It was a truly wondrous grimace which gleamed at that moment in the circular aperture in the rose window. After all the pentagonal, hexagonal and irregular forms which had followed one another at that window without fulfilling that ideal of grotesqueness which had been foreseen by the excited imaginations by the orgy, nothing more was needed to obtain their suffrage than the grandiose grimace which had just dazzled those gathered there.
Called The Hunchback of Notre Dame in English, although the French title is more appropriate, this is an über-famous historical novel whose hero, or anti-hero, Quasimodo was adopted by the French as a sort of national symbol. But the novel has a second, or maybe first, hero – the magnificent gothic cathedral itself (hence the title in French). You learn a great deal about its eventful history along the way.
This beauty-and-the-beast story is probably too famous to need summarising here. It is wonderfully atmospheric and evocative of its turbulent age. For a story set in a church it seems very anti-clerical, at least the evil archdeacon is… well, very evil, but Hugo shows us great understanding of where he (and the other characters) is coming from. It is surely one of the greatest historical romances ever written. Hugo himself represents a vital turning-point in the history of the novel.
Quasimodo is a sort of living gargoyle, one of those medieval fantasies from the heights of the gothic cathedrals sprung to life. Despite his grotesque form and hopeless quest, his thoughts seemingly twisted like his body, Hugo has immense sympathy for him, so so do we. It’s impossible not to admire how he flies around his shadowy ream like a gibbon in the forest.
Sometimes Hugo gets carried away with his excursions into the history of Notre Dame and medieval Paris so that parts turn almost into essays. You might like to skim over these slow parts, perhaps to come back to them. But Hugo was like an early conservationist or preservationist in his passion for Paris’ heritage and the need to cherish it. And in this passionate work he has added another intricately incised column into French civilisation.
HUGO, Victor (1802 – 1885), Notre-Dame de Paris 1482, Paris, Gallimard, 1966, 1985, ISBN 2-07-036549-2 (originally published 1831)