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Posts Tagged ‘Hugo’


Charles Laughton as Quasimodo at the close of the 1939 Hunchback of Notre Dame


A much idealized depiction of Jacques Cathelineau (1759-93), one of the peasant heroes (a general) of the Vendean revolt (he dies half-way through Trollope’s novel)

Dear friends and readers,

It was not wholly by chance that recently on TrollopeandHisContemporaries@groups.io we read in tandem two historical romances about or set in France. One a French literary masterpiece, Victor Hugo’s undoubtedly deeply poetic Notre-Dame de Paris (1831), set in the 15th century, but mirroring conditions in France in the later 1820s and July 1930 revolution and its aftermath. The other, based on French sources, among them the aristocratic memoir by Victorine de Larochejaquelin (see my review of Marilyn Yalom’s Blood Sisters) translated by Walter Scott (as well as a number of English sources), Trollope’s only historical novel, La Vendee (1850), set between the start and near the catastrophic ending of the revolt of the Vendean area (peasants, nobles), March 1973 – to spring 1794. We brought them together as like in genre, probably like (we thought) to some extent in subject matter — Trollope might have in mind the mid-19th century European revolts.

We discovered the term “historical novel” can be used as a label for very different books, even if placed in the same country, similar cultural sources (chronicles), and both about conflicts revealed as political, social, and fundamental. I hoped we would be reading historical books with political visions (or themes, messages) somewhat relevant to the political calamity unfolding in the US (now Trump’s autocracy through blight, lies & corrosion of all principles has spread into US presidential election), then it was as the pandemic (now having been allowed to kill over 200,000), and a collapsed ordinary economy (become much worse now, with — this would upset Trollope — a sabotaged postal service). It’s arguable both books have political visions, but neither of the sort to help anyone think through the results colonialism & capitalism confronts us with. Not that I think reading Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year would have helped anyone fix the lack of a public health care system in the US.

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You can follow Trollope’s characters and action using this kind of map ….

Trollope did want to make a political statement with La Vendee — and about issues of what is a legitimate government; how should governing bodies treat their citizenry, what should that citizenry be prepared to sacrifice or not, who owes what to whom; then happens during an internecine civil war. On the way he wants us to understand what battles are really like, war councils, what families experience (insofar as he has the stomach to describe this). W. J. McCormack (the editor of the Oxford paperback edition) grouped the book with Trollope’s first Anglo-Irish novels. But since Trollope is wholly on the side of counter-revolution, demonizing the revolution and its republican armies, his usual ability (still seen here) to drive down to fundamentals to lay bare before us the workings of a social group in crisis falsifies too much. Still Trollope’s is a conventional narrative history (as envisaged by Lukacs), and I read alongside La Vendee, several relevant sections in Simon Schama’s Citizens: A [vast] Chronicle of the French Revolution and found Schama filled out and explicated what was happening in Trollope’s book (complete with good maps). I regret to say Schama’s book is much livelier and more satisfying as a novel narrative than Trollope’s mostly unrealized characters and too timid, distanced or tame scenes. OTOH, (as Eric Hobsbawm pointed out) it is fair to say Schama is also politically conservative so that the two books dovetail is not that surprising.

I have written about La Vendee online twice before: once an outline of a paper by Prof Nicholas Birns, explaining why the novel is so dependent on pictorialism, what it aims at and does not achieve (his published paper is “La Vendee: Trollope’s Early Novel of Counter-revolution and Reform,” a paper presented at NY winter Trollope Society meeting, February 21, 2013, probably in the Trollopiana for that season). Before that, when in 2000 this same listserv (then on Yahoo) had a reading and discussion (with mostly different and more people) and I appear to have enjoyed the novel more, in the context of several people posting a lot about it, and I spending a lot more time doing outside reading as we journeyed through. More recently again, Patricia Cove is convinced the novel explores what is meant by identity politics (she does not put her ideas in those terms), “‘The Blood of our Poor People,’ 1848: Incipient National Identity and the French Revolution in Trollope’s La Vendee,” Victorian literature and Culture 2016, 44, 59-76).


