Friday, April 27, 2012

His Excellency Eugène Rougon by Emile Zola

Behind the scenes of Second Empire politics
This is the sixth novel in Zola’s twenty-novel Rougon-Macquart cycle. Compared to the other novels in the series, this one falls in the middle of the pack in terms of quality. Eugène Rougon is a powerful minister in Napoleon III’s government. Through his own vanity and ambition, and some political maneuvering on the part of his rivals, he is beginning to fall into disfavor with the Emperor and with the public. Rougon won’t go down without a fight, however, and this book chronicles his battle to stay on top. At the same time, Rougon becomes romantically obsessed with a beautiful Italian aristocrat who has hidden political motivations of her own. This book offers a fascinating look into the complex inner workings of the government of France’s Second Empire. Napoleon III himself is a supporting character in the book. This novel is similar to Zola’s work Money (L’Argent) in that it offers us a very well-drawn, strong and ambitious central character with complicated emotional depth, situated in a position of power amidst the historical events of his era. To read this book it helps to have a general knowledge of French history and politics of the time, at least the various wars that were taking place during the Second Empire. The characters make reference to a lot of events, and it can be a difficult read if you don’t know the facts behind the story. Those who enjoy Zola’s other Rougon-Macquart novels will like this book, as will anyone interested in French history.
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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The People of the Abyss by Jack London

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here
The People of the Abyss, first published in 1903, is Jack London’s first-hand account of life in the slums of the East End district of London. A combination of undercover investigative reportage and sociological research, this book provides a vivid picture of an urban environment which a century ago was notorious worldwide for its horrible living conditions. It is analogous to the chronicles of contemporary authors who venture incognito into the back alleys of Mogadishu, the slums of Calcutta, or the favelas of Rio. Although renowned for his novels and short stories, Jack London was also an excellent journalist. It is a testament to his skills as a reporter that he holds the reader’s interest in what is essentially a series of National Geographic articles about a place you would never want to visit. In the 27 chapters of this book, London examines the East End from 27 different angles, offering chapters on the workhouse, a night spent on the streets, breakfast with the Salvation Army, hop picking, police reports, and suicide. Each of the chapters could stand alone as an autonomous essay, with Chapter 19, “The Ghetto” being probably the best encapsulation of the volume as a whole.

In the worst portions of the book London rattles off lists of mind-numbing demographic statistics; in the best passages he relates the haunting life stories of individual workers trapped in this maze of overcrowding, unemployment, squalor, filth, and degradation. London’s attitude towards the East End inhabitants alternates between empathy, condescension, disgust, and admiration. Although he views the denizens of this vile ghetto as the casualties of the industrial revolution and the victims of a capitalist society, London’s political views at this early point in his career do not come across as firmly defined. While in later years he would have proposed socialist revolution as the cure for the East End’s ills, here his plan of attack is a mixture of complaints about government efficiency and exhortations to the reader’s sympathy. An underlying theme reverberating throughout the book is London’s variation on the golden rule: “What is not good enough for you, is not good enough for other men.” The People of the Abyss is a valuable historical document of poverty during the industrial revolution. It may be the most depressing book you’ll ever read, but it’s quite educational and at times deeply moving. Even if you’re a fan of London there’s no guarantee you’ll like this book, but it has its merits and is worth a look.

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Monday, April 23, 2012

Hunger by Knut Hamsun

Groundbreaking but not earth-shattering
This novel by Nobel Prize-winning Norwegian author Knut Hamsun relates the thoughts and actions of an unnamed, unemployed, and starving narrator who ekes out a meagre existence in the city of Kristiania (known today as Oslo). Besides selling an occasional philosophical article to the local newspapers, this man has no means of reliable income and does not put forth much effort into acquiring any. Though apparently well-educated, he exhibits obvious signs of mental illness. It’s unclear, however, whether his psychological problems are the result of his hunger and unemployment, or vice versa. He considers himself to be singled out for persecution by God, and curses the Almighty defiantly. While he recognizes his own wretchedness, his preoccupation with personal dignity and civilized propriety often results in him turning down money or food that may be of valuable use in prolonging his life. Through this first-person account of a troubled and delusional mind, Hamsun provides a sometimes bleak, sometimes comical vision of the frustrating insignificance of an individual lost within the framework of modern civilization.

