and his beautiful Parisian neighbor Adèle Foucher fifteen when he told her he loved her; he signed his first letter to his beloved, “Your husband.” Theirs was the love of two exiles from heaven, he enthused in adolescent transports; he preserved his virginity for marriage, and he guarded Adèle’s chastity with a watchdog’s vigilance, steering her away from unseemly friendship with a painter and discouraging her from learning to draw: “Does it befit a woman to descend into the class of artists—a class which encompasses actresses and dancers?” Holding out until their marriage in 1822 evidently had its carnal upside: Hugo claimed he made love to his bride nine times on their wedding night. 

Family responsibilities fired Hugo to work harder than ever before. His first book of poems, Odes et Poésies Diverses, in 1822, made him enough money to cover two years’ rent. His 1823 novel, Han of Iceland, subtitledThe Demon Dwarf, did well too, thanks largely to the literary fashion for dwarves then current. On the death of Byron in 1824, Hugo’s Romantic manifesto in the form of an obituary notice declared that the literary avant-garde marched with the political avant-garde: “One cannot return to the madrigals of Dorat [an eighteenth-century courtly poetaster] after the guillotines of Robespierre.” The 1827 preface to Cromwell—a six-hour drama that no one put on then or since—lays out the deregulation of literature that is the heart of French Romanticism: “There are no rules, no models; rather, there are no rules other than the general laws of Nature.” 

In 1830 Hugo put his iconoclastic theory into practice with the verse tragedy Hernani, which defied the strict conventions of French drama prevalent since Richelieu’s founding of the Académie française in 1635. Conservative patrons were aghast at, and young Romantics delighted in, homespun imagery, a king hiding in a closet, and the unthinkable audacity of an enjambment in the play’s opening couplet. Messing with time-honored strictures of versification was a shooting offense in some quarters: One evening during the play’s run, the author came home to find a bullet hole in his window. The catcalls and brawling that erupted at most every performance made Hernani the sensation of its day, and this hectic celebrity marked Hugo as the polestar of French Romanticism. His novel Notre-Dame de Paris (1831), often translated as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, secured that position in the literary heavens. 

Meanwhile, Hugo’s politics were catching up with his literary nerviness. Although in 1825 he had served as official poet for Charles X’s coronation and had been enrolled as a chevalier of the Légion d’honneur, in 1830 he supported the revolution that brought down Charles and replaced him with the constitutional monarch Louis-Philippe. The great literary critic Sainte-Beuve, who was Hugo’s dear friend, boasted that he was responsible for Hugo’s political evolution: “I deroyalized him,” he claimed. 

Sainte-Beuve also cuckolded Hugo while he was at it. Hugo responded to the betrayal with golden magnanimity, at least at first, writing to Sainte-Beuve in 1833: “You have always believed that I live by my mind, whereas I live only by my heart. To love, and to need love and friendship . . . that is the basis of my life.” Losing his wife’s love, he found another’s: Juliette Drouet, an actress playing a small part in his Lucrèce Borgia in 1833, captivated him, and they began an affair that would span decades. 

They were traveling together in 1843 when Hugo read in the newspaper that his daughter Léopoldine, her husband, and Hugo’s uncle and cousin had drowned in a sailing accident at Villequier. The drownings, and particularly the loss of his daughter, shattered Hugo. Grief made him doubt God’s goodness, and yet he struggled to affirm his belief, writing to a critic whose father had recently died: “Let us bend our heads together under the hand which destroys . . . . Death brings revelations. The mighty blows that open the heart also open the mind. Light penetrates us at the same time as pain. I am a believer. I anticipate another life. How could I not? My daughter was a soul. A soul which I have seen and, as it were, touched . . . . I suffer as you do. Hope as I do.” 

Hugo poured his hope not only into his private prayers but also into the public life of France, in which he came to play a significant part. In February 1848 a republican revolution overthrew Louis-Philippe, and Hugo was elected to the national assembly of the provisional government, which was led by the poet Alphonse de Lamartine. In June 1848 the provisional government brutally put down a proletarian insurrection, and with spirited bravery Hugo served the government in the savage street fighting, unaware that in doing his duty he might have been firing on Baudelaire, who took the part of the insurgents. 

The bloodshed produced no lasting benefit. In December 1848 Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, the great man’s nephew, was elected president of the republic by a landslide. Under the new administration, Hugo moved inexorably to the left, delivering firebrand speeches on his countrymen’s wretchedness: “Here are the facts: . . . There are in Paris . . . whole families who have no other clothes or bed-linen than putrid piles of festering rags, picked up in the mud of the city streets; a sort of urban compost-heap in which human creatures bury themselves alive in order to escape the cold of winter.” 

When in July 1851 Louis-Napoléon sought to extend his presidential mandate by parliamentary action, Hugo denounced the jumped-up homunculus in flaming words the president would not forget: “What! Does Augustus have to be followed by Augustulus? Just because we had Napoléon le Grand, do we have to have Napoléon le Petit?” Louis-Napoléon’s dictatorial coup d’état in December 1851 spurred Hugo to flee to Brussels, one step ahead of the authorities, where he would write the subversive broadside Napoléon-le-Petit, and then to Jersey in the Channel Islands, where he wrote the politically incendiary book of poems Les Châtiments (1853), or The Punishments. He would remain in exile for nineteen years, most of that time on the island of Guernsey. 

It was there that Hugo undertook to correct and fulfill “the botched work of Jesus Christ” and to lead humanity toward knowledge of the One True God. Prodded by a visiting woman friend, he took up table-turning and séances. At first he contacted the spirit of Léopoldine, who told him that to join her in the realm of light he must love. Subsequent callers from the beyond included Moses, Socrates, Jesus, Muhammad, Galileo, Mozart, Androcles’ lion, a host of angels, a resident of Jupiter, and Shakespeare, who presented a new comedy, in French of course, because death had taught him that this was the superior language. As Christ himself assured Hugo, the poet would “found a new religion which will swallow up Christianity just as Christianity swallowed up paganism.” But the Shadow of the Tomb, one of his eerie visitants, demurred and suggested that the transcripts of the sessions be published only posthumously. Hugo, reasonable enough to fear ridicule, concurred with the Shadow. 

What he did publish instead was his greatest book of poetry,Les Contemplations (1856), which drew on his continued mourning for Léopoldine and its attendant spiritual travails and exaltations. In “Elle avait pris ce pli dans son âge enfantin” (She had this habit when she was a child), the way Léopoldine’s slightest unhappiness made her father suffer when she was alive drives home the unendurable loss of her death. In “Demain, dès l’aube, l’heure où blanchit la campagne” (Tomorrow, at dawn, when the countryside brightens), the master of aureate diction writes with unadorned heartbreak of placing heather and holly on his daughter’s grave. “Paroles sur la dune” (Words on the dune) evokes a spiritually parched figure in a desolate landscape but ends with the sight of a flowering thistle, a hardy growth that survives, and even thrives, amid the desolation. 

Hugo’s is truly a constitution of undying hope. “Aux Feuillantines” (At the Feuillantines) renders the wonder young children feel at discovering the Bible, whose beauty trembles in their minds as a live bird does in their hands. Worshipful tremors shake Hugo as well. This colossus learned what it is to be bent double with suffering like the least of men yet to continue like a hero upon his appointed path. In “Écrit au bas d’un crucifix” (Written at the foot of a crucifix), he finds the ultimate comfort in the simplest piety. 

You who weep, come to this God, for he weeps. 

You who suffer, come to him, for he heals. 

You who tremble, come to him, for he smiles. 

You who pass, come to him, for he endures. 

