Notre-Dame de Paris

Notre-Dame de Paris

by Victor Hugo

  • First published:  1831
  • Pages: paperback, 493 pages
  • Rating: 4/5

“So, kind brother, you refuse me a sol parisis to go and buy a crust from the baker?

“Qui non laborat non manducet.” (He who does not work, let him not eat.)

At this reply from the immovable archdeacon, Jehan hid his face in hins hands, like a woman sobbing, and exclaimed with an expression of despair: Oτoτoτoτoτoτ!”

“What does that mean, monsieur?” asked Claude, surprised by this outburst.

“What? Well,” said the student, raising two insolent eyes to Claude into which he had just stuck his firsts so as to make them look red from weeping, “it’s Greek! It’s an anapaest from Aeschylus which perfectly expresses grief.”

In short:

Hugo created a funny and sad read, but unfortunately, his characters lack some depth.

In long:

After finishing Les Misérables, I wasn’t ready to let Hugo go. I needed more of his detailed, clever writing and so I picked up: Notre-Dame de Paris.

Notre-Dame de Paris is funny and sad. It’s imaginative and yet predictable, and in the end, it felt like there is something amiss. And then it dawned on me: It’s too short. Simply too short.

In Les Mis the characters have room to evolve, to suffer and to laugh, but in Notre-Dame de Paris the characters remain two-dimensional. It’s such a shame because the characters Hugo created have so much potential. For a long time, for example, I haven’t encountered such cheeky characters. I laughed out loud a couple of times at their witts. but at the same time, the characters lacked some depth. They each have a story which is only slightly brushed upon, and thus remains hidden right in front of the readers’ eyes. But I want to know more about La Esmeralda or Gringoire, or Jehan.

All the same, the story is highly imaginative, enjoyable, and heart-breaking—but it is not the story of Quasimodo. I don’t know why the book is often referred to as “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame”; maybe because Quasimodo is the most iconic figure in the text. Nevertheless, he is not the main protagonist of this story.  It’s Paris, including its architecture and its people:

“Admirable, however, as the Paris of the present day appears to you, build up and put together again in imagination the Paris of the fifteenth century; look at the light through that surprising host of steeples, towers, and belfries; pour forth amid the immense city, break against the points of its islands, compress within the arches of the bridges, the current of the Seine, with its large patches of green and yellow, more changeable than a serpent’s skin; define clearly the Gothic profile of this old Paris upon an horizon of azure, make its contour float in a wintry fog which clings to its innumerable chimneys; drown it in deep night, and observe the extraordinary play of darkness and light in this sombre labyrinth of buildings; throw into it a ray of moonlight, which shall show its faint outline and cause the huge heads of the towers to stand forth from amid the mist; or revert to that dark picture, touch up with shade the thousand acute angles of the spires and gables, and make them stand out, more jagged than a shark’s jaw, upon the copper-coloured sky of evening. Now compare the two.”

All in all, I can only add that the translation provided by John Sturrock reads beautifully as it preserves not only the ideas but also the beauty of Hugo’s prose.

“When they tried to release him from the skeleton he was embracing, he crumbled into dust.”

 

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