Victor Hugo: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

It is not for nothing that Rodin sculpted a dramatic monument of this writer; not for nothing that a statue of him with a lion stands imposingly in the gardens of Villa Borghese in Rome; and not for nothing that I chose this as my 100th book this year.

Because there are authors we outgrow, there are those we resonate with during a particular stage in life, there are those who deliver exciting information to the mind but barely leave imprints on the soul, and then there are those timeless ones like Victor Hugo who, throughout the years, endure to disclose beauty and depth commensurate with a reader’s growth.

Everyone probably knows by now that the novel is degrees darker, more tragic, and ends nothing like the Disney film. Although it tells of love that transforms, contemplations on fate, there is also lust, obsession, loss, betrayal, death — but had I known the original French title beforehand, Notre-Dame de Paris, perhaps I would have realized sooner that this is, in fact, a gigantic novel about architecture.

After its publication 190 years ago, it launched a movement to preserve French Gothic architecture. A first-time reader of the preface will focus on that fateful Greek word engraved on the wall upon which Hugo stumbled in one of Notre Dame’s towers, and which would inspire him to write the novel. But listening more keenly will reveal that even on the first page of the preface, there are lines that already set the tone for his architectural odes and intentions.

Of the structures from the Middle Ages, he writes in passing, “Mutilations come to them from every quarter, from within as well as from without… What has time, what have men done with these marvels?” But a few dozen pages deeper, he elegantly declares, “Time has bestowed upon the church perhaps more than it has taken away, for it is time which has spread over the facade that sombre hue of the centuries which makes the old age of monuments the period of their beauty. Who has brutally swept them away? It is not time… time’s share would be the least, the share of men the most.”

“On the face of this aged queen of our cathedrals, by the side of a wrinkle, one always finds a scar. Tempus edax, homo edacior (time is a devourer; man, more so); which I should be glad to translate thus: time is blind, man is stupid.”

By the time I read a quarter of the book, I was convinced that this is more about Notre Dame than it is about the Hunchback. “Each face, each stone of the venerable monument, is a page not only of the history of the country, but of the history of science and art as well.”

There are chapters and chapters devoted to detailed descriptions and beautiful thoughts on architecture. He believes architecture to be “the great handwriting of the human race” and how, throughout the ages, it is “developed in proportion to human thought”.

Of the great edifices he writes, “They make one feel to what a degree architecture is a primitive thing, by demonstrating that the greatest products of architecture are less the works of individuals than of society…the deposit left by a whole people… the residue of successive evaporations of human society… Each individual brings his stone. Thus do the beavers, thus do the bees, thus do men. The great symbol of architecture, Babel, is a hive.”

However, I have also recently learned that some architects strongly disagree with a particular chapter where Hugo holds that architecture was dethroned and ceased to be the sovereign art upon the arrival of Gutenberg and the flourishing of literature. He laments this “death”— “no longer the social art, the collective art, the dominating art.” 

Perhaps it is the fact that I am not an architect that I did not react so disapprovingly towards the passage (even though the architect with whom I shared some beautiful lines the moment I read them prove the statement wrong with the work that he’s been involved in for the past several years), and perhaps it is because I considered the historical context in which Hugo wrote.

But I am absolutely certain that those who immediately oppose the disputed chapter did not finish reading this giant. On a closing note in this edition, Hugo clearly expresses that he hopes to be put in the wrong about this exact view!

This, ladies and gentlemen, is how you craft the most beautiful architectural challenge ever written.

It is not for nothing.