The Toilers of the Sea, by Victor Hugo, Officina Bodoni for Limited Editions Club (1960)

History has produced few storytellers whose works are as engrossing and entertaining as Victor Hugo (1802-1885), one of the greatest of all French writers.  His continued fame largely comes from his celebrated novels Les Misérables and Notre-Dame de Paris (known in English as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame). Many forget that he was also one of the great French poets in history, with  Les Contemplations and La Légende des siècles being his most critically recognized verse. Hugo’s influence is substantial even in the musical world, with over one thousand musical compositions having been inspired by his works.

Hugo was immensely popular in his time, starting when he was very young (“He was famous at twenty, renowned at twenty-two.“).  When he died at the age of 83, on 22 May 1885, there was a huge outpouring of grief across France. His funeral procession in Paris was witnessed by over two million people on the route from the Arc de Triomphe to the Panthéon, where he was buried. He shares a crypt within the Panthéon with Alexandre Dumas and Émile Zola.

The Toilers of the Sea was Hugo’s next novel after Les Miserables.  The story was written when Hugo was in political exile as an enemy of Napoleon III. In exile, after a brief stint in Brussels, he moved to the Channel Islands, first living in Jersey for a short period of time (he was expelled), and then Guernsey, where he would live from October 1855 until 1870. The setting of The Toilers of the Sea is the Channel Islands and the waters thereabout, specifically Guernsey of which the book provides a marvelous portrait (it was written entirely while Hugo was living on Guernsey).

Wiki sums up the book with:

Hugo tells of a man who attempts to win the approval of his beloved’s father by rescuing his ship, intentionally marooned by its captain who hopes to escape with a treasure of money it is transporting, through an exhausting battle of human engineering against the force of the sea and a battle against an almost mythical beast of the sea, a giant squid. Superficially an adventure, one of Hugo’s biographers calls it a “metaphor for the 19th century–technical progress, creative genius and hard work overcoming the immanent evil of the material world.”

The story is captivating, exciting, adventurous and romantic, with a tumultuous mood that dominates the mind of the reader. Quite lengthy, it reads quickly since it takes effort to put down! The Limited Editions Club (LEC) Monthly Letter (ML) states:

The most powerful force in the book is Nature at her most violent and most august: storm upun the face of the waters…Hugo was at his best when working with a large canvas, and on Guernsey his canvas was unlimited; the island was surrounded by an immensity of sea and sky capable of a thousands moods, and Hugo has pictured all the moods with a sureness of observation and transference  that were never more effectively exemplified in his own work or in that of any other writer…Eighteen years’ residence in the Channel Islands offered him a magnificent opportunity of which his genius took magnificent advantage.

Hugo’s writing, as always, is the star of the show. Always eloquent, small sprinkles of  wisdom exist on almost every page. Here is a small sampling:

…their divine right lies under the water; that is the fate of divine rights.

And:

Nature reflects history.

And:

The impossible is a perpetually receding frontier.

And:

This diminution of stupidity is called progress.

And:

Solitude creates men of talent or idiots.

And:

Every number is zero in the presence of the infinite.

And:

Life is the voyage, the idea is the itinerary.

One could list scores and scores of such nuggets! But even better is when Hugo gets on a roll on some topic that crosses his mind. His stories contain offshoots of philosophy, history and science more interesting that the main stories of most authors! Be it lengthy diversions such as his Battle of Waterloo from Les Miserables and his description of the Channel Islands in this book, or paragraph long asides that exist in most of his books, these offshoots always add depth to the stories they exist within. Keep in mind that the following samples are from a book which keeps one on the edge of their seat from the excitement of the adventure being told.