Hunger was first published in 1890, but in style and substance it is decades ahead of its time. It demonstrates one of the first uses of the stream of consciousness narrative mode, and in its preoccupation with internal human psychology as opposed to concrete plot events, it is a precursor to much of the modernist literature of the early 20th century.

Unfortunately, one of the characteristics of modernism evident in this book is the lack of a satisfying plot. Hamsun’s primary concern is providing a psychological profile of his character, and little attention is paid to the structure of the story. The narrator wanders the streets, running into friends, acquaintances, and strangers, pathologically lying to them about his wretched condition. Sometimes he lucks into money which he self-destructively squanders. There’s no progression forward towards a finality. The scenes of this novel could be shuffled like a deck of cards with little consequence to its overall effect. A few paragraphs of conclusion are tacked onto the back end of the book, but the ending is such a convenient resolution that it seems a little silly in its disregard for the preceding tone of the overall narrative.

Hunger is an important novel, but that doesn’t necessarily make it an enjoyable read. While I appreciate its influence on the history of world literature, the book itself is good but not great. It did produce a profound enough effect on me, however, that I hope to read more of Hamsun’s work in the future.

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Friday, April 20, 2012

Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

Speckled with moments of brilliance
Carrie Meeber leaves her small-town home in Wisconsin to try to make a life in Chicago. After unsuccessfully searching for steady employment, she gives up and becomes the “kept woman” of a male acquaintance, Charles Drouet. She finds her life with Drouet satisfactory for a while, but when she meets his friend George Hurstwood, a wealthier and more sophisticated gentleman, she begins a secret love affair with this older, married man.

I’m a big fan of the naturalist novel, and Dreiser is renowned as one of the best American practitioners of this literary style. Even so, I was disappointed with this book. Though Dreiser, like an exemplary naturalist, brilliantly captures the naked reality of social conditions and human behavior, that alone doesn’t make a great novel. A great novel requires characters that the reader actually cares about, and that’s what I felt was lacking from this book. It’s unfortunate that Dreiser chose a female protagonist, because he doesn’t display a whole lot of insight into the feminine mind. Based on this book alone, one would think his conception of womankind could be summed up in the phrase, “They like shiny things.” Carrie comes across as shallow and stupid from chapter one. She continually makes life-changing decisions based on her desire for fancier clothing. In the second half of the book we gain more respect for her as she shows some competence in her chosen vocation, but it’s too little too late, and her basic nature doesn’t change. Hurstwood is a far more sympathetic character, but he exhibits his own frustrating assortment of unforgivable faults.

The best portions of the book succeed in spite of the characters and plot, rather than because of them. The expository comments Dreiser makes on human nature are far more insightful than anything being acted out by the book’s cast. The more documentary portions of the book are brilliantly drawn, for example an account of a transit workers’ strike, or the portrayal of the plight of the homeless. Unfortunately it’s difficult to feel much pathos for the one poor character in the book because his fall from riches to rags is brought about by extraordinarily bad decisions. Instead of a “this could happen to anyone” feeling toward poverty, the tragic downfall of the character leaves the reader with the attitude of “that would never happen to me” and “serves him right.”

