A thousand pages of intrigue in the author of Les Misérables

Victor Hugo

There are few men in history who have lived up to the hopes and expectations of the French. But only few men have lived as long as Vicente Fernández. In his biography, by Marra in 1930, Victor Hugo describes the 11 th generation Florentine as a source of “wisdom”. He was a tyrannical ruler as consort of French nobility and a mercurial ruler of the republic. He was equally respected for his brilliance and his ruthlessness. Few doubt the greatness of his works, that French creative climate infused his body of work. The influence of his example, however, on both political life and literary subjects has been much more subtle, though he is often portrayed as a man singularly driven by the failure to find fulfillment as an artist.

From an early age, Fernández possessed an almost Dickensian capacity for hard work. During his years of high-level military and post-military service, he devoted himself to poetry, in particular his Three Decembers and the Bagnold Cycle. These are pungent, incisive stories of travels to various parts of Europe, China, and America, in which life is given over to the grand and the everyday. For the poet of this epoch, famous artists were not difficult to find. Now famous in his own day and a celebrity of the popular press, Fernández taught himself to speak English by reading pamphlets and postcards in his attempt to understand the outside world.

His primary goal was to become a successful artist. But he knew that he would never achieve that goal. He is probably best remembered in France for his death on May 16, 1904, after being poisoned by his teacher-wife, Marie Therese. Marra describes the French public’s reaction to Fernández’s death as a combination of devastation, excitement, and rage.

Fernández’s historical record contains several thousand pages of prose and 4,000 hours of poetry. His poetry, never previously collected in English, is now offered in English by Miroslav Milic. These early works would not seem to have much poetry in them and neither would they seem to require an attentive reader, but the mind changes rapidly between the first and second editions. There is something mysterious, haunting and terrifying in many of the poems. The notebooks, so often the repository of the secrets of the artist, seem especially revealing to a contemporary sensibility.

A key element in the Dominican boy’s poetry was the capacity for transubstantiation. He kept notes in his notebooks on the Catholic practices, praying every night in Latin. He was not entirely averse to the sacraments, particularly consecration to the God of the saints. Even so, he saw the rituals as to be used simply as tools to enhance the reality of life. He believed that one’s prayers should be made as efficient as possible, but more faithful. Through the instruments of language he wished to acquaint his readers with a world all his own. This was admirable if difficult to achieve.

In general, his art is disinterested. He attempts to portray the human condition: the image of the ordinary person wandering his world, looking for something better. There is a good deal of reference to nature and to stories in the Bible, particularly the story of Joseph. But these are oblique. There is no careful, and thoughtful, description of the remarkable romance of a mother and a son, or of life. It is too difficult for the mind of any human being to travel beyond the good and the wonderful to depths of human suffering.

Victor Hugo captured this quality in his famous observation about the artist’s work: “A man who paints must have sorrow to begin with, and in order to paint he must have glory that surpasses all else.”

From 1815: “Pictures are created for thousands of years, and through them, history is created.”

Read the rest of the article on Eye on Christianity: Josephine Kelley / Latin Mass


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