Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Our Lady of Paris

I am publishing this post on 14 juillet, in honor of one of France’s great men of letters, Victor Marie Hugo.  He belongs to that pantheon of human beings whose name consists of three first names.

Summary Version:  Notre-Dame de Paris is a great book, loaded with irony, big themes, tragic characters, and 19th century horror scenes.  I enjoyed reading it.

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Lengthy ninth-grade-book-report-style version:

Some weeks ago, Younger Daughter was lounging around, watching The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  Back in 1996 when Disney first issued this animated version, I was horrified that Disney would present this story to children.  I banned the movie for our family.  Now it’s on Netflix and my movie-banning powers have waned (if I ever really had those powers). 

Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris was the first novel I read completely in French, when I was a teenager.  I think I must have read an abridged version. Fast-forward 30 years: I did not remember the plot details, but I remembered the emotions I felt when I read it – disgust, dismay, horror – at seeing humanity at its most raw.

Having glanced at Disney’s version with its singing gargoyles, I decided to re-read the book this summer.  Could it be that I was misremembering, and there was something there to be Disneyfied? 

The closest thing I could get to a gargoyle.  
It's not even a French one.
At Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, IL

I was delighted to find a bilingual version on my Kindle – a few lines in the original French, followed by the English translation. Or click and go to all French.  I was further delighted to find that I was able mostly to read the French, referring to the English mainly for words dealing with articles of clothing and architecture, and some of the denser sections.  The English translation in the Kindle version was actually not that great a translation, so I supplemented it with the library’s translation by Walter Cobb (1964).  I believe there is an even more recent translation than that.

I have to pause here and say that “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is a terrible mistranslation of the original French title Notre-Dame de Paris.  Hugo himself objected to the English title.  The French title means “Our Lady of Paris” which refers, most obviously, to the great cathedral, but also to the “Virgin Mother” and by extension to the several prominent women characters in the book.  It’s quite obvious from the text that La Esmeralda is at least one “Our Lady of Paris”:

There, in the middle of the pavement – it was noontime with bright sunshine – a creature was dancing – a creature so beautiful that God would have preferred her to the Virgin, and would have chosen her for His mother, would have been born of her, if she had existed when He became man! 
- Cobb translation of Book 8 Chapter 4

Là, au milieu du pavé, - il était midi, - un grand soleil, - une créature dansait.  Une créature si belle que Dieu l’eût préférée à la Vierge, et l’eut choisie pour sa mère, et eût voulu naître d’elle si elle eût existé quand il se fit homme!
                                                            - Livre 8, Chapitre 4

So why did the English publishers have to take the focus away from La Esmeralda and The Recluse?

It took me a good long time, but I finished the book.  I did not misremember the fact that the book is completely inappropriate for a G-rated movie.  Having read Notre-Dame de Paris, I hope I am excused from reading any Stephen King books.  N-D de P is a 19th century horror tale.

There are no completely sympathetic characters in this book.  The male characters are especially flawed.  Either physically deformed (Quasimodo) or spiritually deformed (Archdeacon Claude Frollo) or without morals (Phoebus) or silly and spineless (Gringoire). And yet, I felt some sympathy with each one, perhaps because Hugo explains how each character acquired those flaws.  Yes, Frollo embodies evil, but he also had actions of pure compassion in his early days.  We feel empathy with Quasimodo, but Hugo does not paint him as above reproach – Quasimodo becomes violent and angry – nevertheless an understandable reaction given his situation. 

Maybe the reason the English title refers to the male character(s) is because the publishers felt their deformity was more interesting than the virtue of the female characters.

The book drips with irony.  Hugo is always pointing out the foibles of members of medieval society, and by extension, the society of his own time.   At times Hugo the Playwright makes fun of himself by mocking the character Pierre Gringoire, poet, philosopher, playwright.  Hugo’s narrative style is always pulling us back to a far-off vantage point, reminding us that “things aren’t like that any more” but at the same time making us see that things are very much still like that.  The crowd’s attack on the Cathedral is a proxy for the revolutions Hugo lived through, including while he was writing this book.

The main characters do not fully understand what is happening to them.  Nor are they capable of fully understanding others around them.  How very like us now! Many of the characters are ‘stalkers’ – watching someone else from a distance and making conclusions about others, without actually entering into a true relationship with the person they are judging.  This narrative technique of having people observing from afar enables Hugo to keep up the ironic observations of humankind.  Here is Hugo’s description of the medieval judge, the “auditor”:

Now, the auditor was deaf, a slight defect for an auditor.  Master Florian nonetheless meted out justice without appeal; and quite competently. It is certain that it is quite sufficient for a judge to appear to listen; and the venerable auditor the better fulfilled this condition, the only one essential to the good administration of justice, as his attention could not possibly be distracted by any noise.
Therefore, having well turned over in his mind the case of Quasimodo, he threw back his head and half closed his eyes, to look more majestic and impartial, so that at that moment he was in fact blind as well as deaf -- a double condition without which no judge is perfect.  It was in this magisterial attitude that he commenced the examination.

Hugo shows little love for Christianity, even though it is the religious inspiration for the building of Notre-Dame.  The description of Esmeralda I quoted above is a slap in the face of Catholic theology. The behavior of Archdeacon Claude Frollo looks pretty much like a condemnation of priests and the Catholic church.  Note that Disney changed Frollo from a cleric into a judge, to stay away from accusations of being anti-religion.   

While many reviewers note that the Cathedral is very like a character in the novel, what struck me is how “the crowd” is a character unto itself.  The verb most often used to describe the crowd is fourmiller, which means “to swarm” like ants in an anthill.   The crowd’s actions affect the plot and the fate of the characters.

I noticed the prominent imagery of insects.  For the major characters, fate approaches them like a spider trapping a hapless insect in its web.  Late in the book, the miserly King Louis XI, known in real life as “the Universal Spider” appears.  The frequent references to creepy insects sets the tone of the book as a horror story. 

My final comments: autocorrect changes Gringoire to “gringo ire.” It’s really hard to type French in a Word document.  Maybe by the end of the summer I will succumb and watch Disney’s version, but only if I can have a glass of wine while watching.

The closest photo I could get of a hunchback.
My illustrious brother, preparing for a Halloween party.


Green Girl in Wisconsin said...

I never saw the Disney version (for similar reasons), but I also don't recall noticing that this novel is really about the women. Interesting. I'm starting to think Hugo is overlooked and dismissed too readily in favor of those Russian writers from the same period.

The Crislers said...

Fascinating! I appreciate the in-depth review and breakdown as I doubt I'll ever read the book. The title's sorry translation alone was a revelation to me.

JJ said...

I'm impressed with your French background. If I could speak French, I would do it when forced to spend time with people who bring me down, just to be annoying.

Patience_Crabstick said...

Poor translations really annoy me. Good for you for being able to read it in French!