Hugo discusses fanaticism, almost poetically (the last two sentences of which actually reminding me of the rationale used in today’s politically correct substitutions of frankly crappy works which happen to be written by ‘in’ classes over great works from past masters):

…hideous when it persecutes and touching when it is persecuted, the outward hymn is nothing. It has its great and sad inner hymn, which it chants mysteriously in its soul beneath the words. It penetrates even the grotesque with sublimity, and whatever may be the poetry  and the prose of its priests, it transfigures this prose and this poetry by the immense latent harmony of its faith. It corrects the deformity of formulae by the grandeur of trials nobly borne and punishments endured. When poetry is wanting, it substitutes conscience. The libretto of the martyr may be insipid, what what does that matter if the martyr is noble.

Nature is always presented as the master of change:

In time the configuration of an island changes. An island is formed by the ocean. Matter is eternal, not its appearance. Everything on the earth is perpetually moulded by its death, even the extrahuman monuments, even granite. Everything changes shape, even the shapeless. Edifices built by the sea crumble like the rest.

So he reminds man that we should be humble before nature:

Let us not, however, exaggerate our power; notwithstanding what man may do, the grand lines of creation remain; the supreme mass does not depend upon man. He can produce an effect on portions, not upon the whole. And it is well that it is so. Everything is providential. These laws are higher than we. What we do does not extend beyond the surface.

So men, quit trying to build paradise:

Let us look elsewhere for Eden. Spring is good; liberty and justice are better, Eden is allegorical, not material.
To be free and just depends upon us.
Serenity is within. Our perpetual spring is found within us.

Look for and understand the inner-self, do not be fooled by appearances:

The human body might well be regarded as only an appearance. It hides our reality. It lies thick over our light, or our shadow. The reality is our soul. To speak absolutely, the human visage is a mask. The true man is that which is beneath man. If one could perceive that man crouching and hidden behind that illusion which is called the flesh, one would have more than one surprise. The common error consists  in taking the external being for the real being.

His character descriptions do just that, here letting us know what Sieur Clubin, the captain of the Durande, is made of:

He possessed all the talents which risk, perpetually undergoing transformations, demands…He was prudent, and he sometimes pushed prudence even to daring, which is a great quality at sea. His fear of the probable was tempered by his instinct of the possible. He was one of those mariners who face danger in a proportion known to themselves, and who know how to extract success from every adventure. All the certitude which the sea can leave a man he had.

But all always comes back to nature, and the mood and mystery it creates…:

The solitudes of the sea are mournful. It is tumult and silence. What takes place there no longer concerns the human race. It is go unknown utility…All about, as far as the eye can reach, is the immense ferment of waves.

The mysterious encounters with the improbable, which we call hallucinations in order to extricate ourselves from the difficulty, exist in nature.

…And the struggle with it that man perpetually embarks on:

The sea, complicated by the wind, is a combination of forces. A vessel is a combination of machinery. Forces are infinite machines, machines are limited forces. It is between these two organisms, the one inexhaustible, the other intelligent, that the combat called navigation is waged.

A will in a mechanism furnishes a counterbalance to the infinite. The infinite also contains a mechanism. The elements know what they do and whither they go. No force is blind. Man must watch these forces, and seek to discover their laws.

Yet:

Nature eludes calculation…Nature is a thing that cannot be numbered. An idea makes more work than adding a column of figures. Why? because the idea shows the whole, whereas addition cannot make the total. The infinite in its splendor and oneness fecundates the intelligence; numbers, those millipedes, direct and devour it…Calculation can only multiple, hypothesis sometimes creates…Nature’s secret is known to one being alone, the very being that is the secret.

In that struggle, certain type of men are needed:

The obstinate are the sublime. He who is merely brave acts from impulse; he who is merely valiant has but a temperament; he who is only courageous has only a virtue; the man obstinate in the true sense has greatness. Nearly the whole secret of great hearts lies in this word, ‘perseverance’. Perseverance is to courage what the wheel is to the lever, it is the perpetual renewing of the fulcrum. Whatever the goal may be, in earth or heaven, the whole secret lies in proceeding to that goal…not to allow one’s conscience to discuss, nor one’s will to be disarmed…

Lastly, on life itself:

Life is a perpetual succession! we undergo it. We never know from what quarter fate’s abrupt descent will be  made. Catastrophes and happiness enter, then depart like unexpected personages. They have their law, their orbit, their gravitation, outside of man.

