When he died in 1885 at age 83, Victor Hugo was beyond question the most famous man of letters in France, and perhaps the world--his only rival being Charles Dickens. The English put up plaques to show where their literary celebrities lived or were born, and sometimes grant them burial in Westminster Abbey. Hugo, however, is the only writer to have a stone mark his place of conception. His parents' epochal embrace took place in a forest 3,000 ft. up on the flank of Mount Donon, overlooking the Rhineland, in May 1801, though it's typical of Hugo's own mythomania that in adult life he claimed it happened 3,000 ft. higher still, and on Mont Blanc.
In his life he was compared (often by himself) to an eagle, a titan, an ogre, a monster; to Homer, Shakespeare, Dante and Cervantes. He wrote enormous, turbulent, dark novels, two of which (Les Miserables and Notre-Dame de Paris, known in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame) in our own day have been turned, respectively, into a kitsch-book musical and a saccharine Disney film. Few read the originals, at least in English, though they are of course more disturbing and entertaining than their modern clones. He wrote 21 plays, which transformed the French theater, hoicking it out of the noble stasis of Corneille and Racine. One of them, Hernani, was the emblematic starting point of the Romantic movement in France and is sometimes credited with helping provoke the 1830 revolution.
With his voluminous poetry reckoned in, Hugo's effect on French literature exceeded anything short of the Bible itself. Flaubert, Baudelaire, Gautier all stood in his shadow, along with foreigners like Dostoyevsky and Conrad. In the words of English scholar Graham Robb, whose brilliant new biography, Victor Hugo (Norton; 682 pages; $39.95), does for this sublime windbag what George Painter did for Proust 30 years ago, Hugo was "a one-man education system through which every writer had to pass...The story of Hugo's influence after death is the story of a river after it reaches the sea. It was so pervasive that he was sometimes thought not to have had an influence at all."
At the peak of his fame several streets in Paris were named after him. He lived besieged by infatuated women. "Imagination," he said in one of his more phallocratic moments, "is intelligence with an erection." Aged nearly 70, in the hectic relief that followed the lifting of the siege of Paris, he averaged one sexual encounter a day--40 different women in five months, competing for the touch of what Hugo called his "lyre." Larger than life, he was almost larger than death: half a million people, the biggest funeral attendance since the death of Napoleon, followed his cortege to the freshly deconsecrated Pantheon, a building he detested and compared to a sponge cake. There he still lies. "Victor Hugo was a madman who thought he was Victor Hugo," bitched Jean Cocteau some decades later. So might a chihuahua fix its tiny fangs in the ankle of a bull elephant.