Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Review of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo

I have my reservations about jumping into nineteenth century literature. I only have so much endurance for coal-filth and candles, gout and apoplexy, and meandering prose, and most of these books can just go on forever. But I was specifically looking for something down on love (completing the theme), and M. Hugo has been waiting patiently on the shelf for years now. Notre-Dame de Paris is a historical novel, which decently swaps out some of the usual period props, but it's still told in the style of the times, which the authorial voice periodically cheeps in to remind us faithful readers. And not unlike I feared: Hugo almost immediately drifts away from the opening scene to tour-guide our way through the Palace of Justice and a couple hundred years of its history, which is less effective getting me into 1482 than letting the characters open their mouths. Three chapters in, and Hugo drops another anchor, describing--no, delineating--the layout of medieval Paris over the course of 30 or 40 pages. It's not that he's boring when he talks about architecture, but these opening devices don't exactly kickstart his classic plot, they dismissed the characters just as they were getting interesting. And over these last few weeks I haven't had the luxury of time to just sink in and bask in a big heap of prose. And to be fair, even if I mildly object to info-dumping it, one of the writer's purposes was to evoke the character of the city in its time.

Hugo finds momentum well enough when he's not feeling up the masonry. Our opening scene is a mystery performed by the aspiring philosopher Pierre Gringnoire, mercilessly and hilariously cut down by attending students, and ignored by the crowd. Paunchy bishops and dignified statesman filter in and out to create a bigger scene, but much like the stage drama, they're an unloved spectacle, and it takes low humor to get the rabble really aroused. Hugo, to my pleasure and surprise, is really good at humor, and I love how he eyed up the intelligent and powerless (that is, the students) as the eagle-eyed observers of the human condition, and gave them all of the good lines. (As they deserve: I have an affection for the disenfranchised wiseasses of the world.) Unappreciated (and unpaid), Gringnoire wanders dissolute through the Paris streets, delivered into the court of the vagabonds and their sham Justice, and played out for laughs and the uncomfortable bite of satire. Official death loomed over the heads of the poor in Gringnoire's time, and hadn't exactly disappeared by the time Hugo was writing. The characters support the development of the story's tragedies or (as Mark Twain would say it) its sarcsasms, but my favorites were the latter. Our poet is an ineffectual blatherer, charming as a parody of a (real historical) writer, the king of the vagabonds is a debauched and lethal mockery of the Law, and young student Jehan Frollo (brother of Claude) steals every scene he's in, whether throwing about grandiloquent insults, or guilelessly conniving his way to his next bottle.

Even at his most discursive, Victor Hugo clearly takes great joy in the language, on which note, in a case like this, I usually start bitching about translations. The fact that my edition is rendered to The Hunchback of Notre-Dame instead of Hugo's more appropriate original title is a bad sign, as is the failure to credit the translator. How much better did the French flow along? How much more playful, how much more moving was the original? One `particular annoyance: French makes use of a formal second person, but the resulting English thees and thous read terribly. That forced archaism always come off as a cheesy anachronism for anything less than 350 years old.

The obvious liberty with the title is unappreciated because our well-known bell-ringer is only one of a cast of fully conceived players, and not even the best one. Hugo trots him out as not only physically hideous (and deaf), but also a mental defective, amoral, unable to perceive very well the antics of the crowd, nor the whims of Justice. Much later, when he gets speaking lines, he expresses himself differently than he was originally described. He's capable of metaphor, uttering sentences that require the self-awareness he was denied in his introduction. There's clearly an incomplete inner transformation that's intended here, which is similar to the way most of the major characters are developed: whether quintessentially noble, wise, beautiful or brave, Hugo drips with pleasure as he skewers their outward characters with reality, but the author's conflation of physical, mental, and moral deformity are confusing. They violate my admittedly modern understanding of their relationship beyond what I'm willing to give to artistic license.

As a love story, I couldn't be more pleased to read Victor Hugo's side by side with Graham Greene's. Hugo lets his play out with nearly as much cynicism: the hunchback's great love is a beauty; the repressed scholar's great love is a free-spirited ingenue; the sweetheart's is a handsome cad, who, at the moment of seduction, can't even remember her name. The love stories aren't weighted equally--those that contain a particle of actual compassion are allowed the heft of tragedy--but every one of them is ultimately a comedy of objectification that can only end badly, and does every time.

Marriage is painted as a farce too, but as a legal distinction, that's perhaps as much about Hugo's disgust with civic power, which is a much deeper condemnationthan his mockery of romance. Justice is doomed to end badly for its subjects, and the exclusive purpose of its proceedings is to deliver state violence, regardless of cause or merit. The comical vagabond court, we find, is the most pure authority, and the least corrupt. While it feels at times that Hugo is picking on the medievals, and if he taunts the king that his day is coming (that experience was brutal too), mostly he presents the Law as a timeless sort of evil. He's got a good trick where he reveals the mechanics of mysterious events off-handedly, and lets the process play out deaf and thoughtless of the minor truth. Hugo's Justice grinds on with tremendous inertia, abetted by the ecclesiastical powers and the expectations of the people. It exists to drink blood, and no one but a half-mad bell-ringer even thinks to stand against it, wrongly and badly. Notre-Dameis an artful blend of place and character, of comedy and tragedy. You'll laugh until you cry.

3 comments:

twiffer said...

when i was about 16 or so, i gave les miserables a go. halfway through a detailed description of the napoleanic wars, i cried surrender. could be it was just the translation that was achingly dull, but i haven't given hugo a shot again since.

part of me suspects the over-descriptive wordiness of older tomes is due to the scarcity of books (as well as low literacy levels). if you have a sense that, well, your novel might well be the only book someone will ever read, then you'll make damn well sure to pack it to the gills with everything you can think of. then again, it could just be showing off. or, i could just be thinking that cause it's quarter to 4 in the morning (ah, fatherhood).

Keifus said...

Victor Hugo was a machine. I was reading in the introduction that when he wrote Les Miserables, he was sometimes cranking out some twenty pages a day.

I had some ideas that this may be a function of writing longhand. Not really a page limit but it takes a long time to get on the page, and back in the day, it favored a certain sort of mind that could turn an enormous piece into writeable episodes. It favored wandering off. Compare to writing with typewriters (more economy) and word processors (more blather)...and I'd be talking right out of my ass.

I don't miss the baby times very much.

Timmothy said...

maybe. i kind of think it is also related to the assumed knowledge of your audience. nowadays, one can be sparser in regards to the details, because the audience knows what, say, notre dame looks like. or they can quickly look it up. instant access leads to the desire for instant gratification. and so on.