Gardens and cemeteries

dictators, pastries, exiles, metro stations

NAPOLÉON, n. Here’s a word with all sorts of meanings, very different in French and English. If you say “napoleon,” you might be talking about

  • Napoléon B(u)onaparte, AKA Napoléon, AKA Napoléon le Grand, AKA Boney,* a Corsican soldier who rose up in the French military to become First Consul of France, and then, in 1804, crowned himself Emperor…

Jacques-Louis David, The Coronation of Napoléon, 1804
yeah Jacques-Louis was in my last newsletter too—I said he was a Jacobin then, so what’s he doing as Napoléon’s chief painterly propagandist? gettin himself the hell out of prison and makin that money, that’s what
  • …Boney reigned until his defeat at Waterloo in 1815. The period of French history between 1804 and 1815 is called the First Empire. If you said “what do you mean, First?”, well…

  • Louis-Napoléon, AKA Napoléon III, AKA “Napoléon le Petit” according to our boy Victor Hugo. Louis-Napoléon was Bonaparte’s nephew, and he came to power after the Revolution of 1848, which produced the Second Republic. Technically he was the first President of France. He talked a good game about democracy for a little while, which Victor Hugo liked. Then he seized power in a coup d’état in 1851, which Victor Hugo did not like. Hugo said so. Publicly. Little Napoléon here put a 25,000 price on Victor Hugo’s head. Hugo got smuggled out of Paris by some friends and then remained in exile (variously in Brussels or on the isles of Guernesey and Jersey) for the entirety of Louis-Napoléon’s reign. That lasted until 1870, but after 1852 it wasn’t the Second Republic. It was the Second Empire, since Shitty Baby Napoleon** gave up on the whole “republic” thing pretty quick. Apparently that was a family trait.

  • any old domineering asshole you meet—this goes for French and English, and you can see where it comes from

  • a gold twenty-franc coin, which, at certain moments of the 19th century, was called a napoléon. (In other moments of French history, a gold twenty-franc coin was called a louis, after, you know, all the kings)

  • a kind of cannon first used in the Second Empire

  • a boot worn by officers in the Napoleonic wars (ie, during the First Empire)

  • a card game, also called “nap,” that is supposedly like whist—all I know about whist is that sneaky characters in Balzac novels spend a lot of time playing it. I looked up the rules of whist once and barely survived the experience, but then again, I hate games (please note that I do not hate players)

  • an almond-flavored dessert that is a stack of layers of puff pastry with pastry cream in between. Depending on who you believe, this dessert is either basically the same as a millefeuille, but with almonds or almond paste in it—I have had it served to me in France like this—or it’s a different, more cake-like thing that is sometimes also called “gâteau russe” (Russian cake) in French. Nobody can agree on why this/these dessert(s) are even called napoléon—maybe it’s a reference to his 1812 campaign in Russia, or maybe it’s a corruption of the word “Neapolitan,” which used to be the name of a similar dessert. This is almost as complicated as whist/napoleon. I give up. Here is a picture of a millefeuille that has no pretensions of ever crowning itself emperor:

Anyway, I wrote part of this newsletter from Paris, where I did not carry any of my unconscious loved ones through the sewers, or even force them to attend (while conscious) an official tour of the sewers of Paris. But only because the official tour is closed for renovations until 2020.

Both Napoléons are all over this city, and in a way, they’re all over Les Mis, which I finished reading on the plane ride here. Lesser Napoléon doesn’t get a mention by name in the text, but Hugo published Les Mis in 1862, when he was in exile for “caring about democracy” and other terrible crimes. Every passage of Les Mis that’s about rising up against tyranny is pretty much elbowing the reader in the side and stage-whispering “like Napoléon III, get it?”

Victor Hugo came back to France on September 5, 1870, ending his nineteen-year exile right after Louis-Napoléon’s surrender to the Prussians on September 4, which is also the date that France’s Third Republic began. Paris has both an “Avenue du 4 Septembre” and under that street, a metro station called “Quatre-Septembre,” commemorating this moment. Louis-Napoléon, bye.

Victor Hugo has his own metro station, located under Place Victor Hugo in the 16th arrondissement, and he’s dead so he doesn’t know or care, but we can all be smug about it on his behalf.