Hugo came to see his role as champion of the politically outcast and spiritually downtrodden. He spoke out in support of Greek and Italian republican movements. Overcome by admiration for Garibaldi, he sported a red shirt under his dressing gown and named a room in his Guernsey house in the great patriot’s honor. He wrote a letter “To the United States of America” defending the violent abolitionist John Brown, “a soldier of Christ” whose execution threatened to “dislocate” the Union. His advocacy for Brown made him a sainted figure in Haiti, the republic of former slaves, whose president he warmly corresponded with. 

On his rocky outpost, Hugo lived as the premier citizen of the world. When Napoleon III—the title Louis-Napoléon had taken for himself—declared a blanket amnesty for political exiles in 1859, Hugo spurned the offer to come home: “When freedom returns, so shall I.” 

After seventeen years of labor, in 1862 Hugo sent Les Misérables out into the world. Tolstoy would call it “the greatest of all novels”; Dostoevsky would pronounce himself grateful for having been imprisoned in 1874, because his confinement allowed him “the time to refresh my old, wonderful impressions of that great book.” Lesser men such as the celebrated diarists Edmond and Jules Goncourt sniped at Hugo for demanding 300,000 francs—a sum equivalent to the annual salaries of 120 civil servants—“for taking pity on the suffering masses.” Yet the book served as a moral goad even to Hugo’s enemies. As though to undo his crimes against Hugo and France, Napoleon III began indulging in ostentatious works of charity and contributed to making philanthropy le dernier cri for a time. The novel’s success also prompted social legislation in the way of penal, industrial, and educational reform. 

At last, in 1870, the French defeat at Sedan in the Franco-Prussian War and the consequent fall of Napoleon III cleared the way for Hugo’s return to his native land. He received a hero’s welcome. Honorific delegations of writers and statesmen came knocking at his door; women market workers from Les Halles draped him in flowers. The journal he kept during the siege of Paris records a straitened diet featuring dog or perhaps even rat—“We are eating the Unknown”—but Hugo made the most of wartime conditions in other respects, demanding a more refined and substantial daily ration when it came to sex: Pushing seventy years old, he totted up forty different sexual partners in the course of five months; the sex log he had kept faithfully throughout his life—and which lists encounters with hundreds of women—certifies the liaisons. The fiercely virginal youth and devoted young husband had devolved into a satyr, and Parisian womanhood was honored to provide its literary hero with the services he required. 

The Paris honeymoon did not last long. With the bloody suppression of the socialist Commune in May 1871, Hugo found himself once again on treacherous ground in France. This time Brussels was no better: When Hugo offered asylum in his house there to any political refugees, a well-heeled mob raged outside his home, chanted “Death to Victor Hugo! Death to Jean Valjean!” smashed the windows, and attempted to batter the door down. The next morning, the Hugos were banished from Belgium for disturbing the peace. He returned to Paris for a brief spell, but the scene disgusted him, and Guernsey offered refuge once more. He turned again to political fleering in the poems of L’Année Terrible, decrying the stupid fatality of history, in which one tyrant succeeds another, as though men had no control over their own destiny. A novel of the French Revolution, Quatrevingt-treize, followed in short order. 

In 1873, however, encouraged by political developments, he found his way back to Paris, where he would live out his life. A stroke in 1878 hurt him, though he rallied a year later with some impressive verses. On his eightieth birthday, in 1882, a half million people passed in procession before him as he sat at the window of his house. 

His death in 1885 was even more of a celebrity spectacle. His spiritual condition as the end approached became a national concern. In a newspaper cartoon, the archbishop of Paris kept vigil on Hugo’s roof with a butterfly net, eager to snatch the writer’s departing soul; however, the anticlerical Hugo, who had never been baptized but had nonetheless enjoyed direct access to Christ, Moses, and Muhammad, was not about to fold at the last moment. “I shall close my terrestrial eye, but the spiritual eye will remain open, wider than ever. I reject the prayers of all churches. I ask for a prayer from every soul.” 

A hurried parliamentary order deconsecrated the Church of Saint Geneviève and rededicated it (for the fourth time in a spiritually contentious history) as the Pantheon, where the bones of venerable Frenchmen were to repose in secular glory. The remains of this secular saint and patron of the wretched of the earth rode to the place of honor in a pauper’s hearse. A police source informed Edmond Goncourt that the brothels were shuttered and the city’s prostitutes had bedecked their crotches with black crepe in honor of the great man’s passing. More than two million people, more than the population of Paris, joined in the funeral procession. No other writer before or since has known such an outpouring. 

Although Hugo wrote 158,000 lines of verse and retains to this day the reputation as France’s premier poet (when asked who most deserved that distinction, André Gide replied, “Victor Hugo, alas,” that archaic lavender sigh being a favored Hugolian interjection), there can be little question that his masterwork, and one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century, is Les Misérables. It is a 1,200-page monument of a book with a peerless moral giant as hero and the vaulting ambition to transform the world through love. 

Aesthetic exquisites will find the novel rough-hewn and perhaps uncouth, even if they acknowledge its oceanic power. Lytton Strachey called it “the most magnificent failure—the most ‘wild enormity’ ever produced by a man of genius.” Contrary to Flaubertian example, Hugo demonstrates that a great novel is to be made, not of perfectly flowing ironic sentences, but rather of thudding emotional jolts, transparent plot contrivances, and good and evil in mortal combat. Simple feelings wrung for all they’re worth are the fundamentals of Hugo’s art, and any reader who does not tear up at the splendor with which Jean Valjean triumphs over his agonies has failed truly to understand the book’s teaching. 

As most everyone knows, Jean Valjean is a decent man sentenced to five years’ imprisonment in the galleys for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s seven children; several escape attempts stretch his sentence out to nineteen years. Hatred of society’s injustice toward him breeds hatred of God’s cruelty, and Jean Valjean leaves prison a hard and bitter soul. 

The novel recounts his fearsome path toward salvation. A saintly bishop’s merciful kindness leads Valjean to amend his life, and he becomes a factory owner under the name Monsieur Madeleine, whose industrial innovation brings prosperity to his town, which rewards him by making him mayor. He tangles with the police officer Javert over the fate of Fantine, a young woman who in desperation has become a prostitute. No one believes more devoutly in the rightness of the social order, including the hell at the bottom, than Javert; no one believes more devoutly in the redemptive power of love than Valjean, who takes it upon himself to act like beneficent Providence because he knows what it is to be nothing in the world’s eyes. 

He becomes nothing once again when another man, Champmathieu, believed to be Jean Valjean is about to be sentenced to life imprisonment and conscience moves the real Valjean to announce himself. The law has a long memory, and an ancient petty theft lands Valjean in the galleys once again. After a daring escape several years later, Valjean keeps his pledge to the dying Fantine by fetching her little girl, Cosette, who has been monstrously abused by her keepers, the Thénardiers. Valjean’s and Cosette’s is the tender encounter of two souls desperate for love, and they live in Paris as father and daughter, sometimes under the name Leblanc, their happiness threatened periodically by the relentless nosings of Javert and the criminal perfidy of the Thenardiers. 

Their simple contentment is complicated when Marius Pontmercy falls in love with Cosette. Marius’ pining for Cosette affords Hugo the opportunity for an excursus on how the loving soul outranks the disinterested mind when it comes to comprehending the essential truth about life: “Happy, even in anguish, is he to whom God has given a soul worthy of love and of grief! He who has not seen the things of this world, and the hearts of men by this double light, has seen nothing, and knows nothing of the truth. The soul which loves and suffers is in this sublime state.” 

Marius’ finding Cosette, and finding his love reciprocated, affords Hugo the opportunity to extol human love as of the utmost magnificence; the really quite commonplace details of the pure and youthful heart in bloom swell into a lavish moral spectacle: “Destiny, with its mysterious and fatal patience, was slowly bringing these two beings near each other, fully charged and all languishing with the stormy electricities of passion—these two souls which held love as two clouds hold lightning, and which were to meet and mingle in a glance like clouds in a flash.” 

