The twenty volumes in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series are set in France during the period 1851-1873, and the novels trace the fortunes of various members of the two branches of the same family. The Rougons are the legitimate, and so-called respectable branch whereas the Macquarts are fairly disreputable. Zola traces the hereditary influences of violence, alcoholism and prostitution through his characters as they nagivate the changing social landscape of life in the Second Empire of Napoleon III (1852-1870) in the years from the coup d’etat (1851) which overthrew the Republic to the aftermath of the Franco Prussian war of 1870-71.
His Excellency (Son Excellence Eugene Rougon) is book number 6 in Zola’s extraordinary 20-volume Rougon-Macquart series.
The book’s main character, Eugene Rougon, is a vital figure and the “greatest of the Rougons,” responsible for the success of the Rougon family. Early in his career, Eugene saw the possibilities of social advancement through political maneuvers. Moving to Paris from Plassans, he was involved in the 1851 coup d’etat, and he was also responsible for placing his parents (Pierre and Felicite Rougon) in a pivotal political role in Plassans.
When the book begins Eugene Rougon, has become a powerful political figure in the Second Empire of Napoleon III, but he has become entangled in a dispute over the matter of an inheritance involving a relative of the Empress. In a pre-emptive move, Rougon submits his resignation to the emperor before he can be asked to resign. This resignation is a gesture of sorts, and Eugene Rougon doesn’t particular expect the Emperor to accept it, but accept it he does, and Rougon suddenly finds himself outside of the sphere of influence. Not only is Rougon cast adrift from the corridors of power, but also his various hangers-on are also cut loose with a sponsor.
Zola meticulously records and analyzes the tiniest details of the relationships between Rougon and his coterie of political parasites–and this coterie consists of those who hoped to use their access to Rougon to advance their own causes. These causes stem from acquiring a dowry so that a young woman can marry to the awarding of contracts, questions of inheritance, and the acquisition of lucrative political posts. Zola shows that these relationships are largely symbiotic. At first, Rougon sees them as parasites as they endlessly hound him for favours. Even when Rougon is out of the sphere of political influence, these hangers-on still hound him, hoping to encourage him to return to politics. And after a time, Rougon’s attitude towards these people he viewed as parasites begins to change. As the hangers-on switch loyalties, he begins to realize that he needs them as much as they need him:
“He loved power for its own sake, without any hankering for riches and honours. Very ignorant, and of little skill in things which were not connected with the management of men, it was only his keen craving for power that elevated him to a position of superiority. The ambition of raising himself above the crowd, which seemed to him to be compounded of fools and knaves, and of leading and driving men by sheer force, developed most energetic skill and cunning in his heavy nature. He believed only in himself, took his convictions for reasons, and held everything subordinate to the increase of his personal influence. Addicted to no vice, he yet reveled as at some secret orgy in the idea of wielding supreme power.”
While Eugene Rougon is a great character and dominates the novel, Zola creates another fascinating figure in Clorinde Balbi. Strikingly beautiful, Clorinde, who lives with her mother, is Italian. There are some questions about Clorinde’s vague background. She clearly wants to marry well, and she sets her sights on Eugene, but due to her background coupled with her temperament, she is a risky marriage prospect. Rougon has very definite ideas about the role of women in his life and at one point tells his friend, Delastang to “beware of women.” And then Rougon extrapolates: “when a woman does not put a crown on your head, she slips a halter around your neck. At our age a man’s heart wants as carefully looking after as his stomach.”
But in spite of Rougon’s “blunt distaste for females wiles” coupled with his determination to marry wisely, he is tempted by Clorinde. While she’s stunningly beautiful, she can also be temperamental and she is extremely eccentric. Rougon cannot help but be intrigued by her. At times she seems calculating and devious, and she has deliberately cultivated an air of light-mindedness, claiming that reading gives her headaches, for example:
“What had first attracted him in Clorinde was the mystery surrounding her, the story of a past-away life and the yearning for a new existence which he could read in the depths of her big goddess-like eyes. He had heard disgraceful scandal about her–an early love affair with a coachman, and a subsequent connection with a banker who had presented her with the little house in the Champs-Elysees. However, every now and then she seemed to him so child-like that he doubted the truth of what he had been told, and again and again essayed to find out the secret of this strange girl, who became to him a living enigma, the solution of which interested him as much as some intriguing political problem. Until then he had felt a scornful disdain for women, and the first one who excited his interest was certainly as singular and complicated a being as could be imagined.”
Clorinde fascinates Rougon, and so he makes a point of studying her through various social situations. But when he realizes that she holds a sort of power over him (he even calls her his ‘pet vice’), and that he is no longer entirely his own master, he quickly and smoothly arranges a marriage between Clorinde and the wealthy Delastang. Clorinde appears to take this news well, but secretly she plots a revenge of sorts. But her plan for revenge is not a simple one–it’s motivated by a desire to show Eugene how mistaken he was not to marry her. She plots to show him just how much she can do for the political career of her husband.
Clorinde is one of Zola’s great female characters. As a powerful, intelligent woman she is in complete contrast to Renee (The Kill V2) a beautiful woman who’s used and destroyed by the men in the Rougon family. Whereas Renee spins out-of-control and is driven by boredom and self-destruction in her pursuit of pleasure, every action Clorinde takes is planned out in advance and the consequences and fallout carefully measured. Clorinde is a female Rougon, ambitious, calculating and driven by a thirst for power. Rougon’s rejection of Clorinde simply fueled this desire.
His Excellency, set in Paris, is one of the political novels in the series. As one of Napoleon III’s chief ministers, Rougon is a major force in the second Empire. Dispensing his favours to friends and sycophants, Rougon is a conservative force of power–urging censorship of “pernicious books” and opposed to “liberty without restraint.” One great scene depicts Napoleon and his ministers discussing the seditious qualities of the book “Friend Jacques’s Evening Chats.” The hypocrisy of the Empire and the co-opting of the revolution is seen in several scenes–the opulence and extravagance of the ceremonies surrounding the baptism of Napoleon’s son, for example, and the scene in which the ministers argue the benefits of dispensing titles (most often to friends and relatives). Rougon and his parasitic friends operate as a microcosm of the French political system–rotten with nepotism, corruption, the orgiastic pursuit of power.