The Power of Print, by Jim Buckley
Historically, it is often just one man or woman with determination and talent who can change the world. And that was the case with Victor Hugo and Notre Dame de Paris.
Without Hugo possessing both prodigious talent and an indefatigable spirit, there would be no Notre Dame to marvel at today. The cathedral would have been torn down some time in the 1830s. Its foundational stones dating back to the Roman era would have been carted away to form the base of another, newer, building.
Notre Dame’s elegant façade, its finely crafted doors, the famous bell, the arches, the stained-glass windows, all would disappear. The majesty of this structure would be a thing of the past, celebrated, if at all, as a marvel of its age, but gone like the Colossus of Rhodes and other ancient Wonders of the World that survive only as memories.
But, a young writer (29 years old by the time his book was published), listening to public officials discussing what to do with the 226-foot-high double hulks of stones desecrating Ile de la Cité — the very place where the city of Paris was born – after having been ransacked during the French revolution of 1789 and left in tatters for the decades following, decided that just wouldn’t do.
Victor Hugo, a rising literary presence, objected to the Parisian officials’ plans to tear down the structure and pleaded publicly — and eloquently — against the plan, which nevertheless proceeded apace despite his pleas.
Determined to save the noble structure, Hugo began writing what he called “Notre Dame de Paris” — and what most people now know as “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” — in earnest. Having already spent a couple years writing it, and in a desperate race against time, he barricaded himself in his Paris apartment (which was less than half-a-mile from Notre Dame) for four months as he finished his novel.
“Notre Dame de Paris” was released in 1831. (The title was changed to “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” in 1833.) And it became at first a publishing phenomenon in Paris and then all of France, and soon after an enormous international best seller.
The book was translated into more than a dozen languages, and its success signaled the arrival of Victor Hugo as one of France’s most accomplished authors (who went on to write the equally influential classic, “Les Misérables,” published in 1862).
“Notre Dame de Paris” was such a sensation all over the Western world, that tourists from Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and elsewhere flocked to Paris, seemingly for one purpose: to visit the renowned cathedral.
The international outpouring of interest in Notre Dame turned the argument of what to do with its remains by Paris officials completely around: They not only agreed not to tear the structure down, but also determined to rebuild it to its former glory.
As reconstruction plans got under way, Paris officials took a vote to decide who would be put in charge of the reconstruction. Our young author, Mr. Victor Hugo, was selected.
To call his novel a “tour de force” would be an understatement. His words, his affection, his passion saved his beloved mistress, and Notre Dame was on its way to becoming one of the most visited buildings in the world.
One cannot tour Notre Dame this year or next, as a fire destroyed much of the interior in the spring of 2019 while the building, coincidentally, was undergoing extensive renovation. The work is supposed to be completed by the start of the Paris Olympics, scheduled to begin in the spring of 2024.
In the meantime, there is one way to “visit” Notre Dame even now: By scheduling an archeological tour of the crypt, an underground museum dedicated to the original construction of the cathedral (built between 1163 and 1345), located under the square directly in front of Notre Dame’s two towers.
In the crypt, you’ll not only examine the original Roman foundational stones and read of the history of the church, you’ll also be intrigued with the preserved historical record (via newspapers of the day and other such memorabilia) of the efforts to preserve and enhance Notre Dame after the intervention of Victor Hugo and his marvelous novel.
Be sure to take advantage of the Oculus 3-D 360-degree virtual tour upon arrival at the crypt. There are only three pairs of these glasses, and it’s first-come, first-served.
Regardless of the length of the wait, you must not miss this extraordinary experience. Seated on a swiveling chair and then putting the heavy glasses on, one is exported to the inside of the cathedral. You’ll visit various apses, the main hall, come face to face with the two massive organs (surprisingly saved from mobs who tore out most pipe organs in French churches to turn the metal into bullets), the historic stained-glass windows, exquisite statuary, flying buttresses and all.
As you go up, you’ll find yourself inside looking down at the center hall from a small balcony near the ceiling of the church. Next, you’ll go on the roof and will stand next to various gargoyles and sculptures.
The view of the surrounding city of Paris is exhilarating, and the experience is so real that when I found myself standing on some unsteady boards left behind by carpenters, I feared falling off the top of the six-story structure if I took another step forward.
Once that “tour” is over, you’ll be back in the crypt, where you’ll read about Hugo’s efforts to save Notre Dame in newspaper reports of the era. You’ll learn too that many things had been destroyed and/or stolen over the years, for example, a number of the original gargoyles sculpted to guard the outside of the structure (and to direct water away from the building) had been lost to history.
Architects dutifully reproduced some of the statuary described by Hugo that the writer had re-imagined. In a sculpture of Jesus and his Apostles, St. Thomas (the doubting Thomas) is the figure at the far-right end, facing away from all the others.
Thomas’s face, it is noted, is the face of one of the architects who worked to memorialize himself.
You should also know that “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” does contain a rather graphic erotic scene, one that is so graphic I had no idea one could print such licentious material in the 1830s.
And, as for Notre Dame, Hugo’s descriptions of the cathedral of Our Lady of Paris are also sensuous. His words read as if he is describing an alluring older woman. He calls his Grande Dame “beautiful” and professes his undying love. He laments that “it is difficult not to sigh, not to wax indignant, before the numberless degradations and mutilations which time and men have both caused the venerable monument to suffer.”
He calls her “this aged queen of our cathedrals,” and proceeds with a detailed intimate description of her charms: “The three portals hollowed out in an arch; the broidered and dentated cordon of the eight and twenty royal niches; the immense central rose window… the frail and lofty gallery of trefoil arcades… its fine, slender columns.”
To Victor Hugo, Notre Dame is “a vast symphony in stone… a divine creation.”
He lambastes the various “architects” who, over the years, have defaced and insulted the proud lady, calling their changes “a thousand barbarisms.” By now we are in the middle of his novel, and he’s spent nearly half of the first 300 pages or so lavishly describing Notre Dame’s charms.
I won’t spoil the ending, but you should know that the plot thickens and quickens just after a tryst between Esmerelda and Captain Phoebus. The tale is propelled forward from that point on as if by some omnipotent demigod (or by a young author locked in his apartment in a desperate attempt to finish his book before the object of his devotion is devoured by man and history).
Avé Maria, indeed.
For information and to purchase tickets for the archeological crypt tour, go to: www.crypte.paris.fr.
James Buckley is a longtime Montecito resident. He welcomes questions or comments at email@example.com.