What a surprise to discover, in my old age, the magnificent Victor Hugo!
Having been subjected as a child to the maimed reductions of Hugo produced by Walt Disney and his ilk, I thought that I knew his work, and had no desire for further acquaintance. My main interest, moreover, was history, not literature, and certainly not corny melodrama. When in my mid-twenties I rather surprisingly chose to become a high school English teacher, I embarked on a crash course of literary education, but Hugo—whose books were far too long for any high school reading list—never merited my attention.
A few months ago, however, I began listening to an audiobook version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, wonderfully narrated by George Guidall. I was looking for something entertaining but not wholly frivolous, and decided to fill this gap in my reading without straining my aging eyes.
What a surprise, then, to discover that Hugo’s novel is actually an essay, a long, sprawling essay on the architectural history of Paris, with the famous cathedral both literally and figuratively at its centre. The French title, Notre-Dame de Paris, rightly places the cathedral in the forefront and fails to mention its bell-ringer. The melodrama featuring Quasimodo, the hunchback, Esmeralda, the gypsy girl, and Claude Frollo, the Archdeacon, provides the spoonful of sugar needed to help readers swallow Hugo’s passionate dissertation. Published in 1831, it turned the Cathedral of Notre-Dame into a tourist attraction, forcing the authorities to invest in its restoration and to preserve numerous other medieval buildings that otherwise would have disappeared.
Even the melodrama is far from what Disney made of it. Following the penniless playwright, Gringoire, through the darkening streets of the city, we stumble with him into a gang of street criminals. We are shown the desperate poverty of Esmeralda’s mother as a young woman, and her crazed religiosity as a prematurely-old woman. Most striking, for me, was the sexually frustrated, self-absorbed Claude Frollo and his obsession with Esmeralda. Here he is, in Hapgood’s translation:
“I love you. Oh! how true that is! So nothing comes of that fire which burns my heart! Alas! young girl, night and day—yes, night and day I tell you,—it is torture. Oh! I suffer too much, my poor child. ’Tis a thing deserving of compassion, I assure you. You see that I speak gently to you. I really wish that you should no longer cherish this horror of me.—After all, if a man loves a woman, ’tis not his fault!—Oh, my God!—What! So you will never pardon me? You will always hate me? All is over then. It is that which renders me evil, do you see? and horrible to myself.—You will not even look at me! You are thinking of something else, perchance, while I stand here and talk to you, shuddering on the brink of eternity for both of us! Above all things, do not speak to me of the officer!—I would cast myself at your knees, I would kiss not your feet, but the earth which is under your feet; I would sob like a child, I would tear from my breast not words, but my very heart and vitals, to tell you that I love you;—all would be useless, all!—And yet you have nothing in your heart but what is tender and merciful. You are radiant with the most beautiful mildness; you are wholly sweet, good, pitiful, and charming. Alas! You cherish no ill will for any one but me alone! Oh! what a fatality!”
He hid his face in his hands. The young girl heard him weeping. It was for the first time. Thus erect and shaken by sobs, he was more miserable and more suppliant than when on his knees. He wept thus for a considerable time.
“Come!” he said, these first tears passed, “I have no more words. I had, however, thought well as to what you would say. Now I tremble and shiver and break down at the decisive moment, I feel conscious of something supreme enveloping us, and I stammer. Oh! I shall fall upon the pavement if you do not take pity on me, pity on yourself. Do not condemn us both. If you only knew how much I love you! What a heart is mine! Oh! what desertion of all virtue! What desperate abandonment of myself! A doctor, I mock at science; a gentleman, I tarnish my own name; a priest, I make of the missal a pillow of sensuality, I spit in the face of my God! all this for thee, enchantress! to be more worthy of thy hell! And you will not have the apostate! Oh! let me tell you all! more still, something more horrible, oh! Yet more horrible!…”
And of course there is no happy ending. Esmeralda, forced by Frollo to choose between him and the hangman, goes to her death. Frollo, watching the execution from the top of Notre Dame, is pushed to his death by his adopted son, Quasimodo, who is also in love with the girl. Quasimodo then disappears, but we are told that many years later his bones are found embracing Esmeralda in her grave. My only serious complaint with this melodrama is Esmeralda herself, who shows spunk and intelligence early on but becomes a simpleton when she falls for the worthless Captain Phoebus.
Inspired by Notre Dame, I decided to have a go at Les Miserables. At first I was disappointed. In Notre Dame, Hugo has barely begun his story before launching into his disquisition on Paris. In Les Miserables, the story dominates the beginning of the novel. I began to think that in his second masterpiece, Hugo had surrendered entirely to melodrama.
I was wrong.
Caught in Hugo’s web by the improbable sentimentality of Jean Valjean’s tale, readers of Les Miserables find themselves a captive audience for the author’s history of France; his quasi-Hegelian theory of history; and his long, detailed argument that all of the political ups and downs, progressions and regressions, actions and reactions of French history from the Revolution of 1789 to the follies of Louis Napoleon and the Second Empire—that all of these contradictory movements tend, slowly and unevenly, toward the establishment of a truly democratic republic of justice and equality. Hugo’s fierce denunciations of injustice retain their power 160 years later.
Along the way he pauses to consider, at some length, the Battle of Waterloo; the history of convents; the street urchins of Paris; the sewer system of Paris, and the use of slang. How did he find the time and energy to, first, learn about all these matters and, second, write about them at such length? “Astonishing” is the least one can say. For a taste of Hugo in one of these expository expostulations, see my earlier post, “Victor Hugo: socialism and the fate of England.”
Having discovered, so late in life, these two magnificent books, do I regret not reading them when I was younger? Not really. I doubt I would have appreciated them. And I am not inclined to recommend them to my high school students, either—with perhaps a rare exception. But some of you may be ready for the unexpurgated Hugo, and if so, I salute you. Enjoy the journey!