Virtue does not bring happiness, crime does not bring unhappiness; conscious has one logic, fate has another; no coincidence. Nothing can be foreseen. We live pell-mell, and in confusion. Conscience is a straight line, life is a whirlwind. This whirlwind unexpectedly casts black chaos and blue skies upon the head of man.

Fate does not understand the art of transitions. Sometimes the wheel turns so rapidly that man hardly distinguishes the interval between one revolution and another, and the bond between yesterday and today.

The Toilers of the Sea was first published March 12, 1866. The original manuscript contained 36 drawings for illustrations, done by Hugo himself. Hugo was no stranger to art, having produced more than 4,000 drawings (usually pen and ink, rarely any color, pretty modern in stylistic inclination). However, no edition of the novel included the original images in their entirety until The Folio Society published a Limited Edition of the novel in 2015.

The Toilers of the Sea, The Folio Society Limited Edition
The Toilers of the Sea, The Folio Society Limited Edition with Hugo Illustrations

The LEC edition reviewed here does not use Hugo’s illustrations. However, it has in its own claim to being first, as it was:

..the first ever published in which the complete text has been rendered into English. The original edition of the book omitted a preliminary section entitled “The Channel Islands,” and a chapter called  “The Sea and the Wind.”  The former is a social, geographic, and historic description of the archipelago. In the latter, Hugo, harnessing his usual breathtaking talent for description to his passion for the forces, the freaks, and the catastrophes of nature, gallops to conclusions on the existence of a God who cannot be comprehended yet whose pattern of creation can be discerned.

An edition with the ‘The Channel Islands’ was never published before 1883, and as of the date of the ML writing was not available in any English edition, while ‘The Sea and the Wind’ never appeared English until this 1960 edition from the LEC.

The LEC edition is illustrated with nearly 100 wood engravings by the great Italian printmaker, artist and engraver Tranquillo Marangoni. Marangoni is unfortunately not well known in the United States, but was one of the greats of the twentieth century wood engraving (see here and here for an overview of his work). Frequent LEC illustrator/artist Fritz Eichenberg ‘discovered’ Marangoni for the LEC while in Italy. Marangoni sent sample illustrations to the LEC for inspection, with the ML telling us that “these trial balloons impressed us mightily.” So much so that the ML included some of his samples, a rarity indeed as ML’s were typically not illustrated.

Sample illustration in ML
Sample Tranquillo Marangoni illustration in ML

The ML states that Marangoni was “a perfectionist among perfectionists” and reprints portions of a letter Marangoni sent them giving us a pretty good view of his illustrative philosophy:

It is a basic requirement of the artist that he express his own thoughts, manifest his impressions and reactions which must deeply penetrate the spirit of the story and adequately render its atmosphere, even, at times, with designs which have only indirect relevance to the text, but which contribute to the greater expressiveness and effectiveness of the story….

As you can see from the sample above, and the illustrations from The Toilers of the Sea below, Marangoni uses big, broad and brawny strokes, which stylistically seems appropriate for the big, broad and brawny canvas that Hugo paints.

The LEC edition uses the translation from noted American writer and translator Isabel Florence Hapgood (1851 – 1928) who specialized in Russian and French texts. ‘The Channel Islands’ translation is by Mary W. Artois, while ‘The Sea and the Wind’ is by David M. Glixon. The introduction is by American journalist and author Matthew Josephson (1899 –1978) whose works on nineteenth-century French literature included biographies of Zola, Rousseau, Stendhal and Hugo.