Sister Carrie is to be commended for its groundbreaking lack of sentimentality and its disregard for the puritanical morality of its day. Its liberating influence on American literature is unquestionable. Enough moments of brilliance shine through this flawed book to show me that Dreiser did have the great American novel within him, and I’m going to keep reading his work until I find it.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Philosophy Made Simple by Richard H. Popkin and Avrum Stroll

A helpful road map
One of the problems with reading philosophy is that no matter what you’re reading you’re always expected to know everything that came before it. For those of us to which philosophy is not a vocation but an avocation, reading the entire canon from Plato through the 21st century just isn’t feasible. When you’re reading Marx and he starts talking about Hegel, for example, who has time to go back and read everything by Hegel just to figure out what Marx is talking about? That’s why you need a good cheat sheet, which is what this book provides. The second function of a book like this is that by providing a general overview of the history of philosophy, it gives one the opportunity to select the philosophers and schools of thought that interest them, so one can pursue these areas through further study. This book is also quite successful on that score. It not only allows you to pick and choose those thinkers who pique your interest, it also generates a genuine enthusiasm for the study of philosophy. I walked away from this book with a list of at least a dozen specific works that I look forward to reading.

I have tried other surveys on philosophy, some too deep (Coppleston’s nine-volume A History of Philosophy), some too shallow (Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy). Philosophy Made Simple is the Baby Bear of this genre—not too hot, not too cold, just right. It does an admirable job of taking extremely complex theoretical subject matter and explaining it in language suitable for about a college undergrad reading level. I never felt like the writing was too tediously textbooky, nor did I feel like it had been dumbed down for me, à la Philosophy for Idiots. This book is technically not a history, but rather is divided up into subject areas—metaphysics, ethics, politics, and so on—each of which receives a roughly chronological treatment. There’s also a chapter on logic which feels more like a math textbook, and was less interesting to me personally. The twentieth century definitely gets sparse coverage, possibly because there’s just too many people to cover, or because time has yet to tell which recent philosophers deserve to stand here among the ancients. The section on contemporary philosophy (which starts about 1850) only covers a handful of subjects: the pragmatism of William James and John Dewey; the logical atomism of Bertrand Russell and Wittgenstein; existentialism from Kierkegaard through Heidigger and Sartre, up to the deconstructionism of Derrida; and a little bit on Richard Rorty. Overall I enjoyed reading this book, found it valuable in its breadth and clarity, and will surely use it as a reference in the future. If more people knew about this book, perhaps philosophy wouldn’t be so frightening to the general American reader.

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Monday, April 16, 2012

The Sea-Wolf by Jack London

Ends not with a bang but with a whimper
The Sea-Wolf, first published in 1904, is one of Jack London’s best known novels. The narrator, Humphrey Van Weyden, is a self-proclaimed “gentleman” who dabbles in literary criticism. While crossing San Francisco Bay, Van Weyden’s ferry boat collides with another ship and sinks. He is washed out toward sea, where he is picked up by the seal-hunting schooner The Ghost. Van Weyden’s joy at being rescued is short lived, however, when he discovers that the captain of the ship, a brute by the name of Wolf Larsen, has no intention of returning him to California. Larsen is amused by the idea of taking this weakling who never worked a day of physical labor in his life and turning him into a man who can “stand on his own legs.” Larsen informs Van Weyden that he will be joining the crew as cabin boy for the several months duration of the sealing trip.

Wolf Larsen is an atheist and materialist, who believes that might is right and there is no purpose in life other than the pleasure he finds in it. Van Weyden describes him as “not immoral, but unmoral.” In Larsen’s view, the world is a brutally competitive place, and a life has no inherent value other than that which it can earn by fighting for its own survival. Van Weyden, on the other hand, is an idealist who believes that man possesses an immortal soul, and that there exist absolute virtues of right and justice that supersede self-interest. Each an intellectual in his own way, the two men engage in intriguing philosophical discussions on human behavior and the nature of the universe. These conversations take a back seat to the daily workings of the ship, however, as Van Weyden slaves like a dog while Larsen exercises his philosophy by brutalizing the motley crew of sailors. The barbarity of this environment is an education for the cultured Van Weyden, who gets his first taste of the harsh reality that exists outside the pages of his books.

