Reading Notre Dame

Vision of Notre Dame: a sketch by Victor Hugo

It has to be the worst possible reason to have a bestseller. In the wake of last week’s devastating fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel Notre Dame de Paris – perhaps better known to English speakers as The Hunchback of Notre Dame – has climbed to the top of the charts.

One unforgettable passage in particular has grown more even more poignant. As the cathedral doors are stormed by would-be-pillagers far below, the hunchback Quasimodo lights a bonfire high atop the tower, heating molten lead. What follows is one of the novel’s most terrific moments:

“All at once… a howl …rose among them. Those who did not cry out, those who were still alive, looked. Two streams of melted lead were falling from the summit of the edifice into the thickest of the rabble. That sea of men had just sunk down beneath the boiling metal, which had made, at the two points where it fell, two black and smoking holes in the crowd, such as hot water would make in snow. Dying men, half consumed and groaning with anguish, could be seen writhing there. Around these two principal streams there were drops of that horrible rain, which scattered over the assailants and entered their skulls like gimlets of fire.  The outcry was heartrending. They fled pell-mell, hurling the beam upon the bodies, the boldest as well as the most timid…

All eyes were raised to the top of the church. They beheld there an extraordinary sight. On the crest of the highest gallery, higher than the central rose window, there was a great flame rising between the two towers with whirlwinds of sparks, a vast, disordered, and furious flame, a tongue of which was borne into the smoke by the wind, from time to time. Below that fire, below the gloomy balustrade with its trefoils showing darkly against its glare, two spouts with monster throats were vomiting forth unceasingly that burning rain, whose silvery stream stood out against the shadows of the lower façade. As they approached the earth, these two jets of liquid lead spread out in sheaves, like water springing from the thousand holes of a watering-pot. Above the flame, the enormous towers, two sides of each of which were visible in sharp outline, the one wholly black, the other wholly red, seemed still more vast with all the immensity of the shadow which they cast even to the sky.

First page of Hugo’s manuscript, which resides in the Bibliotheque Nationale.

Their innumerable sculptures of demons and dragons assumed a lugubrious aspect. The restless light of the flame made them move to the eye. There were griffins which had the air of laughing, gargoyles which one fancied one heard yelping, salamanders which puffed at the fire… And among the monsters thus roused from their sleep of stone by this flame, by this noise, there was one who walked about, and who was seen, from time to time, to pass across the glowing face of the pile, like a bat in front of a candle.

Without doubt, this strange beacon light would awaken far away, the woodcutter of the hills of Bicêtre, terrified to behold the gigantic shadow of the towers of Notre-Dame quivering over his heaths.”

Victor Hugo, savior of Notre Dame.

For Hugo, this desperate defense of the ancient edifice was of more than historic interest. His novel sought to promote the value and preservation of the great cathedral, at a time when the ideals and excesses of the French Revolution had stripped bare much of the building’s gothic majesty, and many favored razing Notre Dame, an unwelcome relic of a bygone age. Hugo’s efforts led to a massive restoration project, which included that magnificent wooden spire that toppled in flames before the stunned eyes of millions last week. The novel is itself a powerful testament to the power of architecture, not to be missed by any fan of vivid historical fiction.

       ~ posted by David W.

In a Cloistered Monastery – A Reference Question

Picture of a turn.“The architecture of cloistered convents features a small door to the exterior designed specifically to allow groceries and other small supplies to be delivered while maintaining the privacy and separation of the nuns. What is the formal name for such a door (it likely has a name in Latin) and what is the English translation of that word?”

This question came in to the Level 7 reference desk at the Central Library on a busy day during the week before Easter. We hunted around a bit online and did not immediately find a fitting term, so we took the patron’s contact information to dig a bit deeper.

