N is for Notre Dame de Paris
Our Lady of Paris. I can’t help but feel the emphasis should be on the word “Our” because it is so quintessentially Parisian. This marvel of medieval architecture, solid and yet so ethereal and magical recalls for me the great work by Victor Hugo of the same name.
It took me ages to read this book in English ( I have tried in French but haven’t got very far). It’s such a powerful work, entwining the stories of so many different characters around the different parts of the monumental edifice, but the characters and stories I remember most are Quasimodo, the hunchback, his rescuer and controller Monseigneur Frollo, Esmerelda the gypsy and of course Pierre Gringoire, poet, musician, lover of life.
All books and characters that make an impression on you do so because of what’s going on for you in your personal and in particular emotional life. At the time I was at teenager at a Catholic Convent school. It was an extremely wealthy school that was always engaging in building works. Though I had some friends there, I never felt comfortable and took refuge in reading. Building work was going on around the swimming pool and all of us girls loved to swim and lie around afterwards reading or just being.
But the nun made it clear if a builder were to have “an occasion of sin” after seeing our bodies, we were to blame. There you have it, the primordial shame at having a female body, the cause of all sin.
I found the same medieval distortion in the interaction between Monseigneur Frollo and Esmerelda the gypsy in Hugo’s great work. Portrayed as beautiful and free, she inspires lust in Frollo, who although a learned and compassionate man in many ways, projects his own longing onto the gypsy and denounces her as a demoness! So she was different-so what? They could have loved one another, even married. I thought of my own parent’s marriage-my father was not Catholic so my parents were married behind, not in front of the altar and he had to sign an agreement that his children would be bought up Catholic. Medieval I know but these are the things you do for love! But no, Frollo was a man of stature in the Church and he wasn’t prepared to change that for anything or person, certainly not a gypsy however beautiful. You can see the same thing in the world today when people disown or distort their own shadow and project it onto others like gypsies, asylum seekers and those who are different.
But it is Quasimodo, the hunchback who is really the hero of the story and though he is made to feel ashamed of his own body because he is different, he has an inner purity and beauty and can see things from a higher perspective, willing to risk the disapproval of Frollo who controls him, by saving Esmerelda. Of course these are the memories of the epic story that float into my mind as I marvel at both the beauty and ugliness-and I don’t mean the gargoyles- of Notre Dame de Paris.