Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Victor Hugo: The "Stovepipe" and the Elephant

Place de la Bastille
Although the mother of all revolutions has no monument to commemorate it at the spot where it started, there is one for a far lesser upheaval four decades later. La Colonne de Juillet, the July Column, poking up in the cobblestone vastness of Place de la Bastille, honors Parisians who lost their lives in the Revolution of July 1830, which toppled Charles X, the last Bourbon king, and brought his cousin Louis-Philippe to power.

Victor Hugo watched the July Column going up in the early 1830s when he was a neighbor at the Place des Vosges. A “gigantic stove adorned with a stovepipe,” he called it.  But the elephant was another story.  This was a giant plaster and wood mock-up of an elephant that was supposed to be the centerpiece of a magnificent fountain dreamed up by Napoléon. The mock-up was built in 1812, but the empire collapsed before it could be bronzed. The poor pachyderm was removed from its base to make way for the “stovepipe” and shunted to the edge of the Place de la Bastille, near where the Opéra is now. Punished for decades by wind, sun, and rain, the aged eyesore moved Hugo deeply. In Les Misérables he wrote:

"In that open and deserted corner of the Square, the broad front of the colossus, his trunk, his tusks, his size, his enormous rump, his four feet like columns, produced at night, under a starry sky, a startling and terrible outline.  One couldn’t tell what it meant.  It was a sort of symbol of the force of the people. It was gloomy, enigmatic, and immense. It was a mysterious and mighty phantom, visible standing by the side of the invisible specter of the Bastille."

In one of the most touching scenes in the novel, the resourceful street urchin Gavroche takes two little lost boys he finds wandering on Rue Saint-Antoine into the comfy nest he has built for himself in the belly of the beast, protected from the rats infesting the structure by a cage made of copper mesh appropriated from the Jardin des Plantes. The little boys are the brothers Gavroche did not know he had.

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