A depiction of the 1973 Battle of Cholet by Boutigny

This time I found the most effective scenes to be (unusual for Trollope), the more distanced scenes (for example, early on, the Vendeans resisting enforced conscription, much later, the Vendeans as refugees fleeing back to their native terrain), and the last part of the book with the scenes after the battles of desperate devastation where the characters individually rise to an occasion, reminding me now and again of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, the sequence where the family (Scarlet, Melanie, Baby, Prissy) has arrived at Tara to find it ravaged, everyone distraught and Scarlet’s mother dead, and the long struggle to survive barely minimally as the war winds down but remains deadly between strangers. Especially Trollopian (as we usually imagine his texts) is the chapter where we met Cathelineau’s embittered mother. As for me Cathelineau’s behavior seems a weak early rendition of the Daniel Thwaite-Anton Trendellson type (Lady Anna, Nina Balatka, working class), I found in the crazed dying behavior of the book’s (fictional character) villian, Adolphe Denot, an anticipation of Louis Trevelyan. A loss not gotten over was the almost complete absence of Trollope’s narrator.

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Notre-Dame de Paris as first seen in the 1939 movie (director was William Dieterle)


All the parts of the cathedral seen in the film (inside and out) were built by the film-makers on a studio set

It’s hard not to conclude that the real subject of Hugo’s novel is either the cathedral, with its central argument, the gothic architecture should not be improved, renovated, changed at all; or Paris itself, with its individual streets, areas, regions, an organic growth over 400 years — two whole books with long topographical and historical chapters are given over to this. While we were reading the book, we’d notice news that the cathedrale, burnt badly last year, was undergoing this or that renovation. There is more energy and reality in Hugo’s depiction of these places than with any individual character, though admittedly he is fascinated by his “grotesque” creation of Quasimodo, to this reader, a poignantly estranged and understandably alienated disabled man; and Claude Frollo, the seethingly repressed ambitious and hence angry and dangerous priest. Gringoire has some complexity because he is made into a self-reflexive comic rendition of Hugo himself as useless poet thinking himself writing tragedy (when his best use seems to be to the goat he saves); he can be likened to Scott’s heroes (think of Ivanhoe). The king is made a malicious egocentric, terrifying as Scott’s Louis XI in Quentin Durward (which Hugo had read). The others are allegorically shaped, or one-dimensional (Frollo’s brother, Captain Phoebus). The story a paradigm.


Frollo (Cedrick Hardwicke) — it’s not often noticed he has a cat — in the book it is pity and loneliness which prompts him to rescue the deformed baby, Quasimodo

My friend and fellow-reader Tyler Tichelaar after the reading was over, wrote a blog arguing the book is shaped by a gothic existentialism. His account of the book’s genesis and elements is much more thorough than mine here, and I agree he identifies many of the gothic elements, as well as its disillusioned modern point of view — perhaps even nihilistic. I did see a direct connection between Quasimodo and Mary Shelley’s creature in Frankenstein. The epigraph for Frankenstein comes from Milton’s Paradise Lost, and it’s Satan who speaks this (not Adam):

Did I request thee, Maker, from my caly
to mould me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me? — Paradise Lost

And the desolate man with a heart filled with tender loving feelings, mocked, excluded, beaten by people in human society is just such another as the creature; he ends a skeleton enfolding the gypsy girl Esmeralda’s skeleton, all that’s left from her corpse once brought down from the gallows: during the course of the novel, she is abducted at least twice, nearly raped, her feet mangled by a torture instrument; her mother a crazed hermit, recluse twisted by her own transgressive sexual past, takes a fanatical dislike to the girl whom she only realizes is her daughter in their last minutes of life.


The King of Beggars and Gypsies (Thomas Mitchell — often in protest-benign films)

It is a radical protest book, but it seems to me as much an inditement of human nature as the deeply crazed (superstitious fanatical religion) and unjust political and social systems of the era and Hugo’s own. The world of the beggars and gypsies is as violent, inexplicably savage as the king’s: Gringoire is almost hanged for fun. The other underworlds of the era are as cold as the bourgeois women and courtship scenes we experience. Frollo’s brother is hopelessly immoral, a product of this environement.

More than with Trollope’s La Vendee, but at similar story and pictorial moments, every so often, the book would suddenly soar, sometimes for several chapters in a row: and I remember passages: Quasimodo’s love of his bells and bell ringing, perhaps the vibrations evoked deep memories.


