This is, quite simply, the best English edition of one of my all-time favourite novels: a good translation, with excellent critical apparatus, attractively presented. (I spotted only one notable error – Agnès' birthday given as "St Paul's day" instead of "St Paula's day".) I'm only sorry that, unlike the French paperback, it doesn't include any of the 19C illustrations. 'Notre Dame de Paris' was part of the vogue for historical fiction begun by Walter Scott – and in part, was written as a riposte to Quentin Durward, which Hugo had reviewed. It was also inspired in part by anti-clerical Gothic novels such as Lewis's The Monk, but is far more complex psychologically – proto-Dostoevskian at times, especially regarding its incomparable tragic hero. And no, that isn't Quasimodo (a supporting character only)... The common English re-titling (unauthorised, invented by Shoberl) is utterly misleading.
I fell in love when I first read the novel in my mid-teens, c. 1980-81. I was the geeky girl who studied Latin, Greek and French, read Villon for fun, and was intent on studying mediæval history. He is the geeky boy who was always first into lectures and last to leave; who knew Latin, Greek and Hebrew, and studied in every Faculty of the University by 20; who had his own alchemical laboratory, and got excited talking about incunabula and theurgy. I'm now over 50, but Claude Frollo, the brilliant, doomed young Archdeacon of Josas, is still the greatest of my literary 'grandes passions': a magnificent, passionate, self-mutilating, cassock-ripping mess of intellectual genius, hopelessly bad social skills, and religious/sexual torment. I now realise that I recognised a fellow-Aspie/high-functioning autist, described in literature long before scientific recognition.
The demands of compulsory celibacy, the innate difficulties of his condition/temperament, and the intellectual tensions between his traditional mediæval education and the new Renaissance learning that obsesses him – the revival of Neo-Platonism, theurgy and Hermeticism coming in from Italy, thanks to Marsilio Ficino & co – create a 'perfect storm' in Claude's inner life. Racked by conflict, he implodes, destroying all he loves and himself. The catalyst is a shallow, pretty dancing-girl. An Abelard who needs an Héloïse, all he finds is La Esméralda: not the incarnation of the Tabula Smaragdina, not a real emerald, but a cheap green glass bauble; not even a real gypsy. His trajectory is devastating, tearing down his whole world around him. It is impossible to read without wanting to barge in to the rescue, to knock heads together, to put things right.
But, while Claude's terrifying, heart-wrenching tragedy is at the heart of the narrative, there is so much else to enjoy. The whole mediæval Parisian world is vividly realised, from the airy heights of the Cathedral to an anchoress's cell and the Villon-esque Court of Miracles, where the loveable poet and playwright Pierre Gringoire nearly comes to grief. It is a magnificent and moving book, also very funny in parts. Read it, visit Paris – Notre Dame, Musée de Cluny, Quartier Latin – then read it again.
Bought this edition following some research on good translations, including comparing some of the French text against English versions to find one I liked. The first version I tried was just awful, unreadable. This one has proved to be the best translation so far, combining good, modern and readable prose with a closeness to the original text.