Favorites Friday: Stories in Paintings (d’Orsay Edition)

A couple of years ago I did a Favorites Friday centered around paintings, and I thought it would be fun to revisit the theme.  I’m a slightly compulsive museum visitor, in that I like to write down the names of the paintings I like best.  I have a long list of paintings that resonated with me when I visited the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, and I thought I’d share a few today.

As may not surprise you, I tend to like paintings best when I can find a story in them…

611px-Degas_-_Tänzerinnen_in_blauDanseuses Bleues by Edgar Degas – This is a nice little moment backstage among the dancers of the Opera Garnier, and I think we know I have a particular interest in that area, yes? 🙂  I do love how Degas captures human moments of the dancers, yet with that ethereal style too.

501px-Pierre-Auguste_Renoir_099Julie Manet with Cat by Auguste Renoir – I’ve felt attached to Julie Manet ever since I became fascinated by a different painting of her, Julie Dreaming, painted by her mother, Berthe Morisot.  In fact, the heroine of The Wanderers is named after her.  Considering that and the fact that The Wanderers also features a talking cat, you may see why this painting appeals to me–and Renoir is one of my favorite painters besides.

466px-Vincent_Willem_van_Gogh_034The Church at Auvers by Vincent Van Gogh – I have no high-brow reason for liking this painting (though I always liked Van Gogh).  You see, one of my very favorite episodes of Doctor Who centers around this painting.  When I was standing in front of it at the d’Orsay, I looked around at the other people gathered, and I so wanted to say, “Doctor Who fan?  Anyone?” but alas, I didn’t quite dare.  I did check for a monster in the window (there isn’t one).

526px-Louiswelden_HawkinsThe Sphinx and the Chimera by Louis Weldon Hawkins – I haven’t the slightest idea what’s going on in this painting, but wouldn’t it make a wonderful cover for a science fiction novel?  Maybe fantasy, but somehow I get a sci fi vibe from it.

It’s a very long list of paintings from the d’Orsay, but I think that will do for today. 🙂

Esmeralda of Notre Dame

Hunchback of Notre DameI’ve been working on intimidating books this year…and diving into shadowy mysteries and Gothic literature for RIP…so September was clearly the month for The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo.  I enjoyed it quite a lot–I had been thinking I might take a break and read something else in the middle.  Instead, I ended up being so engaged that I didn’t stop after all–even though I had the new Jacky Faber book arrive while I was reading (but that’s a topic for another review).

The copy I read mentions on the jacket flap that Hugo despised the title The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which only arrived for the English translation.  Hugo called it Notre Dame de Paris–1482.  Not so catchy, but more accurate.  The Hunchback is just one member of an ensemble cast, and if I was going to pick one character as the lead, it would have to be the gypsy Esmeralda–hence the title of this post!  Because it really is centered around Esmeralda…and the men around her.

After my experience with Les Mis, I felt comfortable skipping or skimming when Hugo seemed to be off-plot, which happened a lot in the first hundred or so pages.  In fact, the main character of the first section of the book (if there even is one), is Pierre Gringoire, a destitute poet, and the story didn’t really pick up for me until he reached the Court of Miracles, where live the gypsies and vagabonds of Paris.

This is one of those books that’s worth sticking with, though, as it really does improve as it goes (with a few side diversions into history or cultural background…but that’s Hugo).  Gringoire has an interesting adventure or two, then disappears for most of the book as we finally focus on beautiful Esmeralda, terrifyingly sinister Frollo, sad hunchback Quasimodo, and surprisingly awful Phoebus.  For all the cultural weight and the number of pages, it’s essentially a story of unrequited love: Frollo wants Esmeralda who wants Phoebus who doesn’t value her–and no one wants Quasimodo, who was struck to his core by one act of kindness Esmeralda showed him.

Esmeralda is the center of the story, in that all the other characters circle around her and the plot is mostly driven by how they feel about her.  I couldn’t get much sense of Esmeralda herself, though.  She’s something of a will o’ the wisp, always flitting about but we don’t get into her head much.  She almost irritatingly enamored of Phoebus, and it’s a shame that that becomes such a driving part of her character.  She could be fascinating, as an independent woman who makes her own way in the world, on her own terms.  In a sense Fantine of Les Mis is independent, but her life fell apart; Esmeralda is actually getting along fine.  We don’t get much of that, though.

I was also rather disappointed by the lack of relationship between Esmeralda and Quasimodo.  She does show him kindness once in an extreme situation, but later on she’s still deeply uncomfortable around him.  Oh well, I should have known Disney would make it all rosier!

