Nancy Huston’s books include Fault Lines and The Tale-Tellers: A Short Study of Humankind.
In the subway Monday evening – I’m on my way to dine with friends – we’re told the train won’t be stopping at Cité station because of a fire. When I emerge from underground just before 8, my phone beeps with a text from my son – “Notre-Dame is burning” – and I start to tremble. Checking Le Monde on line, I learn the spire has collapsed. When my friends open the door, I fall into their arms – need to be held.
It’s because I lived for decades in the Marais, just a stone’s throw from the cathedral, and walked past, around and through it countless times, and delighted in glancing across at it from the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore on the Left Bank, and took my kids to visit the gargoyles when they were little; even now, I sometimes stop off to light a candle in memory of my dear departed. Notre-Dame has always felt to me like a huge cat hunched on her island at the heart of the capital, watching over the whole city, her two bell towers like ears attentively pricked, her spire a stiffened tail…
Or like a wonderful old grandmother whom you don’t visit often, whom indeed you sometimes neglect but continue to love deeply. Some of her kids and grandkids have moved far away, forgotten all about her long history and rejected her values, but when she has a heart attack and they almost lose her, they realize how deeply they care for her and how much they count on her always being there. Rallying at her bedside, they look at each other and realize, hey, aren’t we a wonderful family?
Though a non-believer and indeed fairly averse to organized religion, I regularly enter churches, mosques and temples all over the world, valuing them as places set aside for sacredness, quietness, celebration, meditation, prayer, music. We’re all creatures of symbol and story. We all tell ourselves tales about the cities we inhabit, stitch their monuments into our memories and make them part of us, no matter how much or how little we know about their real histories. Even the eyes and hearts of non-believers can cherish the grace of flying buttresses, Gothic portals, marble statues, rose windows, twisting staircases…
But then the French President gets on the radio to say that rebuilding the cathedral is France’s “profound destiny,” whatever that might mean (“He needs the far-right votes next month,” my son tells me), and on TV he announces (to the dismay of many in the know) that reconstruction will be completed in five years (just in time for the 2024 Olympic Games). And my heartbreak is swept away by a series of tales I want nothing to do with – tales of politicians, intellectuals, medieval historians, city officials, Catholics running off at the mouth about “miracles” and “warnings,” and I just want to shut off all the radios and TVs and go down to the Seine and walk around the cathedral from a distance and marvel at the trees at its side, whose fragile pink blossoms survived the raging flames.
But because I’m a writer, because I’m a foreigner, because my specialty is trying to put myself in the places of people who aren’t like me, I try to be attentive to what I’m not seeing, what I’m not being told, what is not being shoved into my face but (on the contrary) swept under the carpet. I never forget, for instance, how privileged I am to live near enough to the Seine to be able to walk along its beautiful banks. I happen to be one of the two million Parisians who live in Paris proper. What does Notre-Dame mean to the five million Parisians who live beyond the ring road? Come to think of it, didn’t see many non-Caucasian faces on the esplanade on Monday evening. Don’t see many on the Île de la Cité any day of any week, except in lineups at the Préfecture de Police around the corner from the cathedral – immigrants (such as myself, for many years) hoping to get a permis de séjour. And I can’t help noticing that the world was far less upset about the timeless, irreplaceable artifacts destroyed due to the American invasion of Iraq.
It seems that since the fire, Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame has suddenly climbed back onto the bestseller list. All profits will go to reconstruction, its publisher has promised. The novel had a huge impact when it first came out in the early 1830s – so huge, in fact, that it led to major additions being made to the cathedral in the 1840s, including Eugène Viollet-le-Duc’s stunning spire.
It’s a novel about outcasts. Quasimodo the hunchback, Esmeralda the little Gypsy girl, with her white goat, and especially the Court of Miracles, “the usual refuge of all those wretches who came to conceal in this corner of Paris, sombre, dirty, muddy, and tortuous, their pretended infirmities and their criminal pollution.” Jesus, too (without whom, presumably, there would be no Catholic Church, and thus no Notre-Dame de Paris), always identified with the poor, the downtrodden, the hungry, the ill, the outcast. Today, central Paris has been cleaned up and the Court of Miracles has moved out into the banlieues. Are any of France’s living novelists capable of making the fate of the new Misérables seem relevant to the rich?
But to return to the fire. The salamander, emblem of Francis I, who ruled over France in the early part of the 16th century, was believed to live in fire. Over the coming months and years, we might do well to remember its motto: Nutrisco y extinguo – feed the good fire and extinguish the bad.