A Word from the Editor
An unintentionally Hugo-centric Issue allows us to compare the Hugo of 1831 writing The Hunchback of Notre Dame with an eye to recent events to the Hugo of 1862’s Les Misérables, looking back far more sympathetically at the failed uprising of 1832. Both works have become classics of World Literature, although the shorter Hunchback is far easier to assign to students. In my History of Paris course the students have to read Books 1-6, or about half of the novel, and since there is an assignment attached, they do read it and are able to discuss Hugo’s vision of medieval Paris and his larger thesis about the impending “shift in civilization.” Although Hugo’s mob of the 1470s is menacing at times, as Alex Nemiroff aptly notes, it is also a pre-modern crowd that still privileges buffoonery over outright social protest. Quite other is the setting of Les Misérables which winds its way to the barricades of 1832.
There have been umpteen film versions of the two novels and Alex Novikoff and Michael Sibalis remind us of the distortions that directors have routinely introduced. Moreover, both have been turned into musicals, although Notre Dame de Paris has not enjoyed the worldwide success of Les Mis. Michael Sibalis explains how we can use the recent film version to address commonly held misconceptions about nineteenth-century France and working-class protest. Reducing the struggle to a few handsome young bourgeois and the starving masses is just plain wrong, even if the songs are rousing.
France’s national character, far from defiant as in Hugo, has turned quiescent in Alexis Jenni’s telling. Last year’s Goncourt winner, L’art français de la guerre (The French Art of War, translated already into a number of languages but not yet English) argues that in the twenty years of war (from the Maquis to the end of the Algerian War) nobility of purpose yielded to massacres and torture, leading, as Jenni sees it, to the widespread acceptance of police brutality in contemporary France, and to a retreat from “true” masculinity to disengaged lethargy. Don Reid, who has waded through this massive novel for us, does a wonderful job of bringing out its themes and in assessing its –strange—positions.
University at Buffalo, SUNY