Friday, September 26, 2014

Completed: The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

Dear Jenny,

First, a bit about my TBR progress (or lack thereof). Even though this is only my third post of the year, I have actually read eight of my books. This is the ninth month, sooo... reading-wise, I am *sort of* on track. (Ignoring the fact that the ninth month is nearly over... moving on!)

My problem with most of my books so far this year is that... I have soooo much to teeeellll yoooou. Heh. And so I need to make the time to get that all down (before I forget it all!) Or maybe now that so much time has passed, I will have forgotten what I read, so the writing will be easy ("I read this book. Done.") So this is all out of order, but The Hunchback of Notre-Dame* is pretty easy to talk about, so I'm doing it.

My mom bought this book for me when she was in Paris, and then she took a photo of herself holding it in front of Notre-Dame. That's pretty cute, so I committed to reading it. I've never been terribly interested in it, but I have always had a sort of vague notion of: "I... sort of know what that story is about... right?" Which is based on, I guess, "cultural literacy" -- some dude named Quasimodo who rings the bell at Notre-Dame and is in love with a chick named Esmerelda...?

But... when this image comes into my mind, I know there's probably more to the actual story than what we've gotten so far in in life (although I have never seen the Disney version, either.)

So I was somewhat prepared for it to be pretty dark (basically, the opposite of a Disney story) and... it was. It was also a little longer than I think it needed to be. Some have called this book a "Love letter to Paris" and I can see why -- there is a verrry extensive part of the book that is dedicated to describing Notre-Dame in great detail, as well as many, many other buildings all over Paris. I admit: I glazed over. The most interesting part of it was Hugo's condemnation of the changes that have been made to the various architecture -- he's basically pissed about a lot of the renovations/modernizations and his criticism is biting, well-written, and not-at-all veiled.

In discussing the changes to architecture around the city, he acknowledges that yes, time has a hand in any changes (ruination, decay, repair of said issues) but the egregious changes come from humans. About Notre-Dame, he writes: "Upon the face of this ancient queen of French cathedrals, beside each wrinkle, we constantly find a scar. Tempus edax, homo edacior -- which we would willingly render thus: Time is blind, but man is stupid." [138]. This made me laugh out loud -- tell us how you really feel, Victor!

The only other book I've ever read by Hugo was Les Miserables and the person who recommended it to me said, "You can skip the 400 pages about the sewer systems of Paris... " It was good advice -- I skipped that. (There was also a 500 page detailed description of the war that I also skimmed... I was really in it for the love story.) I am grateful that Notre-Dame is about a third the total length of Les Mis, meaning that his digressions did not go on for nearly as long.

While I was reading the "I love you, Paris" part, I did think, "Could we just get to the story already?" but the story ends up being so convoluted that the reprieve into building description might have been a good thing, after all.

Overall, the story is tragic and well-told -- lots of confusion, unexpected reunions of "long-lost" relatives, convoluted situations where people are in the wrong place at the wrong time, and unrequited adoration. But it's also pretty weird -- a few times, I had a sort of "Wait... what now?" reaction to some of the business that Hugo was putting down. Aaaand... If this write-up was for an academic paper, I would have made a note to support that statement. But it's our personal reading blog, so I'll just say: "There was some weird sh*t in this book." (Almost... magical realism, I guess? But then it kind of gets explained away in the next chapter, so there's a sort of, "Just kidding" thing that happens a few times.)

Overall, this book was decent. Cleared up some of my "I think I know what this book is about" misconceptions, but a visit to Wikipedia could do the same thing. The writing is excellent but I'm not sure I would necessarily recommend it to anyone (unless they were super interested in Paris architecture in the 15th century. Then... go for it!)


PS -- I just realized this book was a carry-over from 2013. Go, me with the cleaning up! (Spoiler alert: 2014 could be the year that Don't Know Much About History gets played off the stage before it's done.)

* I hate the title of this book. I've had a couple of friends over the years with kyphosis and it makes me feel icky to use this out-dated term. The name of the book in the original French is Notre-Dame de Paris and I wish that we could just go with that here as well. /rant


  1. K,

    "Time is blind but man is stupid" really is an excellent line! What's sort of interesting to consider is what Hugo would have to say about Paris *now*! I mean, it's sort of amazing to consider his critique of the changes to Paris is almost 200 years old! He must be rolling over in his lovingly-described-in-hundreds-of-pages-grave!

    This makes me realize something else, which is that you read older books than me.

    In all seriousness, I totally get the difficulty in what to report out. It's also interesting when you do wait a while, because then you can see what really bubbles up to the surface. It's interesting to me, for example, that even though you talk about being most interested in the love story, you wrote more about the "I love Paris" aspect.

    Keep 'em coming!

  2. PS. I'm mildly disappointed that you didn't include the picture of your Mom with the book in front of Notre Dame. I'm going to need you to text that to me. Hah!

  3. I didn't get her permission, and I didn't want to post without that. (What can I say -- I'm old fashioned that way...)

    But I'll snap a photo of it and send it to you when I get home. (I'm not *that* old-fashioned. Heh.)