The Bells of Notre Dame 2017 novel by Jean-Thomas Cullen



= History of this Novel =

Click Through Sequence: Summary    1976    2016    2017    2019

[0] A One-Page Summary of Novel's 40+ Year History

You don't need to know this old history to enjoy reading my 2019 edition titled The Bells of Notre Dame. However, it is worth mentioning the background for numerous reasons.

1976/77. I wrote a novel back in 1976 or 1977, while stationed as a young U.S. Army soldier in West Germany (FRG). I'll talk about that in the next History page. For the next forty years, after some 'almost' moments in New York City, the novel remained unpublished and gathering dust in a cardboard box in our garage in San Diego CA, along with some other manuscripts I had written over the years.

2014/157. After about 2014 or 2015, as well as memory serves, I began to unearth some of those early manuscripts. That included a 425 page volume of mostly unpublished poetry (a lot of it very good, I think) written for the most part during my teenage years. That also plays a role in this history. In 2015, I paid someone to type and digitize this old manscript, which was a near-final draft titled provisionally Jon+Merile (after the two lovers). I found it to be a well-written story, and published it through Clocktower Books (my San Diego small press imprint since 1996). More on that in a moment. The title of that novel is On Saint Ronan Street. It's a New Haven, CT novel, named for a historic and scenic neighborhood near Yale University. Two major influences on my story choices included my own loneliness and homesickness for the past, stationed thousands of miles away from what we exiles generally called 'the World,' as if we were colonists marooned on an alien planet. Often, it felt just like that. The other influence was probably the elevated, literary sort of soap opera written by John Updike, a New England author.

Sometime in the next few months in 2014/15, after publishing On Saint Ronan Street, I came across that 1964 French movie whose title always evoked a poetic response in me: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. It has to be one of the most idiosyncratic films ever made. It's a musical without spoken dialogue; every utterance is at least recitative if not sung. What I found thought-provoking about the film, though, is its (from my perspective) matter-of-fact, melancholy outcome which some might call 'Gallic' or 'French', as in 'le shrug'. The plot curve goes from a ravishingly infatuated love story to a deflated layer cake. The auteur in me, ever welcoming creative challenges, recognized that the desultory, melancholy conclusion of On Saint Ronan Street was actually rather 'French' in the spirit of the parapluies, so I made a bold decision.

2016/17. On a mad, creative whim, I took the digitized manuscript of On Saint Ronan Street, created an entirely new work folder, and did a number of globals. I changed all the character and place names, so that Jon and Merile (pronounced 'Merrill') became Marc and Emma. New Haven became Paris, Yale University became the Latin Quarter campus of the Sorbonne, West Haven where the lovers romped on a dark and snowy night became the lake at Créteil outside Paris, and so on. I borrowed some of the old student hangouts in New Haven (The Old Heidelberg, George & Harry's) and transported them to the Marais and other locations around the City of Light. Where Jon and Merile escaped for a wild, passionate weekend to a beach town in Rhode Island, Emma and Marc take their desires to Verseilles. It all worked out rather splendidly, becoming an entirely new novel titled (as of 2017) Paris Affaire: a Young Poet and his Angel in the City of Light. I made one major, sweeping, all-important change while moving from the spirit of umbrellas to a more dramatic, bell-ringing conclusion. Almost the entire Paris novel occurs within the sound and sight of the Notre Dame Cathedral and its twin-towers facade and massive bells, just at my New Haven novel was intoxicated by the magnificant carillon bell music pouring from the neo-Gothic Harkness Tower at Yale (listen and again). During Sunday afternoon bell concerts especially, the carillon at Harkness would pour forth the most divine music, pealing anything from religious hymns or symphonies to popular rock music like Paint It Black by the Rolling Stones. Yes, New Haven is a small college town, and Paris is a great world class city, but the perspectives here were/are entirely those of a bedazzled poet writing prose (which has been a large part of my commercial downfall as a writer, but I stand by my artistic vision).

In the new novel, I was able to inject some writing skills learned over forty years, which will become evident to the thoughtful reader. I won't spoil the enjoyment by belaboring details. So, although the Paris novel created in my sixties is in some respects very different from the New Haven nostos+algia (pain of longing for home & a lost past), the two novels share much in common. And again, On Saint Ronan Street is sort of Umbrellas without the singing, my Paris novel throws the umbrellas into the Seine and (well, read it and find out for yourself, dear reader). Remember, if you don't like it, you can always get your money back and move on, seamlessly and without conniptions.

15 April 2019. On that morning, while my wife and I were preparing our coffee and breakfast at the kitchen counter, our big TV screen popped up some of the most ghastly, unreal, other-wordly words and images we'd ever seen. Could it be true? One of the world monuments of endurance and faith was ablaze with flames and smoke of gigantic proportions. First, I was taken back to my many stays in Paris over half a century, and to my particular interest in the monuments including the cathedral. For example, I knew that in the 1790s, drunken and stupid bums ('revolutionaries' in the same mode as Hitler's fans in 1930s Germany, and other manifestations throughout history of humankind's lowest denominator) had done much to desecrate the Notre Dame; including throwing rocks through the irreplaceable European-Medieval stained glass windows. So, much of the modern stained glass was replacement (nice try, but…) in the 19th Century, while the higher registers were beyond the reach of that rioting lynch mob, and still glowed with those divine deep red, blue, amber, green and similar colors. My concern on 15 April 2019 was whether any of the remaining old glass would survive (and some of it did). Gradually, my thoughts turned to the glorious time I had writing Paris Affaire, and I realized that one update was needed. So, the text remains identical to that from 2017, but the title has changed to The Bells of Notre Dame with the same subtitling including the words about 'a young poet and his angel in the City of Light." And that is (almost) where the matter will forever rest. But I have some more detail to contribue to the mosaic of this novel's (and therefore, in quick sketch, the author's life). I'll give you a little more detail, with the primary goal of letting the novel(s) speak for themselves, just as the great bell tower in Paris, and the more delicate fifty-four bells at Yale.


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