John Sturrock is an idiot


(Yes, I know, who he? But sometimes you read something so stupid you just got to rant.)

John Sturrock (a consulting editor at the London Review of Books, and formerly deputy editor of the Times Literary Supplement) is not a careful reader, at least on the evidence of his introduction to his own translation of Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame of Paris for Penguin Classics.

First, he fumbles his summary of the plot of Les Misérables: “Valjean, an ex-convict, steals the bishop’s one valuable possession, his candlesticks, but is saved from a further savage sentence in the hulks when the bishop untruthfully attests that the candlesticks were a gift from him to Valjean.” This gets things completely backwards: the candlesticks were the one valuable possession of the bishop’s that Valjean didn’t steal! From the novel:

“Ah! here you are!” [the bishop] exclaimed, looking at Jean Valjean. “I am glad to see you. Well, but how is this? I gave you the candlesticks too, which are of silver like the rest, and for which you can certainly get two hundred francs. Why did you not carry them away with your forks and spoons?”

Later in Sturrock’s introduction, he indicates that he thinks Notre-Dame of Paris would have had a happy ending if only the villain had raped the heroine:

[The] disasters [of the plot] can be traced to a single flaw, which is the celibacy of the priest, Claude Frollo. Had Frollo been in a position to act instinctively and satisfy his lust on the gypsy [La Esmerelda], all would have been well …

All would have been well? Really? What do you think this passage says about Sturrock’s character?

Even if you discount the idea that rape is a bad thing, this summary is nonsense. Sturrock supposes, “Had Frollo been in a position”. But he was in exactly that position. In an early scene in the book Frollo and Quasimodo try to abduct La Esmerelda, but she is rescued by Phoebus, the captain of archers. What had Frollo in mind as a result of this abduction? Perhaps he planned merely to treat her to a slap-up meal in the cathedral refectory, but somehow I doubt it. Frollo’s fault is more than just lust for La Esmerelda: he wants to compel her to love him: and he thinks that his emotional torment obliges her to love him. The modern reader easily recognizes the psychopathology: we now call this behaviour “stalking”.

More bizarre misreading follows:

there is nothing pessimistic ultimately about what transpires in the novel, since the trouble is brought on by observance of the rules of a specific society

Certainly Hugo has a lot to criticize in medieval French society: feudalism, superstition, brutal and arbitrary punishment. But he also locates specific moral failings in individual characters. The tragedy of the book is that every character (excepting perhaps Quasimodo) fails La Esmerelda: Frollo stalks her and frames her for murder; Pierre Gringoire cares more for the goat than the woman; Phoebus wants only to seduce her; the judge who sentences her is deaf to the evidence (or rather, the lack of it); her own mother denounces her as a witch, and at the end fails to shelter her.

And remember, Sturrock is the guy who translated the book. How could he be so mistaken? The errors seem so outrageous that maybe I’ve misunderstood him? (But here’s more evidence of Sturrock’s inability to read, from his LRB review of Sokal and Bricmont’s Intellectual Impostures. Though he wrote that back in 1998 and I expect he’s ashamed of it now, so I will pass quietly over it.)

His translation of Notre-Dame of Paris is quite good, though.