When Marius despairs of gaining Cosette’s hand and goes off to join his comrades on the barricades—it is 1832, and an insurrection is brewing—Valjean follows him to the battleground on the rue de la Chanvrerie. The insurrectionists take the police spy Javert prisoner; Valjean makes out to the others that he is going to kill Javert, but he spares his life. Then Valjean saves the wounded Marius in a desperate flight through the Paris sewers; Javert is waiting to snare Valjean when he emerges, but the victorious Javert lets Valjean go. Valjean’s inexplicable Christlike mercy has flummoxed the implacable right hand of justice. For the first time Javert senses the godly part of himself, and these novel stirrings leave him at a loss. Javert had always seen moral confusion as the consequence of evil; now it is extraordinary goodness that disorients him. His moral compass shattered, he drowns himself in the Seine. 

Marius weds Cosette, and Valjean endows the couple with the secreted fortune he had earned in his industrial career years before. Happiness seems perfected, but Valjean feels himself bound by conscience to disclose his past to Marius, who is horrified and who scorns Valjean. Marius discovers the ex-convict’s moral radiance too late to save Valjean, whose heart is broken, and who is dying. 

On one of the most heartrending of literary deathbeds, Valjean offers his summation of the gospel according to Victor Hugo: “Those Thénardiers were wicked. We must forgive them. Cosette, the time has come to tell you the name of your mother. Her name was Fantine. Remember that name: Fantine. Fall on your knees whenever you pronounce it. She suffered much. And loved you much. Her measure of unhappiness was full as yours of happiness. Such are the distributions of God. He is on high, he sees us all, and he knows what he does in the midst of his great stars. So I am going away, my children. Love each other dearly always. There is scarcely anything else in the world but that: to love one another.” 

To love is to come to know God—that is Hugo’s elemental theme. Such a teaching can be mewling and mawkish, or it can be robust and eloquent. In Hugo’s hands the message has a winning power. By love Hugo encompasses high romance, familial devotion, and even the intellectual’s responsibility to promote social amelioration. “Study evil lovingly, determine it, then cure it. To that we urge.” 

To love is above all to feel what another is feeling. The democratic virtue of compassion extolled by Rousseau and Tocqueville is a virtual sacrament for Hugo, a natural instrument of grace requiring no churchly sanction. The compassionate heart must be initiated into all the degrees of suffering: “In fact, he who has seen the misery of man only has seen nothing, he must see the misery of woman; he who has seen the misery of woman only has seen nothing, he must see the misery of childhood! . . . Oh, the unfortunate! how pallid they are! how cold they are! It seems as though they were on a planet much further from the sun than we.” 

Even when the lowest of the low must bear some blame for their condition, it is precisely for them that the loving soul reserves its richest empathy: “There is a point, moreover, at which the unfortunate and the infamous are associated and confounded in a single word, a fatal word,Les Misérables; whose fault is it? And then, is it not when the fall is lowest that charity ought to be the greatest?” None is beyond saving, if only the entire society reform itself. “They seem not men, but forms fashioned of the living dark . . . . What is required to exorcise these goblins? Light. Light in floods. No bat resists the dawn. Illuminate the bottom of society.” 

Yet the recalcitrance of social evil is not overcome by mere goodness of heart: To make Utopian dreams come true, hardness, sacrifice, and even cruelty are sometimes called for. Revolutionaries who kill and die for a righteous cause are also doing God’s work: “Even when fallen, especially when fallen, august are they who, upon all points of the world, with eyes fixed on France, struggle for the great work with the inflexible logic of the ideal; they give their life as a pure gift for progress; they accomplish the will of Providence; they perform a religious act.” 

The best of the revolutionaries hate the violence they are compelled to commit in the name of justice. Fortunately for humankind, Hugo declares, God has so arranged matters that the need for violence has subsided, and men will henceforth advance peacefully on the effulgent future. Sadly, world-historical prognostication was not Hugo’s forte. 

The outstanding South American novelist Mario Vargas Llosa is ideally placed to lead a reconsideration of Victor Hugo, and in his important new book, The Temptation of the Impossible, Vargas Llosa examines the providential vein in Les Misérables that runs through both individual destinies and the life of nations. “Fortuitous meetings, extraordinary coincidences, intuitions, and supernatural predictions, an instinct that, beyond reason, drives men and women forward, toward good or evil, and, in addition, an innate predisposition that puts society on the road to progress and inclines men and women toward virtue, these are all the essential characteristics of this world.” 

Vargas Llosa draws a bead on what he calls the “irresistible traps” in which Fate ensnares the main characters by “multiplying coincidences to a vertiginous degree”—the Gorbeau tenement where the Jondrettes assault Leblanc, the barricade at the rue de la Chanvrerie, the Paris sewers. “These are very intense locations, stalked by destruction and death, and the meetings that take place there spell imminent catastrophe for the heroes: their murder, their ruin, or their imprisonment. These traps are magnets of fate.” Whereas Victor Hugo himself seemed capable of transmuting iron adversities into sterling accomplishments, thus furnishing a living argument for untrammeled human freedom, in Les Misérables “fate is always lying in wait, and human beings, unlike the real Victor Hugo, can rarely escape its traps or turn its onslaught into advantage.” 

Yet Vargas Llosa also points out that the characters’ subjection to fate sometimes exists in subtle dialectic with their freedom. “Characters cannot define the boundaries between these two worlds in which they are free or slaves, responsible or irresponsible. Readers are similarly perplexed. Does fate intervene to get Jean Valjean to arrive on time for the trial of poor Champmathieu, or is it Jean Valjean himself who, by taking fate in his own hands, overcomes all the obstacles in his way?” Such moral nuance complicates what could otherwise have been the most lurid fictional travesty of reality. 

Still, the novel’s overwhelming effect is of destiny in the hands of a godly creator knowing and powerful as no human agent can ever be, and Vargas Llosa argues that the reader does not mind this patent manipulation. Personal fate in the grip of Providence seems perfectly appropriate for so outsized a hero as Jean Valjean; suffering and transcendence reminiscent of Christ’s own, as Hugo takes pains to make clear, rightly belong in the loving charge of God himself. Vargas Llosa writes: “When our grandparents wept as they read Les Misérables, they thought that the characters moved them to tears because of their touching humanity. But what really moved them was their ideal nature, their manifest inhumanity.” Today we understand more readily Hugo’s effect: The aspiration to moral perfection in the face of pervasive individual evil and institutional corruption colors the world of the novel, and these golden notions of humanity at their most heroic fill us with love for characters so obviously unreal. 

It is possible that Hugo’s treatment in Les Misérables of the way Providence determines the fate of entire nations at the Battle of Waterloo also influenced Tolstoy’s handling of Napoleon in War and Peace (1869). In Vargas Llosa’s words: “The great events of history obey a complicated, ineluctable destiny. The defeat that Napoleon suffers at Waterloo is, according to the divine stenographer [Hugo’s narrator], due to a series of accidents.” Hugo hammers home, just as Tolstoy does, the ways in which Providence utterly subjugates prudence, the capacity of military and political intelligence. In Hugo’s words, “That Waterloo should be the end of Austerlitz, Providence needed only a little rain, and an unseasonable cloud crossing the sky sufficed for the overthrow of a world.” 

Providential history weighs the sufferings of multitudes against a single man’s force and finds Napoleon morally wanting. “Napoleon had been impeached before the Infinite, and his fall was decreed. He vexed God. Waterloo is not a battle; it is the change of front of the universe.” Hugo the seer discloses the workings of God as Destiny, while the great military hero discreetly vanishes to make way for the democratic century. 

