Monday, February 20, 2012
Book Review of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo
Author: Victor Hugo
Publisher: Signet Classic
Type of book: France, Cathedral, forbidden love, square love, secrets, 1482, Paris
Year it was published: 1831 (version I have 1965)
The setting of this extraordinary historical novel is medieval Paris: a city of vividly intermingled beauty and grotesquerie, surging with violent life under the twin towers of its greatest structure and supreme symbol, the cathedral of Notre-Dame. Against this background Victor Hugo unfolds the haunting drama of Quasimodo, the monstrous hunchback; Esmeralda, the gypsy dancer; and Claude Frollo, the priest tortured by the specter of his own damnation. Shaped by a profound sense of tragic irony, it is a work which gives full plya to the author's brilliant historical imagination, his remarkable powers of description. Whether depicting the frenzy of a brutish mob or hte agony of a solitary soul, whether capturing the drunken blaze of of sunlight or dungeon darkness, Victor Hugo's art never fails in its quest for the immediacy of felt experience. Immensely popular from its original publication to the present day, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame stands as an unsurpassed and enduring literary triumph. As Andre Maurois writes: "Hugo's characters were to live...in hte minds of men of all countires and all races...They are unforgettable because they possess the elemental grandeur of myths and epics."
These are not Disney characters; in the book Esmeralda is not a spunky young lady, Phoebus is not a loyal soldier who loves only Esmeralda, Claude Frollo isn't as evil as he appears to be, and there are no talking gargoyles, although the goat, Djali does exist. The characters are far more complex in other words.
Mostly the book explores the theme of physical beauty vs beauty of the heart, as well as the feelings of forbidden love and living a cloistered life within the convent.
This is in third person narrative, omniscient point of view. Unfortunately the writing tended to be uneven and there was a lot of extraneous information such as how it looked like as well as hyper focus on one specific day. It's a pity that many things he discusses in the book seemed unnecessary to me. And also unfortunate are the constant interruptions within the narrative.
Born in 1802, the son of a high officer in Napoleon's army, Victor Hugo spent his childhood against a background of military life in Elba, Corsica, Naples, and Madrid. After the Napoleonic defeat, the Hugo family in straitened circumstances in Paris, where, at the age of fifteen, Victor Hugo commenced his literay career with a poem submitted to a contest sponsored by the Academie Francaise. Twenty-four years later, Hugo was elected to the Academi, having helped revolutionize French literature with his poems, plays, and novels. Entering politics, he won a seat in the National Assembly in 1848; but in 1851, he was forced to flee the country because of his opposition to Louis Napoleon. In exile on the Isle of Guernsey, he became a symbol of French Resistance to tyranny; upon his return to Paris after the Revolution of 1870, he was greeted as a national hero. He continued to serve in public life and to write with unabated vigor until his death in 1885. He was buried in Pantheon with every honor the French nation could bestow.
I honestly thought and hoped it would be a five star book, but alas its a three star book. There are glimmers of five stars in terms of Claude Frollo and Esmeralda as well as Phoebus and Quasimodo, but the narrative was not very even and he tended to interrupt it to discuss architecture or how the Paris of 1480s looked like. There are many pages I found boring and pointless, wondering how does all of this fit in with the story he's telling? (I'm still not sure how...) I enjoyed reading about Claude Frollo's feelings towards Esmeralda. Also, I will warn that this is not a Disney version and that many readers who will go thinking like that will be extremely disappointed because certain people are not the way the cartoon portrayed them. (More on that later.)
3 out of 5
(0: Stay away unless a masochist 1: Good for insomnia 2: Horrible but readable; 3: Readable and quickly forgettable, 4: Good, enjoyable 5: Buy it, keep it and never let it go.)