I’ve been thoroughly enjoying reading Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo, a novel I was completely unaware of, but found in a charity shop. Published immediately after Les Miserables, and set on the island of Guernsey – where Hugo lived in exile from 1855-71, something else I didn’t know – this is a book by a man in his pomp. As a novel it is everything the gatekeepers of form abhor – shaggy; discursive; not only unafraid of, but positively drawn to, digression; and with heavy dollops of melodrama, stolen glances, deaths at sea, that sort of thing. It is writing with one’s belt unbuckled, and feet up on the desk.
Essentially, Hugo is keen to tell the reader everything he knows – there are 24 chapters describing the cultural, scientific and natural minutiae of the Channel Islands before he introduces any of the characters, plus long chapters that describe in loving and excessive detail the working parts of boats, the genesis and history of levers, the genesis and history of the universe (and man’s place in it), and, in one particularly memorable section, everything anyone knows about squids (a fair bit of which turns out to be wrong, according to the droll footnotes).
Underneath all of this is a rollicking tale of love, seafaring and a bit more love. Hugo pulls out all the stops and then, with them out, takes seventy pages to tell you some stuff he reckons about rock pools. All this, and one very good joke about vampires. Highly recommended.