Friday, March 23, 2007

The Hunchback of Notra-dame by Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo, the French poet and writer, who wished to change how novels were written and read, wrote The Hunchback of Notra-Dame in the beginning of his career. In contrast to Les Miserables, which is his more celebrated work, and was written several decades after the Notra-dame novel, the present piece is not only laced with more humor and romance but also stands out as a piece where the young poet in Hugo pours out a ravishing range of similes. Just for the pure magic of his metaphors and similes that make all his descriptions so poetic, so powerful Notra-Dame is worth reading.

The story itself reads like a fanciful movie, an ugly hunchback, Quasimodo is brought up by a Priest Frollo, the archdeacon of Notradame. The hunchback is hence attached like a dog to his master to him. The English title of Hunchback of Notra-dame is a misnomer, for the original is called Notra-dame de Paris, and English title lets us assume that it is the story of Hunchback as hero, while the original title asserts it is story set in Notradame and has charaters who reside in it, or live in its shadows. The Priest Calude Frollo, leaving his pursuit of science and philosophy meanders to a path of unrelenting lust for the gypsy dancer, Esmeralda. A writer, Pierre Grigorne, gets into a set of bizarre circumstances, where a token marriage attaches him to the gypsy. Phoebus, captain of King's Archers is the object of the affection of Esmeralda herself.

Besides these characters, there is a madwoman who lives in confinement, pining for her lost child, who was carried off by gypsies, and hates Esmeralda. There is the goat Djali, who performs tricks with Esmeralda, Jehan who is Claude Frollo's irreligious brother, King Louis IV - who interacts with Claude on issues of science, and the most important character, who lurks like an existence all though, is the Notra-Dame itself. The romances criss cross through a series of interesting episodes and drama, and that forms the crux of the story that I won't divulge here. Readers will benefit by discovering surprises and mystery for themselves, in process getting enchanted by a story that has been a popular read for centuries now.

What makes this novel a masterpiece, besides the poetic descriptions, is Hugo's description of the cathedral of Notra-dame and the city of Paris, and his discussion of how the arrival of printing press signaled an end to the importance as architecture as the expressive art of intellectuals. The views of the author expressed in these pages and pages of delightful reading provide the reader not only with historical and architectural prespective on the buildings in Paris, but also gives us a word image of buildings, roofs, rooms, carvings, modernism, and more. In his commentaries and comparisons between writing and printing as form of expression in contrast to architecture, Hugo unmasks a wide array of issues that arrival of every new media (TV, Cinema, Internet, Digital Photography) bring. How existing precepts and concepts are revised, how adaptations occur, how each age has its own expression through any of these means- and all Hugo says so passionately about architecture or literature allows us to feel the essence of why we make monuments of stones or words in the first place.

Victor Hugo had great skill in developing characters, and describing their lives over an extended period of time, capturing how situations and people led to certain choices, behavioral changes and thought process of each. His ability of doing this, in a very detached manner, where narrative is like a camera floating into a room, and staying long enough for a distant observer to watch and identify traits of every person present there, makes him a great novelist. The novel, like all classic reads, looks formidable in size, but can be read at a formidable pace, especially after the first half of the novel is over.

Besides the merits of the novelist, and the beauty of his wordplay, the story itself is a charming one, and has been brought to screen versions many times. Reading Hugo's two major works allows one to get the same keen insight into French society of the respective times, as does Thackeray and Dickens novels for England and Tolstoy in Russia. Reading any of these masters takes time, but trust me, it is worth the patience and the effort. Recommended highly.


Vivek said...


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Vivek Sharma comments: on Mar 24 2007 7:01PM
delete this comment - block this userPalahali: I haven't watched the movie (s) yet, I always want to read the novel before I watch the movie.

Kalyanee: Both books have a different character, and are enjoyable for slightly different reasons. As far as Les Miserables is concerned, I have watched the movie (Uma Thurman et al), seen the musical, possess the soundtrack for it, and read novel to my utmost delight.

Mellisa:) Being single is not necessarily a measure of how romantic a person is; and if a poet like me won't live and love romance, who will?

Kalyanee comments: on Mar 24 2007 9:12AM
delete this comment - block this user Vivek,
Nice book review....I've read both the 'Hunchback' and 'Les Miserables' altho the latter book was a bit taxing to read....But I liked both and can never decide which one is fav....Quasimodo is a beautiful creature.....


palahali comments: on Mar 24 2007 12:34AM
delete this comment - block this userNice review. There was a famous film starring Gina Lollobrigida and Anthony Quinn as the hunchback. I prefer Les Misearbles: The range of this book is vast. Beautiful characters, sewers of PAris, the civil war etc... Thanks

mellisa comments: on Mar 24 2007 12:13AM
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"Romantisism at its best"
So you are a diehard romantic person and still single ;)

Vivek Sharma comments: on Mar 23 2007 11:24PM
delete this comment - block this userVictor Hugo is must read; either of the two big novels will show you why. With Dumas, Verne, Flaubert, etc. Hugo has an illustrous company of novelists in France.

So koolraaga, read it, and I am sure you will see the gypsy girl singing and dancing, and the multiple romances will play before your eyes. And somewhere between the lines, you will find how great novelists weave in every aspect of life into their pieces.

vandana1982 comments: on Mar 23 2007 10:46PM
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koolraagaa comments: on Mar 23 2007 5:03PM
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Very Very Good Review.. Will definitely read it.. As you rightly put it.. the title is a total put off.. I got a copy of it many times.. but always.. procastinated reading this.. Will definitely read it in coming months.. Thank you.. Keep it up..

Proma said...

Thanks for the insight into the novel and the novelist himself. I have never read him , so am very tempted to check it out. Frolicking romance stories set in the era of rapid sociological, political or industrial changes - what more can I ask for :-).. Thanks for putting this post.