Friday, 10 June 2011

Foreign Language Friday: The Last Day of a Condemned Man by Victor Hugo

Dear Blog,
I'm sorry I've been gone from the blogging universe from so long.  I was in Devon last week, and since then I've been entirely busy.
A note about The Last Day of a Condemned Man: This book is made up of one novella (id est, the title of the book) and a short story called Claude Gueux

Original Title: Le Dernier Jour d'un condamné
Original Language: French
Translated by: Christopher Montcreiff
Summary (from Goodreads): Victor Hugo, the shining light of French Romanticism, was an indefatigable campaigner against the death penalty. This unique anthology of his controversial writings on crime and punishment reveals the author's generosity of spirit and his pity for the condemned. However, as always in Hugo, a degree of endearing self-glorification is never absent. The Last Day of a Condemned Man, while not seeking to minimize its protagonist's responsibility for the murder he has committed, reminds the reader of the mental anguish endured by a man condemned to a cell. Claude Gueux is a documentary account of the martyrdom of a prisoner driven to crime by poverty, and to murder by the casual brutality of a head warder. Also included are Hugo's moving diary entries recording his visits to the prisons of La Roquette and the Conciergerie.
Review: So. One of the first things you should know about me is how much I love Victor Hugo. I read Notre-Dame de Paris last November and it was an entirely welcome break from the frenzy that is NaNoWriMo for a few days. 
Yes I am going somewhere with this.  When you're so in love with a book, when you've read it two or three times and highlighted your favourite parts and drawn little pictures it's easy to forget how thrilling it is to read a Victor Hugo book for the first time. Reading The Last Day of a Condemned Man there are some moments where you're just entirely blown away, like, "Oh my God, this man is a freaking amazing writer."  The writing,  the emotions and the tension are just so entirely enthralling, even though the impending death of the unnamed narrator leaves nothing a mystery.  Still, the pacing is pretty perfect and the build-up to his execution is entirely tense.

Both of the stories are something of a social commentary of French society in law in the day. We never really find out what the condemned man has done (there's one implication of a murder, but that's it), and there's next to no deep detail about the crime he committed, his past and his personal life. All we know is that he has a wife and a young child. In some scenarios and books I prefer it when books go into lots of detail about the character's past, but I think it worked really well here. The way you were cut off from the narrator, and there was just you, him and his impending death: he could have done something absolutely awful but it makes no difference to the reader.    Claude Gueux goes into more detail about the functioning  and dynamics of an early nineteenth-century prison, and there's less focus on the emotions.

While I'm talking about it, Claude Gueux is a short story, and alas it didn't live up to my expectations for two reasons. One: Although I too felt sorry for his plight, his imprisonment and his desperation, which were as excellently portrayed as in TLDOACM, it appeared to me that Claude just wanted his little friend back because he shared his food out with him and without the extra bread he was going to be hungry. Not even starving, just hungry, even. In all his speeches and pleas to the workshop manager, he always seems to mention the food, or lack thereof, first and his friend second. 
The second thing was the ending.  It gradually morphed into a long speech of sorts about the unfairness of prison life and how it could be fixed, the ideal path for improving the prison system in France, and the transformation was pretty gradual until about two pages from the end I was like, "Hang on a minute...this is meant to be about a prisoner..."  And although on one hand you're totally punching the air like, "Yes, Victor! You da MAN!"* it would be kind of nice if we could get on with the story.

Oh, and here's a delightful coincidence  I noticed. Claude Gueux= Age thirty-six. Claude Frollo, my favourite antagonist in literature= age thirty-six.  Claude Gueux= obsessed with the man who gave him his extra food. Claude Frollo= obsessed with a sixteen-year-old truant.  I'm sure Monsier Gueux is the great-great-great-great (etc. etc.) grandson of Dom Claude.

So, to conclude it was an entirely awesome return to Victor Hugo.  Now I'm off to order Ninety-Three and The Man Who Laughs.  (I know, no Les Miserables yet.  It intimidates me.  So many pages...)

In Three Words:  Insightful, fast-paced, enthralling.
Recommended for: people interested in law, human rights, and French literature.
Rating: The Last Day of a Condemned Man: 5, Claude Gueux: 4.
*I should not be talking about one of the most influential writers in French literature like this. 

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