When thou giveth, thou can also taketh away. But you know that all too well, Hugo, don’t you? You gave your story life, and you gave me momentary intrigue throughout Book 2 of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This lifted my spirits after reading Book 1, which was remarkably dull and extraordinarily laborious to read. However, my hopes for a compelling tale have been dashed by Book 3.
Book 3 was thirty-four pages of sheer description. Descriptions of Notre Dame, of each section of Paris, and of the view from the top of Notre Dame compromise the entirety of this Book. Now, if (like me) you’ve never been to Paris, quite a bit of this can be hard to follow. Moreover, it is almost completely irrelevant to the story and painful to read. It appears to be a showcase of Hugo’s immense knowledge of 15th century Paris compared to 19th century Paris. So, I have come to the conclusion that not only is his writing pretentious, but so is he. His word choice, his sentence structure, and his tendency toward unnecessary history lessons all have led me to that conclusion.
Who knows? Perhaps he will again lure me into his story with a hint of intrigue and a splash of plot. But I find that no matter what the story becomes, this book will probably not be worth the read. I have the feeling that he did not need five-hundred pages to lay out his narrative. In fact, he probably only need half of that. Again I will say though, who knows what the rest of the novel will bring? Maybe, just maybe, my mind will change in the end.
I will say that in the thirty-four pages of endless description, Hugo did say one thing of interest. He wrote, “[Hybrid structures] make us feel in how great a degree architecture is a primitive art…The greatest productions of architecture are not so much the work of individuals as of society — the offspring rather of national efforts than the outcome of a particular genius; a legacy left by the whole people, the accumulation of ages, the residue of successive evaporations of human society; in short, a species of formations. Each wave of time leaves its alluvium, each race leaves a deposit upon the monument, each individual lays his stone. Such is the process of beavers, such that of bees, such that of men. The great symbol of architecture, Babel, is a hive.” (p. 107). How wonderfully, though again superfluously, written. It sparked quite a train of thoughts in my mind. I say now, hesitantly, that I agree with him on this.
The only reason I would disagree is because the most beautiful building in the world, La Sagrada Familia, was “the outcome of a particular genius.” But then, the more I thought about Gaudi’s cathedral in Barcelona, the more I realized that it too was “the accumulation of ages.” The church that’s never done being built had several different styles representative of many different centuries of taste. The back of the church held the Nativity Facade, which was in an older, almost Gothic style. The Basilica (the truly magnificent part of the church) was a product of the 20th century, the product of a time when religious beliefs could be freely questioned, and the direct product of Gaudi, “a particular genius.” Lastly, the front of the cathedral is a product of the late 20th century and early 21st. The stone figures reigning on the walls were cut in a nearly abstract fashion, the bowls of berries on top of the church were painted in colors that are in architectural fashion today, and words were posted on every surface from the doors to the benches that were scripted in a typeface style like this:
All the elements on the front of the cathedral embody the art of the 21st century, nothing like Gaudi would’ve imagined when he designed the building. So, ultimately, I see exactly what Hugo means. Each portion of La Sagrada Familia reveals a different era, a new taste, a different aesthetic of a different time. So, at least one good thing came out of my reading those thirty-four pages, a wonderful new way to perceive our living art.
Reading this book is a part of a bucket list item. To read the complete bucket list, click here.