*”Boney” was an insulting nickname given to Napoléon Bonaparte by British soldiers, OR, if you were a child in the 90s, it was a horrifying dinosaur skeleton puppet on the short-lived TV show Weinerville that used to sing “I’m Boney, I’m Boney, leave me alone-y!”, which is a true fact that makes me feel detached from reality when I describe it. Anyway, “Boney” is an excellent word, so credit where credit is due, but don’t mistake my usage of the word as support for the British fucking Empire. They were right about Boney for the wrong reasons, they installed a garbage monarchy in France immediately post-Waterloo, and they generally fucked up the world in a huge way. I feel perfectly fine about hating all parties involved here. Even the puppet.
**For the record, original flavor Napoléon was also an asshole dictator. In addition to being like “lol no” at the idea of free and fair elections plus invading and violently conquering huge swaths of the world, Uncle Boney re-established slavery in 1802.*** I think we can all agree that’s a real dick move.
***The Revolutionary government had passed a well-intentioned but complicated and ineffectual**** series of abolition acts in 1793-4.
****Not that it’s bad that the First Republic/Revolutionary government wanted to abolish slavery—they were way ahead of the United States on that one, yikes—but we gotta mention that Haiti was already like “hey, fuck you” and started their own revolution in 1791.

In Capital-R Romance this week, as I mentioned above, I finished Les Mis at last. Just before the end, I got worried.

Marius had miraculously survived, his stuffy old grandfather M. Gillenormand had at last approved of his marriage to Cosette, and Jean Valjean had suddenly announced that Cosette had a fortune of six hundred thousand francs. A different writer might have called it happily ever after at that point, but lest we forget, this book is called Les Misérables.

Hugo goes to great lengths to describe the potential happy ending, so it feels easily within reach. You know exactly what it would look like. Happily married and living with M. Gillenormand, Marius and Cosette offer a place to Jean Valjean at the house. Come and live with us as a family, they say. We can sit in the garden and look at the azaleas. Cosette’s description of the garden at this point is so lavish that it made me look back on all the previous descriptions of gardens in the novel, and reflect that almost everything good that happens in Les Mis happens in a garden.

When Jean Valjean and young Cosette are fleeing pursuit by Javert, they climb a wall and end up in a convent garden, where they are given shelter by M. Fauchelevent, a man whose life Jean Valjean once saved, who has gone on to become a gardener. Marius and Cosette fall in love in the Jardin du Luxembourg, then develop their feelings in secret nightly meetings in the garden behind the house in Rue Plumet. Gavroche witnesses a criminal associate rob Jean Valjean in a garden, and is then able to steal from his fellow thief in order to drop the money at the feet of the indigent eighty-something-year-old M. Mabeuf like a gift from heaven (M. Mabeuf doesn’t take it, but still).

And then at the end, Marius and Cosette try to entice Jean Valjean to live happily and be a family with them by telling him all about the lovely garden at their house.

Jean Valjean can’t accept it. He still feels burdened by his criminal past, dogged by the fear that one day he will ruin everything for them. Since I am also in the middle of Paradise Lost (through Anthony Oliveira’s excellent podcast The Devil’s Party), it is impossible not to think of this story in terms of that one. (Hugo had definitely read Milton, who is mentioned in Les Mis at least once, if I recall correctly.)

Jean Valjean, as a convict, is someone who has been cast out of the garden. He cannot go back in. He works his whole life in order for Cosette to be allowed entry—into society, into wealth, into family, into the kind of home that has a garden with azaleas and nightingales—and once she has it, he no longer knows what to do with himself. Cosette is frequently compared to an angel and described in terms of purity and innocence. She is the only thing he has ever loved, but once she makes it into Eden, every moment Jean Valjean hangs around her is a moment that he might taint her happiness with his fallen nature.

Jean Valjean makes a partial confession to Marius—not “btw I saved your life by carrying your unconscious body through the sewers, ur welcome,” just “I’m a former convict.” Marius is shocked and falsely concludes that Jean Valjean has stolen the six hundred thousand francs that comprise Cosette’s fortune and also murdered Inspector Javert. He thus supports Jean Valjean’s decision to distance himself from Cosette.

Jean Valjean is eighty by this point, and losing Cosette diminishes him and leaves him near death. He doesn’t tell Marius or Cosette what’s happening.

Instead, Thénardier, irredeemable criminal antagonist of the novel, shows up on Marius’s doorstep intending to blackmail him with the knowledge that Cosette’s father is the infamous escaped convict Jean Valjean—a thief and a murderer!

Duh, says Marius. He killed Javert and stole this whole fortune.

What follows is a scene that feels like the moment in a detective story when the detective explains what really happened, except at first, it’s piece-of-shit abuser Thénardier explaining to Marius that no, actually, Javert killed himself and here’s the newspaper article that proves it, and also here’s another article that proves the fortune was earned legitimately, at the factory Jean Valjean used to run.

Oh, says Marius. So what did you mean about him being a murderer and a thief, then?

I saw him carry a dead body through the sewers, and he had obviously robbed the guy first, Thénardier says. Here’s a scrap of cloth from the dead guy’s coat.

