Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo

I have an old hardback copy of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (first published in 1831) in a very small font, too small for my eyes to cope with these days and a 49p e-book that I downloaded years ago when first got a Kindle. But I didn’t start reading it until a few months ago when FictionFan mentioned she was intending to read it and hold a Review-Along on her blog. I knew next to nothing about the book, not having seen any of the many films or TV versions, but I had read Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables back in 2008 and enjoyed it very much. So, I had high expectations that I would enjoy this one too.

But when I began reading my e-bookI was so disappointed – I thought it was so boring and it was hard to read, the sentences stilted and stumbling and obtuse with no flow. I was tempted to abandon it, after all it is a long book, and there are plenty of other books I want to read. However, I persevered, thinking surely it would get better. It didn’t, so then I wondered if it was me or the translation and began to look for another edition and I ended up with the Oxford World Classics edition, translated and with an introduction by Alban Krailsheimer, Notre-Dame de Paris, which is so much better, so much easier to read!

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The English title is so misleading – this book is not just about the hunchback Quasimodo, the bell-ringer of Notre-Dame, it is historical fiction on a grand scale, with a large cast of characters. It revolves around four main characters – the beautiful gypsy dancer, Esmeralda who fell hopelessly in love with the handsome womaniser, Captain Phoebus de Châteaupers, who has no intentions of marrying her. She in turn is loved by Frollo, the Archdeacon of Notre-Dame and by Quasimodo, the deformed and deaf bell-ringer of the cathedral of Notre-Dame.

But that is not all – it is also the story of the cathedral itself, Notre-Dame de Paris, and Hugo describes it at great length, focusing on the Gothic architectural elements of its structure, particularly its use of the pointed arch and including its flying buttresses, clerestory windows, and stained glass. He was a great advocate for the preservation of its Gothic architecture and was also extremely upset about the changes to the cathedral, the repairs and additions that had been done over the years. And it is not just the cathedral, Hugo also devotes many pages to describing Paris, seeing it from a bird’s eye view and also to the invention of the printing press and its effect on culture, described by Hugo as ‘the greatest event in history’. These digressions were not what I expected to read – I just wanted to get on with the story. I was impatient with the digressions, but looking back at Les Mis, that is exactly what he had done in that book too, so I shouldn’t have been surprised.

The story of the main characters’ relationships is told in a complicated way, going forward and backward in time, filling in the background of the characters, whilst revolving around the events of 1482, during the reign of Louis XI (who makes an appearance in the book). And it is melodramatic, playing on all our emotions. Quasimodo was so named because he was found, abandoned on Quasimodo Sunday (that is the second Sunday after Easter) when he was four years old. He was ‘adopted’ by the sinister Archdeacon, Claude Frollo, and grew up in the cathedral, isolated by his deafness caused by all the years he’d spent ringing the bells, and feared because of his hideous appearance.

This book has everything! It is by turns a farcical comedy, a tale of obsessions and unrequited passions, of love and lust, of a terrible miscarriage of justice, of outsiders, of violent mobs, of cruelty, arrogant men, silly women, of monsters, of alchemy, of intolerance, of prejudice, jealousy, fury, torture, corruption and above all of tragedy. And it has a cast of colourful and distinct characters, that I either despised, loved or hated, including Esmeralda’s little goat Djali, who could dance and do tricks and spells (I loved Djali). It is difficult for me to love the book and equally as hard to dislike it as a whole, set firmly in its medieval time frame, against the dramatic backdrop of the cathedral (even though I grew impatient with all the architectural details). But I was convinced by the end of the book that Hugo had successfully brought the place and the people of 1482 dramatically to life for me.

My apologies to FictionFan for being nearly a week late to her Review-Along and thanks for nudging me into reading Notre-Dame de Paris at long last. I am glad I read it even if I can’t give it more than 3 stars – I  liked it, a good, enjoyable book.

15 thoughts on “Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo

  1. This just goes to show, Margaret, how important a good translation is. For you, it made all the difference when it came to this novel, and I suspect that’s true for a lot of stories. I am glad you found a translation that worked better for you. It’s a classic story, and as much about Paris and the cathedral as of anything else, in my opinion.

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  2. Great review! I’m glad you enjoyed it overall even if it only got three stars. I felt much the same till the halfway point – in fact, if it hadn’t been a review-along book I might not have made it through those endless architectural descriptions. But he wowed me so much in the second half that he won me over completely by the end and I forgave him for the earlier tedium! Plus Djali was worth a star all on her own… 😉 The translation makes such a difference, doesn’t it? I’ve been burned a few times with these cheap Kindle versions which usually have really ancient translations or rubbish formatting, so now I always tend to go for a recent edition. I thought Krailsheimer did a fantastic job, and his intro was interesting too. I loved the way he brought out the humour – something I think that often doesn’t work so well in translation. I wasn’t expecting humour, in fact, nor was I expecting it to end the way it did – my jaw dropped so far it nearly fell off! Somehow I was expecting some kind of happy ending! Glad you joined in for the Review-Along – maybe if we do it again sometime we should go for something a bit shorter… 😉

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    1. Thanks – yes the second half saved the book for me. I read Krailsheimer’s introduction after I’d read the book, as I usually do, but I wish that I’d read before. I don’t think it has any spoilers and I’d have understood the context better. I didn’t know how the book ended but I had a feeling that grew stronger as I read on that it wasn’t going to be a happy one – all those misunderstandings seem to point in just one direction. For the most part the comedy eluded me, apart from Quasimodo’s trial with the deaf judge – that did amuse me.

      It wasn’t the length of the book that made me late with my review – it was ‘real life’ that intervened, with too many other things going on that meant I neglected my blog. I’d love to join in with another Read-Along, no matter how long the book is.

      Have you read a good translation of Don Quixote? I’d like to read a better translation than the free Kindle version I downloaded ages ago – it’s terrible!

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      1. No, I’ve never read Don Quixote at all – another of these ones I keep putting off because of the length. But in general I find the OWC translations good – they seem to specialise in making these older classics read more naturally to modern readers.

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  3. I have still never read anything by Victor Hugo, but given the right translation, it sounds like I would enjoy, especially the history of the cathedral itself.

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    1. I think you would, provided you like long books. I can definitely recommend the Oxford World Classics edition, translated by Alban Krailsheimer.


  4. I’m glad you found a translation you could enjoy, this is the one I read too. I loved it from the beginning and agree it’s a book that has everything! I’ll add your review to my list, aren’t review-a-longs great?!

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