Party tricks and naked writing: the eccentric life of Victor Hugo

Marianna Hunt in The Guardian:

Victor Hugo is rightly remembered for his amazing literary output, and for his philanthropic work as a member of France’s National Assembly, campaigning for an end to poverty, free education for all children and the abolition of the death penalty. But he was also incredibly eccentric and libidinous, with a penchant for writing while starkers, and armed with a party trick – swallowing oranges whole. The BBC remake of Les Misérables seeks to upturn what we think we know about the story, looking beyond the musical to the pages of the novel it came from. But what if we take a step further, looking beyond the pages to the man behind them? The stripped back (in more ways than one) Hugo is far more interesting than he’s given credit for.

On France’s Mont Donon, you can enjoy spectacular vistas across the borders of France, Germany and Switzerland. But in May 1801, Major Hugo and his wife were not paying much attention to the view – and in the 1960s, a museum curator decided to mark the spot where Hugo was conceived with an engraved sandstone block. Hugo (always the storyteller) added his own embellishments: the Celtic sanctuary on the summit became a Roman temple of love and the obscure mountain was transformed into the much more glamorous (and 3,000 ft taller) Mont Blanc. He also claimed that his mother was a half-wild Amazonian (she was born in Nantes).

Hugo’s insistent retellings of the story of his own conception might be explained by the fact that the guy was obsessed with sex. He claimed that on their wedding night he and his wife Adèle Foucher had sex nine times. Foucher reportedly lost interest in intercourse altogether – but 19th-century Paris had enough brothels to keep Hugo entertained morning, evening and night. Venerated as a saint (albeit only in the Vietnamese religion of Cao Dai), when Hugo died the brothels of Paris closed down for a day of mourning, allowing all the city’s sex workers to pay their last respects to a loyal client. Literary critic Edmond de Goncourt claimed a police officer told him that sex workers even draped their genitals in black crepe as a mark of respect.

More here.