At first The Sea-Wolf promises to be an excellent novel, grippingly suspenseful and intellectually provocative. Unfortunately, at the halfway point it takes a turn for the worse. The Ghost rescues some castaways, one of which happens to be a woman, Maude Brewster. From that point on, the book ceases to be a philosophical novel and instead concentrates primarily on Van Weyden’s discovery of the mystery, the magic, the glory, of Woman. Romance was never London’s strong suit. His male/female relationships often end up being so idealized and cloyingly sweet that it’s hard for today’s reader to take them seriously. The second half of The Sea-Wolf is still a decent adventure novel, but London’s devotion to this trite love story keeps it from rising above the level of mediocre genre fiction. Thus the promise of a profound philosophical novel is never manifested. The conflict between Van Weyden and Larsen ends up being resolved not by any action on either’s part, but rather by an “act of God,” which leaves the reader feeling cheated and let down.

The Sea-Wolf is a good book, but not a great one. Though the front half shows inklings of a masterpiece along the lines of The Call of Wild, The Iron Heel, or Martin Eden, the disappointing ending puts it in a class with middling works like White Fang.

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Friday, April 13, 2012

Lost Illusions by Honoré de Balzac

Balzac’s Biggest and Best?
Lucien Chardon is the strikingly handsome but unfortunately poor son of a pharmacist, with ambitions of becoming a poet. David Séchard is the honest and hardworking heir to his father’s printing company, with aspirations of becoming a scientist. The two childhood friends reconnect as adults and form a strong friendship (in contemporary slang it might be termed a “bromance”), and the bond of brotherhood is sealed when David marries Lucien’s sister. Lucien strives to escape his social class and break into the world of the nobility by winning the love of an aristocratic woman, finding fame and fortune in the Parisian world of letters, and reclaiming the noble surname of his mother’s ancestry. David struggles to keep his printing business afloat while laboring to discover a new and cheaper method of producing paper, an invention which will make him rich. As the two protagonists struggle to realize their dreams, they are rudely awakened from their provincial naiveté to the harsh reality of a competitive society of greedy vultures who wish to prey upon them. The title is a common theme throughout the book, as Balzac strips the respectable veneer off nearly every aspect of 19th century French society, exposing an undercurrent of corruption, duplicity, and iniquity.

It’s possible this is the perfect novel, and the only faults I can find may very well stem from my own ignorance. It is a brilliant work of literature, thoroughly engaging and entertaining, profound in its insights, but at times quite difficult to get through. Balzac’s field of knowledge is so broad and so deep that he is capable of expounding in intricate detail on any topic under the sun. I’m familiar with the printing, publishing, and paper making industries, so I was able to follow those threads, but when he gets into the byzantine workings of the newspaper business, the theatrical world, banking transactions, and legal proceedings, I often felt lost in the sheer overload of information. There is a tremendous amount of wheeling and dealing going on in this book, and at times it’s hard to follow, especially when expressed in the terminology of a hundred-year-old translation. I read a lot of French literature, and I’m pretty familiar with the time period, but this book was a challenge for me, and probably would be for many other readers out there, unless you’re a scholar of French history.

This book is a real centerpiece to Balzac’s magnum opus, the Comédie Humaine, with dozens of characters that either star or make guest appearances in other novels. For those who have never read Balzac before, I wouldn’t recommend this book as your introduction to his writings. First try something less intense like Père Goriot or Eugénie Grandet. But for those who have already enjoyed and appreciated the works of this literary master, then Lost Illusions is definitely worth the challenging read. Your efforts will be handsomely rewarded.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Sin of Father Mouret (La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret) by Emile Zola

