Second test blog entry
Oscar Wilde and Georges Victor-Hugo
writing on Oscar Wilde on a regular basis means to start searching for points of reference in one's everyday life. This week it was his 164th birthday when I had no chance to think of him for I needed to push on with a major marking task at school. The next day, however, 17th October 2018, I had much time to think things over as I took several trains to the South-West of Germany, the university town of Tübingen, that is. It was here that German writer and Nobel Prize winner Hermann Hesse did an apprenticeship in a bookstore, and I still remember quite clearly the stuffy place I browsed in once of twice when I first stayed in the town in April and, once again, in September and October 1990.Then, it looked as if time had come to stop in that shop, so that everybody was free to imagine the young Hesse walk in and ask for one's wishes. Sadly, I cannot recall to have any book in possession that I might have acquired there.
What I do remember is to have bought a four-volume first edition of Charles Dickens's Our Mutual Friend (1864), which still graces my shelves, during my first-ever visit. It was in April 1990 that I also went to see a French film in a shabby place where hardly anybody attended and which looked as if it had seen better years. For the film in question, one of the most famous ones from the “Nouvelle vague”, À Bout de souffle, that is, this didn't matter much. It was in black and white anyway, so that a dusty cinema with similar surroundings didn't disturb me.
What was my surprise this time to discover that 1990 was the very last year French troops stayed in town! I do recall the very first national holiday on 3rd October 1990 which everyone seemed to enjoy outside, for it was gorgeous warm weather, but at Tübingen at least I failed to establish any connection to the changed state of the nation. To me, the people in town seemed to be as untouched by the reunification of Germany dating from midnight that day as most acquaintances seemed to be by the winning of the World Cup in Rome on 8th July when I returned from my outing in Italy three weeks later. I had attended the match and found it extremely difficult to bear that nobody I knew was interested in talking about this event – as if it had not happened but to those actually present in the ground that night.
On the night of that first 3rd October as Germany's reunification holiday, however, there was a dinner party at a professor's home, and several people hailing from various parts of Germany attended. It was here, finally, that that day's importance was duly paid attention to, so I left Tübingen a few days later in the hope that all was not lost for reunification if people speaking different dialects of German might feel closer following the events of the last twelve months. What I had known since the opening of the Berlin Wall on 9th November 1989, though, was that nothing would ever be the same again as before. By contrast to those who cannot let bygones be bygones, I was sure that a new open society – with no Cold War lead to weigh on us – would be for the good of all of us.
My optimism was soon to be tainted, however, by the results of the first-ever elections for the five new parliaments in the newly or re-established Lander east of the former border. All but appeared to favour a conservative majority, although the parties founded after the opening of the Berlin Wall were mostly barely veiled versions of their Socialist predecessors. As after 1945 in the West, there was a kind of constancy of personnel in both politics and society, education and culture in the East that over the years has created the disaffection with Germany as a whole that is shaking the country at the moment.
All these memories were easily triggered by the reason for my travelling to Tübingen since I had been invited to the opening of a traveling exhibition of Georges Victor-Hugo's unknown drawings on the Champagne Front (1915/1916) which I had prepared for the centenary of the battle in 1915. I include just one of the series which I discovered by chance in my research for a picture biography of Victor Hugo, the painter's grandfather in 2001. It was a follow-on project of my life of Oscar Wilde for the same publisher, issued in 2000, so I clearly sought to establish links between the two writers.
And apart from Wilde having read Hugo, he also met the great octogenarian in his Paris apartment on Avenue Victor Hugo in 1883 when the great old man was wont to fall asleep during his at-homes for which his two grandchildren, Georges Victor and Jeanne, were also called for to attend, just as his long-time companion, Juliette Drouet. So unwittingly, I had been prepared for the meeting with Georges Victor-Hugo as an artist, and following the publication of my biography on Victor Hugo I have never really lost sight of his grandson.
