Saturday, February 22, 2014

Meeting Mr. Hugo: the Beginning

Back in November (I think... was it really that long ago?) my boyfriend and I took a weekend trip to Victoria, BC. It's only about four hours away from home, but it feels like another place entirely. Just a nice place to spend a chill weekend, feeling like you've stepped back in time.

The highlight of the trip, for me, was Munro's Books. It's a really old, independent bookstore in the heart of the city, in a beautiful old building, resplendent with pillars and stained glass and fancy plaster. It's a book lover's dream. I swear I thought I'd died and ended up in heaven.

Needless to say, I busted the piggy bank and bought a sizeable stack of books. Like I usually do, I wandered the store, picking my purchase carefully. Shuffling them around, vetoing some, putting some back to acquire others. Making bargains with myself. Making Boyfriend carry some of my heavier selections. I was just about done when I rounded a corner and found myself face-to-face with a French fiction section, the biggest I've ever seen in a non-library.

I was in a French immersion program in school from age 10 to 17. After a few months of learning the language, 70-95% of my classes throughout that time were in French (minus English classes, of course) -- I even had French gym class. We played "le hockey" and "le basketball." But after graduation from high school, I have barely used my French besides reading cereal boxes and shampoo bottles.

So, as a booklover faced with a wall of books in a language I missed so much, I couldn't resist. I wanted to scoop up everything that looked even semi-interesting, but I settled on one: The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo, or Notre Dame de Paris, its French title. The Disney movie is among my favourites and I've always wanted to read the book and see how it compared.

It sat in my TBR pile for a while, as most books I read do, until I decided it was time. And so, for about a month now, I've been reading Hunchback for an hour or so every night. Sometimes it's slow-going. Sometimes I have my French dictionary open as often as I have the novel open. But sometimes it's fantastic. Sometimes I fly through chapters as easily as if they were English. It's exhilarating, relearning something you used to know by heart, flexing muscles that haven't been flexed in ages, and rediscovering that, hey, I'm damn good with French.

French isn't even the best part, though.

Hunchback is a really, really, really good book. I'm only a few hundred pages in, with a long way ahead of me, but damn. It doesn't get anywhere near the amount of praise it deserves.

And, also... it's fucking batshit insane.

Seriously. Victor Hugo's mind is just... ah! How? Why? WHAT IS GOING ON?

And so, I thought I'd start a bit of a blog series, hashing out this redonkulous book. Because I'm pretty sure Boyfriend is tired of hearing the words "Just guess what Victor Hugo fucking did in this fucking book, it's unbelievable!"

Let's start at the beginning.

But not the real beginning. Because it's hard to tell where exactly this book even starts. It certainly doesn't start in the first 54 pages -- that's just a huge long preface by some French scholar guy. I skipped that straight off the bat. But does it start in the next section, where Hugo writes about seeing some old word graffitied in Notre Dame by some Medieval delinquant. From there, he waxes poetic -- for seven pages -- about why he wrote the book. He wants you to appreciate Medieval architecture. That's his main point. The story isn't just a story, he says. It's meant to get his contemporary readers to look around their 19th century Parisian environment and stop valuing only the new and rejecting everything old. He straight-up admits that there are tons of extra chapters of Hunchback that are just about buildings and have nothing to do with the story. He freely admits that the book is bloated with extraneous information.

Try admitting that as a writer today. Today, Hugo would definitely be one of those writers.

And that's just one head-scratcher. The WTF starts pretty quickly after, in Book One.

To be continued...

1 comment:

  1. Loved this post! I'll have to make a trip to Victoria just for the bookstore. I studied french in high school and college and I can relate about missing the language. Two years ago I went to Paris for a week, and that week just people watching and hearing the language spoken was seriously music to my ears.