The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo (audio): first half

hunchbackThis is a long book, and listening to it as an audiobook makes it longer still. I’ve been at it a week and a half now and am not quite halfway through, so I thought it might be appropriate to break it into two reviews – to remind myself, as much as anything else.

I will not devote too much space to plot synopsis here; this work has plenty of presence in the public consciousness and a rather thorough Wikipedia article as well. The story within the book most centrally concerns Quasimodo, the eponymous hunchback, and Esmeralda, a beautiful young gypsy woman with several admirers. While the story revolves around these two protagonists and their eventual fates, its range is much larger than that. Between events in the lives of Quasimodo, Esmeralda, and the other characters who effect their stories, Hugo describes the architecture of Paris (note the prominence of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in the title and in the story) and the history of both the city and its architecture. He connects changes and trends in architecture to changes in culture, and thereby tells a larger story than just that of his characters; this is also a book about Paris and its people in history.

It can get a little dry. I find this reading (listening) experience to be mixed: at its best, Hugo is hilarious, dry, droll, witty, and sketches people and scenes charmingly. At its drier moments, however, my mind wanders as he describes architecture (I confess, not a particular area of personal interest) and the various period styles involved in the Cathedral, etc. I can blank out on this book for 30 minutes at a time, and I am not highly motivated to fight it; I just let Hugo’s words wash over me, gathering the main effect, and wait for Esmeralda et al to reappear and entertain me. While I am a fan of some forms of narrative within descriptive or didactic ramblings (The Perfect Storm being the perfect example of this done beautifully), this is not one of the more effective or enjoyable versions I’ve come across.

The narrator of this version, David Case, has what I assume to be a fine French accent (that is my mother’s area, not mine), but its nasal, whinging nature can be a little trying. I don’t want to give the impression that I am impatient or annoyed with this book (or this narration) on balance; but I do have some criticisms, you see. I turned it off for a few days in favor of MUSIC (what a joy!), but I was glad to get back to it.

I think this is a great story, and a great point of cultural reference, and I am getting some (needed, and appreciated) education on French culture. I am enjoying it – particularly the narrative parts. It takes a little patience and forbearance – a little more than a faster-paced story would – but I believe it will be worth it. More a Dickens than a Lee Child, you see.

Have you read The Hunchback of Notre Dame? Or do you have any other experiences with similar classics: medium-lengthy, verbose and descriptive, a little challenging but worthwhile?

Rating: I’m going to finish it before I judge.

2 Responses

  1. […] is something Shakespearean, I think, in this repartee. As I said in my mid-way-through review, Hugo is at his best in narrative (or dialogue!), when he is pithy and entertaining. Still enjoying […]

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