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I Finally Read the Hunchback of Notre Dame


Quasimodo lives! The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

It took me a long time to get around to The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo. Just looking at it from my desk, I knew that it was one of those books where a perfectly good story gets interrupted occasionally by hundreds of pages about agrarian reform.

I was wrong, but if you substitute agrarian reform for “loving descriptions of every single brick in every single cathedral in Paris,” I’m not dead wrong. I’m right on, in fact.

I don’t say it as a negative, but this is just not how books are written these days. I won’t argue when today’s modern reader tells me that Hunchback is one very boring book. Oh, who am I kidding? Today’s modern reader doesn’t read anything longer than text messages.

Except for you, of course, genius reader.

The old books were very, very different. Can you imagine picking up the latest James Patterson or Tom Clancy book and find someone closing in on someone else, only to veer off into 300 pages of tax code?

Does this mean there are no more classics? Guess we’ll see what people are saying in 80 or 90 years.

So, on to the story. I loved it! I was familiar with the skimpiest outline–there is a hunchback, there are some bells, there is a cathedral–but couldn’t have told you any of the events of the story. I haven’t seen the Disney movie.

It’s a romance.

A romance between a hunchback named Quasimodo, a gypsy, the sinister Archdeacon Claude Frollo, and a dandy of a military captain named Phoebus. Other players include every single brick in Paris, Djali the goat, a deaf judge (yes, a deaf judge!), Victor Hugo appearing in a series of constant asides like “As we’ve already shown the reader,” a poet and playwright, a bunch of jolly wretches in the Court of Miracles, a torturer, a bunch of bitchy social climbing women who make fun of La Esmeralda’s short skirt, and…there might be a few others, but I’ll leave it at that.

I read the beginning of the book on audio but got so annoyed with the reader’s British accent that I picked up the pages. I like British accents, but this guy was not doing it for me, particularly in the opening scenes where the action keeps getting interrupted by jeering hooligans:

“Down with the rector.”

“Down with the inspector.”

There were more rhymes but they are lost to me. The rhymes were really annoying in the audiobook, and the reader was not very adept at doing high-pitched female voices, though try he did.

I do think it’s a wonderful story and I enjoyed it immensely. I think I’m going to commit Claude Frollo’s endless monologue about his lustful torments to memory so I can trot it out every time I need some lovin’. It would break your heart. Or make you laugh. This is groveling.

I will admit that once I picked up the physical book and started turning pages, I skimmed the opuses about architecture and Parisian style.

I’m not going to try and write any real criticism here. I didn’t pay enough attention. If you’re desperate for that sort of thing let me know and I’ll find some Doctoral dissertations on Parisian architecture for–hey, where are you going?

If you have the patience for this sort of book–you probably know if you do–Hunchback is a fine story. Lots of fun.

Rating: 99 one-eyed hunchbacks.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • cinderkeys January 19, 2012, 1:50 am

    I don’t say it as a negative, but this is just not how books are written these days.

    Why not as a negative? I love to read, but old-style novels make me want to rip my hair out, strand by strand. Fiction has evolved. Novels are simply better now.

    There, I said it.

    • Todd January 19, 2012, 8:03 am

      I would disagree. Novels of modern times, while easier to read, are meant to be read by people with a smaller vocabulary. I much prefer “old” stories for this very reason.

      Josh, the incredible detail paints such a vivid picture of the city.

      • Josh Hanagarne January 19, 2012, 10:24 am

        Todd, I agree. But the vivid picture of the lace on someone’s skirt, or the jewels on someone’s dagger, lose me after a few pages.

    • Josh Hanagarne January 19, 2012, 10:23 am

      It’s subjective. You can’t prove they’re better. I can’t prove they’re worse.

      I know people who read nothing but the classics because everything else is “easy crap”–short reading list!

      I read for story. lots of the classics have great stories. I usually skip ahead to the story parts.

      • cinderkeys January 19, 2012, 11:57 am

        Well, sure. I would never try to convince somebody who loves the classics that their preference is wrong. For a long time, though, I kind of assumed that I would like these older books better if I were smarter. At some point it occurred to me that maybe novels had become more streamlined — not lovingly describing every brick — for a reason, and if I grew bored every time a writer tried to use as many words as possible, it didn’t necessarily mean I was stupid.

        • Josh Hanagarne January 19, 2012, 12:03 pm

          I read your blog. You’re certainly not stupid.

  • Spencer January 20, 2012, 10:28 am

    I am reading Ken Follett’s -The Pillars of the Earth- right now, and having a very similar experience. Brick by brick detail, more excruciating detail about 12th century building and custom and politics than anyone could EVER want. This is a bit of a departure for Follett, a contemporary author who usually writes action-packed spy novels. But here he seems to have bought into the “more is more” approach to novel drafting. It reeks of “I am going to write a lengthy, superficially classical-seeming magnum opus for the pure sake of writing a lengthy, superficially classical-seeming magnum opus.” A shame.

    Having not read Hunchback yet, I couldn’t say for sure, but Follett’s attempt seems, to me, a contrived version to mimic the greatness of a classic like that one. Only Follett’s detail is not intelligent. His writing is, to my taste, anyway, overly simplistic, there is just a whole lot more of it. To me, more volume does not make a better or more intelligent end product.

    I read for story, too, and so far (I am about 75% through it) Pillars does seems to be doing in 1000 pages what, story-wise, could have been done in about 200.

    Overly detailed writing is boring, I don’t care who you are. And with limited free reading time, I like the good stuff in gripping, compact form. Not to say there isn’t some sloppy, contemporary crap out there. But thank goodness for good, hard-hitting, concise, intelligent modern writing!

  • Jodi Kaplan January 20, 2012, 10:59 am

    If it’s well done and well-written long is great. If it’s poorly written, 200 pages is too many. I eagerly devoured Game of Thrones (1000+ pages) in a day. A few months ago, after days of trying, I tossed aside a 200 page book that was chock-full of turgid, academic prose. Sure it was short, but it was unreadable.