Much of the world mourned as Notre-Dame, the cathedral in the centre of Paris which has over its 800 year history become a centre of French culture and identity, burned last week. The ancient, iconic religious complex features in many works of literature, not least of which is Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, Notre-Dame de Paris (or, as it is better known in the English-speaking world, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, the title given to its 1833 translation into English).
Copies of the novel, in its various different editions, hit on line best-sellers lists in the days after the fire, rather as Ernest Hemingway’s reminiscences of his time roving the bars and cafes of the French capital became France’s top-selling book in the weeks after the Paris terror attacks of 2015, suggesting a tendency among the French to seek solace in literature amid national anguish.
Hugo’s novel, set in the 15th century, tells the story of Quasimodo, Notre-Dame’s deformed, half-blind and half-deaf bell-ringer who falls for Esmeralda, a beautiful gypsy street dancer. But critics have long argued that the cathedral itself is the central force of the classic masterpiece. Hugo’s purpose in writing the novel was in part to highlight the importance of Notre-Dame’s Gothic architecture and the neglect and abuse the building was suffering at the beginning of the 19th century. “As much beauty as it may retain in its old age, it is not easy to repress a sigh, to restrain our anger, when we mark the countless defacements and mutilations to which men and time have subjected that venerable monument.” Some have argued that The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, and its enormous success, were key factors in triggering the cathedral’s restoration in the mid-19th century and its positioning as the beating heart of the French nation.
Originally published in 1831 to both critical and popular acclaim, Notre-Dame de PAris ran to 11 volumes. Hugo’s manuscript is now held as a national treasure by the French National Library. Some publishers have rushed to print more copies of the book to meet the demand. Le Monde reports that Folio is printing 30,000 paperbacks and Livre de Poche have a new version out, with both publishers promising to donate to the cathedral’s renovation fund.