Genre: Romanticism, Gothic Fiction
Publication Year: 1831
Translator: John Sturrock
Edition Read: Penguin Classics. 2002 cover design. Introduction by the translator.
First Read: No. Third Read.
Almost ten years ago, I began keeping a list, a log of sorts, of every book I read (2009 of course was in the primitive days before Goodreads did this for nerds like me). The Excel file which houses the list has survived for almost a decade and the death of two computers. On that list, I have 281 unique titles. I would estimate that had I kept that list since I really started reading in 2001, there would be around 500 unique titles in total. Notre-Dame de Paris has two very important exceptional characteristics when compared to any other book in that large list: it is the only non-English book which I have read both in translation and its original language and it is the only book on my list which instantly makes me reminisce about the potent odor of fresh goat feces.
In my Grade 12 French class (as a French immersion student), my teacher, Mr. Bergeron, had decided that our year would be almost completely dominated by reading Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo (in its original French obviously) and putting on a full-fledged musical based on the novel with songs from the Paris production. We all had our jobs: aside from the cast, some were tasked with building the sets, others with writing the script, and yours truly… I was tasked with taking care of the goat. Yes, a real goat. One of the English teachers at my high school had goats, my teacher thought it would be a swell idea to have a real animal portray Djali. My motivation was that I figured this was the easiest way to milk the most points out of the project that I could so that I might pass the course (I did). I haven’t finished talking to my therapist about this so I will just leave this whole episode here.
You will notice that I am referring to the title as Notre-Dame de Paris and not The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. This is not simply because my copy is named the former. I firmly believe that this title is far more apt. Unfortunately, when people think of this story today, they think of this:
The title The Hunchback of Notre-Dame was chosen by the original translator as it was felt that a gothic title would be more appealing to English audiences of the time. The title has stuck mostly due to film adaptations; the two best being the 1923 silent film and the 1939 film with Maureen O’Hara and Charles Laughton (one of my all time favorite films which was recently on TCM and what made me want to read this book again). I would argue that these films would best be credited as being inspired by the novel, rather than based on it. Over the last 20 years, many literary publications (Penguin Classics, Oxford World’s Classics, and Norton to name a few) have reverted to the original title.
After watching the 1939 film adaptation and reading the novel in such short succession, I was reminded of the stark differences in the general thrust of the novel and the visual productions. When the lay person thinks of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, they think of two things: the character Quasimodo and an unlikely love story. The novel will strike entirely feelings.
Notre-Dame de Paris is ultimately a defense of the preservation of gothic architecture and a meditation on the fleeting nature of political revolution. Quasimodo, while not a peripheral character, is far from being the protagonist of the story (scholars have been debating for over a century whether that title lies with La Esmerelda or Claude Frollo). And the ending is far from happy with everyone dancing and celebrating.
This not an excessively long novel, 493 pages in the Penguin Classics edition I have – miniscule in comparison to Hugo’s Les Miserables, my Penguin Classics edition of that is over 1500 pages. That being said, it can at times feel like a very very long 493 pages, especially for those who read this for the first time. Victor Hugo is the undisputed champion of the literary digression. He makes Herman Melville look like an amateur when it comes to digressions. Some of the longest chapters in this book do not advance the plot whatsoever or even acknowledge the existence of characters. These chapters are essentially stand-alone essays that espouse the themes that Hugo is advancing, like architecture; show off his encyclopedic knowledge of Paris and France; or go on ironic rants about the dangers of the printing press. Les Miserables is even more extreme in this regard with something like 25% of that big ass book being pure digressions. As such, Victor Hugo is the only author whom it is acceptable to read abridgements without being judged.
I’ve mentioned in an earlier post my love of 19th century novels. They are a magical beast. Rich characters, memorable stories, still relevant themes, and intoxicating settings. Notre-Dame de Paris was really the novel that planted that seed. It wasn’t the first 19th century novel I had read, but it was the first to make me all tingly. If you need one reason to read this masterpiece, it’s this: I’ve read hundreds of books and earned a degree in literature… I can say, without any hesitation or qualifiers, Notre-Dame de Paris has the best and most heart breaking final chapter of any novel, full stop.
P.S. Goat piss stains.