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Scott Parson, dabbler in typestries and fabulations

Lessons in Literature from Beyond the Grave

I’ve always tried to justify the shelf space taken up by every book I bring home. Some are meaningful for only a short time. Others are timeless from the moment I pick them up. The Hunchback of Notre Dame taught me a lot about storytelling, and even more about doing thorough research before offering strong opinions about an author’s work.

Hunchback & Esmeralda

As with just about every middle schooler who ever had the misfortune to pass through the emotional hurricane that is adolescence, I was drawn to books about outsiders, misfits, and displaced persons, whether contemporary or classic. Of course, I was sucked in and overwhelmed by Victor Hugo’s story.

I keep The Hunchback on my shelf not only for the master class in storytelling, character, and the crafting of evocative historical detail it offers, but for one of those formative embarrassments from junior high that it represents. An embarrassment that refuses to stay buried deep and pounded flat. Any mention of Victor and The Hunchback causes that memory to rear up its cadaverous arm from the depths of its grave to clutch at my ankles as I walk through that particular boneyard of unpleasant recollections.

In reading The Hunchback, I suppose I reacted to the story exactly as Hugo planned for me to react and I devoured the book. What struck me when I got to the end was the profound sadness I felt. Nothing I’d read up to that moment had reached into my guts the way Hugo did and gave my innards a sharp yank.

I was an over-idealistic adolescent. I expected books to tell me stories that turned out well. There was triumph to be found in the last pages. Right would win. Evil would perish long before it had the chance to look with satisfaction on the success of its schemes.

But it didn’t and I was pissed. And my pissedness needed an outlet. I was determined to write this Mr. Victor Hugo and give him a piece of my mind, as my Nano would say.

Mistake number one was not reading the introduction to the edition I had purchased with my paper route money. It was hard enough reading that long book—an abridged version, mind you—without having to wade through all that scholarly blather tacked on at the front.

Mistake number one led directly to mistake number two which was telling my entire English class of my plan to give Victor what-for over his mean-spirited ending to an otherwise wonderful book.

Because if I had read the introduction, I would know that Victor was long dead and safely beyond the reach of my adolescent fury. My classmates were only too happy to fill in that gap in my education using that classic training model: the Ridicule Sandwich. Derisive laughter followed by condescending instruction followed by more derisive laughter.

It’s an effective technique. I’ve forgotten much about literature from junior high and high school, but I have never forgotten that Victor Hugo is deader than a doornail. The whole experience revealed two key things: first is the power of a good story and well-defined characters to reach across time, distance, and generations to stir emotions at the deepest levels; the second is never, no never, ever admit any ignorance, flaw, or shortcoming to a roomful of teenagers.

Text (c) Scott Parson
Image: from 1939 The Film Daily ad by RKO; photo at mid right on page 4 (Pre-1978 no mark)