The soil and nothing else….
The Earth (La Terre) is novel number 15 in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series. My Penguin version, translated by Douglas Parmee runs to 500 pages, so it’s a substantial book, and in it Zola creates the unique world of the peasants of Beauce. La Terre was Zola’s favourite novel, and indeed there does seem to be a loving hand at work, and perhaps this is best seen in Zola’s description of the peasants’ passion for the land. This love, however, causes Zola’s characters to commit acts of incredible viciousness in the drive to acquire and hold the precious acres into which their lives are poured.
The Rougon-Macquart connection in The Earth is found in Jean Macquart. To place him in the family tree, he is the brother of Lise (The Belly of Paris) and Gervaise (L’Assommoir) and the uncle of Nana (Nana). Whereas some of the Rougon-Macquart novels examine various family members at war with each other (The Kill, The Fortunes of the Rougons), in The Earth, Jean is a drifter, an ex-army corporal who ends up in Beauce as a labourer and remains there for ten years. This is similar to Etienne Lantier (son of Gervaise) in Germinal, a drifter who looks for work and then becomes an integral part of the mining community.
Parmee notes that Zola’s “scientific enthusiasms had considerably waned” by the time he wrote The Earth, and while those scientific hypotheses appear to the detriment of Therese Raquin, in The Earth Zola instead choses to emphasize the characters in the novel rather than push theories onto the structure of the tale. The result is simply marvellous. The novel’s introduction made me wonder if the doom and gloom of the plot would hamper my enjoyment (something I experienced with Germinal), but and this surprised me a bit, while awful, absolutely terrible things happen in The Earth: robberies, deceit, beatings, spousal abuse, elder abuse, rape, incest, and several murders, I loved every page of this novel for its naked depiction of the human race at its worst. Zola creates intense, vital, incredibly well-drawn characters who live in an insular farming community. There should be an emphasis on the word, community. The peasants have their own moral creed; they don’t have much time for god or for doctors, so the disgruntled priest’s main job is to bury the dead, while the doctor arrives too late because the peasants don’t want to pay his fees. These people are a law unto themselves, and that’s something that Jean grasps too late.
The plot, and Parmee states that Zola had King Lear in mind, concerns a rather unpleasant old farmer named Fouan. Fouan has three children who embody every human vice: a daughter Fanny who’s married to a farmer named Delhomme, and two sons–Hyacinthe (who’s nicknamed Jesus Christ for his appearance) and Buteau. Jesus Christ, probably the best-natured of the bunch, is a poacher and a drunkard, Fanny is mean-spirited, and Buteau is a brutal, vicious man. Fouan and his wife are slowing down and are finding it increasingly more difficult to farm their precious twenty-five acres, and so he decides to divide it between his children while he is still living. The idea is that each of his children will pay him a quarterly pension in return for the land. But things almost immediately go wrong. The children niggle down the pension, cutting out the cost of items they consider ‘luxuries,’ and then they squabble over the division of the land which is drawn by parcel lots. Buteau, a particularly brutal character, is convinced that he’s been cheated, and this begins the downward spiral of Fouan.
The minute Fouan hands over his land, he loses any ‘value’ he had for his children, and he becomes a burden. As the story progresses, Fouan moves in between the households belonging to his children–first because he’s lured by promises and then he moves from necessity. The relationship between Fouan and his children plays out like some sort of terrible farce with the cruellest, most vicious child coming out as the ‘victor.’
Human nature is unchanging, and there are times when this fact hits the reader of a classic novel full force. The humans in this novel are really an unpleasant bunch, and this is evident in their relationships which are largely devoid of any sentimentality, tenderness and affection. Animals generally serve a utilitarian purpose for the peasants (with a few exceptions), and while this might be expected given the times and the location, this attitude spreads to the elderly and the infirm who are also seen as useless. When the veterinary surgeon, Patoir, is called out to see an old cat, for example, his suggestion is to: “tie a stone around his neck and chuck him in the river.” Patoir attends to people it seems as often as he attends animals. In a similar vein, the Fouans decide to economise by drowning their old dog. This event serves two purposes: it lessens the sympathy we might have for the elderly couple and it foreshadows the merciless fate of the Foauns.
But where does Jean fit into all this? Well, he works in Beauce as a labourer, working for farmer Hourdequin, and sleeping with his promiscuous mistress, Jacqueline on the sly. Over time, however, Jean takes a fancy to the sisters, Lise and Francoise, orphans who own a nice parcel of parcel land. He proposes to and is rejected by Lise, who has an illegitimate child by Buteau, but he gradually realises that he’s in love with her much younger sister, Francoise. If there is a hero in The Earth, then the hero must be Jean–a good, tender-hearted, simple man who tries to farm the land as well as the Beauce peasants, but he never quite gets the hang of it. In spite of living in the area for 10 long, hard years, Jean remains an outsider. He will never belong, and this becomes bitterly clear to him towards the end of the novel.
