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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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The Earliest English Poems

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Translated, Edited and Introduced by Micheal Alexander
Country: Great Britain (Pre-England)
Genre: Poetry
Years: 600AD – 1000AD
Edition Read: Penguin Classics, Third Edition. 1985 cover design.
First Read: Yes

Hwæt! Wé Gárdena      in géardagum
þéodcyninga      þrym gefrúnon
hú ðá æþelingas      ellen fremedon.

In the eyes of most undergraduate English majors, these lines are the kick-off point of English literature. These are the opening lines from Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon epic poem about a Geatish hero who slays monsters, mothers and dragons. Anglo-Saxon, or Old English, poetry is far deeper and richer than just the 3,182 lines of Beowulf. The average undergrad English major though is unlikely to be exposed to much pre-Chaucer/Sir Gawain writing, except for Beowulf or perhaps of The Dream of the Rood if they take a Bible and literature course. I was in that situation. These two pieces were the only Anglo-Saxon works I read as a student, and the professor I had for my Medieval-Renaissance survey course only taught Beowulf because he was a huge fan of Seamus Heaney – this was not normally included by other professors teaching the class. My university had several courses in Middle-English literature, but nothing dedicated to Old English. A classmate of mine asked the Chair of the department about doing a direct studies course on the subject, her request was declined because there was no one suitable to oversee it. The writing of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Austen, Dickens, and even Tom Clancy descended from Anglo-Saxon poetry just as humans descended from the flat-worm. It deserves the attention of any discerning reader.  It deserves it’s share of critical and academic attention.

A few years ago, I came across The Earliest English Poems while browsing the Penguin Classics at my favorite used book store. The concept alone intrigued me. Whether I would ever read it or not, I thought it would be a nice-looking addition to my shelf. Edited, introduced and translated by Michael Alexander, this volume essentially serves as a sample of the best Anglo-Saxon poetry from the four major poetic manuscripts, at least in the editor’s subjective opinion. Selections include heroic poems like Widsith, Deor, Brunanburh, Maldon and passages from Beowulf; elegies such as The Ruin, The Wanderer, The Wife’s Complaint and The Husband’s Message; a large selection of the riddles from Exeter Book; and The Dream of the Rood.

Michael Alexander does several things that make this book both extremely readable and highly informative. First, he has written an incredible introduction. The intro is concise, gives context and historical background, explains his approach to translating these pieces, and gives some commentary on why reading each of these poems is significant. Second, he gives summaries and descriptions of each poem. This is very important in making this book assessable, especially for someone with an English degree let alone a layman; Alexander delves into the historical framework of each poem, gives a general summary, and digs into the genre and its significance (e.g. heroic poem, riddle, elegy, etc). Finally, his translations open these poems up to 21st century readers. The language is still “elevated,” in that elegance is not sacrificed. Alexander also manages to maintain the alliteration that is such a signature of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Additionally, a few select words of Old English are maintained, both for dramatic effect and because there is no direct translation to modern English, like Hwaet and Wierd.

It is safe to say that in this 200-page book, I learned more about Anglo-Saxon literature than I did in a four-year English degree. Every poem in this book is between 1000 and 1300 years old – to put this into perspective, these poems are closer to a living Jesus than they are to us. It is a miracle of historical accidents that they survive at all. Why is this a great book: great poetry that stands on its own merits, historical gravitas, novelty, to understand that there was great writing in English before Chaucer, to get some great timeless riddles to try out on your friends, need I say more?

 
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Posted by on February 5, 2017 in British Poetry

 

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Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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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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