The Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo; published by the Limited Editions Club

I dedicate this book to the rock of hospitality and liberty, to that nook of ancient Norman soil where dwells the noble little race of the sea, to the isle of Guernsey, severe yet gentle. My present asylum, probably my tomb.

–      V.H.

So reads the dedication for Toilers of the Sea, paying homage to the place where Victor Hugo lived for eighteen years and where he wrote this novel. And what a treat reading this Victor Hugo book has been for me. I really didn’t expect to like it so much, given some of the comments I’ve heard about Hugo’s style and long-windedness, mainly with respect to his most well-know work, Les Miserables. That book is on my shelf and “to read” list along with the Hunchback of Notre-Dame. To get a gauge for how much I like his language and what he says with it, I copied more passages I loved from this book than I have from anything I’ve read in a long time. Five pages worth of quotes and notes! This is a book that gets at the heart of what I mean by the “whole book experience.” A ripping piece of literature packaged in a very well designed and thought out edition. As Matthew Josephson notes in the introduction: “The Toilers of the Sea is, indeed, dreamlike, fantastic, and baroque. The reader may find in it a tale of high adventure on the seas, accompanied by a love story…On the other hand one may see it as a work of allegory or symbolism, embodying some of our oldest myths and race-memories, filled with evocations of the subconscious mind and leading into the strangest corridors of the most unimaginable caverns that ever were beneath the sea.


This Limited Editions Club publication was published 50 years ago and it was the first time that the preliminary section entitled “The Channel Islands” and the chapter “The Sea and the Wind” appeared in an English translation. Since then, there has been at least one new translation. James Hogarth’s, for the Modern Library, claims to be the first complete rendering of the novel with endnotes. I assume it might also have the two parts included in the LEC edition as well. I have not had a chance to take a look at Hogarth’s translation to compare with Isabel Hapgood’s for the LEC. I found the Hapgood translation very readable and fluid but haven’t enough French left from my three years of high school to be able to read Hugo in the original to really judge the fidelity of the translation.

The hero in this book is Gilliat, a fisherman or “Toiler of the Sea”, who undertakes the herculean task of salvaging a steam engine from the dangerous reef that claimed it’s vessel. He does this essentially because the owner of the ship has promised his daughter, who Gilliat has fallen hopelessly in love with, to the man who can rescue him from the financial ruin of the shipwreck. Unfortunately, Mess. Lethierry makes this promise without the wholehearted agreement of his daughter, with the obvious future complications and heartbreaks that such a course entails.

While there are some minor villains, the antagonist is the sea itself. But for me it is really the other hero in the book. Hugo’s description of the sea in all its moods is amazing, making it into a living, breathing character.

At times he is philosophical, mystic, almost gnostic:

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.

At other times he shows his wit:

His rheumatism came to him about the time when he had gotten into easy circumstances. These two products of labor are fond of keeping one another company. At the moment when one becomes rich, one is paralyzed. This crowns life.

Sobriety is a good quality only when one possesses other virtues.

Religions which impose celibacy know what they are about. Nothing undoes a priest like loving a woman.

But at almost all times, the prose flowed along making me feel like I was there battling the sea with Gilliat. It did slow down a bit in the newly included sections but I was glad to have them included.

This edition was masterfully designed by Giovanni Mardersteig of the Officina Bodini in Italy. I love the way he wove the illustrations into the text especially in some of the action scenes. I wanted to post a picture of the last page as an example of this but it would have given too much away for those who don’t like spoilers. Luckily, there are numerous examples of this integration of illustrations and text in the book. I find Tranquillo Marangoni’s illustrations a perfect match for the ruggedness of the characters and setting of the novel. I’m not sure they could ever be outdone. The type is a very readable 12-point Baskerville.

In certain places, at certain hours, gazing at the sea is dangerous. It is what looking at a woman sometimes is.” The reader may well ponder this passage from early in the book when reaching the end.

Availability: As with most LEC editions from this timeframe, the limitation was 1500. Copies can be found fairly often in used/rare bookstores and on-line, ranging in cost from less than today’s mass-market hardbacks to about $200 depending on condition. I got mine for $30 with minor fading to the spine, a slightly cracked rear hinge, and a very serviceable slipcase with the beginnings of some minor splitting.

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