And on that subject–for a man named after the Sungod, Phoebus was horrible!  I deeply missed Disney’s courageous, noble captain, when Hugo gives us instead a philandering cad who can’t actually remember Esmeralda’s name…

This may be weird, but I think I was most fascinated here by Frollo.  Hugo’s heroine may have left a bit to be desired, but you can trust him to provide a complex villain.  It shouldn’t be surprising that we descend into the depths of his sordid obsession and twisted desire for Esmeralda.  I mean, even Disney didn’t manage to clean that up entirely!  I was more surprised by how openly sordid and at times sensual the book was, considering the time of the writing…maybe I’m just used to restrained British Classics, and it’s different when the French were writing them?  🙂

So how about the not-actually-title-character?  Quasimodo reminded me SO much of Leroux’s Phantom.  And I think that was just me and my particular, um, interests.  Hugo’s Quasimodo is dark, at times hostile, but also coming from a place of deep sadness.  His hostility towards the world is founded on the world’s rejection of him and that makes me feel so very bad for him.  I love his love for the cathedral, and I was thrilled to see a line where he’s talking to his favorite gargoyle statue…and it’s heartbreaking that that line is, “Why can’t I too be made of stone?”  Sad sad sad.

And he’s also like Leroux’s Phantom in that I think they both had authors who didn’t realize what they’d created.  Leroux spent far more pages on Raoul than he did on the much more interesting Phantom, and Hugo could have given us more of Quasimodo and less of some others…but what we got was very good.

This is only about half as long as Les Mis (so, 500 pages…) and some parts require a bit of wading, but on the whole I thought it was an excellent, very readable story with extremely engaging characters–even if some were less likable than I had hoped!  Once the book gets into its stride, it’s also hugely exciting.  I read the last hundred pages straight-through.  And, of course, the ending is deeply tragic.

I’ll probably still watch the Disney movie more often than I’ll read Hugo 🙂 …but I did thoroughly enjoy reading the original.

Other reviews:
My Turn to Talk
The Yellow-Haired Reviewer
A Good Stopping Point
Anyone else?

Buy it here: The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

Saturday Snapshot: Quasimodo’s View of Paris

I’ve been reading The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo this week, so naturally I have the cathedral on the brain.  I already shared some photos in a previous Saturday Snapshot, though, so I had to come up with a new angle…like the view.

Notre Dame Views (2)The Seine and the Eiffel Tower, from one of Notre Dame’s towers.  I got lots of pictures of the Eiffel Tower and walked under it–I didn’t go up in it, because I was already planning to get the view from Notre Dame.

Notre Dame Views (3)This may look like a complete muddle of rooftops, but look for the gold statues near the center, with the blue dome behind them.  That’s the Opera Garnier, and what photography doesn’t manage to capture is how gloriously those statues seem to shine, even from a distance, even on a cloudy day.

Notre Dame Views (1)And this is not a view from the towers, but it is on a street a block away…  I wonder what Victor Hugo would think?

Visit West Metro Mommy for more Saturday Snapshots.  Have a great weekend!

What Are You Reading, History Edition

What Are You Reading - HistoryI didn’t plan it, but lately my reading has been revolving around history.  And, oddly enough, not historical fiction!  I’m midway through Winston and Clementine, a collection of letters between Winston Churchill and his wife, Clemmie.  They’re just adorable, and are an amazing blend of huge world events, domestic concerns, and romance.  One letter might feature lunch with the Prime Minister, questions about household bills, and cute nicknames!

I’m also researching for my Phantom of the Opera retelling.  I finished Eccentricity and the Cultural Imagination in 19th Century Paris, which was remarkably helpful.  I skimmed parts, but other parts were fascinating, and on the whole it gave me good insights and some shocking historical details.  I found out they were still exhibiting people in freak shows and “anthropological exhibits” in Paris into the 1930s!

I’ve read about half of Nights in the Big City for research purposes as well, and it has been less helpful.  It’s too theoretical, discussing philosophies when I really just want to know what the night was like for people in the late 1800s.  For example, in the chapter on unaccompanied women, there’s long discussion about the societal and moral codes that influence women, how they were perceived and what archetypes were involved, etc., etc., when all I really want to know is whether a woman would have felt alarmed walking unaccompanied through Paris at night in 1880.  (I think the answer is yes, but there was lots of rhetoric to wade through to determine that.)

