Portrait photograph of Victor Hugo. Photo: Edmond Bacot

Victor Hugo (1802–1885) was—and is—altogether too much. A prolific lyric and epic poet of stunning technical mastery, he was also a controversial dramatist (some of his plays have survived as subjects for operas of Donizetti, Verdi, and Ponchielli). He wrote two of the most enduringly popular novels, Notre-Dame de Paris and Les Misérables. Quasimodo the pathetic monster and Jean Valjean the ex-convict tormented by conscience are known—even if approximately and secondhand through numerous stage and film adaptations—to many who have not read...

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