And if Jean is the hero, then the heroine must be Francoise–a strange character who fails to understand her own feeling; she’s a woman whose stubbornness and tenacity work against her.
But these are just a few characters in Zola’s amazing tableau. One of the reasons I think the novel works so well is that the characters are mostly an unpleasant, but interesting bunch. As the novel develops, these characters become increasingly more detailed–ok that should happen in every novel, but in The Earth, the characters become very real through their relationships with each other. Old Fouan’s nasty sister, La Grande for example, an elderly woman who stays alive it seems to spite her relatives, has a special wine she keeps just for family members. The wine is so revolting people don’t want to drink it, but that doesn’t stop La Grande serving it (with delight) on the occasions of family announcements and celebrations. La Grande, loathes her children, is gladdened by their deaths, and runs off her grandchildren who live in poverty, dress in rags and quietly starve within her vision. La Grande predicts Fouan’s treatment at the hands of his children, and everything she says comes true. Zola seems to say that La Grande’s attitude in the long run, is perhaps a better evaluation of human behaviour. Fouan trusts his children, and he is gradually ripped apart by his offspring who obsess about getting every penny from him, and who aren’t happy until he’s stripped of every asset. Once Fouan is homeless and penniless, his children then begrudge every spoonful of cabbage soup the old man eats.
The Earth wouldn’t be so great or so enjoyable a novel without its light moments and humour. For example, the novel has its share of hypocrites, and in this case it’s the Charles family, the local equivalent of landed gentry. Monsieur and Madame Charles (sister and brother-in-law to Old Fouan) have retired to the country to grow flowers, and they pride themselves on being completely respectable, raising their granddaughter in virginal innocence. The Chartres brothel they ran so profitably is now rapidly being driven to the ground by their daughter and ne’er-do-well son-in-law, a “flabby loafer” who continually uses the prostitutes for freebies. The fact that the Charles family ran a brothel is common knowledge in the village, and yet it’s never directly referred to. Everyone refers to the brothel as a “sweet shop“, and it’s a ruse all the villagers knows about and accept along with a sly, knowing chuckle or two. In fact when Madame Charles gathers up some old, well-worn linen that’s been cast off from the brothel, she gives it away as a wedding present to Lise.
Another source of humour can be found in the antics of Jesus Christ. He has the most amazing ability to fart which he uses as a sort of after-dinner party trick. He’s always willing to entertain an admiring crowd with his talent. In one scene, he pulls down his trousers and uses his farts to blow out candles; in another scene he farts and knocks over a bailiff’s man. There are also subtle, serious social issues in the novel concerning the beginning of technology in farming, conscription for the Franco-Prussian war, and Beauce even has its own tavern radical, Canon, a man who like to regale the other customers with tales of revolution and uprisings until he drinks himself under the table.
But in spite of its subject matter–family members pitted against each other in a battle to the death–the novel is not all doom and gloom. The phrase that pops into my mind is: Peyton Place (minus the melodrama) transported to the 19th century French countryside. Yes, this is a phenomenal classic novel, but it’s also a damn good read. If The Earth included any ‘nice’ characters, the novel would be much more difficult to read, but as it is, The Earth has to rank as one of Zola’s best.
Parmee’s translation is marvelous; it flows like water and its language is as smooth as silk. Parmee doesn’t shrink from using frank, raw language to complement the novel’s setting. Here’s a short passage from Lise regarding her sister, Francoise:
“You slut!” she screamed. “It’s you who’s leading him on! If you weren’t always hanging around him, he wouldn’t keep sniffing around your dirty bum, which you’re too young to wipe properly anyway.”
Ernest Vizetelly, while proofreading The Earth prior to its publication in English was “struck by the boldness of Zola’s story,” and he removed all references to the nickname, Jesus Christ–along with any mention of this character’s amazing ability to fart almost on demand. Vizetelly labels this “an infirmity.” The Vizetellys were under tremendous pressure and scrutiny, so they can’t be blamed for censoring the novel. It’s just a shame as to take out the nickname Jesus Christ is to miss the entire point. Beauce is, a ‘godless’ community. When the novel begins the villagers of Rognes don’t even have their own priest (one appears later but he’s worn out and has to be finally shipped out, exhausted and ruined). To the peasants, there is no god, no heaven, and no hell. There’s just the earth:
“That’s how it was, there was trouble all round, the only thing to do was to work till you dropped and not complain. Moreover, little by little, as he walked beside them, he found himself being gently lulled by these large green fields. A few April showers had brought the fodder crops on splendidly. The pink of the clover delighted him, and he forgot everything else. Now he took a short cut over the ploughed land to see how his two carters were doing: the earth stuck to his shoes, he could feel how rich and fertile it was, almost as though it wanted to cling to him and embrace him; and once more he felt completely won over by it, he was recovering the strength and joy he had felt as a young man of thirty. Did any woman exist apart from the earth?”