Friday, 17 December 2010

Foreign Language Friday: Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo

Dear Blog,
Be warned: this is a very, very long review. I don't actually expect anyone to get to the end of it.

Name: Notre-Dame de Paris (or The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Written by: Victor Hugo
First published in: French
Translated by: John Sturrock
Summary (from Goodreads):  In the vaulted Gothic towers of Notre-Dame lives Quasimodo, the hunchbacked bellringer. Mocked and shunned for his appearance, he is pitied only by Esmeralda, a beautiful gypsy dancer to whom he becomes completely devoted. Esmeralda, however, has also attracted the attention of the sinister archdeacon Claude Frollo, and when she rejects his lecherous approaches, Frollo hatches a plot to destroy her that only Quasimodo can prevent. Victor Hugo's sensational, evocative novel brings life to the medieval Paris he loved, and mourns its passing in one of the greatest historical romances of the nineteenth century.

Review: It's a tricky business being a bookworm and/or book blogger. Because you read a lot.  Well duh, I can hear you say, what else would you be blogging about if you were a book blogger?  but let me finish.  It's hard because you read a lot; and you want to talk about the books that you read, but talking about them cuts into your reading time. And seeing as you read so much, your chances of coming across awesome books are pretty high.  But then there are so many good books, you set the bar higher for books that when you've finished them make you go whoooooah holy snood* that was awesome.
Anyway.  I can safely say that Notre-Dame de Paris (or The Hunchback of Notre-Dame), is one of those Holy-Snood-This-Is-Awesome novels.

Victor Hugo is my hero for many reasons, but one being; he wrote the book in four months.  Yes, around 200,000 words in four months.  That's like doing NaNoWriMo four times over. So I look up to him for being able to pull off such a feat, and he's probably the first person I'd say if someone asked me the question, "If you could invite any authors to a dinner party, dead or living, who would you invite?" he would be on the VIP list.
In the midst of my novel-writing frenzy that was November, this was one of the few books that I actually stopped hammering away at my laptop for in order to read.  What's not to like, and what does it miss?  Nothing.

I had better warn you; it's a painfully difficult book to get in to. Practically nothing really gets going until 170 pages in or so; a lot of it being banter between various minor characters and the escapades of Gringoire, a bumbling philosopher who's nice enough at first until his comings and goings seem to get slightly irrelevant, and then you're like, "okay, thanks Gringoire, but you really should get going now."  A similar character is Jehan Frollo, brother of the infamous Dom Claude (who I'll get to later).  But Jehan was highly amusing, and his arrogance and foolishness was actually what amused me so much.  As the plot progressed he became a welcome distraction from all the darkness was occurring, until his demise.  Which was actually to me a bigger loss than any of the other characters in the multitude of those who died, because despite his flaws and however annoyed he made everyone else, he was like a sudden pause of rain in a thunderstorm.

Another, and probably the main, thing that stands in the way of actually getting to what's otherwise known as the good part are some of the descriptions.  They go on for chapters, I kid you not.  The descriptions are utterly beautiful, it's true, but after 20 pages describing the cathedral your mind starts to wonder.  Some whole chapters could easily be skipped, unless if like me you get consumed by guilt for skipping things out, especially if you're one of those people who endeavours to finish books, because that's hugely hypocritical (strangely I have no problem with giving books up if I don't enjoy them- I just dislike skipping passages out).  Perhaps I should have taken the fact that I was contemplating skipping out a few passages as a sign that I should have given up, but I didn't want to.  Especially seeing as the rest of it was so compelling. 

And about the plot, the relevant parts themselves- well,  it was well worth it. I would say that the plot was fast-paced, but that would be lying, so I won't.  Instead I'll say; persevere.  Get past those unneeded dialogues, those descriptions that go on for pages, and in short you have a story that's so dark, and so fascinating, and so incredible, when you've finished you're asking yourself why you had ever contemplated giving it up. It's romantic in a twisted sort of way, and both disturbed and disturbing.
Mostly because of the characters. 

Who should I start with?  Well, Quasimodo I suppose, seeing as he seems to be made out to be the protagonist.  He wasn't as central to the story as I had expected; but he was still a good character.  The only word I could really use to describe him would be...interesting.  I had a lot of misconceptions about him; so he was largely a complete surprise.  I wasn't sure what to make of him, even by the end; did I root for him (yes)? Did I pity his devotion to Esmeralda, or admire it (not sure)?  And speaking of Esmeralda, she was another surprise.  Only sixteen, so she wasn't all that different from any other teenage girl in the fact that after a while what was supposedly heartbreaking naïveté just actually seemed to be a pathetic yet inescapable form of lovesickness.  My general attitude towards her was; "Yeah, I hate that you should be the object of Frollo's desire, and I really want you to escape his lecherous clutches, but honestly?  Please get over Phoebus, and then I'd like you a lot more." 
Oh, how I hated Phoebus.  What did she see in him? In this respect Notre-Dame is no different from some contemporary teen novel.  It's like The Truth About Forever and Living Dead Girl and a baby (You're probably all, "The Truth About Forever, what the heck?"  But seriously:  Phoebus=Wes). Also that would be some messed up pregnancy, with Notre-Dame being almost 200 years older; but this is all hypothetical. 

I said I would get back to Dom Claude Frollo earlier and now I will, because I'm saving my favourite character for last.  And why is such a character my favourite? I have a thing for misunderstood, tormented villains for one.  But also, and mostly, because he has so many different dimensions.  He's the most three-dimensional, well-developed character that I've come across in months. He doesn't come into the book, properly, for over a hundred pages.  And when he does it's two chapters that basically describe his childhood and such.  He's a fascinating character from the start, and it's interesting to watch him change; how his first attraction towards Esmeralda gets bent out of shape into a terrifying obsession .  He's weak, but you fear him.  He's sinister, but you pity him.  He's tormented, but you understand him. 
Yet his demise was hugely satisfying.

So I wonder if I must seem slightly geeky for writing such a hysterically enthusiastic review about a classic that often gets overlooked because it's commonly associated with an animated film.  But, really?  I hope I've done it justice.  And Kudos if you got the end of this review.   

In three words: fascinating, incredible, loooong.
Recommended for: everyone who doesn't mind a challenge.
Rating: 5.  OF COURSE.

*Yes, I have been watching a little too much Vlogbrothers lately.

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