Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Notre Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo (1831)



Synopsis: Notre Dame de Paris is set in Paris in the year 1482. The sinister, twisted, lust-filled priest Claude Frollo has become obsessed with the beautiful, young gypsy dancer Esmeralda and will stop at nothing to have her. He then attempts to kidnap her with the aid of the hunchbacked bell-ringer of Notre Dame, Quasimodo. The plan fails due to Esmeralda being saved by Phoebus, the handsome Captain of the Guards. Esmeralda becomes instantly infatuated with Phoebus and dreams of marrying him. Quasimodo is then taken away by the guards to be publicly tortured. Whilst being tortured he cries out for water. Esmeralda, who is there, takes pity on him and offers him water to drink. Quasimodo is so moved by her compassion towards him that he falls in love with her and becomes completely devoted to her. He then attempts to save her from Frollo's lecherous advances later on.

I refuse to call this book The Hunchback of Notre Dame even though that's what most English-language editions of this book (and film adaptations of the book) translate the title as. And no, I'm not being pretentious or snobbish! It's not like I go around calling Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera "Le Fantome de l'Opera". It's just that The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a misleading and inaccurate title. Quasimodo isn't the main protagonist of the story at all. It's the cathedral itself that is the main focus and setting of the story. Almost every single major event in this book happens inside the cathedral, on top of the cathedral, or is witnessed by a character who happens to be inside or on top of the cathedral. Also, although it may seem incredible now, the authorities in Hugo's day actually wanted to pull Notre Dame down because it had fallen into decay. Hugo was appalled by this - he loved his Gothic architecture - and wanted to raise attention to the situation. The huge success of the book played a huge role in saving the cathedral and it's now one of the major tourist attractions in Paris. Well done, Hugo!

So now I've got that out of the way I can concentrate on the story itself. I'll give some friendly advice here: if you're looking for a happy, "feel-good" read then this book won't be for you. If you've grown up with the Disney movie (like I have) then this book may come as quite a shock to you. The book is more complex and is very dark. Having said that it is, for the most part, an extremely interesting, fascinating and powerful read. There's drama, there's action and suspense, a few twists and turns, some intriguing (if not always likeable) characters and a brooding atmosphere. The book is shorter and more tightly plotted than Hugo's Les Miserables too so I suppose it might make for a more accessible introduction to Hugo's style. That's not to say that there aren't any digressions and tangents in this book. There's a fairly lengthy and detailed digression about the layout and architecture of medieval Paris for example that was clearly very well-researched - and I loved Hugo's description of the various noises in Paris collectively forming a giant symphony. Hugo also goes off on a tangent about the monarchy by bashing Louis XI. I found this tangent less interesting I must admit but I didn't mind it.

The plot is mostly concerned with Frollo, Esmeralda and Quasimodo's characters and they're all interesting and memorable. Frollo is one of the very best villains I've ever come across and is seriously creepy and nasty. Esmeralda's character frequently got on my nerves. The girl spends so much time pining after the completely unworthy Phoebus that I wanted to scream at her! And it gets her into major trouble at least 4 or 5 times! Having said that though I still felt pretty sorry for her and she has her good points. Quasimodo may not get the most page-time but he's easily the most sympathetic out of all of the main characters and is very likeable. There are other interesting characters too. There's Frollo's drunken, over-indulged younger brother Jehan. There's Phoebus who is a sleazy scumbag (so different to the Phoebus in the Disney movie!) There's Pierre Gringoire, an impoverished poet. I'm not sure if his character is supposed to be likeable - he's spineless, cowardly and has a worrying obsession with Esmeralda's goat - but I quite liked him. I found him quite funny for some reason.

I have to say that I wouldn't call this book an absolute favourite of mine and I definitely don't rate it as highly as Les Miserables. The ending has none of the hope that Les Miserables offers and is so much more bleak and tragic. Even though I'd been forewarned that this book had a sad ending it still depressed me quite a bit. And I would have liked it if Quasimodo had gotten a little more page-time during the middle-portion of the story. However if you like historical fiction, don't mind a few digressions and can handle sad, dark stories then Notre Dame de Paris is still well worth a read. If you're a Phantom of the Opera fan then this book may also be of some interest to you. The book came out about 80 years before Gaston Leroux's novel and can be rightly called its predecessor although Hugo and Leroux were both drawing from the Beauty and the Beast fairytale.

Rating: 4/5

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