Victor Hugo

One of our members, Judith Cheney was reading Edwards’s biography of Hugo: Judith wrote:

In the Edwards biography, the crisis he seems to think was Hugo’s realization or surmise of his wife’s affair with his best friend the literary critic Charles Saint-Beuve. He didn’t confront them but decided to keep an eye on them & still continue his daily relationship with Saint-Beuve. His wife had become cold to him, no longer wanting to comply with Hugo’s daily sexual needs (after bearing five children in whom she was also disinterested, not even seeming to like children much at all). She continued to go to mass regularly but Hugo stopped going with her as he no longer seemed interested in religion. Edwards writes that Hugo was basically a bourgeois gentleman who wanted a warm home life with a faithful wife. This he discovered he really didn’t have & the betrayal was with his best friend. He was doubly deluded & disappointed. He turned completely to his mistresses at this time & even moving & setting up his favorite nearby. He tried to go on as before with Saint- Beuve but their friendship obviously cooled as Saint Beuve did not give up Hugo’s wife. (A real Forsterian Muddle!) Edwards doesn’t describe the loss of faith as nearly as important as the crisis of the faithless wife & unsettled home-life.

Hugo loved his children & took a great part in their care & raising. He had designated times for feeding the children breakfast before he began his writing day & again time for playing with them late in the afternoon (even waking them for it if they were napping!) & again making up stories for them at their bedtimes. Everyday! I don’t know how he fitted all this in with the mistresses & regular theatre attendance & open house drop in suppers after, except by living according to this strict timetable. Reminded me a bit of Clifton Webb’s time management character in Cheaper by Dozen. Except it seems Hugo was quite a warm loving man, very humane man. I didn’t read that he ever confronted Adele or even reacted with wrath toward Saint-Beuve. All this occurred at the time he was writing Notre-Dame.


Famous exhilarating moment in the film when Quasimodo rescues Esmeralda with a rope, crying Sanctuary! Sanctuary!

I read Victor Brombert’s book on Hugo as a visionary novelist.

Brombert argues that there is no religious feeling in Notre-Dame because by the time of writing Hugo had thrown off all such belief and at the core is an emptiness rather than “metaphysical anguish” found in Hugo’s poetry. Brombert finds this utter spiritual emptiness in Frollo — for Brombert one of the two thoughful characters (the other is Gringoire). “Religion in Notre-Dame” is a “negative force,” a group of people with the power of legal violence of all sorts over everyone, with an absence of any faith or moral Christian feeling. Abandon all hope, the famous line from Dante, is appropriate here. You abandoned all hope once you entered the Comedia. Notre-Dame de Paris presents us with a world of carceral spaces. Our “monster” and the glass window of the cathedral both have a Cyclopian eye: there is an abyss in everyone, a vacuity in which some are part of the spider and his webs, and others flies (Esmeralda). Less vatically, Brombert seems to feel behind the novel is a personal crisis or crises in Hugo’s own life. He has thrown over his reactionary views and faith and looked about and now what?

A problematic sardonic laughter ends the book.

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Esmeralda about to be hunt (Maureen O’Hara) — astonishing in the haunting beauty of the still

I tried to watch the 1982 movie but found it embarrassingly bad; the 1939, a film masterpiece. My feeling is in the later 1930s-before WW2 in costume drama you were allowed to express depths of anguish and political messages, often pro-group, humane, and what we today call progressive. The 1939 Hunchback of Notre Dame is against torture as horrifying, against superstition (and religious castes), for the beggars. Of course going for violence (as they do) is all wrong and shown to be, but you must also have faith in your written word — as in the film Gringoire does – and you will win out.


Gringoire (a pleasant Edmond O’Brien)

The spirit of the film is not Hugo’s, with its happy ending for our hero, Gringoire and our heroine, Esmeralda. Thomas Mitchell is a benign beggar king. There is no crazed tragic mother and it appears that Captain Phoebus did die (in the book he does not die but lives to marry the vacuous rich girl). Though the film Phoebus is not represented as the vicious male rake that we find in Hugo’s book, he is a mild rake, merely indifferent to others, careless. We have Louis XII as a sweet king, well meaning.


Anguish or cheers?

Everyone says what makes it is Charles Laughton’ acting, that he is just inimitable as the freak-deformed man, all alone — the word not applied as yet is autistic — he is on the autistic spectrum because of the way he’s been treated too. He is deaf, illiterate. But I do not underestimate the effect of the casting of Hardwicke for the seething Frollo, O’Hara for the beautiful gypsy. The cinematography is extraordinary, the use of black and white scary, of grey. The rescue, the attack on the cathedral (and it did stand for power in the catholic church). That the characters are kept distant, that the action is left enigmatic, no rationalizing away what happens is a key to its success.

I’ll end on the guillotine: it is at work in La Vendee, and if it is not in Paris in the 15th century, the human ingenuity and heartlessness that created it is. I’ve an Irish friend who — as a joke — said to me, it’s a good thing there is no guillotine stashed away in the basement of Trump’s White House.


There is also something sinister in Laughton’s depiction of Quasimodo

Ellen

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