A disappointing departure from naturalism
Of the twenty books in the Rougon-Macquart series, this (the fifth book) is one of my least favorites. It is uncharacteristic of Zola’s writing style, and doesn’t read like a part of the series at all. The book starts out well enough. Zola describes the small village of Les Artauds where Serge Mouret serves as parish priest, the lives of its none-too-pious inhabitants, and the role the Church plays in their everyday lives. I don’t think I’m giving too much away by saying that the Sin mentioned in the title is that he falls in love with a woman. From there the book goes downhill. Zola abandons his trademark naturalism for a less realistic style that seems to be a throwback to earlier symbolist literature. The characters are largely allegorical. We see them as symbols for “Religion” or “Nature”, rather than as three-dimensional human beings. Perhaps it’s just my perspective as a twenty-first century reader that makes it hard for me to identify with two characters frolicking in an enchanted garden. The love affair is too idyllic, to the point of tedium. The book feels like a short story that has been drawn out to the length of a novel. Or perhaps it would have worked better as a poem, considering the bulk of the love scenes are comprised of long descriptive passages about nature. Those who want to tackle the entire Rougon-Macquart series should (and will, of course) read this book. Others should avoid it.
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Monday, April 9, 2012

The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson by David P. Silcox

Extraordinary artists, extraordinary book
First, a brief lesson for the uninitiated: The Group of Seven, along with fellow painter and inspirational leader Tom Thomson, were a group of Canadian painters active from around 1910 to the mid-1930s. Known predominantly for their landscapes, these eleven artists (yes, eleven; not seven; it’s a long story) revolutionized the art of their nation by rejecting the traditions of European painting in favor of Canadian subject matter and a uniquely Canadian aesthetic. By combining elements of impressionism, fauvism, and art nouveau they created their own style of painting which has had an unparalleled influence on the history of Canadian art.

David Silcox has put together the ultimate tribute to these amazing artists. The 70-odd pages of text in this book are very well-written, covering the formation of the group, their travels across Canada, and the cultural ramifications of their work. Though the essays offer enlightening reading, the main attraction here is the collection of 400 images. This is one coffee-table book that truly needs a coffee table. The mammoth size of this tome is a challenge to its own binding. It proves, however, that as far as content is concerned, size truly does matter. If you were going to put together a book on the Group of Seven, how would you do it? Would you show the most famous and memorable images, or search for hidden, unpublished gems? In a book this size you can do both! And Silcox does. Would you organize the images by artist, by subject matter (still lifes, portraits, World War I, etc.), or by geographic location (Algonquin Park, Rocky Mountains, the Arctic, etc.)? With a book this big, why choose? Do all three! Different portions of the book are arranged accordingly. Most books on the Group of Seven make the mistake of devoting too much space to the “big five”: Tom Thomson, Lawren Harris, J. E. H. MacDonald, A. Y. Jackson, and Arthur Lismer. Silcox finally gives the “minor” members their due respect. Franklin Carmichael, F. H. Varley, Frank Johnston, Edwin Holgate, A. J. Casson, and Lionel LeMoine FitzGerald are all well-represented, and they hold their own against the big guns of the Group. About two dozen black and white drawings are included; the rest of the works are all paintings. The book doesn’t include any printmaking, which is unfortunate, since a few of the members—notably Carmichael, Casson, and Holgate—really excelled in that medium.

Browsing through these pages is the next best thing to strolling the hallowed halls of the McMichael Collection or the Art Gallery of Ontario. The Group of Seven have never looked so good in book form. This volume is elegantly designed, and the paintings are beautifully reproduced. Here and there one could quibble over the selection of images, but overall it’s hard to imagine another book improving upon this one. After setting the bar this high, perhaps the next step will be a digital catalog raisonné on DVD. Until that day comes, Silcox’s compendium will remain the ultimate visual reference on these artists.

Franklin Carmichael, October Gold.

Tom Thomson, Northern River

Frank Johnston, Fire Swept, Algoma

A. J. Casson, Mill Houses

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Friday, April 6, 2012

Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo

The Mexican Masterpiece
Pedro Páramo is the quintessential Mexican novel, and possibly the greatest work of Latin-American literature since the Popol Vuh. It was the only novel ever written by Juan Rulfo, who also published one excellent collection of short stories, The Burning Plain (El Llano en Llamas).

After his mother dies, Juan Preciado travels to the village of Comala to find his father, Pedro Páramo, whom he has never known. Upon arriving, he finds Comala to be a ghost town inhabited by wandering spirits and faded memories. From this eerie background gradually emerges the story of Pedro Páramo, a powerful and unscrupulous land baron driven by greed, lust, and a lifelong unrequited love.

