Before he has reached the 10th sentence of his new book, Notre-Dame, the bestselling novelist Ken Follett has claimed the cathedral on the Île-de-la-Cité as “one of the greatest achievements of European civilisation”. Watching it aflame on his television screen on that momentous night last year, and hearing President Macron say “Nous rebâtirons” (“We will rebuild”), brought Follett to the edge of tears. He compares seeing the spire fall to the moment in the life of every boy “when he realises that his father is not all-powerful and invulnerable”.
Follett is not a believer, but despite that he goes to church. Cathedrals, in particular, he finds irresistible: places that soothe the human soul, supply objects of beauty for contemplation, and provide a sense of peace. They are also “about what people can achieve when they work together”. Building them was a communal enterprise that captured the imaginations of entire societies, something that increases their lustre in his eyes. Like many writers on the cathedrals of the Middle Ages, he is at pains to impress upon readers the audacity and technical ingenuity of those who conceived and built them in a time of “violence, famine and plague”. They are, he reckons, the equivalent of moonshots in our own day. His love for these buildings is palpable and heartfelt.
On the other hand, while acknowledging their role in giving glory to God, Follett gets through the whole book without discussing the primary purpose of Notre-Dame and of all the other great medieval cathedrals: that is, as churches, built to house altars where the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass could be offered.
Early on, to be fair, he mentions attending Midnight Mass at Notre-Dame and being moved by the thought that “our ancestors had been celebrating Christmas this way in this building for more than 800 years”; and later, reflecting on even older monuments, such as Roman ruins, Greek temples and the pyramids, he rallies with: “But I think our cathedrals are the oldest still used for their original purpose”, with the “our” showing his attachment as a Welshman to a wider homeland of north-west Europe. But that is it. The Mass, without which no one would have bothered to lay one brick on top of another, receives no sustained attention. It is a strange omission.
In fact, its great brevity aside, Follett’s essay comes nowhere near to living up to its subtitle: A Short History of the Meaning of Cathedrals. Instead, it amounts to 60 or so pages, divided into six chapters, each homing in on one year in the history of Notre-Dame: 2019, the year of the fire; 1163, when building work began; 1831, when Victor Hugo published his famous novel telling of the beautiful gypsy girl Esmerelda, and the hunchbacked bell-ringer Quasimodo; 1844, the year of Viollet-le-Duc’s restoration; 1944 and the liberation of Paris; and 1989, when Follett published his own epic novel about the construction of a cathedral, The Pillars of the Earth.
Rather than a carefully planned grand tour, therefore, Notre-Dame is more of a short ramble, though with some curious digressions: none more so than when Follett interrupts his paean to Victor Hugo to take a swipe at Sir Walter Scott and the “constipation” of his style, quoting a sentence from his 1814 novel Waverley in support of his critique. I must admit, where Follett detects constipation – by which I think he means a lot of verbal effort to squeeze out a modest amount of meaning – I find myself admiring Scott’s relish for florid exactitude. But in any case, a face-off between two famous 19th-century novelists means we have strayed quite a distance from the history and meaning of cathedrals.
Follett also displays a tendency to brag that occasionally leads us away from the matter in hand, as when he writes about his tweet (in English and French) that drew the most emotional response from his followers on the night of the fire.
On the other hand, though, he has a knack for making sure that we see what it might otherwise be easy to miss. He recalls, for example, the work of the historian Jean Gimpel on highlighting the role of women in building Notre-Dame, revealed by 13th-century tax registers. And commenting on replacements made for the pinnacles of Peterborough Cathedral, he compares their crude workmanship to that of the medieval originals. The craftsmen of the 1950s would have seen no point in carving details that no one could see; whereas their counterparts in the Middle Ages lavished just as much care on these parts of the building as elsewhere “because, after all, God could see them”.
I put Notre-Dame down feeling a little bemused but also heartened by its unabashed admiration for sacred places. Follett is donating all his royalties from this book to the French heritage charity the Fondation du patrimoine. And fans of his fiction will be delighted by the inclusion of an extract from his new novel The Evening and the Morning to be published next year.