Guernsey’s Place in Literary History – ‘Les Travailleurs de la Mer’ by Victor Hugo
Victor Hugo is, without a doubt, the most famous literary figure ever to have lived in the Channel Islands. He completed many of his most famous works whilst in exile from France in Guernsey. He fell in love with both the Island and the people, so much so that he wrote an entire novel in dedication to his adopted home, “Les Travailleurs de la Mer” – The Toilers of the Sea.
An Important Moment in the History of the Novel
Monday March 12th 1866 saw the publication, in Belgium, of Victor Hugo’s “Les Travailleurs de la Mer”. Set and written in Guernsey, where Hugo was living in exile, it has only recently been recognised as an important moment in the history of the novel.
At the climax of the book is Gillian’s, a fisherman’s, hand-to-tentacle struggle with an octopus-cum-squid-cum-demon called ‘la pieuvre’. It has been called one of the great scenes in literature, a single human pitted against ‘the dark coalition of forces’:
This then was the terrible thing that held Gillian enfolded in its loathsome embrace. Such was the monster – the dweller in the grotto – the hideous genius of the place – the gloomy demon of the water. … Gilliatt did not expect to find such a tenant in this secret lurking-place. He had thrust his hand into the hole to feel for a crab, and the pieuvre had seized him. It grasped him like a vice. Of the eight arms of the devil-fish, three were clasped around Gilliatt in this fashion; clinging to the granite on one side and to the man on the other, the monster bound its victim to the rock. Two hundred and fifty suckers were at work upon Gilliatt at once.