There are good democrats, however, as Vargas Llosa shows, for whomLes Misérables is a profound affront to liberal moderation and therefore a genuinely dangerous book. The poet and statesman Alphonse de Lamartine, head of the 1848 provisional revolutionary government, contended that Les Misérables presents “an excessive, radical, and sometimes unjust critique of society, which might lead human beings to hate what saves them, which is social order, and to become delirious about what will cause their downfall: the antisocial dream of theundefined ideal.” The divine origins of inequality, Lamartine argued, militate against Hugo’s wholesale indictment of society for its failure to embody divine justice. 

In any case, he went on, such flagrant abuses of justice as Monsieur Madeleine’s being sentenced to the galleys are flagrantly unreal: “The world is not like that.” As for pain and misfortune in general, given the material men have to work with, they are bound to be ineradicable, and Hugo’s book is dangerous because it is oblivious to this brute fact: Les Misérables “gives unintelligent men a passion for the impossible: the most terrible and the most homicidal of passions that one can instill in the masses is the passion for the impossible. Because everything is impossible in the aspirations of Les Misérables, and the main impossibility is that all our suffering will disappear.” 

Lamartine’s is really the sensible voice of liberal democracy, which does not expect moral heroism of its citizens or perfect justice of its society. Vargas Llosa in both his literary and political careers—he ran unsuccessfully for president of Peru in 1990, advocating democratic values, including a turn toward a free-market economy—has possessed just such a voice himself. In the 1991 essay “Saul Bellow and Chinese Whispers,” collected in Making Waves, he assails the “Deng Xiaopings, Fidel Castros, ayatollahs, Kim Il Sungs and their like still loose in the world. They have tried to bring the heavens to the earth and like all those who have attempted to do so, they have created unliveable societies.” Yet, in his new book, Vargas Llosa plainly comes down on the side of the utopian visionary Victor Hugo against Lamartine, whom he likens to the agents of the Spanish Inquisition. 

Why then this volte-face, which makes a hero of the immoderate Hugo and a villain of the moderate Lamartine? Vargas Llosa appears to think that, as Hugo’s novel has served as moral armament to enemies of tyranny, so anyone who finds his socialist utopianism seriously objectionable must be taking the side of tyrants. Here it is a matter of excess responding to the excess that was in turn responding to excess: Vargas Llosa’s to Lamartine’s to Hugo’s. 

Vargas Llosa is absolutely right, however, in recognizing that there is moral beauty in Hugo’s vision, to which Lamartine, in meanness of spirit, seems altogether blind: “There is no doubt . . . that in the history of literature, Les Misérables is one of the works that have been most influential in making so many men and women of all languages and cultures desire a more just, rational, and beautiful world than the one they live in.” 

To love the radiance in the heart of Jean Valjean, and perhaps even of the insurrectionists on the barricades, is not the same as to adopt a political program or call the troops to arms. Hugo was not writing a political tract but what he explicitly called “a religious book.” Les Misérables is above all a testament to human goodness and to the mysterious goodness of a God who allows terrible suffering as men struggle to perfect their souls, and who loves men all the more for their struggle.
Algis Valiunas is a literary critic in Florida and author of Churchill’s Military Histories: A Rhetorical Study.


Houston, Texas, sits in Harris County, which has a larger population than 25 states. It will soon surpass Chicago to become the country's third largest city:

"Houston is the only major city in America without zoning laws. You can build pretty much anything you want anywhere you want, except in designated historical districts. You'll see some odd sights, such as a two-story family home adjacent to a roller coaster, or an erotic nightclub next to a shopping gallery, or a house made of beer cans. Solo skyscrapers suddenly pop up in residential neighborhoods. The absence of zoning is an arti­fact of the anticommunist hysteria of the 1950s and 1960s, when zoning was viewed as a communist plot. But there was another group, of blacks and liberals, who saw an advantage in siding with the ultraright. 'Zoning would have been used to keep peo­ple out,' Bill White, a former mayor, observed.
Houston, c.1873
"According to City Journal, a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, Houston now has the highest stan­dard of living of any large city in America, and among the highest in the world: 'Personal household income has risen 20 percent since 2005 in Houston, compared with 14 percent in New York, 11 percent in Los Angeles, and less than 9 percent in Chicago.' Parks are being renovated and expanded, and housing is afford­able -- 60 percent below the average in Los Angeles, for instance.

"Houston grew by 35 percent between 2000 and 2013, an astounding figure for an already mature city. It will soon bypass Chicago to become the country's third-largest metropolitan area, behind New York and Los Angeles. 'All the growth has been Latino, African American, and Asian,' the Kinder Insti­tute's Stephen Klineberg said. 'Houston is now the single most ethnically diverse metro area in the country.' One out of four Houstonians is foreign born, and no single racial or ethnic group constitutes a majority. 'We speak one hundred forty-two differ­ent languages,' Sylvester Turner, Houston's second black mayor, told me. 'We're seeking to be even more inclusive.'

"For many years Texas led the nation in the number of refugees it admits. In 2016, Texas took in 8,300 of the 85,000 refugees that came to America, a close second to California. (Under President Trump, the number of refugees permitted into the country has been capped at 45,000.) Houston accepts more refugees than any city in the country. At last count (2010), Texas has the largest number of Muslim adherents in the United States. However, the governor decided in September 2016 to withdraw from the fed­eral resettlement program.
"Like other cities in Texas, Houston has become more pro­gressive over the years; for instance, 81 percent of Houston's citi­zens favor background checks for all gun owners, and a majority approves a path to legal citizenship for undocumented immi­grants. The proportion of Houstonians identifying themselves as Democrats was 52 percent in Klineberg's latest survey, while the number saying they are Republicans declined to 30 percent­ the largest gap in the history of his polling. Those numbers are not at all reflected in the political leadership of the state, which is far more right wing than the general population.

"Nearly 40 percent of Houston's population is under twenty­-four -- it's an incredibly youthful town -- so education is a press­ing issue. More than half of that youthful cohort are Latino, and nearly 20 percent are African American; they are the future of Houston and also the most likely to be undereducated. Texas is near the bottom on education spending and academic achieve­ment. These failures will have national consequences, since one out of ten children in the United States is a Texan -- more than seven million of them. One in four Texas children lives in poverty."
Sign Up Here
God Save Texas
Author: Lawrence Wright
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Copyright 2018 by Lawrence Wright
Pages: 72-74



Bodys Isek Kingelez (1948-2015), from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was a dazzlingly original artist:

"The words and commentaries that I write express the vision that inhabited me even before I started the piece. First comes the name (the title) of the piece; secondly I wait for the vision to come; then I make it real. I never make preliminary drawings. The vision gives me all I need, even the shape and the colors .... I am a designer, an architect, a sculptor, engineer, artist."

                                               -Bodys lsek Kingelez

"Bodys Isek Kingelez is one of the unsung visionary creators of the twentieth century. A lifelong resident of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kingelez developed a notably individualistic style that is beholden to no obvious artistic precedents. Beginning In 1978 with his very first artwork, the result of a feverish session with 'some scissors, a Gillette razor, and some glue and paper,' his oeuvre took a unique form, in sculptures of mixed paper and other ephemeral materials that suggest miniature architectural structures. Dazzling in color and decoration, the works grew in scale and complexity overtime, from models of individual buildings to intricate cities complete with roadways, billboards, and public monuments.
Photograph: Maurice Aeschimann, CAAC -- The Pigozzi Collection, Geneva, copyright Bodys Isek Kingelez
"Kingelez was a formidable figure. Remarkably self­-assured, he believed of his work that 'since time immemorial, no one has had a vision like this,' and he aimed to be a force for good in the world, hoping, he said, that 'architects and builders worldwide can try to learn from my perceptions so as to help the forthcoming generations. I'm dreaming cities of peace. I'd like to help the Earth above all.' He was a complicated person, at turns outgoing and reserved, and the making of his work was all-consuming; to some, he seemed most comfortable in the fantastical world of his own creation. Beauty was a paramount concern, not only in his art but also in his dress, and while he didn't go to the theatrical lengths of Kinshasa's famous dandies -- the label-loving sapeurs -- his personal style reflected the perfection he aimed for in his sculptures: 'The shirt, jacket, and shoes need to be harmonious,' he declared. This holistic attitude and desire for harmony aligned with his aspiration to make the world a better and more beautiful place through his work.

