EPS Review #210 - The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame , by Victor Hugo, tr. Walter J. Cobb, Signet 2001(1964,1831), 510pp.

Have you ever wanted to run into a church, shrieking "Sanctuary! Sanctuary!"? I know I have.

With the speed of a cat that has leaped from a rooftop, [ Quasimodo ] darted toward the two executioners, knocked them down with two enormous fists, picked up the gypsy with one hand, as a child does a doll, and with one bound was inside the church, holding the girl above his head, and crying in a loud voice, "Sanctuary!"

This is a book about architecture. There is a little bit about a hunchback as well. I blush to admit that architecture is an art that I find a trifle dull, so I was often bored by this predecessor to the amazing Les Miserables. I did like VH's thesis that the printing press would kill the Church, and architecture as well, which had hitherto served as man's main medium of expression:

One can hardly grasp the extent of the license taken at that time by the architects, even on the churches. Such are the shamelessly intertwined groups of monks and nuns on the capitals, as in the Salle des Cheminées of the Palace of Justice in Paris. Such is the episode from the book of Noah, sculptured "to the letter" under the great portal of the Cathedral of Bourges. Such is the bacchic monk, with ears as large as an ass's, with a glass in his hand, smiling in the face of the whole community, on the lavabo on the Abbey of Bocherville. At that time, for the thought written in stone, there existed a privilege perfectly comparable to our present liberty of the press. It was the liberty of architecture.

This liberty went very far. Sometimes a door, a facade, an entire church presents a symbolical meaning, absolutely unconnected with the worship, even hostile to the teaching of the church. In the thirteenth century Guillaume de Paris, and Nicolas Flamel in the fifteenth, wrote seditious pages. St Jacques-de-la-Boucherie was a church full of oppositions.

I admit that this makes me want to examine the buildings in question.

The story of Esmeralda is affecting, but slim. One sees the secret of her mother many hundreds of pages beforehand. P tells me that she wept at the end of the book, when she read it back when she lived in New York. I was surprised at the sad ending, knowing that Disney made a film of it (indeed, if I recall correctly, Ewan voted Esmeralda the Hottest Disney Heroine). I have never seen the movie and never intend to (as I have also not seen Beauty and the Beast ) lest it pollute my mind. But the afterword in this edition mentions that Disney changed the ending, and the character of Phoebus too, which of course completely changes the nature of the story, which was shocking in its time.

I tried hard to find a translation by Norman Denny, who did such an incredible job on Les Mis, but alas Denny seems not to have translated any other works by Hugo. So after doing a bit of "Look Inside" on Amazon, I settled on the Walter Cobb translation, which is ok but not as lithe as Denny's. There's an annoying amount of pointless Latin in the text, too.

I intend to continue reading more of Hugo's works. Perhaps The Toilers of the Sea next.