on 16 July 2012
A REVIEW OF `THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME' BY VICTOR HUGO
Who is `The Hunchback of Notre Dame'? For many, the character of Quasimodo is the eerie, scratchy figure from black-and-white horror movies. For others, he is the comical character used to advertise telephones in the 1980s ("It's Esmeralda: She LOVES me!"). More recently, he is the more cuddly hero of the 1996 Disney animated film. These associations - whilst keeping the character alive in the public consciousness - do rather detract from his actual rightful place within the pages of Victor Hugo's magnificent novel. Indeed, owing to its ability to excite, horrify, amuse, surprise and move, `The Hunchback of Notre Dame' is a true `Classic'.
So revered is the book in educated literary circles, that I would not deign to offer any in-depth analysis here. Suffice to say that the story revolves primarily not around the deformed bell-ringer, but rather the beautiful gypsy dancer, La Esmeralda. Hugo himself resented the English re-naming of his novel and argued forcibly (and correctly) that the original title, `Notre Dame de Paris' was far more fitting. Therefore, accepting Quasimodo as one of many pivotal characters, the story emerges as one of many figures' love for the captivating La Esmeralda. For the most part, this is the love of men, as her boldy charms attract the attention of three would-be lovers, none of whom fit the traditional leading man role. Perhaps the most obvious suitor is the dashing Captain Pheobus. However, beneath his good looks, lurks a serial womaniser who sees La Esmeralda as merely another notch on his bed-post. There is a realism about such a self-serving, vain `hero' that offers the first indication that `The Hunchback of Notre Dame' is not your typical 19th century masterpiece. Second, comes Archdeacon Claude Frollo, whose self-defined religious piety is shredded by an all-consuming and destructive lust for the gypsy girl. Finally, there is Quasimodo, whose hideous physical appearance masks an innocent, wholseome devotion that the other two cannot begin to match. As La Esmeralda falls for Pheobus, Hugo hammers home to the reader that she has fallen for the wrong guy.
In doing so, the author introduces another key theme of the novel, namely that of misunderstandings and characters and events not being what they SEEM to be. This can be illustrated in two key scenes. Firstly, there is some delicious black comedy in the passages that see the deaf Quasimodo tried and sentenced by an equally deaf judge. Likewise, there is the later tragedy of the wild frenzy of violence in which the bell-ringer defends Notre Dame from attackers, whose actual intentions match his own.
Hugo clearly had a great deal of fun writing `The Hunchback of Notre Dame' and keeps the reader on his toes with chapter titles that regularly serve as satisfying punch lines to the events narrated within. The final two chapters achieve this brilliantly, albeit one with comic irony and the other with a truly touching and poignant image.
For such a sprawling novel, there are inevitably imperfections in `The Hunchback of Notre Dame'. Indeed, one particular mother-daughter reunion pushes the coincidence and `If only..' button with too much of a heavy hand. Nevertheless, at its best, this is a tremendous and hugely rewarding read. If there is a better single chapter in a `Classic' than `The Hearts of Three Men Made Differently' then I have yet to read it. Likewise, if there is a more witty, wry, captivating and fresh novel (a modern-day Pheobus can surely be found in every night club in the 21st century) of its age still in print, I have yet to find it. In short, if you haven't read the novel and you think that you know `The Hunchback of Notre Dame', do yourself a favour and think again.
Barty's Score: 9.5/10
on 2 April 2013
It's a classic story, filmed many times so I thought it worth reading the book. I chose a penguin edition as I trust the quality of translation and addition notes.
The translation and notes are fine, but the actual novel isn't. Hugo's prime purpose here is to talk about how great the Gothic architecture of old Paris was compared to the Paris of his day. A certain amount of this is valuable in establishing the setting of the story, but Hugo can spend a lengthy chapter or two describing, for example, the layout of Parisian streets without any reference to the plot. At times it reminds me of our Prince Charles' rants about modern architecture. He even berates the town planners of his day within the text of the story.
The plot doesn't take centre stage until around page 300 (of 500) in this edition. It's the plot we know (more or less - hollywood always makes some changes) and becomes well paced towards the end, but it's a hard slog to get to it.
Some may accuse me of being a philistine for not appreciating this book, but I'm not a student of French literature, I'm looking for an engaging and educational read, but this is for the most part a rather tedious lecture from someone you would dread to be sat next to at a dinner party.