ALONGSIDE NAPOLEON, Goethe, and G.W.F. Hegel, Victor Hugo stands like a giant guardian at the doorway of the 19th century, not always admired, sometimes actually ridiculed, yet unmistakably and formidably there. His titles to this position are no longer of the clearest; his dramas by now are chiefly of historical interest, and it's only the rare and hardy explorer who ventures into a grandiose panhistorical epic like La l,egende des si To a considerable extent, then, Hugo survives (as we approach the centenary of his death) as a novelist; and it's to answer the question, What sort of novelist was he? that Professor Brombert has written this book.

It is by all odds the most thorough and critically sophisticated book on Hugo's fiction to appear in English, or perhaps in any language. It is fortified with an impressive but not overwhelming array of methodologies; it is learned, literate, and witty, generous in its appreciations, and an authentic pleasure to read. Anyone who retains from childhood reading a memory of the saintly criminal Jean Valjean, the hideous but holy hunchback Quasimodo, or that nightmare octopus that dominates Les travailleurs de la mer will be interested in learning about the larger-than-life man who created them.

What sort of novelist was Victor Hugo? Unusual, very unusual. If anyone ever had the impression that he was a man of simple ideas and straightforward feelings, a limited acquaintance with Brombert's book will dispel that impression for good. "Visionary," though not a very good word for describing the novels, is probably the best available; but "hallucinatory," "nightmarish," and "phantasmagoric" are other words that will suggest themselves. Hugo's novels are volcanic eruptions, hideous battlegrounds, crashing thunderstorms, wild and whirling blasts of conflicting themes, images, and emotions. They hardly "advocate" any attitude unequivocally; they are for the revolution and simultaneously against it, they decry cruelty and dwell on it gloatingly, they revel in squalor and filth to which they attribute a redemptive function, they loathe women and adore them, they seek egomaniacal transcendence through self-effacement. They interpolate extended digressions into their improbably melodramatic and labyrinthine plots, they explore the past, prophesy the future, and try to transcend history altogether. Their foaming energy spreads out through the world of natural objects and shapes, filling them with macabre significance.

THE NOVELS overflow the boundaries of the French language, spilling out into the criminal argot which Hugo (typically) considered both the abscess of language and the purest form of poetry. Hugo put a high value on chaos, which he thought only the greatest artists dared to approach. He had a generous supply of it himself, and poured a lot of it into these sprawling, vociferous fictions, which found, and continue to find, throngs of enthralled and vibrant readers. With unlimited resources of raw verbal energy, he had the gift for creating archetypal characters, massive prototypes which live in the mind as Faustus, Quixote, and Ahab live.

Professor Brombert has by no means stood daintily apart from this wild abyss of deliberate Hugolian chaos, inspecting it from the brink; rather, he hurls himself and his reader into the heart of the hubbub. This is a pretty invigorating experience. The critic analyzes in close detail the imagery, the value-terms, the authorial confidences and directives, the implicit attitudes toward such key concepts as imprisonment, capital punishment, ridicule, and popular revolt. He is careful to avoid the tired error of directly attributing to the author words spoken in the fiction by one of his characters; he is equally careful in the delicate matter of representing Hugo's incoherence without minimizing or exaggerating it. Though he makes use of Freudian insights where they present themselves (and their presence is typically massive, unmistakable), Brombert does not press them unduly. Similarly, though one can sense the presence of deconstructionism in the critical offing, it is not allowed to intrude on the discourse with its typical pattern of intricate abstraction and private vocabulary.

The plan of the study is simplicity itself; Brombert begins with the first novel (Dernier jour d'un condamn,e) and works chronologically through to the last (Quatre- vingt-treize). This is a normal and natural way of approaching the novels, and probably there is no other practical way to go at them. But as Hugo was an obsessive writer, many of the same images and themes reur, many of the same psychic mechanisms are repeated, and there are moments when the later discussions give one a distinct sense of d,eja vu.

In addition to the fictions themselves, Brombert draws freely (though not uncritically) on the evidence of Hugo's poetry, his public statements, and the autobiographical documents which exist in profusion. Specially worthy of note are the drawings made by Hugo, sometimes in illustration of or in direct connection with the novels. He appears sometimes as a caricaturist in the vein of Daumier, sometimes as black fantasiast like Goya; they are powerful and impressive work, and they illustrate, among other things, an amazing, obsessive fascination with the artist's own name. The giant letters VICTOR HUGO surround the ruins of a shattered city like prehistoric monoliths, or they stagger drunkenly off a cliff into an ominous abyss. The drawings are dark, brooding, powerful; they confirm, as could nothing else, the impression one gets from the fictions, of a heroic and troubled mind struggling through the storm clouds of an age in deep travail.

Professor Brombert has taken off its shelf the plaster cast of Victor Hugo -- which for many of us the author had effectively become -- and not only dusted it off, but given it new life in terms worthy of the 20th century. It was a mighty subject; it has been given a fitting treatment.