Jan 20, 2008

Hans of Iceland

Hans of Iceland and the Last Day of a Condemned, by Victor Hugo. New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons. First published anonymously in 1823. This edition 1928 (?). 536 pgs.

I received this for Christmas last year, and just completed it--a year later. It seemed a slight book when I received it, but it has Bible-thin pages and appears much smaller than it's 536 pages of the tiniest print! The book contains an essay at the end: the author's battle "in behalf of the sacredness of human life". Hans extends 428 pages, and while I enjoyed it very much, its wandering, convoluted plot could be consumed most easily in small portions. The copper etchings by Demarest add to the atmosphere of the novel.

This wild, extravagant, supernatural and romantic tale is Victor Hugo's first novel, written when he was just eighteen years old. It probably took me longer to read it than he did to write it. The main weakness of the novel is described by the author himself, in his preface to the 1833 edition:
Evey intellectual effort, be it drama, poem, or romance, must contain three ingredients,--what the author has felt, what he has observed, and what he has divined.

There is but one thing felt in "Hans of Iceland," the young man's love; but one thing observed, the young girl's love. All the rest is a matter of divination,--that is, of invention; for youth, having neither facts nor experience...can only divine by means of its imagination.

In other words, the author lacks experience from which to draw on as he creates a world of which he knows little.

There are two introductions and two prefaces in this edition. Three of them were written by the author for various editions of the novel. As often is the case, the introductions are as interesting as the book itself.

None of the book takes place in Iceland, by the way. The romance of Ordener and Ethel, whose feelings had their root in the author's own experiences, take place in Denmark and Norway. Hugo, although young, had a seemingly hopeless love for a woman whom he feared he was fated never to marry. As regards romance, the author was speaking from experience.

As for Hans, he is a beastly little man taken to devouring people limb from limb, and drinking their blood. He has a singularly vindictive nature, and is very cunning.

This book offers a fascinating glimpse of the very early work of a gifted author, playwright, artist, activist, and poet. It is a wild and crazy ride!

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