"Kingelez's practice, though unquestionably appealing to curators, critics, and art historians, has presented them a maddening challenge. In collapsing the boundaries between sculpture, architecture, and design, it eludes the categorization and classification on which institutional collections rely, and in its lack of known art historical precedents it evades the genealogy that we love to document and trace. As a result, although Kingelez has been included in some of the most important visual art exhibitions of the last forty years -- the groundbreaking Magiciens de la terre in Paris in 1989; The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements In Africa, 1945-1994, a paradigm-shifting show that opened In Munich In 2001; the acclaimed documenta 11 in 2002; and biennials in Johannesburg, Dakar, and São Paulo, among others -- very little has been written about him and his work."



The Strange Case of the Missing Joyce Scholar

Two decades ago, a renowned professor promised to produce a flawless version of one of the 20th century’s most celebrated novels: “Ulysses.” Then he disappeared.
John Kidd.CreditLalo de Almeida for The New York Times
By Jack Hitt
Some 16 years ago, The Boston Globe published an article about a jobless man who haunted Marsh Plaza, at the center of Boston University. The picture showed a curious figure in a long overcoat, hunched beneath a black fedora near the central sculpture. He spent his days talking with pigeons to whom he had given names: Checkers and Wingtip and Speckles. The article could have been just another human-interest story about our society’s failing commitment to mental health, except that the man crouched in conversation with the birds was John Kidd, once celebrated as the greatest James Joyce scholar alive.
Kidd had been the director of the James Joyce Research Center, a suite of offices on the campus of Boston University dedicated to the study of “Ulysses,” arguably the greatest and definitely the most-obsessed-over novel of the 20th century. Armed with generous endowments and cutting-edge technology, he led a team dedicated to a single goal: producing a perfect edition of the text. I saved the Boston Globe story on my computer and would occasionally open it and just stare. Long ago, I contacted Kidd about working on an article together, because I was fascinated by one of his other projects — he had produced a digital edition, one that used embedded hyperlinks to make the novel’s vast thicket of references and allusions, patterns and connections all available to the reader at a click.
Joyce once said about “Ulysses” — and it’s practically a requirement of any article about the novel to use this quote — “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant.” And that has always been part of how the novel works. For most of the book, what you are reading are the fractured bits of memory and observation kicking around in the head of a single schlub named Leopold Bloom as he wanders about Dublin on a single day, June 16, 1904. It’s the sensation of putting these bits together and the pleasure, when it happens, of suddenly getting it — the joke, the story, the book — that compels you throughout.
This is why “Ulysses,” through most of the 20th century and into this one, still catches up all kinds of nonacademic readers who form clubs or stage readings on June 16. I remember wandering into an all-night read-a-thon on the Upper West Side, at Shakespeare & Co. on 81st Street, when I moved to New York in the 1980s. I arrived at the beginning, in the late afternoon, with good intentions, but staggered home and then returned the next day for the final chapter and suddenly realized that, read aloud, the 24 hours of the book’s action take 24 hours to read. The running time in your head is the same as the running time in the book. For a few minutes, I thought I was onto something brilliant, until another yawning fan in the bookstore mentioned a set of connections she had found and I realized, Oh, right, we’re all doing this.
So was Kidd one of Joyce’s prophesied professors, made so busy by the puzzles and enigmas that he was driven to literal madness? It seemed impossible to say, because not long after that newspaper article was published, Kidd simply vanished. Over the last 10 years, I would occasionally pick up the telephone, trying to scratch out some other ending to the story. I harbored this idea, a fantasy really, that John Kidd had abandoned the perfect “Ulysses” to become the perfect Joycean — so consumed by the infinite interpretations of the book that he departed this grid of understanding.
I started by contacting all the homeless shelters in Brookline. Then I wrote all of Kidd’s old colleagues on the faculty at Boston University, working my way through the directory. “I’d heard that he died,” wrote John Matthews, a Faulkner scholar, “and I suspect that actually is true. ... Kidd was a public eccentric in town — the whole ‘talking to the squirrels’ deal. A sad ending.” James Winn, a Dryden man, now retired, wrote that he had “heard rumor of his death, but nothing substantive.” And, if you scour the very bottom of the internet, the last tiny mentions in stray comment sections all speak of a miserable death.
Not long ago, I came upon a Romanian scholar, Mircea Mihaies, who confirmed it. In fact, Mihaies wrote about the calamity in his history of “Ulysses.” In an interview for the release of the book, Mihaies explained: John Kidd “died under sordid circumstances in 2010, buried in debt, detested, insulted, alone, abandoned by everyone, communicating only with pigeons on a Boston campus.”
That sounded like a complete story, except for one thing. I couldn’t find an obituary.
Kidd, who often kept company with pigeons, at Boston University in 2002.CreditJustine Ellement/The Boston Globe, via Getty Images
John Kidd’s early life is like a Wes Anderson newsreel of an American upbringing — extraordinary and crackpot, bending toward fabulism. He grew up with a brother of the same name, just without the ‘h.’ John and Jon were the sons of Capt. John William Kidd, a naval officer known to the sailors on board as Starbuck.
As a young scholar, Kidd gained notice from professors, won prizes and quickly ascended the graduate-studies ladder. His love, though, was the big book, the grand epic — thinking through the theories and details of wide-ranging and all-encompassing narratives. He was drawn to Jungian theory, the one school of 20th-century psychoanalysis that theorized about the spiritual quest for completedness. The self, Jung wrote, “expresses the unity of the personality as a whole.” Then, in graduate school, Kidd proposed a project on Joyce’s “Ulysses,” which he had read in three days as a teenager.
But Kidd didn’t just study the novel; he went to Joyce’s tomb in Zurich and started to buy and collect every possible known, and many not-so-known, editions of the book. He compared every draft and every page. He became, in short, a kind of uber-Joycean. But he didn’t take the normal graduate route, luring someone famous to be his mentor (like the critic Hugh Kenner or the biographer Richard Ellmann). Instead, he became a self-directed scholar, holed up in his garret with scores of different versions of “Ulysses.”
“I never studied Joyce with anyone, and I’ve never taught him,” Kidd said during his rising fame. “Isn’t that frightening?”
Kidd had his work cut out for him. Joyce wrote “Ulysses” over a period of seven years, amid world war and personal chaos. Not long after it appeared, poverty and disease quickly wasted Joyce. The walking stick “that he used for swagger as a young bachelor,” Kevin Birmingham writes in “The Most Dangerous Book,” “became a blind man’s cane in Paris.” If you harbor in your mind, somewhere, the stereotype of a writer as a perfectionist in exile (usually in Paris), working in cold-water poverty on his masterpiece, that cliché owes much to the lived reality of James Joyce as a young man.
By nature, he was a scattershot writer, scribbling on scraps of paper, composing in notebooks and revising excerpts after they appeared in magazines — and in 1922, when “Ulysses” first appeared, all that chaos was botched into print by French typesetters, most of whom spoke no English. That flawed version was banned in America, so a notorious pornographer, Sam Roth, rushed into print a pirated and even more corrupt edition. What had riled the censors (and attracted the vanguard readers) were a few scenes in “Ulysses” where women indulge sexual fantasies. What we nowadays like to call “female agency” was — back then — elevated to a matter of national security. Customs agents scoured incoming ships to ensure that no American ever saw these pages. It’s not a coincidence that so many women of that time championed the book, including the two famously gay editors of Little Review in Greenwich Village, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap. In England, Harriet Weaver, and in Paris, Sylvia Beach. Finally, in 1933, a federal judge in the United States ruled in favor of publishing the novel, and Random House accidentally relied on the wildly corrupt Roth text to produce the official “Ulysses,” which would go on to occupy American bookshelves for much of the 20th century.
