Saturday, January 21, 2012

Notre Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo

Gah! Yes, I am still alive. No, my fingers were not chewed off by fire ants, making it impossible to type. And this 7-yr-old laptop, although a triceratops among Arabian stallions, is still plodding along. There has been absolutely nothing standing between me and the blogosphere... except a series of houseguests interspersed with illnesses and various commitments which my duty-bound sense of knightly honor compelled me to fulfill. So, you know, there was some life I had to live. I do apologize for leaving with a cliffhanger, four weeks from the end of the year, my loyal readers waiting to discover whether I held up for the final month and fulfilled my new year's resolution! So here is the next installment, as the great saga of 2011 drew to a close...

The title Notre Dame de Paris is often translated as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which I found to be unfortunately misleading. The book isn't entirely, or even primarily, about the hunchback Quasimodo, although he is an important character. The title refers to the cathedral of that name, around which the book revolves and in or near which all the major action takes place. I had previously read Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, so I went into this book expecting it to be historically focused, descriptive and detailed. It was. I did not realize, however, that Notre Dame was so intensely focused on architecture as an art form, the eventual decline of architecture due to the development of the printing press, and the architecture and evolution of the city of Paris itself. I found these sections of the book to be the most fascinating, and they enabled me to look at art, architecture and the growth of a city through new eyes. I would recommend the book for these sections alone.

The plot, which follows the unfortunate lives of several people who exist on the fringes of society, explores themes of fate and social conflict. The story arc of Quasimodo's affection for Esmeralda gives the book an additional tragic slant, and when combined with the tragedies of the decline of architecture and the cathedral and of the ill-fated lives of Esmeralda and Claude Frollo, the overall effect is sombre, dark and gothic, like the Notre Dame cathedral itself.

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