The Toilers of the Sea is the ninth book designed by the great Giovanni Mardersteig for the LEC. It was printed by Mardersteig at Stamperia Valdonega at Officinal Bodoni. Like all of his work for the LEC, here Mardersteig impresses once again with the strength of the work. 12 point Monotype Baskerville is used, and all is printed on smooth, off-white, medium weight paper made especially for this edition, under Mardersteig’s direction, by Cartiera Ventura of Cernobbio. The binding is done in a light gray paper printed in sea-green ink with an overall pattern of freehand rectangles; the backstop is a soft-finish black cotton fabric stamped with a solid rectangle in sea-green pigment leaf carrying the title and the name of the author in real gold. For a weighty book (7″ x 10.25″, 602 pages) it is nicely comfortable to read. One can find this for $100-$125 is fine condition (sometimes less), which is an amazing steal of a deal. It belongs on your bookshelf!

About the Edition

  • Designed by Giovanni Mardersteig
  • Printed by Mardersteig at Stamperia Valdonega at Officina Bodoni
  • Translation by Isabel Florence Hapgood
  • The Channel Islands” translation by Mary W. Artois
  • Edited and augmented (translation of the chapter “The Sea and the Wind“) by David M. Glixon
  • Introduction by Matthew Josephson
  • Illustrated with 99 wood-engravings by Tranquillo Marangoni
  • 12 point Monotype Baskerville
  • Paper especially made by Cartiera Ventura of Cernobbio under Giovanni Mardersteig’s direction
  • Binding in a light gray paper printed in sea-green ink with an overall pattern of freehand rectangles; the backstop is a soft-finish black cotton fabric stamped with a solid rectangle in sea-green pigment leaf carrying the title and the name of the author in real gold
  • 7″ x 10.25″, 602 pages
  • Limited to 1500 copies, signed by Tranquillo Marangoni

Pictures of the Edition

(All pictures on Books and Vines are exclusively provided, under fair use, to highlight and visualize the review/criticism of the work being reviewed. A side benefit, hopefully, is providing education on the historical and cultural benefits of having a healthy fine press industry and in educating people on the richness that this ‘old school approach’ of book publishing brings to the reading process. Books and Vines has no commercial stake or financial interest in any publisher, retailer or work reviewed on this site and receives no commercial interest or compensation for Books and Vines. Please note that works photographed are copyrighted by the publisher, author and/or illustrator as indicated in the articles. Permission to use contents from these works for anything outside of fair use purposes must come directly from the copyright owner and no permission is granted or implied to use photo’s or material found on Books and Vines for any purpose that would infringe on the rights of the copyright owner.)

The Toilers of the Sea, Limited Editions Club, Book in Slipcase
The Toilers of the Sea, Limited Editions Club, Book in Slipcase
The Toilers of the Sea, Limited Editions Club, Cover and Spine
The Toilers of the Sea, Limited Editions Club, Cover and Spine
The Toilers of the Sea, Limited Editions Club, Title Page
The Toilers of the Sea, Limited Editions Club, Title Page
The Toilers of the Sea, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Title Page
The Toilers of the Sea, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Title Page
The Toilers of the Sea, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #1
The Toilers of the Sea, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #1 (contents)
The Toilers of the Sea, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #2
The Toilers of the Sea, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #2 (Introduction)
The Toilers of the Sea, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Text #2
The Toilers of the Sea, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Text #2
The Toilers of the Sea, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #1 with Text
The Toilers of the Sea, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #1 with Text
The Toilers of the Sea, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #3 with Decoration
The Toilers of the Sea, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #3 with Decoration
The Toilers of the Sea, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #1
The Toilers of the Sea, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Text #3 with Decoration
Sample Text #4 with Decoration
The Toilers of the Sea, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #4
The Toilers of the Sea, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #4 with Text
The Toilers of the Sea, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #2 with Text
The Toilers of the Sea, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #7 with Text
The Toilers of the Sea, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #3 with Text
The Toilers of the Sea, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #8 with Text
The Toilers of the Sea, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #4 with Text
The Toilers of the Sea, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #12 with Text
The Toilers of the Sea, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #5 with Text
The Toilers of the Sea, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #15 with Text
The Toilers of the Sea, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #6 with Text
The Toilers of the Sea, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #16 with Text
The Toilers of the Sea, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #16 with Text

Leave a Reply