Among scholars and Joyce freaks, everyone knew “Ulysses” was an odyssey of errors. Over the decades, there were rumors that some great textual fanatic was about to take on the brute task of cleaning it up. In the 1960s, excitement centered on Jack Dalton’s work, but the task seemed to overwhelm him, and he died in 1981 without producing his edition. By the mid-1980s, European scholars took up the charge, culminating in the announcement of a coming version — “Ulysses: The Corrected Text” — that would set straight 5,000 mistakes and give the world “ ‘Ulysses’ as Joyce wrote it.”
This updated edition was the product of years of fine-tooth-combing through manuscripts and copy-sheets, one letter at a time, all done according to a dense new textual theory that almost no one could understand. The entire project felt authoritative and dour, very German and all consuming, right down to the chief editor’s name, Hans Walter Gabler. Right away, Gabler was challenged by a New World scholar no one had ever heard of, his name right out of some early American morality play — John Kidd. It seemed as if the great watchmaker of the universe had handled the casting: German versus American, Old World versus New, credentialed versus self-taught. The face-off managed to draw an audience far outside academe. Try to imagine this today: For almost a year, textual criticism was happening, and red-hot copies of The New York Review of Books flew off the newsstands.
In the June 30, 1988, issue of The New York Review of Books, Kidd opened his essay on a tiny mistake made by Gabler — the air of absurdity catching the reader at once, because all the hype until this point had been celebrating this new error-free version. About a third of the way through “Ulysses,” Joyce lists a roster of bicycle racers, among them “H. Thrift.”
Harry Thrift, it turns out, was a real person who did enter a race back then. But now, Gabler had mistakenly corrected him to “H. Shrift.” For any devotee of the novel, this was mildly concerning. Of all the sets of references and allusions in a book built out of them, Joyce seemed particularly obsessed with his detailed invocation of 1904 Dublin. Or, as Joyce himself said (and every Joyce freak can quote), if Dublin “one day disappeared from the earth, it could be reconstructed out of my book.”
Kidd wrote: “Harry Thrift’s good works, sturdy frame, and jolly demeanor may fade to a misremembered blur, because he is deposed in Ulysses: The Corrected Text.” And he added: “Did it occur to anyone to check whether Thrift was a real person before changing him to Shrift? Apparently not.”
I remember getting up from my desk where I worked, pouring a fresh cup of coffee and then closing my office door so I wouldn’t be disturbed. This was going to be good.
Not a few paragraphs later, Kidd called out a slew of new mistakes and then guffawed, “Is no one awake at the wheel?” The piece carried on like this, as the tone gathered more of this vernacular force. After another volley of attacks about a misspelling here, a single dropped letter there, it read: “The Corrected Text is marbled with the fat of such pseudo-restorations from shoulder to shank.”
Who wrote like this in the literary world? Seducing us into textual minutiae with the prim tone of the academic before pieing us with vulgar prose? A vicious snap of proto-snark seemed to end every paragraph as Kidd resumed his formal stance, all textual scholar, only to be preparing for the next parry.
Responding in a subsequent issue, Gabler maintained a stiff, dismissive stance. “The scanty array of examples,” he wrote, “provides not even the flimsiest of foundations for a critique, let alone a condemnation.” Kidd was permitted to reply in the same issue, and his rebuttal preened with unforgiving attitude. After challenging Gabler on substance, he slipped into mischievous singsong: “Irony abounds. What redounds to Dr. Kidd rebounds. On several grounds, it sounds, he’s out of bounds.”
Even though all the contested changes Kidd and others found might appear inconsequential, a few fundamentally affected the novel. In the book, Stephen Dedalus muses several times about the “word known to all men.” Was it death? Love? Some obscure Greek term (a Joyce specialty)? It’s another tiny enigma that readers and professors have argued over for almost a century. Gabler found a passage in a manuscript where Joyce did reveal it, but it disappeared in the next version. Gabler deduced that to be a typist’s error. And so, in a novel most famous for its elliptical style, the reader now comes across a passage containing this thunder of nuance: “Love, yes. Word known to all men.”
To get a sense of just how huffy Joyce readers might react to this, imagine an editor saying he found new parts of “Hamlet,” and you picked up the new edition to read the words “To be or not to be, that is the question” now followed by “and the answer is definitely ‘be.’ ”
Just as egregious to many was the sacrilege concerning a single dot of ink. At the end of the last chapter featuring the protagonist Leopold Bloom, you find literature’s largest period — a giant black dot on the page — the size of which Joyce worried over, instructing his French printers to make the first edition’s big dot even “more visible.”
The big dot ends a long, hilarious chapter that parodies the kind of crisp, cold tone associated with scientific discourse. The Q. and A. format is precise to the point of exasperation. By the end of the chapter and hundreds of questions — “In what directions did listener and narrator lie?” “In what posture?” — the pesky interrogator finally asks, “Where?” To which Joyce drops his big fat dot, as if to say: Just shut up.
But of course, that’s just one interpretation. Some see the big dot as Earth, viewed from the heavenly throne of God, who is often understood to be the annoyingly precise narrator of this chapter. Some think it’s a black hole or maybe Bloom’s open mouth, finally collapsing into sleep at the interrogator’s moronic questions. (Anthony Burgess thought that when reading the chapter aloud, the dot should be pronounced as a big snore.) Others think it’s a portal, or an egg, or Molly Bloom’s anus. There are lots of lively interpretations. In the most common Random House edition, it’s there, it’s final and it’s huge — an inky one-eighth of an inch in diameter, the head of a twopenny nail stabbed into the book. But for some reason, Gabler’s dot is barely larger than the period at the end of this sentence. When I reached him in his office in Germany, Gabler assured me that even though “it is not a large one, it is a very black one.”
Kidd first took on Gabler at various Joyce symposiums. But the fuming struggle broke into the popular press when a Washington Post reporter named David Remnick got wind of a “brash, young scholar” with a Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Cruz, who would soon be damning the greatest reworking of modern literature as a “mess.” By the time the asymmetrical warfare went supernova in The New York Review of Books, the fight was really no match. Kidd shredded Gabler in one allez after another, revealing that this edition seemed riddled with errors. Eminent academics and writers leapt into the fray, most of them on Kidd’s side. For this brief moment, every point of argument mattered, and no detail was too small for concern or lamentation. John Updike wrote to The New York Review of Books to complain bitterly about — I am not making this up — Gabler’s blasphemous choices regarding paragraph indentations.
As Kidd’s challenge gained a wider audience, another academic named Charles Rossman wrote in with some big news. He had discovered that the Joyce Estate, run by Stephen Joyce, the author’s notoriously prickly grandson, had authorized the Gabler edition for the reason of creating enough “new” content to extend the copyright, which in Europe was expiring in 1992. This was not an inconsequential claim. At the time, “Ulysses” sold an estimated 100,000 copies a year. A renewal of the copyright would protect revenues for decades to come, for both the publisher and Stephen Joyce, who had to legally authorize this new edition.
