Victor Hugo was born two hundred years ago this year and his countrymen have been trying ever since to contain him. They resorted first to the tried-and-true: ostracism and outrage at his brazen Romanticism followed by acclaim and fervid acceptance. When this failed to muzzle him, they elected him to a position in the Assemblée; the transcripts of his speeches there are punctuated with such exclamations as “great sensation among the audience” and “tumults of applause.” They then accorded him a seat beneath the monumental cupola of the Immortals at the Académie Française.

Hugo, avid if not insatiable, gulped down outrage and prestige equally with the alacrity of a tomcat swallowing minnows. As his fame grew, he continued to overspill all bounds: manuscripts in every genre (as well as drawings and paintings) flowed so copiously from his fluent pen that his publishers fell into permanent...


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