“Now, if the enumeration of so many edifices, brief as we have tried to be, has not shattered in the reader’s mind the general image of old Paris as fast as we have endeavored to construct it, we will recapitulate it in a few words.

Have you ever read a book that’s changed you in some way? I talk not of powerful biographies, or religious scripture here, though admittedly both have the potential to evoke great personal change, but the humble novel. Perhaps it’s a stupid question. Most people, after all, would answer yes; literature carries with it that special sort of magic which, on its smallest scale, can move a reader from apathy, to elation, to abject grief, and to all manner of sentiment in between. Some pieces go further than just triggering a cascade of changing emotion through their course, and have the added ability to elicit a change in outlook by their close as well.

But what about challenging the type of reader you are though, and changing the way it is you read?

(Part discussion, part book review. Spoilers within.)

My first book of the new year was (and unfortunately, a busy schedule means still is) Hugo’s ‘The Hunchback of Notre-Dame’. Randomly selected from a reading list I find myself perpetually lamenting – it somehow continues to grow despite my best efforts – it was to be the first of Hugo’s works I would encounter in the original (okay, translated) written form. And it would be an understatement to say I was looking forward to being transported to that different world. If literature is one of the purest forms of escapism, I found myself counting on Hugo to make the hum-drum commute of everyday a little more French, a lot less everyday, and infinitely more captivating. And he did. For a time.

“Basoche”. The word pulled me out of my reverie of a parading procession around a medieval Paris, initiating a mental search, but leaving me without answer. Should I know what it meant? Could I ascertain a definition using neighbouring words? Was it, in any case, so important it warranted a dictionary, and a proper pause? Perhaps not. But it was too late. Where I could seemingly skim over the many other examples before this one I didn’t fully understand, for some strange reason, “Basoche” was unwilling to go quietly. So out came the dictionary and surprisingly, not long afterwards, I found myself reaching for a pencil also.

Why is this relevant? Well my dear reader, do you remember the premise for this post? We were talking of the power of novels in eliciting change. Now, it’s worth pointing out here that I have only two rules when it comes to reading:

  1. Never write in a book
  2. Always reach the end

I can say with a fair degree of certainty that over the entire course of my reading lifetime, and as far as I can remember, I have only ever made three exceptions to these rules. One was a book in a foreign language, the second a poetry anthology, and the third perhaps an inevitable consequence of attempting to read Tolkien far too young. But here was Hugo, somehow getting me to break rule 1 less than a third of the way into his book.

And once I reasoned it was essential to improving literary experience the second time round, I couldn’t stop. How could I leave La Esmeralda’s song on the previous page sans translation? Did I even know what a “balafo” was? And what of the “Gothic rebec”? Better look it all up and write it in, just in case. I eventually put down the pencil for good when I realised:

  1. It was taking me too long to actually read Hugo’s novel
  2. I had also started to consider underlining nice turns of phrase to boot

It was probably the second realisation that really did it. I had a friend once indicate they shared no such reservation when it came to writing in books. They told of underlining interesting passages and annotating references in the margin with an almost complete lack of hesitation. But how can you enjoy books the second time then? I responded unconvinced, or at least, should’ve done if I didn’t. The recollection of that moment served to bring rule 1 off the bench and back into play – no matter how much Hugo’s writing warranted pencilled definitions, it had always been my belief that marking wonderfully put passages would only ruin the joy of rediscovering them a second time. Better that I put the pencil away permanently than increase the likelihood of such an event.

But Hugo had still changed me. I didn’t erase my definitions. And I still couldn’t resist stopping to make a note of his written gems as I encountered them – only this time, I found myself reaching for the phone instead of a pencil. And that was not all. Do you remember rule 2, dear reader? I have to admit, it does in fact precede a bracketed subsection, so really, reads as follows:

2. Always reach the end

(without skipping any boring bits)

Now I’ve found Hugo’s writing sufficiently engaging enough I have yet to even consider breaking my second rule for reading. But that isn’t to say he hasn’t tested me on the subsection though. Take the very first quote that started this post. It came after a whopping 26 pages of architectural description, documenting the evolution of Paris over the centuries and the architecture of the day at the time of writing. That made for tough reading, and there were definite moments where I considered skipping Book III altogether. Luckily, the description was still littered with literary gems, and as I found myself encountering them each time I was about to flick through to the next section, I stuck at it, and have now left Book III far behind (having read it in its entirety first).

Somewhat paradoxically then, and for both my reading rules, it was Hugo who saved me from Hugo. His (mostly) engaging writing, coupled with wonderfully put turns of phrase, made delaying the read annoying, and skipping sections risky. If he had been any other author though, the pencil may well have stayed in my hand, and I probably never would have discovered that the Chatelet was initially a Roman tower under Emperor Julian, and a feudal tower in the thirteenth century. And yet. Would that really be such a bad thing?

Annotating Hugo’s writing gave me a wider breadth of vocabulary, and a greater appreciation for classical civilisation, and if I had skipped Book III, perhaps I would be reading something else today. In essence, he taught me that perhaps my rules shouldn’t be carved in stone as they have been thus far, but rather written on paper, and erased when the situation demands it. After all, whether annotater, section-skipper, or some other kind of reader entirely, we all belong to a people who find value in words on a page, and the meaning that lies beneath. And as long as nothing changes this fundamental truth, perhaps some change isn’t so bad.

2 thoughts on “Victor Hugo: The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

  1. You’re patient, MD! Too much Gothic for me.
    Head for Proust instead (A la recherche..). You’ve probably bagged him already, though


    1. Having finished it fairly recently, I found ultimately patience was needed for the content of his narrative more than the narrative itself. I also found myself drawing parallels between Hugo’s Claude Frollo and one of the characters in David Ball’s The Sword and The Scimitar, a novel equally well written but arguably more engaging – highly recommend.

      I’ve heard of Proust but haven’t read his work (yet) – thank you for the recommendation.

      And thanks for reading!


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