Love Stinks

The Hunchback of Notre Dane
Victor Hugo

There are, a thousand bromides tell me, good reasons to struggle. The reward will be worth it. Today, at the end of a nearly year-long struggle with the 19th century, I’m not so sure about that.

I’m honestly not surprised;, that’s been my experience almost from the start. I can vividly remember eighth grade when all the advanced readers discovered A Tale of Two Cities. They couldn’t stop talking about it. I couldn’t get past that opening paragraph with its endless polar opposites.

Still, I persist in hoping that someday I’ll develop a tolerance for centuries other than the 20th. And I have this project to plug the gaps in my education.  That, and an acquisition cost well under a dollar offers the best explanation for how I found myself reading The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Originally published in 1831, when its author, Victor Hugo, was 29, Hunchback is a twisted tale that might puzzle the unsuspecting reader, especially if they’ve been exposed to any of the cinematic versions. I find that more than a bit ironic since one of my reactions to the book is that it seems cinematic.

Victor Hugo

I say that for two reasons. One is that more than once in the book a chapter of no more than a page appears. Typically it informs the plot or bridges us back to the main tale or illuminates the venality of a character. To me, at least, these interludes read more like scenes in a script than a novel; quick cuts that let you in on what’s been going on even as you’ve found yourself dallying with King Louis XI.

The other reason for the cinema remark is my recognition of some scenes that I associate with the movies. I once noted I thought certain iconic film images originated in Frank NorrisMcTeague.  While I can’t be quite as definitive here, there were more than a few moments–especially near the end–when I wondered if Harold Lloyd had read the book.

And what of the book, my literary albatross? First, the English title is misleading and is probably responsible for the filmed versions. Yes, there is a hunchback. He’s even a major character. But the tale isn’t solely his. In fact, he’s missing for large chunks of it.

The iconic building at the center of a city and this book.

In French, the book is entitled Notre-Dame de Paris, which also happens to be the name of that City’s most famous building. That’s appropriate because the building itself is a character in this tale. It serves as a home. It stands against trouble. It provides sanctuary (and a hideaway). It stands mute witness to the urban life about it and allows changed perspectives that I previously thought weren’t possible until the Tour Eiffel allowed nascent Cubsits to see things differently.

In short, the cathedral dominates in a way other buildings named in this tale–the Tuilleries, the Louvre, the Hôtel de Ville and Bastille–do not.  In fact, there’s an extended disquisition on the building, and Gothic architecture in general, that made me wonder if an art history monograph had been mistakenly bound into the pages of the novel. Yet it’s by design, part of Hugo’s plan to elevate Gothic architecture in the eyes of his peers.

The tale itself opens, in another cinematic swirl of images and dialog that matter not, except for stage setting, on the Feast of Fools. That’s a particularly French medieval celebration in which social order is turned upside down. (It also served as the organizing principle for a modern theological rumination.)  Eventually we meet the folks who matter: Claude Frollo, the archdeacon of Paris; Quasimodo, the deaf, deformed bell-ringer of the cathedral, named after the Sunday that closes the Easter octave, whom Frollo adopted and raised from infancy; Phoebus de Châteaupers, Captain of the King’s archers, womanizer and, I think, social striver;  and PIerre Gringoire, a historical figure who lends both comic relief and versimiltude.

Maureen O’Hara as Esmerelda in the 1939 film

And, of course, la Esmerelda.

La Esmerelda is a teen-aged Gypsy (the term many of us grew up with for the Romani people), whose seductive dances capture attention, hearts and minds. You can see where this is going–it is a French novel after all–and, if a lot of the book is cinematic, the central plot reminded me of a soap opera. Quasimodo is besotted with Esmerelda. Esmerelda is in love with Phoebus, who saved her from the malformed sexton’s attentions. Frollo, seeing Esmerleda dance, becomes obsessed with her. Love certainly does stink.

Hugo has a lot of axes to grind and its hard to keep them all straight. I’m pretty certain he abhors capital punishment and one scene, in particular, imprinted an image that I’ll not soon shake and really added details to the act of hanging that I hadn’t considered. Kings and judges don’t look so good either. And the rabble, well, they’re both heroes and goats. It’s a lot less certain than many of us might like and in that way a lot more like life. Or so it seems to me.

The end is almost Macbeth-like, with corpses scattered about the stage of Paris like holly berries. In a book that strives to leave no loose ends one of the better jokes appears as an almost epilogue-like aside. Captain de Châteaupers, we learn came to a tragic end. He married.

This is what happens when copyrights expire.

None of this even remotely resembles what Hollywood has given us, though I caution you I’ve been more successful in finishing this book than I ever have in sitting through any of the filmed versions.

Yet the story has always attracted talent. Among others, Lon Chaney, Charles Laughton and Anthony Quinn have played Quasimodo. And Esmerelda has been played by both Maureen O’Hara and Gina Lollobrigida. While neither of those women played the role in their teen years either one of them could set my heart pit-a-patter and, believably, stir up a sea of troubles just by walking around.

One final thing remains to be said about the edition I read. It was a product of the now-defunct Borders‘ house publishing operation. And while the physical book is solid, what’s missing is noticeable. Maybe I’m getting lazy in my old age, but wide, deep margins–a page-reducing, cost-savings measure–make reading difficult. I missed the ability to read an introductory essay or check notes the way I can with other hardcover editions from the Modern or Everyman’s LIbrary. And it’s irksome to not know the translator, especially when some especially odd choices in English have been made.

Then again, you get what you pay for.




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