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Victor Hugo's 200th Birthday Celebrated - 2002-02-27

Lovers of French literature the world over are celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of one of the masters of French writing, Victor Hugo, who was born February 26, 1802. But nowhere are the festivities more lavish than in France, where plays, poetry readings and other events in honor of the great writer are planned throughout the year.

France's cultural calendar this year is dedicated to honoring Victor Hugo. In Paris, the famous Comedie Francaise and Maison de la Poesie are launching special events showcasing the author of "Les Miserables" and other famous novels. A giant portrait of Mr. Hugo now gazes from one wall of the stately French Senate on the Left Bank, where he once served almost 150 years ago.

The acclaimed Academy Francaise is devoting all day Wednesday to a program in memory of Mr. Hugo. And in Mr. Hugo's hometown of Besancon in eastern France, French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin capitalized on the writer's reputation as a reformer this week during a stump speech for the upcoming presidential elections.

Victor Hugo left an indelible mark on history as a poet, playwright, politician, explorer and novelist. Devotees of French literature remember not only Les Miserables, but another famous Hugo novel: The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Enthusiasts like Jean-Marc Hovasse, who wrote a biography on Mr. Hugo, likens the author to the British playwright William Shakespeare.

During an interview on French radio, Mr. Hovasse said Mr. Hugo dominated French and European literature of the 19th century. Part of the author's genius, Mr. Hovasse said, was his ability to change with the times over a career that spanned more than half a century.

Son of an army general, Mr. Hugo moved to Paris with his mother as an infant, after his parents separated. At the age of 28, he had already made a name for himself in French poetry and theater.

But Victor Hugo was also a renowned politician and humanist. He opposed the death penalty and defended the poor. When Louis Napoleon Bonaparte staged a coup in 1851, Mr. Hugo fled into exile for 20 years, most of it in the British island of Guernsey. He returned to France in 1870, where he was elected to parliament. He died in 1885.

But whether this year's celebrations will trigger a buying spree for Victor Hugo's works remains to be seen. At one Paris bookstore on the city's elegant Rue St. Honore, 24-year-old student, Guillone de Mongeant, said French remain voracious readers. "In my generation, in France, we are in Paris a lot of readers," she said. "We are doing our studies and we are speaking a lot about our books. I'm belonging to this kind of background."

Ms. Mongeant said she enjoyed reading Mr. Hugo's books in high school. Nonetheless, she said, she would not be rereading the author's works this year - even for his birthday bicentennial.