Once Rossman’s piece went public, the entire Gabler enterprise was cast into the sordid shadow of greed. Outrage mounted, and in the end, Random House announced it would bring back its old edition, however corrupt it might be. The smoke cleared to reveal that a vagabond scholar had waged a transoceanic battle and won.
In those days, a superstar ethos was emerging among elite universities, and Boston University jumped at the chance to snatch up Kidd, giving him an entire institute. Its mission was epic — not merely a perfect text, “as Joyce wrote it,” but also a marriage of modern technology and literary genius. The manifold connections and allusions would now be instantly visible via hyperlinks, and the common reader would be able to appreciate the infinite recesses of Joyce’s brilliance. W.W. Norton promised the kind of advance for the book that, back then, went only to best-selling writers — $350,000.
The world waited for it. And then forgot.
When I started contacting Boston University to find out what happened to Kidd, I was stunned to discover that the old jealousies and resentments had survived the years intact. “A never-proven scholar.” “A neglectful, abusive teacher.” One or two who had been told Kidd was dead had also heard other, even wilder rumors. Prof. Michael Prince wrote back to say, “I lost track of John after he left, but heard he had transplanted to South America.” He mentioned Keith Botsford, a critic and writer who had reportedly relocated to Costa Rica.
It was not easy to make contact with Botsford. I tried to get a hold of some of his relatives, but while I was doing that, a strange clue turned up. Sifting through some obscure Joyce-related hits on Google, I came upon an internet figure in Central America named Miguel, who burned off a lot of blog space expressing his love of naturism. Miguel liked to spend a lot of time naked. One of those posts noted that during a brief sojourn, back among the attired, Miguel attended a fiesta with a famous Joyce scholar.
Miguel was based in Rio de Janeiro, a fact that suddenly reminded me of a brief exchange I had with a scholar in Bucharest named Lidia Vianu. When she herself tried to find Kidd a few years ago — she and a colleague were dedicating a book to him, a 31,802-page tome called “The Manual for the Advanced Study of James Joyce’s ‘Finnegans Wake’ ” — someone had given her an email address in Brazil. But, she said, “I didn’t get very far.” The email address was dead.
Still, on a Sunday afternoon, I typed out a simple note to the address she passed on to me. I wrote about when we first corresponded, back in the days of textual triumphalism, and I casually mentioned a possible trip to Rio. I hit send.
First thing, Monday morning: “I remember you very well. ... When do you plan to be in Rio?” Carnival was coming soon, so I jumped on a plane.
John Kidd, who is 65, is well above 6 feet tall and comfortably carries the emerging evidence of many a fine dinner. He no longer has the tidy short blond hair of 30 years ago. It’s now grown out snowy white and halfway down his back, deep into Gandalf territory. He’s a devoted fan of loosefitting Hawaiian shirts, flip-flops and shorts. He has a high-water booty and takes rapid tiny steps, making every excursion feel as if we’re running late.
Right off, he wants to talk about that Boston Globe article with the pigeons. His outrage is still raw. He’s particularly miffed that he was called “broke.” He wants me to know he’s flush and always has been. He has, at the ready, a notarized letter from Fleet Bank in Brookline dated 14 years ago, stating: “six months avg balance in this checking account has been $15,618.00.”
I want to talk about how he left Boston University, but when the bitter memories of departmental fights at B.U. or old quarrels with students over grades come up, it’s as if he’s bitten a lemon and his entire face focuses darkly on a point just beyond his nose. Kidd told me he quit. And he did, but only after there were stories in The Boston Globe noting his temper, his treatment of students and his clashes with campus security over birds. He lingered on campus for a while, haunting Marsh Plaza, and then he disappeared.
He told me he set off to Beijing. He had read “Dream of the Red Chamber,” China’s great epic novel, and become a “redologist,” an actual term for those who submerge themselves in the study of this one book. He later moved to Brazil and became fluent in Portuguese before plunging, as seemed inevitable, into that language’s own works of heroic fiction. He is obsessed now with a 19th-century book about a helpless young girl, “The Slave Isaura,” a popular work that in its early days helped end slavery (essentially, Brazil’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”). Kidd’s compulsion to understand any culture’s big book is still what gets him out of bed in the morning.
As we settle down to breakfast at a swanky hotel, it’s clear that the controversies of 1988 are all still very much alive for him. Of the 5,000 or so corrections Gabler claimed to have made to “Ulysses,” there is not one of them Kidd cannot discuss, in rich detail, 30 years later. In particular, he is still steamed up about the Penelope chapter. He flipped open the book and stabbed his finger at the dead center of the famous 42-page interior monologue of Molly Bloom. Joyce originally punctuated the chapter with two periods, one at the end and one at the center, appropriately after Molly muses over the word “ashpit.”
Gabler’s edition eliminated the ashpit period — then replaced it not long after Kidd made a ruckus. But when asked by a journalist once about how he came to correct this mistake, Gabler said he heard about it from a stranger who showed him a newspaper article. (More recently, Gabler assured me that he’d heard it from a “number” of sources.)
“Of course, the article was Remnick’s Washington Post piece,” Kidd said, highly agitated. “There were three different portraits of me in that one article,” he went on, “huge pictures of John Kidd, one of which is like seven inches tall or something, a picture of me!” Kidd didn’t merely remember every textual change in the Gabler edition, but every minor grudge match attending each change. The old fight, it seemed, had moldered into a snit about credit.
And indeed, it’s possible to dismiss Kidd as a man who found a handful of serious errors and then used his fussy mastery of minutiae to inflate a few hundred other flecks into a raging scandal. But it’s also true “Ulysses” is a book whose every detail matters. Joyce himself was consumed by his own compulsion for details, his love of coincidence and his obsession for superstition — he built the novel out of them. He once wrote to Harriet Weaver worrying about the year 1921, whose digits total 13. One outlying theory connects this arithmetic fear to Joyce’s decision to publish Ulysses on his birthday the following year, which had a sublime smoothness when written down on paper: 2/2/22.
It’s also fair to wonder about Kidd’s sanity. He is fairly manic when discussing these preciously irrelevant textual changes. They all get explained in the rushed, self-interrupting fervor of the zealot. But in his encyclopedic way of talking, of thinking, of seeing, an undeniable brilliance comes through. This quality was on vivid display the afternoon he welcomed me into his apartment, a unit in a high rise with a nice view of Rio. The place is neat and walled with books on shelves. There are lots of bureaus and built-in dressers, and at one point, when he went to retrieve a book, every drawer he opened was packed top to bottom, side to side, with even more books.
“You really have to read Fernando Pessoa,” he said, handing me a collection of poems, in Portuguese, by this early-20th-century Lisbon writer, titled “A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe.” I cracked open Kidd’s copy to find a swarm of marginal notes on nearly every page, cataloging textual alternatives in the many other Portuguese editions he owns. This is how John Kidd reads everything — as a search for the perfected text.
It’s not just an aesthetic choice for Kidd but a kind of compulsion toward completedness, suffusing not just how he reads literature but also how he talks about it. We discussed “Gargantua and Pantagruel” and “Don Quixote” and “Tristram Shandy.” He considers them all to be “antic” works, his coinage for books that are marked by a “comic take on the encyclopedic narrative just as the ‘Iliad’ is a tragic take on an encyclopedic narrative.” Those novels are playful, like “Ulysses,” but they mean to embrace and comprehend a sense of everything, and it’s this sense of totality and the longing for it that drives Kidd, too.
John Kidd, very much alive, in his apartment in Rio de Janeiro.CreditLalo de Almeida for The New York Times
