How to be a Grandfather (L’Art d’être Grand-Père) by Victor Hugo, translated by Timothy Adès (Hearing Eye, 2012)
Reviewed by Lucy Hamilton
My own introduction to Victor Hugo’s work was learning a poem by heart for discussion in an oral examination. Fortunately it was a short poem and one that made a lasting impression. ‘Demain dès l’aube’ (‘Tomorrow at Dawn’) is a heart-wrenching elegy to Hugo’s nineteen year-old daughter Léopaldine, who had drowned in a sailing accident with her unborn child and husband. The poignancy of Hugo’s grief and the beauty of his expression were overwhelming. Fortunately, the great man went on to have more children and his son Charles’s wife gave him the two grandchildren, Georges and Jeanne, who were to become the focus of L’Art dêtre Grand-Père, the last book of Hugo’s vast oeuvre.
Timothy Adès’s translation How to be a Grandfather (Hearing Eye, 2012) is a welcome complete edition of his 2002 shorter version. The book is organised into eighteen sections, of which some titles hint of delights within: ‘On Guernsey’, ‘Jean Asleep ― I’, ‘The Moon’, ‘Poem of the Zoo’ ‘Old Age and Youth Together’ and ‘Grandpa’s Childhood Frolics (1811)’, to name a few.
While the poems are beautiful and touching in themselves, much of the poignancy derives from the knowledge that Hugo was a great statesman with enormous influence in the France and Europe of the day. He was twice a Deputy and twice a Senator of France. Initially a staunch supporter of Napoleon, self-interest never took precedence over integrity. Just as Beethoven had retracted the dedication of his Eroica symphony to Napoleon Bonaparte when the latter declared himself Emperor, so Hugo withdrew his support for Napoleon III when he (the elected President) made himself Emperor. He was exiled for his resistance and to this day remains a worldwide symbol of liberty. When you read these poems with a sense of that political back-drop, you gain some measure of the man as a human being. So how does Timothy Adès convey all this in his translation? First by a lively and informative introduction to Victor Hugo, secondly by his seemingly effortless translations into rhymed poems in English, along with notes at the back of the book. Here in its entirety is how he deals with Hugo’s introduction of his baby grand-daughter to the world:
Jean Makes Her Entry
Jean talks: she burbles, sweet and low;
Tells nature things she doesn’t know,
Tells groaning waves and moaning woods,
Flowers and nests, all heaven, the clouds,
Offering insights, by a smile,
From shimmering dream and roving soul:
A formless murmur, blurred and hazed.
Old grandpa God gives ear, amazed.
Hugo is clearly besotted. The previous year had seen the death of his wife and birth of his first grandchild, Georges. It’s easy to workout from the summary of Hugo’s life that he was 67 years old when Jean was born. Here, Adès achieves the verbal equivalence and the rhyming couplets of the original. Where Hugo uses Alexandrines, Adès’s poem is metred with shorter lines of four stresses. We can see how he has changed the word order and /or split up lines to render a similar aesthetic and emotional affect to that of the French: Jean parle; elle dit des choses qu’elle ignore; /Elle enovie à la mer qui grond, au bois sonore, …. The second clause of Adès’s first line appears in the fourth line of the original: A l’immense nature un doux gazouillement.
The poems read beautifully as English poems and indeed, if it weren’t for some of the subject matter, you might forget that you’re reading a translation; not because they are so ‘perfect’ that the original is stifled inside them, but because they effortlessly bring to life aspects of Hugo’s tumultuous life as well as his larger-than-life personality. Here are the final seven lines of a twenty-eight line poem written during exile in Guernsey – with its playful oxymoron in the title:
I’ve faced the giants of brute force, that swell
And rear erect on heaped-up nothingness:
Caesars and autocrats and princes, yes,
All those whom mortals worship, loathe, adore:
I’ve faced the Jupiters of total power
For forty years, victorious, running wild!
Look now: I’m vanquished by a little child. (‘Victor Vanquished’)
In our current trend of youth worship and tolerance, it’s important to realise how different attitudes were in Hugo’s era. Children were ‘seen and not heard’ – a far cry from the breakdown of boundaries sometimes berated today. Even grandparents, traditionally a ‘softer touch’, were expected to toe the line in Hugo’s day:
Seeing the young have little dread of me,
A dreamer at their joy and jollity,
A rogue grandfather! ― pious brows grow dark,
Frowning because I overstep the mark. (Spoilt Children)
Hugo endowed early childhood with an innocence he perceived inherent in nature. Evident in both is a sense of the God he believed in – as distinct from the Church. In fact some of the poems sing with an almost pantheistic ardour:
And the rout has hushed the higher
Tiers of trees, alarmed them too:
Girls who dance on earth inspire
Nests to chirrup in the blue. (The Spoilsport)
Here, Adès facilitates his rhyme by changing ‘sky’ or ‘heavens’ (cieux) to ‘blue’. This is a familiar substitute in English and typifies the kind of unobtrusive adaptation Adès employs. It’s an alternative that does nothing to diminish the charm of the original, resonant as it is with notions of childhood and nursery-rhyme. However, his decision to render Jeanne (clearly a girl’s name) as Jean throughout, caused me some confusion. By the end of the book I was still reading ‘Jean’ as the French boy’s name Jean !
Victor Hugo’s life was never pure sunshine and blue skies. In 1871, while he was living in Brussels, the Paris Commune was crushed and Belgium refused asylum to its fleeing Communards. When Hugo offered them shelter, his house was stoned by a mob and little Jean was grazed. Her assailant was: …So young to be/almost a murderer. Almost a child! .. Hugo’s indignation is coloured with sadness at the frailty of man: both perpetrator and victim ― the perpetrator an instrument of the Church and Authority he abhorred: How quickly human hearts are emptied of /Warmth, when a priest misleads! Sly men can soon/create a villain from a sad buffoon… We can hear Hugo’s compassion for the underdog. He ends the poem with an inversion: ..May his heart with truth be fired:/Less by the priest, more by the Lord inspired.(Stones Thrown at Jean). The decision to retain the inversion of the original succeeds in preserving the tone of a past era, without overdoing it. And indeed, in his introduction, Adès points up poems that are remarkably impressionistic and modern for the time.
The aim of this brief review is to whet the appetite. It can’t do justice to the breadth and scope, the larger-than-life ― the sheer pleasure and fascination of the book. Timothy Adès is a bilingual Francophile. He is also the grandfather of two small children. I unreservedly recommend his new translation.