I’m enjoying Winston and Clementine, but I’m finding it hard to stick with them for 650 pages straight.  I took a break after World War I to read The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex (excellent!) and plan to break again just before World War II.  I want to read Gryphon’s Eyrie by Andre Norton and A. C. Crispin, to finish out that trilogy.

So much for what I’m reading!  Visit Book Journey for more posts.  And…what are you reading? 🙂

The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

Leroux PhantomI think we all know I have kind of a thing about the Phantom of the Opera…  I recently did a reread of Gaston Leroux’s original novel–and since I can never keep straight what was in Leroux compared to other versions, even the third time through felt in some ways like a new experience.

The basic story is the same across most versions, and Leroux set the original pattern.  A masked man with a genius for music lives under the Paris Opera House.  In the guise of the Angel of Music, he trains Christine Daae in singing.  When Christine falls for Raoul, the handsome Viscomte de Chagny, the Phantom wreaks havoc in his jealousy.

Leroux was originally in French, so if you’re reading a translation I highly recommend Leonard Wolf’s.  Really, I can’t stress this enough–I’ve read two versions, both “unabridged,” and Wolf’s somehow has significantly more detail and better writing.

It’s always been the characters that really fascinate me in any version of Phantom–and mostly it’s Erik, the Phantom, himself.  Retellings in the last century have been on a nearly-consistent quest to make the Phantom a more sympathetic, romantic figure.  In the original, however, he’s a complete raving madman.  Truly, the man is unhinged.  He has a violent temper and (probably) kills at least three people over the course of the book.  I say “probably” because he denies it himself and we don’t actually see those moments, but I think his denial is a symptom of insanity, not innocence.

There’s nothing romantic about Leroux’s Phantom.  However, he does garner a certain amount of sympathy–or perhaps I should say pity.  I began feeling more sad for him when the Persian (a mysterious figure rarely appearing in films) took over the narration.  That’s not because the Persian portrayed Erik sympathetically, but just the opposite.  He’s the closest thing the Phantom has to a friend, and even the Persian still routinely refers to him as “the monster.”  We also learn from the Perisan that Erik really believed Christine loved him; the Persian himself doesn’t believe it…because Erik is so ugly.  Not because he’s a raving madman with violent tendencies–but because he’s so ugly.  There’s something wrong in that.

The final scene, in which Erik tells the Persian about how he parted from Christine, is absolutely wrenching.  And how can you not feel sad for a man whose mother always refused to kiss him?  Susan Kay does wonderful, devastating things with the idea, but it’s there in Leroux too.

The Phantom as a violent madman casts Christine in a different light too.  I’m not a Christine fan as a rule.  Often she’s an idiot or decidedly callous.  However, it occured to me rereading Leroux that Christine and the Phantom are sympathetic in inverse relation to each other.  The more rational and likable the Phantom is, the more blameworthy Christine seems for any lies and betrayals, and for ultimately choosing Raoul.  The more villainous the Phantom is, the more justifiable Christine’s actions are.  In Leroux, she’s still an idiot at times, but is pretty much justifiable too.

As for Leroux’s Raoul–I have to say I find it downright amusing how frequently he weeps, faints, raves or goes into a sulk.  I understand what Christine doesn’t see in Leroux’s Erik, but I don’t know what she sees in Leroux’s Raoul (his bank account, possibly…)

So much for characters.  The other aspect that struck me most in the novel was the structure.  So much of the story happens “off-screen.”  Many of the most iconic moments, including Christine ripping off the Phantom’s mask and their final parting, are only conveyed in conversations after the fact.  They’re almost detailed enough to be flashbacks–but aren’t really.

We get a lot of Raoul wandering about and wondering what’s going on with Christine.  We get very little of the Phantom actually present in the story.  I think Leroux is one of these classic writers who didn’t really know what he had created–or didn’t know quite what to do with it.  Nearly everyone retelling it has realized that the most interesting one in the story is the Phantom, and has been skewing the story his direction ever since.  Leroux…not so much.

Riding solely on its own merits, I have to say that I don’t think Leroux’s Phantom is all that great of a book.  It pains me to say it.  And I don’t think it’s a terrible book!  But it’s middling at best.  It’s far more interesting from a historical perspective, from the angle of “oh, that’s how Webber changed this” or “I love how Susan Kay took this one line and wrote six chapters from it.”  For me, at the end of the day, I far prefer Webber’s and Susan Kay’s versions.  But it is fascinating to see where they came from.

Other reviews:
ANZ LitLovers LitBlog
The Book Mine Set
In Which I Read Vintage Novels
Anyone else?

Buy it here: The Phantom of the Opera