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Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo

  

Country: France
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.

 
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Posted by on March 29, 2017 in French Fiction

 

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Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

153747 2294321 927911 402777 823573

2390 7847 65631 1444203 27742061

Country: United States
Genre: Fiction, Nautical Fiction, Encyclopedic Fiction
Publication Year: 1851
Edition Read: Penguin Classics. 2002 cover design. Introduction by Andrew Delbanco.
First Read: No. Third read.

Academics and mad men have dedicated their lives to writing about Moby-Dick. There is nothing I can say that will add anything meaningful to the thousands of pages that have been taken up by discussion of this magical novel. Rather than a review, this blog post will instead be the story of my history with this book and why I think you should read it.

Earlier this year my wife started watching Gilmore Girls from start-to-finish on Netflix. About midway through the second season I joined her in the binge watching. After the series ended, I felt this profound sense of emptiness at the finality. I had spent weeks living with these characters – then, seemingly out of nowhere, they were gone. It had been a few years since I had felt this way about a lengthy TV series. In the age of Netflix and streaming, this has actually become a documented thing, there was a Huffington Post article about the feeling and it has even been given a name in the popular lexicon: Post-Series Depression.

To any vociferous reader though, this same feeling has been around since the dawn of the written word. For some bibliophiles, the feeling washes over him or her whenever a gripping narrative or engaging story concludes. For myself, it is a rarer occurrence. This Post-Book Depression typically only hits me when I finish a very long book. Frankly, I don’t read a lot of really long novels, or at least I haven’t since my son was born and getting a solid hour of reading a night became a miraculous feat. Lately though, as the boy has been going to bed by 8:00 and sleeping through the night like clockwork, I decided it might be time to start including some heftier volumes into my literary choices.

Moby-Dick; the definition of hefty novel, in terms of size, style and subject, left me with that sense of Post-Book Depression. This was my third time reading this magical book. Almost universally acknowledged by the literati as one of the greatest novels in Western literature, Moby-Dick is one of those books that everyone needs to read before they die. The subject of numerous film adaptations (my favorite being the late-90s BBC version with Patrick Stewart as Ahab) and pop-culture references, everyone in the English-speaking world is aware of Moby-Dick likely without even being aware of it.

I had never read this novel as an English student. I had read other works by Melville in university (“Bartleby the Scrivener” in my Intro to Literature courses and “Benito Cereno” in a 19th Century American Literature course I took that focused on American Romanticism and the Transcendentalists), but ultimately, likely due to time constraints of survey courses, Moby-Dick was always one of those books you had to read on your own.

I first read this at 19 years old, the summer before I started at UPEI. I had begun collecting the classics. I had this really nice hardcover edition published by Prospero Books that I bought at Chapters for like $5 (which I now regret selling when I purged a large lot of books in 2005). My initial reaction: this book would be really good if it was abridged and all that stuff about whaling was cut out of it. Looking back, I laugh at the philistinish reaction I had as a young man and amateur reader.

My second rip through Moby-Dick was only a few years ago, in 2013. I was flipping through the gigantic list of eBooks I had downloaded from Project Gutenberg and this one jumped out at me. This time, I really started to get the point of all the whaling minutiae in the book. Melville was doing more than just telling the story of the madman Ahab hunting the white whale that took his leg; more than just one of the most legendary man-against-nature stories ever written. Melville was striving to immerse the reader into this world of whaling. Building upon the success of his prior works, Typee and Omoo, this novel was meant to be one of the great encyclopedic novels. After this second reading, my opinion of the book was that this was an amazing nautical story with a motley crew of characters and a detailed reference work of 19th century whaling and a fascinating glimpse into what would now be called environmentalism in the pre-Darwinism world.

Now after finishing the novel for the third time, my feelings are generally the same as last time. I feel like a few more thematic points sunk in with this read: utilitarianism, racial issues, perception, hierarchy, and individual and group conscience. Each of which I’m sure have generated hundreds of academic articles and books.

In my second year of university, while I was studying at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, I took a course on American literature from the Civil War to World War I. I was in the professor’s office one day and we were discussing our favorite novels. He asked if I had ever read Moby-Dick. I told him my thoughts at the time. His response was simply a smile and a suggestion “read it again in 10 years and I guarantee you’ll feel differently.” Well Dr. Heckerl, I did, and you were right.

 
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Posted by on March 2, 2017 in American Fiction

 

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Vathek by William Beckford

207302 6150282 207299 17070365 9781551112817

Country: Great Britain
Genre: Fiction, Gothic Fiction
Publication Year: 1786
Edition Read: Broadview Editions, 2001. academic critical edition, heavily annotated. Ed. Kenneth W. Graham
First Read: Yes

Vathek, William Beckford’s 1786 gothic novel first came to my attention when I was in the final semester my English degree. It was 18th Century Literature II – The Gothic Novel. I had intentionally saved my 18th century requirement until the bitter end (along with my Medieval requirement) as I had some challenges in my survey courses as a daisy fresh student with Jonathan Swift (who I have grown to enjoy) and Alexander Pope (who still gives me hives). Fortunately, the professor I had this for the 18th Century course was fantastic, and the course did not contain any author who gave me hives (although The Monk gave me nightmares). Due to my heavy course load, I had to make some sacrifices in terms of reading and rely on online summaries and such for a few titles. Vathek was the sacrificial lamb. For several years now, this book has sat patiently on my shelf, taunting me, saying “you were supposed to read me.” I decided it was time, not out of some sense of obligation, but because it was the only book on that part of the shelf I hadn’t finished yet.