This novel is not divided into chapters, but rather into short passages. Each new passage brings a feeling of disorientation as the reader tries to get his bearings. Rulfo switches back and forth between first to third person narration, with different characters acting as narrator. It is often difficult to tell whether what you’re reading belongs to the realm of dreaming or waking, of the past or the present, of the living or the dead. It’s like a surrealist painting in which forms emerge haphazardly: some concrete, some ethereal; some beautiful, some horrific. The passages interconnect like an intricate puzzle, albeit a puzzle with missing pieces, spaces deliberately left empty, like rests in a symphony.

When modernism came along, it promised us that experimentation in language and form would yield works of literature more profound and more evocative than the traditional narrative styles of romanticism and naturalism. For the most part that was an empty promise, and instead of better books what we got was decades of verbal gymnastics and mental masturbation. Not so with Pedro Páramo. There is nothing flashy or gratuitous about Rulfo’s prose. His style is stark and spare, with every word carefully chosen and perfectly placed. No other writer can say so much with so few words as Juan Rulfo. In a scant 120 pages, he gives us a novel so rich in imagery it could serve as a scaffold upon which 100 novels could be built. Pedro Páramo was first published in 1955. I don't think a better novel has been written since.

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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Faith of Men by Jack London

Fourth Time’s the Charm
The Faith of Men was Jack London’s fourth collection of short stories, first published in 1904. It is probably the best collection he published during his lifetime, and certainly the best of his Klondike stories. In these eight superb tales of the North, London augments age-old traditions of storytelling with innovative plots, unique characters, and authentic local color. Reading this book is like eavesdropping on the tales traded by fur trappers, prospectors, and sled-dog mushers over a pot of whiskey-tainted coffee at a long-forgotten arctic trading post.

Though all the stories take place in or around the Yukon, they vary widely in tone. “A Relic of the Pliocene” is a lighthearted yarn in which Thomas Stevens—legendary hunter, drifter, and teller of tall tales—regales the fireside listener with his incredible first-hand account of stalking a woolly mammoth. “The One Thousand Dozen” is an edge-of-your-seat adventure about a San Francisco man who aims to make a small fortune by transporting 12,000 eggs up to famine-stricken Dawson, only to find the journey treacherous and his precious cargo constantly in peril. “Bâtard” is the story of a cruel dog and his cruel master, brought together by fate to make each other’s lives a living hell as they anticipate their inevitable fatal showdown. It is one of the most brutal stories ever written by London, an author renowned for his brutal stories. These three masterpieces, though incredibly different in style, all prove that London was an absolute master of the art of storytelling at this point in his career.

The weakest story in the book is “The Marriage of Lit-Lit,” simply because it’s London’s umpteenth take on the theme of white-hero-bargains-for-Indian-bride, though it’s better written than most of his forays into that topic. In contrast, “The Story of Jees Uck,” about a romance that develops between a trading post operator and a young Native American woman of mixed ancestry, is anything but stereotypical heroic fantasy. It’s London’s most realistic portrayal of a native/white relationship, and a touching tale of love and loyalty, masterfully told with surprising sensitivity and frankness. The other three entries in the book—“A Hyperborean Brew”, “The Faith of Men”, and “Too Much Gold”—are all four-star stories in their own right, and feel right at home in this stellar collection. The Faith of Men is a must read for any fan of London or any lover of classic literature who appreciates the art of the short story.