Theorists who study folk art sometimes describe those crowded, image-packed creations, like Howard Finster’s “Paradise Garden” or Grandma Moses’ “Country Fair,” not merely as a prominent theme but as a kind of mental illness common to the form. They argue that these artists’ works are expressions of a compulsion to fill an existential emptiness. This anxiety has its own Latin name, horror vacui, fear of the void — and Kidd brings this intensity to his understanding of every book he reads.
When critics talk about Joyce’s mind, they typically resort to comparable terms, referring to Joyce’s encyclopedic knowledge of history, myth and language. “Ulysses,” as every beginning reader quickly picks up, contains a schematic view of downtown Dublin, and “Finnegans Wake” can be understood as all of history and literature written in a mash-up of every language.
Joyce was well aware of his compendious cast of mind and proud to find it manifest among his children. When it became clear that his daughter Lucia was suffering a profound kind of schizophrenia, he came to see her difference as an improvement on himself. He cared for her, sometimes shelving his own ambitions to convince the world that the true genius in the family was his incoherent, troubled daughter. “Foolish fond like Lear” is how his biographer would later describe Joyce’s paternal affection.
Joyce declared that Lucia’s jarring language and bizarre portmanteau words were evidence that she was an innovator of language, like him, just in ways not yet understood. He insisted that she would be ushering in a new kind of literature. The monumental incoherence and inaccessibility of “Finnegans Wake,” it’s easy to argue, is the best evidence of Joyce’s horror vacui and an epic paean to a father’s conviction of his daughter’s genius. Lucia would eventually be institutionalized in Geneva, but Joyce was the last to let go. At one point, Joyce enlisted the help of Carl Jung, who like Joyce explored the deep channels of consciousness. Jung summed up their father-daughter relationship as “two people going to the bottom of a river, one falling and the other diving.”
One day, Kidd and I got up early to make our way to the Brazilian Academy of Letters, where he works. Crossing a vacant square beneath an aqueduct, we suddenly realized that five men with knives were tailing us; soon, they were chasing us. Kidd, a former high school sprinter, grunted a suggestion — run! — and we poured out our best 100-yard dash to a nearby food cart. Street vendors, Kidd explained later, collect money all day and are typically armed and tough. As we sailed under the cart’s umbrella, our churrasquinho-monger stepped up beside us and glared. The thugs melted away.
Inside the refuge of the academy, Kidd keeps a permanent cubicle occupied by a big old PC and a few books. For years he has been working on the first English edition of the novel “The Slave Isaura.” Kidd is translating the 19th-century book with a few rules he felt compelled to devise. The work will be in two parts, and every word in Part 1 will have its lexicographic partner in Part 2. If “cat feet” appears in Part 1, expect “cattail” in Part 2. His sense of what pairs up can get quite intricate, but that’s part of the fun, he told me. So he maintains lists of all the possible pairings and where and whether he has used one: six foot, six foot under, footing, foothills, footloose, footprint. There is a logic to the work, and the part I read resounded with the baroque tone you might expect of a translation that will obey his other rule: It will use every word exactly once.
Already, the work is nearly twice as plump as Joyce’s “Ulysses.” Kidd was particularly excited to show me his key apparatus — the homemade thesaurus where he keeps a running crosscheck on the entirety of the English language. So far, it runs to some 3,000 pages.
“As much as humanly possible, the 19th-century dictionary of English is in here,” he told me. His translation is titled “Isaura Unbound,” and he wanted me to understand its ambition: When the book is finished, it will be a complete reordering of one entire English dictionary into a single work of art. Take that, void.
I asked him that afternoon, one more time, about the perfect “Ulysses.” It always seems so close. Back in the 1960s, again in 1980s. What happened to his work in Boston? Why can’t we just publish the thing? A few errors — how hard can it be?
He told me a story, a parable, really. “There are the gauchos and the gauleiters,” he explained. It’s a mixed metaphor, but one that nicely captures his view of the world and of Joyce scholars too. Gauchos, I knew, were Argentine cowboys, but gauleiters (pronounced gow-lieders), I learned, were municipal bureaucrats in the early Nazi government; in other words, menacing apparatchiks.
Across the great landscape of understanding are the gauchos, at once both rugged and audacious. “They roam the pampas,” he told me, taking care of the vast terrain by knowing its vastness intimately. Meanwhile back at the edge of the pampas, in civilization, are the gauleiters. They are everywhere, they are busy, they are overwhelming. The gauchos are few — iconoclasts like himself, or the occasional Joyce fanatic like Jorn Barger, a polymath who in the earliest days of the internet wrote a lot of brilliant Joyce analysis on his weblog (a word he also coined). But, Kidd said, it doesn’t matter. In the end, the victory always goes to the gauleiters because of their peevish concern for “administrative efficiency.”
When I pressed him on real-world specifics, the manuscripts, the work that must have been on disks somewhere, he recalled that, yes, he had assembled a draft of an edition with a complete introduction. One of Kidd’s editors at Norton, Julia Reidhead, confirmed that both existed but said that one delay after another — “an infinite loop of revision” — ran into the legal wall of new copyright extensions, and so Norton “stopped the project.” One Joyce scholar remembers reading the introduction but no longer has a copy, and Kidd doesn’t have one either. Instead, we are left with bizarre relics of what could have been. Early on in the Joyce wars, in fact, Arion Press issued a new edition of “Ulysses” that included some of the preliminary Kidd edits. The book was luxurious, with prints by Robert Motherwell, and only 175 of them were printed. I found one for sale on Amazon. The seller wanted $25,678.75.
In the years after Kidd’s disappearance, an uncanny thing happened. The very book Kidd had tried to shame into disrepute was embraced by the world of scholarship. In 1993, the “Gabler Edition” of “Ulysses,” a bright red tome, appeared on the bookshelves. There are various printings of this book now, and many have no dot at all at the end of the Bloom chapter. No period of any size, which Gabler has said is a printing error — making this nondot an error miscorrected so many times that it is now perfectly invisible.
Gabler’s book thrives because it now has its own captive audience: academics. “Scholars have quietly gone back to Gabler,” said Robert Spoo, a former editor of The James Joyce Quarterly. “By not publishing his own edition, Kidd never completed the argument against Gabler,” he said, adding that the Gabler edition “has one great advantage, you can cite it by line numbers; that is very handy for scholars.” That whole “ ’80s and ’90s thing,” as Spoo called it, receded long ago. “Scholars have made peace with the Gabler.”
In that stretch when the original edition fell out of copyright in the mid-1990s, a lot of editors rushed to publish their own editions. Some have dots, some don’t. Some with “love,” some not. Some editors reversed a selection of Gabler’s changes, some didn’t. Other editions have gone off the rails, as the Joyce scholar Sam Slote told me: One “Ulysses,” currently available online, has a long, weird riff inserted on Page 160, announcing that you will now be reading “The Secret Confessions of a Conservative,” where the anonymous writer explains that his pro-life, pro-death-penalty positions are so consistent that “if an embryo or fetus commits murder, then he should be aborted.”
Out in the distant pampas, meanwhile, the perfect edition remains always close at hand and just out of reach. “I am almosting it,” Stephen Dedalus muttered early on in the novel. The thing is, on Amazon alone, there are nearly a dozen slightly different versions of the novel “as James Joyce wrote it.” None of them are absolutely perfect, but each of them, nevertheless, is “Ulysses.” It’s almost too pat an ending for an author who was asked about all those errors nearly a century ago. “These are not misprints,” he said, “but beauties of my style hitherto undreamt of.”
Jack Hitt is the creator and a co-host of the 2018 Peabody Award-winning podcast “Uncivil.” His last feature for the magazine was about the battle over the Sea-Monkey fortune.