This will destroy that

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.



Filed under 19th Century, French, Hugo, Victor, Paris

10 responses to “This will destroy that

  1. It’s nice to know that Hugo’s novel is about how architecture distills the culture of a given historical period. It’s a bit strange how Notre-Dame de Paris came to be The Hunchback of Notre-Dame in English. My pop culture-conditioned perception of the book always thought it was about Quasimodo and Esmeralda. I guess it’s time to save my own copy of the book from just gathering dust on the shelf.

  2. It’s a fantastic novel, my wife persuaded me to read it, and I took some persuading for the reasons you allude to. I enjoyed it enough, it part inspired me to start this blog.

    I guess the hunchback just made a more accessible entry point for some people, plus the later Disney movie of course puts the hunchback squarely in the middle of the picture.

  3. A mention of this post elsewhere on your blog caught my attention; many years ago I attempted to read Notre-Dame de Paris, failed, and was thus looking for a reason to try again.

    Alexandre Dumas had been a favourite of mine, and I expected a similar swash-buckling adventure from Hugo. Which is probably why I didn’t manage to finish the book.

    This is an inspiring review and, now that I know what to look for, I think it might be time to reacquaint myself with Victor Hugo.

  4. Hi Sarah,

    This is the novel that inspired me to start blogging. It’s not at all swashbucklery, and going in with that hope would definitely lead to disappointment, but on its own terms it’s tremendous stuff.

    But, if you do read it, don’t skip the architecture chapters. They may seem irrelevant, but they’re really not, honest!

    On the swashbuckling note, have you read Perez-Reverte’s Captain Alatriste novels? Those are a lot of fun on that front, I discuss one here (though the weakest so far I’m afraid) but they are generally great fun and quite well written.

  5. Dear Mr. Cairnduff – I came across your blog while searching for references to one of the many memorable moments in Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris, when Claude Frollo points to a book and says ‘this will destroy/kill that’ (ch. 1).

    I have often wondered how much Hugo may also have been referring to the possible undermining of shared experience by the book – arguably, reading is so much more a solitary act than its precursors. Building cathedrals brought whole communities and generations to focus on one endeavor.

    I enjoyed your writing about the book very much and look forward to spending more time reading through the blog.

    I am a photographer and have my own blog at


  6. Pradip,

    Firstly, I hope you don’t mind but I moved your comment to the Notre Dame de Paris entry on my blog, it seemed to fit better there.

    I think you may well be right, Frollo’s remark is a difficult one. It struck me with huge force, enough that I named this blog entry after it, but what exactly it means is I think complex.

    The nuance you refer to, the undermining of shared experience and the rising primacy of individual experience, I think you may well have something there. It’s not quite how it had struck me, but it does fit. I think it’s a good insight, and on that interpretation this destroying that isn’t just literature destroying architecture, it’s the personal immediacy of literature helping destroy the communities that previously had to come together for entertainment and education but now can perhaps achieve those things on an individual basis.

    Marvellous. One of the joys of a blog is when people post things that cast something in a new light. You’ve done that, and with respect to the book which inspired me to start my blog. Thanks.

    And thanks too for the link to your own blog. I’ll definitely take a look.

  7. I read this when I was fifteen and too young to grasp the book’s deeper metaphors. I think the commentary in Les Miserables is more apparent. Though their edges have blurred through the years, they’ve always stayed with me. I’ve been meaning to re-read Les Mis so I might as well do the same with Notre Dame de Paris.

  8. It’s well worth a reread. It’s a wonderful book.

    Particularly the architecture chapters…

    I can well believe Les Mis has clearer commentary, I must pick up a copy actually.

  9. Your review is exellent and insightful as always. I agree with you, the cathedral is the central character and it’s a pity the common English title is the Hunchback of Notre-Dame.

    Hugo is a monument of French literature but honestly, I didn’t like this book. I struggled with the architecture chapters and mostly I didn’t like the characters and the plot. In French, it’s terrible to read. Heavy, bombastic, hyperbolic. Not my kind of style.

    In Hugo’s work, I prefer Hernani & Ruy Blas, I liked Quatre-vingt-treize. His poetry is famous but not as much taught as Baudelaire and Rimbaud these days. I don’t know much about it.

  10. It would be dull if we always liked the same things.

    July 2008. I had no idea the blog was so old.

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