Stories in this collection:
A Relic of the Pliocene
A Hyperborean Brew
The Faith of Men
Too Much Gold
The One Thousand Dozen
The Marriage of Lit-Lit
The Story of Jees Uck

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Monday, April 2, 2012

Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo

There is no substitute for the original
By now we all know the story, or do we? Dom Claude Frollo, Archdeacon of Notre Dame, develops a lustful obsession towards the beautiful gypsy girl Esmerelda, and decides he must either possess her or destroy her. He sends his adopted son Quasimodo, the deformed bell ringer of Notre Dame, to capture her. The attempt fails, however, and Quasimodo is taken by guards, tried for the attempted abduction, and sentenced to a public flogging. While undergoing his punishment, Esmerelda grants him a drink of water, a gesture of kindness the pitiful hunchback never forgets. Esmerelda is later tried for a murder she did not commit, having been set up by Frollo. Quasimodo rescues her from the gallows and carries her into the cathedral where, due to the law of sanctuary, she is immune from the persecution of the law.

Like another great classic, Moby-Dick, most people only experience this story in the form of a movie or a condensed children’s book, in which the ending is oftentimes either truncated or replaced by some sort of “happily ever after” resolution. The actual book Victor Hugo wrote contains little that is suitable for children, and as for the actual ending, I’m certainly not going to give it away in this review.

This is one of the greatest novels ever written. Why do so few people read the actual book? For one reason, it’s a tough read. Written in 1831, and taking place in 1482, the story contains a lot of medieval history. The names of unfamiliar historical personages of church and state are liberally tossed about, along with a fair amount of archaic terminology. While it may be possible to read Les Misérables without a single footnote, you’d be hard-pressed to read Notre-Dame without ample notes and a couple trips to Wikipedia. Secondly, like all great books of the past, and like so few books of the present, this novel contains a complex message. Over and above the more immediate lessons it teaches us about love, obsession, courage, devotion, and fate, Notre-Dame de Paris also laments the death of architecture at the hands of the printing press. Gothic cathedrals were the books of their day; their walls were the pages, their sculptures and stained glass windows were the texts which educated the illiterate masses. One of Victor Hugo’s personal interests was the preservation of historical architecture, in particular the remaining medieval buildings of Paris. Quasimodo’s hulking form is an embodiment of the monolithic architecture of the Notre Dame cathedral itself. The story takes place at the time when the printing press was gaining prominence in Europe. With the dissemination of printed materials, more inexpensive and easier to mass produce than hand-copied manuscripts, came a rise in literacy. This in turn heralded the passage from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, and led to the triumph of education over ignorance, reason over superstition, science over religion, and democracy over monarchy. A more educated and literate population no longer needed those ornate cathedrals to instruct them as to what’s right and what’s true; possessed of the power of literacy they could now decide for themselves. While I think it’s safe to say Hugo was on the side of literacy, Quasimodo is the incarnation of Hugo’s nostalgia for the beautiful but obsolete form of expression encapsulated in those Gothic cathedrals. Now is a particularly interesting time to read this book, while we are undergoing an equally monumental shift in the primary mode of information dissemination, from the printed word to digital media.

Notre-Dame de Paris is one of the few novels that rises above the sphere of literature into the realm of mythology. Hugo has written such a well-crafted story, so memorable, so elegant in its basic structure, so universal in its themes, yet so deep in its philosophical undertones, that it earns itself a place alongside some of the most ancient myths and legends. The elemental opposition between Quasimodo (ugly on the surface but possessing beauty of soul) and Claude Frollo (superficially pious but sinister underneath) could have been written thousands of years ago. It’s a testament to Hugo’s skill as a writer that Quasimodo, a deformed man of childlike intelligence, has become a household name along the lines of Odysseus, Hamlet, Sherlock Holmes, or Batman. Esmerelda is one of the greatest female characters in literature—part gypsy sex goddess, part street-smart urchin, part naive teenage girl. At times she’s a damsel in distress, yes, but she’s also a strong-willed protagonist, with a fierce independence that’s undermined by her flawed, shallow infatuation with a handsome, egotistical man who ultimately brings about her downfall.

There are so many subplots and supporting characters in this book that never make it into the Disney or Hallmark Channel versions of the story. If you haven’t read Hugo’s version, you’re missing out on a lot. Treat yourself to one of the world’s greatest works of literature and start reading this book today.

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