Marius recognizes the bloodstained piece of cloth. It’s from his own coat! (This left me no more incredulous than the sewer inspector recognizing a scrap of cloth from the shroud of Marat after it had rotted for twenty years in the sewers of Paris, as discussed last week. Lotta meaningful scraps of fabric in Les Mis.)

So now we have the reverse Detective-Explains-It-All scene, because Marius knows Thénardier’s second explanation is wrong. All this time, Marius has been wondering who saved his life at the barricade, and now he knows it was his own father-in-law.

He deals with Thénardier quickly, gets Cosette, and they rush to find Jean Valjean.

Naturally, he’s dying.

The truth comes to light in full, they all confess their feelings to each other, and it’s very moving.

Cosette starts talking about the garden again.

Just as it was impossible for me not to think about Paradise Lost while reading Les Mis, it’s also impossible not to think of Voltaire, who is mentioned by name in the text frequently, usually as a kind of shorthand for the whole Enlightenment. You know, atheism, democracy, revolution, all the most shocking things.

In Candide, Voltaire concludes the text—a satire that heaps misfortune after misfortune upon its protagonists—with the single most famous mention of a garden in all of French literature. The world sucks and bad shit happens to good people for no reason, and what can you do about it? Il faut cultiver notre jardin. We must cultivate our garden.

(“I take this inchworm, for instance, and move it from here to there,” wrote Charles Wright.)

Whole libraries have been written about what it means to cultivate your garden—is it a retreat from the world or an incitement to engage? Could it be both? Probably. Ambiguity is the hallmark of literature, as one of my professors once said.

Jean Valjean, after suffering a lifetime of misfortunes that would be Candide-esque if they weren’t so tragic, agrees that Cosette’s garden sounds lovely. But he’s not headed that direction anymore. It’s too late.

Instead, he asks to be buried under a stone with no name on it, and says he would be pleased if Cosette would visit it occasionally. Marius and Cosette promise to fulfill his last wish. Jean Valjean’s gravestone becomes its own kind of garden, planted in the grass, covered by moss, and washed with rain.


Victor Hugo, I learned from reading the very flattering biography attached to my copy of Les Mis, was not one of these men who writes movingly about society and the human condition and then turns out to be a real piece of shit, personally. (Lookin at you, Jean-Jacques “abandoned my own children at an orphanage” Rousseau, and also you, Charles “tried to have my wife and the mother of my children committed to an asylum so I could marry an 18-year-old” Dickens.)

I already knew that Hugo loved his children, since one of his most famous poems is the very sad “Demain, dès l’aube” (“Tomorrow at Dawn”) about visiting his daughter’s grave and leaving a bouquet of green holly and blooming heather there. Jean Valjean’s request that his daughter visit his grave is even sadder in light of Hugo’s own loss.

So anyway, admittedly, loving your children is a low bar, but as we see from Rousseau’s example, not everybody clears it.

Victor Hugo really seems to have walked the walk, in addition to talking the talk on progress. He had an important political career in addition to his writing, and he fought for universal suffrage, workers’ rights, freedom of the press, preserving historical monuments, and, of course, eliminating poverty, which he felt was the question remaining for society, now that they’d figured out the whole “republics, not monarchies” thing for certain. He wrote some very hopeful stuff about how the twentieth century would eradicate poverty, among other ills. Sorry we failed you, Victor Hugo. We’re still not great at the whole “everybody gets to vote” part, either.

Back to his personal life: Hugo was married, but he had mistresses. (His wife also had an affair with the writer and critic Sainte-Beuve, which I think was very equal-opportunity of her.) He also frequented sex workers (and boy do I mean frequented—Hugo kept notes, and they are copious). He had money set aside for this in his monthly budget, chastely noted as “dons aux pauvres” (gifts to the poor). There’s… something to be said about that, or a lot of somethings, but I’m gonna leave it be for now. Except that you should all know that when Hugo died, the sex workers of Paris wore black and provided their services for free, in tribute to him. For real.

Hugo didn’t ask for that. He also didn’t want a grand funeral, or even a marked grave—sound familiar? He left fifty thousand francs to the poor when he died, and he asked to be buried as the poor were buried. The latter wish was not respected. All of Paris shut down when he died, millions of people mourned him, and his remains are in the Panthéon along with the other luminaries of French history.

It’s not an unmarked grave, but you could visit it, if you wanted. I don’t think you’re allowed to leave bouquets of green holly and heather inside the Panthéon, though. You might be able to leave some at the metro station named after him. Hugo didn’t want monuments, but I like to think he’d like that one—it’s an integral part of the city that he loved, for use by its people, rich and poor.


It’s after midnight in France so I’m gonna save my small-r romance novel notes/recommendations/thoughts for next time.


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