Mark Twain described a classic book as one that everyone loves but no one has read.
That is so often true that I long ago stopped asking “What was it about?” when someone starts raving about how much they loved Fahrenheit 451 or To Kill a Mockingbird or the other great books Mrs. Martin assigned in her 10th grade English class at Richmond Senior High School.
The exception seems to be The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo’s novel about Quasimodo and Esmeralda, the beautiful gypsy girl: that is one of the classic books many people seem to actually have read. (Or maybe they’ve just seen one of the 15 movies made about it.)
Regardless of how, they have been exposed to one of the great pieces of literature in history. How powerful is the book and story?
So powerful that, I’m guessing, more people are familiar with the Notre Dame cathedral via Hugo's book than any other way.
That’s why the conflagration is proving to be so emotionally devastating to so many who’ve never set foot in Paris, much less inside the cathedral. Those of us who knew it only through Hugo’s epic tale still feel a loss.
Dr. Allen Mask, a friend of mine, is in Paris and told me "We passed Notre Dame two hours prior to the fire. Lots of tourists during this Easter holiday season, but all was relatively calm.”
Later, he said, “We were about to cross the street and a police car with siren blaring passed by. We were having dinner at a café, then more sirens. Then our phones blew up with more info about the fire.
“Thank God,” he said, “it involved part of the roof and spire. Many artifacts had already been moved out because of some construction (which might be the cause of the fire).
“Damage,” he said, “looked to be horrific based on the intensity of the fire, but it was less than anticipated. France is a mostly Catholic country, but this was more than just a church burning. It is their history.”
The fire, he said, “is a devastating tragedy not just for France but for the whole world.”
Amen, and part of the reason it seems thus is because of Hugo. He is one of my favorite writers not only because of his way with a quill or his impactful writings – he is credited with penning the epigram “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come” – but also because the discipline to write did not come easily to him: He required his valet to take his clothes, lock him in a room with just a blanket and not let him out until after he’d written a certain amount each day.
Thanks to Mr. Campbell, my 9th grade history teacher at Rockingham Junior High, I also knew that Notre Dame was the place where Napoleon during his coronation snatched the crown from the pope and crowned himself emperor because no one, to his way of thinking, was great enough to crown Napoleon but Napoleon.
Seeing Union Station and the Washington Monument in our nation's capital up close as a little country boy remains the two most awe-inspiring moments of my life. Visiting Notre Dame Cathedral would have certainly ranked as the third – if I hadn’t punked out and passed up the chance.
While visiting London several years ago on a long weekend pass – some airline was offering a ridiculously cheap fare – a generous man I'd just met offered me a train ticket to Paris. He'd bought it for himself, he said, but was unable to go. He said it would take about two hours to get there.
To my everlasting regret, I said "no," but once France rebuilds the cathedral, I'm there, homes.
As Dr. Mask noted, two French billionaires have pledged hundreds of millions for reconstruction, and the 28 EU countries have offered money and expertise.
”The soul of France," Mask said, "lives on.”
Viva la France, y'all!