by Victor Hugo, Knopf (Everyman’s Library) 2012; 465 pages; $26
“The trunk of the tree is unchanging, the vegetation is capricious.” So says 19th century French novelist Victor Hugo in his historical masterpiece “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame,” first published in 1831. The “trunk” that Hugo refers to is none other than the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, itself, and “vegetation” stands for the ceaseless carnival of human activity that has occupied the iconic structure through the centuries. Such ruminations on the longevity of Gothic architecture fill the pages of “Hunchback,” turning its scenic backdrop into a character all its own.
Set in medieval Paris, the novel stages a sweeping and grotesque pantomime of “Beauty and the Beast” with the infamous bell-ringing gargoyle, Quasimodo, as the centerpiece of the story. The tragic figure is perpetually thronged by a mob of old-world Parisian archetypes, including the enigmatic gypsy, Esmeralda, and the militant swordsman, Captain Phoebus. As their wide-eyed drama unfolds, teeming with lust, betrayal, violence and anything else one could want from Romantic fiction, Hugo periodically interjects to point an enthusiastic finger at the towers looming high above the action.
Whenever the author “takes the reins” in these sections, he steers the reader into a passionate history lesson on the majesty of French architectural design. The combination of “Hunchback’s” classical set pieces and its dramatic foreground stresses the importance of 15th century art for a 19th century audience.
Hugo’s argument, in this case, grows more complex with the latest reprinting of “Hunchback” by Everyman’s Library. Since the novel’s original inclusion in the Library in 1910, the American literary landscape has transformed into a fast-moving and forward-thinking entity. It haughtily prompts one to ask, how relevant is medieval architecture to the 21st century reader? More importantly, why should we read a 19th century manuscript when we could easily enjoy one of its many modern incarnations on stage and screen? Perhaps the most pertinent question lies in the format of the book itself. Why should we purchase a hardbound edition of the novel, designed to suit a private library (an increasingly rare addition to any home), when we can cheaply view it online via our tablets and Kindle devices?
For Victor Hugo, the answer would be simple. He would commend Everyman’s Library for disregarding the “vegetation” of modern conveniences and encourage us to embrace the unchanging “trunk” of his marvelous text.
Lance Hicks is an English major at Jacksonville State University.