Originally posted 24 June 2008. Apologies to those who left comments, which have been lost.
I recently finished reading the Jonathan Sturrock translation of Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris, this is the Penguin classics edition and as you would expect is well but not obtrusively footnoted. It is the unabridged text, thus containing chapters such as “A bird’s-eye view of Paris”, which interestingly were not included in the first edition of the novel (of which more shortly).
My French isn’t good enough to read the original text, so I can’t comment on the fidelity of the translation, but in terms of readability Sturrock did an excellent job. The text is clear, easy to read, often very funny, archaisms are kept within reasonable bounds (the novel is set in the 14th century, some archaisms seem unavoidable) and he avoids jarring use of contemporary language or particularly English phraseology. Overall, for me this was a good translation.
So, what of the novel itself? Well, firstly, if your knowledge of the text comes from popular culture then it’s nothing much like you would expect. La Esmeralda takes a few chapters even to make an appearance, Quasimodo is more a supporting character than a central protagonist and some key characters are omitted from popular accounts entirely. The novel is primarily a love letter to a form of architecture, a eulogy for an art form Hugo sees as rightly surpassed but which he mourns nonetheless. The title of the Penguin translation is the same as that in the French, Notre-Dame de Paris, the common English title of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame fundamentally misses what the novel is about (insofar as any novel can be said to be about any one thing).
The central character of the novel is the cathedral, Notre-Dame itself. The other great character of the novel is Paris. As well as Notre-Dame and Paris there are some human characters, Pierre Gringoire the unfortunate playwright and philospher, Claude Frollo – an archbishop and alchemist who has devoted his life to science and has but two acts of clemency to his name (neither of which is rewarded), La Esmeralda – a beautiful but naive young gypsy, Djali – La Esmeralda’s goat which is charming and intelligent and knows too many tricks to be safe in a world of superstition and animal trials, Captain Phoebus – a handsome and womanising soldier, Louis XI, Jehan Frollo – a young student and libertine, Jacques Coppenole – a Flemish hosier and harbinger of later democratic movements, Quasimodo – a deaf hunchback. As with any large 19th century novel there are of course also a great many minor characters, some critical to the novel, some mere curiosities or diversions.
But, and this is key, the central characters are Notre-Dame itself and the city of Paris. The human (and goat) characters drive the plot, they provide entertainment, comedy and tragedy, but they are not what the book is about.
When originally published three chapters were omitted, Hugo claims this is due to their having been misplaced, but recovered in time for the second edition. Whether that is true or not I have no idea, but interestingly the omitted chapters are ones that many readers to this day still choose not to read. These are the architectural chapters, and they are the heart of the novel.
The thesis of Notre-Dame de Paris is that historically architecture was humanity’s way of recording itself, that our ambitions, thoughts, dreams and in a very real sense our literature were written in stone. That architecture itself was a summation of all other arts, capturing the essence of a culture in as lasting a fashion as was possible. This ends with the invention of the printing press, and with that invention literature replaces architecture. Where once a culture would preserve its thoughts in stone, now it could preserve them in words, but words easily copied and distributed so that though each individual copy had but a short life the words themselves would last as long as humanity itself did. The printing press gave literature a longevity even greater than that of architecture, and in doing so rendered architecture sterile, an art without function and one from which later geniuses would occasionally emerge in isolated instances but which fundamentally had become a pastiche of itself.
That is what the book is about, the occlusion of architecture as an artistic form by literature. Or at least, that is a key element of the novel. In setting out this thesis, Hugo spends whole chapters merely describing the cathedral and the city, the lines of the stone, towers, additions and amendments to great buildings, views, architectural movements, these are chapters that many readers simply skip as they in no way advance the plot of the novel and tend not even to mention any human characters – but they are the heart of the novel and in any event are beautifully written. The chapter in which Hugo goes on a massive diversion from the plot to set out in explicit terms the interrelationship between architecture, literature and the world of ideas is a spectacular piece of work, one which contains ideas still fresh and challenging today. To skip it because Quasimodo et al are offscreen for most of it allows you to get to the end quicker but at the cost of one of the novel’s finest sections.
Otherwise, the novel is a mix of comedy and tragedy. Indeed, it moves really from one to the other, starting with many comic elements which darken as the novel progresses until at the end hope is largely lost and characters die in terrible and tragic ways. The good are not rewarded, and by the end it is highly questionable if anyone in the novel is truly good anyway (certainly not La Esmeralda, wikipedia is quite wrong in saying she learns to look past Quasimodo’s ugliness, the novel is perfectly clear that she does not). The evil are not by and large punished (and again, it’s highly questionable who is evil, Claude Frollo attempts both rape and murder but twice in the novel acts utterly altruistically to protect the helpless and devotes much of his life to taking care of his wastrel brother). True love goes unrecognised, infidelity succeeds, death is capricious and lives can be lost on the distractions of a deaf judge. At the start the novel is tremendously funny, by the end we are in the territory of gothic horror.
The novel of course contains other conceptual strands, it’s a classic 19th Century novel of ideas, there is much about the inevitability of the move over time to democracy (Hugo and Francis Fukuyama seem to agree on that point), there are wonderful diversions to the lives of the criminal classes and a tremendous (and tremendously funny) knowingness about petty human vices. There are at least three great unrequited love stories.
But at the end, like Huysman’s La-Bas (which I highly recommend), it’s a eulogy for something past, for a world of craft and romance (in the broad sense, not merely romantic love), it is a (seminal) work of romantic fiction, it’s a call to arms to protect an architectural heritage being slowly destroyed by later revisions. It is not, however, a love story in the conventional sense.
Notre-Dame de Paris is well worth reading, it is an easy read in the main (other than in the architectural chapters, which need more careful attention), it has a plot which if not always entirely probable (I don’t think likelihood was something Hugo was particularly interested in) is always full of passion and incident, and it contains ideas on architecture and literature which remain relevant today. Not only is it worth reading, it’s worth rereading, particularly if as I managed you can read it while on holiday in Paris.