Vathek is a product of Orientalism – a cultural obsession for some during the late 1700s. This short novel is set in the mid-9th century and tells the story of Vathek, the ninth caliph of the Abassides (the character being very loosely inspired by the historical Al-Wathiq who reigned as caliph from 842 –847). The primary forward motion of the story focuses on Vathek’s fall from grace and renunciation of Islam. Along with his overbearing mother Carathis, Vathek goes down a path of evil to curry favor with a devious fellow called Giaour to gain magical powers. Ultimately though, Vathek and mama must roam Hell silently for all of eternity.

The primary point of interest for me as I got into this book was the treatment of Islam, both in the context of what would now be called be historical fiction and how Islam was interpreted, for lack of a better word, through the lens of 18th century English sensibilities. Beckford seems to be very well-versed in the minutiae of Islamic mythology and history and seamlessly weaves that into his novel. The author is, of course, not a Muslim, so his interpretation of Islam is that of an outsider. I continually vacillated between whether Beckford had a genuine appreciation for the culture, or perhaps Islam was simply an artistic device to tell a fall-from-grace gothic tale, or another possibility is that Beckford looked upon this other culture with the snobbery you would expect of an Englishman at that time.

That’s all I really have to say about Vathek. This was a fun read. It is a short book, only around 100 pages in the volume I have, with no chapter breaks. The dialogue is catchy. And it’s gothic and proto-fantasy elements are very well crafted. All-in-all, a satisfying book if you’re looking for something off the beaten path.

 
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Posted by on February 12, 2017 in British Fiction

 

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Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

7137 3433341 930835 535019 327040 7138 7144 67327 160296 274316

Country: Russian
Genre: Fiction, Psychological Fiction, Philosophical Fiction
Publication Year: 1866
Translator: Constance Garnett
Edition Read: Konemann, 1999. Discount pocket hardcover, moderately annotated
First Read: Yes

Crime and Punishment, the classic work of psychological fiction from one of the great Russian literary masters Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Reading and finishing this novel is a feat, and upon reflection, the question is not whether or not you enjoyed it, but did you get it. The challenges are numerous: it’s quite long, has challenging characters, the narration is very deliberate, and it’s unflinchingly steeped in complex philosophy. Last but not least, like very many works of 19th century Russian literature, it is horribly depressing. Dostoyevsky is merciless with his characters; it is realism in its most crushing form.

This novel is a slow read; it took me 19 days to finish it. The edition I read was 602 pages with medium print; it would not normally take me that long to finish a 600-pager, but I could only handle 30-35 pages at a sitting whereas I can usually get through about 50-60 pages at a time. I would think this is a common problem for people reading this book. This is not a criticism, but a reality. If you read Dostoyevsky quickly, you will miss much of the psychology and philosophy that permeates his writing.

So now to the story itself… The title Crime and Punishment can be misleading, at least superficially. I don’t see the story being about the notions of crime and punishment as I do about morality. This is, above all else, an existentialist novel. Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov sees nothing inherently valuable in human life, at least initially; the ending is arguably more ambiguous. He coldly and brutally murders two people and he intellectualizes it – he killed the pawnbroker because she was a scourge on humanity, and his other victim was simply collateral damage. His ultimate downfall is not that he broke the law, but that his moral compass does not gel with those of those he cares about – namely his sister and Sonia.

Raskolnikov is a fascinating character. On the surface, he is a cold intellectualizing sociopath, but he cares deeply for a very select group of people; he feels great remorse when Marmeladova is killed; he commits great acts of charity; and is very concerned that her mother is shielded from the truth of his actions. He’s a difficult character to pigeon-hole. In the end though, he tries to rationalize his existence, but, like the rest of us, he is subject to societal norms and the same rules of crime and punishment as everyone else.

There’s something magical about 19th century novels. The genre really came into its own during this century in the same way theatre did in the Renaissance. I deeply believe that the way novels were structured from around 1785 up until WWI was the high point in the evolution of this art form: take one character and follow him (in the gender neutral sense), explore him, subject him to experiences inconceivable to the average person, use him as a microcosm for some greater truth, and, if necessary, kill him. Crime and Punishment is a masterpiece of European fiction and a testament to this period of writing. A must read for any serious student of literature. And finally, a challenge for the most savvy of readers.

 
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Posted by on January 29, 2017 in Russian Fiction

 

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