This was neither the first time nor an accident in my own life, for I had crossed the path of James Joyce's irascible grandson on several occasions in Monaco and Dublin in 1990 and 1992 before encountering the much more amenable grandson of Oscar Wilde, Merlin Holland, both at Oxford in 2000 and in his London home in 2001. While it is still Oscar Wilde I am interested in, I have turned my attention to Georges Victor-Hugo and his works ever since I noticed how his works seem to impress whoever has had the chance to see them. So when the exhibition had eventually been mounted and started to do the rounds of various French Institutes or similarly minded institutions such as schools and other educational institutions I could not but continue my research and also read up on Jean Hugo, Georges' eldest son, who in his memoirs only writes of “my father”, rather than spelling out his name, and who, in his diaries, published posthumously, at one stage recalls to have received the visit of Oscar Wilde's grandson:
“7. VIII. 65/ Merlin Holland, petit-fils d'Oscar Wilde, est arrivé ici. Il ressemble à René Crevel. Une Irlandaise de Hampstead l'accompagne, les yeux pers de Minerve dans la masque de Junon, les jambes d'une poupée de son. Ils avaient le dessein d'aller à Pampelune, d'y acheter des ânes, de traverser les montagnes montés sur ces ânes, en admirant le cirque de Gavarnie, et de les vendre à Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Charles leur a fait remarquer que personne n'achèteraient des ânes en France. Là-dessus ils sont partis à pied pour les causses, pour faire, sans ânes, les Travels with a donkey.” (Jean Hugo, Carnets 1946-1984, Arles: Actes Sud, 1994, pp. 230/231)
Rather than translating this beautiful piece of French prose, I'd prefer commenting on it. At the time, Oscar Wilde's second son, Vyvyan Holland, was still alive, and Merlin barely twenty. So it must have been a youthful impulse of his and his companion to visit Jean Hugo. The latter is polite enough not to mention how his guests had come to know either him or his address but he enjoys the literary allusion to Robert Louis Stevenson, Wilde's contemporary, who, more than half a century before, had written Travels with a donkey and who the youthful couple sought to imitate – in Jean Hugo's fancy.
There is this kind of dry realistic sense of humour on the part of Hugo's son Charles stating that such donkeys wouldn't be bought in France which contrasts with the idealism of people from the North unaware of how ridiculous their intention might seem to anyone who does live in places we Northerners only love to stay in either in our dreams or in our holidays. Georges Victor-Hugo, for that matter, did not love the South of France, preferring the coast of Normandy and the Channel Island of Guernsey where Victor Hugo had had his house.
When I recounted the two meeting of the families Hugo and Wilde at Tübingen I gathered from the reactions that such anecdotes from the worlds of the arts – like the works of art themselves – are very helpful in terms of showing people, who are more down to earth, what is at stake in history. Rather than about state actions, it is about the meeting of the generations as well as of cultures and languages. And meeting people means to appreciate them rather than to confront them, and this is what can also be inferred from either Wilde's writings or from Georges Victor-Hugo's drawings from the First World War – dating, as it happens, from the same year that Wilde's first son, Cyril Holland, died, something that might have happened to Jean Hugo, too. He did survive the trenches and went on to live until 1984 after having been celebrated for the publication of his memoirs (Le Regard de la Mémoire, Arles: Actes Sud, 1989 (1983)).
As an officer, Georges Victor-Hugo could not but draw whoever and whatever struck his eyes at the Champagne Front, including the Prussian teacher the image of whom I insert. He was a primary school teacher and prisoner of war. To the artist, however, what counts is the man whose features are blurred so as to make him unrecognizable but to those who might have known the man in person. All the same, the man is done with the love of someone who appreciates fellow human beings whatever their status or sex or nationality or skin color. In this, all art fully appreciates the Rights of Man. You can find the following drawing in the catalogue: Jörg W. Rademacher, Im Westen nichts Neues? A l'Ouest, rien de nouveau?, Coesfeld: Elsinor, 34d edition, 2019, p. 51. It is in German and French, not in English, unfortunately. I am still on the lookout for someone who might want to spread the word on Georges Victor-Hugo in English as well. Looking forward to next time, all best wishes,
Jörg W. Rademacher, November 2018, revised 29th December 2018