Among the Library’s books on religious orders, I found Virgins of Venice, which describes the lives and transgressions of cloistered nuns in Renaissance Italy, and Cloister and Community, an elegant, photograph-filled book that shows modern life in a Carmelite monastery. If either discusses this feature, it was not in the index. In our very rich architecture section, I searched Monasteries of Western Europe and The Romanesque: Towns, Cathedrals, and Monasteries. Both offer detailed descriptions and floor plans of religious buildings, and thorough indices and glossaries, but not quite to the level of detail I needed.

Finally, I searched online for an actual modern cloistered monastery and discovered that the Sisters of Carmel—although cloistered—offer a web form through which members of the public can ask questions. Although it was holy week, I sent one in.

To my gratitude and delight, they quickly replied!

What [you are] referring to is what is known as “the Turn”.  It is short for a turn-style, which is like a shelf that rotates, so that outsiders can put things in (i.e. groceries, etc.), spin it around, and the Sisters can receive the items without ever leaving their enclosure.  We do not know the Latin term for this.  It is a very practical thing that is used in most cloistered Monasteries, including ours!  We attached a picture for you. We hope this is helpful. God bless you and Happy Easter! – The Carmelite Sisters”

We always say that a librarian need not know everything; we must simply understand who the experts are. It certainly proved true in this case.

For more information about life  in a cloistered monastery and references to the Turn, check out this article in the New York Times, found by my colleague!

~posted by Anne C.

Seattle Rep’s NINA SIMONE: FOUR WOMEN: Beyond the Theatre

Seattle Repertory Theatre presents NINA SIMONE: FOUR WOMEN by Christina Ham from April 26 to June 2, 2019. Librarians at Seattle Public Library created this list of books, music and films to enhance your experience of the show.

Nina Simone’s “Four Women” is a haunting, critical exploration of racial stereotypes and the legacy of slavery through the lives of four black women: Aunt Sarah, Saffronia, Sweet Thing and Peaches. In NINA SIMONE: FOUR WOMEN, playwright Christina Ham brings these characters and Simone herself to life as they gather in the ruins of the 16th Street Baptist Church the day after 4 young black girls died in a terrorist bombing. This tragedy profoundly impacted Simone, prompting her evolution from artist to artist-activist and inspiring her to write and perform powerful songs such as “Mississippi Goddamn,” “Young, Gifted and Black” and of course, “Four Women.” Continue reading “Seattle Rep’s NINA SIMONE: FOUR WOMEN: Beyond the Theatre”

Theater in the Library: My Name is Asher Lev

Seattle Jewish Theater Company has been performing classic and contemporary Jewish theater throughout the Seattle area since 2011. The Library has hosted several of these performances in the past and we are pleased to give patrons an opportunity to see SJTC’s latest production. Join us in the Microsoft Auditorium at the Central Library on Sunday, April 21 at 2pm for SJTC’s production of My Name is Asher Lev. The production is directed by Shana Bestock and produced by SJTC artistic director Art Feinglass. The performance will be followed by an audience discussion with the cast. Continue reading “Theater in the Library: My Name is Asher Lev”

‘Tis the Season for Hanami

Spring has sprung in the Pacific Northwest and the cherry trees are putting on quite a show! One of the more popular attractions in Seattle for cherry blossom viewing, also known as Hanami, is our cherry trees located at the University of Washington Quad.

Although the origin of the trees is debated, according to The Daily:

“In 1912, Tokyo Mayor Yukio Ozaki donated cherry trees to the United States, which marked the growth in friendship between the United States and Japan. The trees were distributed around the country, with 34 of them planted in the Washington Park Arboretum. Because of construction [of State Route 520], the trees had to be relocated, and 31 of them were relocated to the UW, where they are now planted in the Quad.” –The Daily of the University of Washington

Photograph of blossoming cherry trees on the University of Washington Quad.
The Daily – Takae Goto

They just reached peak viewing on March 29th. However, there is still time to celebrate! ParentMap has a list of other locations in Seattle and nearby to enjoy cherry blossom viewing.

Continue reading “‘Tis the Season for Hanami”