Naturalist novelist Emile Zola penned his 20 volume Rougon-Macquart cycle over a twenty-five period with the idea that he would explore the subject of hereditary through one family. By examining various members of the Rougon-Macquart family under the Second Empire, Zola effectively recreates a unique period for those readers who are willing to put the time into reading all 20 volumes. The volumes in the series range in subject and quality. And that brings me to The Joy of Life, the twelfth novel in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series, and the weakest so far.
The Joy of Life focuses on Pauline Quenu. In the Rougon-Macquart family tree, Pauline is the daughter of Lisa Quenu and Quenu, the Parisian butcher. Pauline’s Aunt is Lisa Quenu’s sister, Gervaise (L’Assommoir) and her cousin is Gervaise’s daughter, Nana. Lisa and her husband Quenu appeared in The Belly Of Paris or The Fat and The Thin, the third novel in the Rougon-Macquart series, and Pauline played a small, but significant role in that novel. When The Joy of Life begins, ten-year-old Pauline is made an orphan after the death of her father (he’s found dead with his head in a bowl of dripping). She’s inherited a total of around 150,000 partly from the sale of her parents’ lucrative butcher shop, but now Pauline is to live with her father’s cousin, Chanteau and his family in Bonneville, a small coastal town.
Chanteau suffers from gout, but in spite of this condition, encouraged by his wife, he overindulges in rich food, setting off further discomfort as his gout progresses. A one time owner of a successful timber business inherited from his father, Chanteau sold the business due to his ill health. Unfortunately the Chanteaus who have a history of poor business decisions, sold the factory for a downpayment and a share of the future profits and so far they haven’t been paid. Consequently they live in retirement in a simple house maintained on a pittance. His wife Eugenie, forced to give up her parties, blames her husband for their poverty, and since his gout sets the tone of the household, the Chanteaus’ home is not a pleasant place. Madame Chanteau, meanwhile, seethes with ambitions and dreams of future riches. Those dreams have been thwarted by her husband’s business failures, but her greed fastens onto a new object through ambitious plans for her only son, Lazare. Meanwhile Lazare cannot ‘fix’ on a career and he drifts from one possibility to another.
The Chanteaus are paid to take care of Pauline, and at first the child is treated kindly by everyone except the disgruntled servant, Veronique. Aunt Chanteau makes a tremendous show of placing Pauline’s money–a “sacred deposit”–safely in a drawer, swearing that it will never be touched and that she will account for every penny. Gradually, Pauline’s nestegg is whittled away–partly to support the household but mostly to fund Lazare’s absurd ambitions. It begins with Pauline ‘lending’ Lazare 30,000 francs to build a factory that will convert seaweed to Potassium Bromide (bromide of potassium)–a medicine prescribed to cure all ills. Lazare, who is a chip off the old family block, begins massive expenditures that far exceed 30,000. Enormous effort goes into establishing this incredible factory, but the idea gradually fizzles along with Pauline’s depleted fortune and Lazare’s deflated ambitions.
Since Pauline adores her older cousin, Lazare, it becomes convenient for Aunt Chanteau to arrange a match between the orphan under her care and her feckless son, Lazare. This seems the perfect solution as this match will cover up the thievery and it also justifies Lazare’s foolish spending on his grandiose ideas in the sense that Pauline’s money will be ‘his’ anyway.
Now the premise of The Joy of Life sounds good, but its execution is problematic. It’s definitely one of the poorer novels in the Rougon-Macquart series, and I’d rank it along with the fifth novel in the series, The Abbe’s Transgressions. Mainly a colourless lifeless novel, the story introduces ten-year-old Pauline as an impossibly angelic child who grows into an impossibly angelic adult. Given the genes Pauline came from, it’s difficult to imagine an adult Pauline as portrayed here in the novel. Pauline’s mother, Lisa was a robust, aggressive woman who dominated the Quenu household and fiercely protected her family’s fortunes. The novel begins very weakly with its portrayal of the saintly Pauline as she’s absorbed into the household and becomes devoted to nursing her uncle. The tale becomes more interesting as Aunt Chanteau plunders Pauline’s fortune in order to establish the chemical factory, and then, in justification, begins to project her feelings of hatred onto her much maligned niece.
The story is relentlessly pitiful. The idea of a poor, saintly orphan at the mercy of a grasping adult becomes tiresome after a point. We read a great deal about Pauline’s “aching heart” as she is continually mistreated by her Aunt in correlation to her dwindling fortune. But it gets worse when Aunt Chanteau pushes Lazare towards another cousin, Louise, whose large fortune is intact. Pauline’s passive martyrdom is complete as she watches the young lovers together. This smell of burning martyr–which reminds me of Dickens in his worst sentimental moments–continues throughout the novel.
“Her little heart was heaving anew. She seemed to be stifling, and as she drew a deep sigh all her breath appeared to drain from her lips.”
“Then Pauline’s own personal sufferings and heartaches disappeared amidst her intense grief. She thought no more about the last wound which her heart had received; all her passion and jealousy vanished in the presence of that great wretchedness. Every other feeling became lost in one of deep pity, and she would have gladly endured injustice and insult and sacrificed herself still more if by so doing she could only have given comfort and consolation to others.”
This sort of sustained sentimental victimhood is really nauseating.
Apart from the excessive sentimental and idealized character of Pauline, the novel is loaded with deaths, illnesses, and hypochondria, endless humiliations and scorn. And ultimately, all this noble self sacrifice makes for a boring read. My copy of The Joy of Life is the Ernest Alfred Vizetelly translation from Mondial Books, and it’s becoming all too clear exactly why this volume in the Rougon-Macquart cycle has not been re-translated. That’s not to knock Vizetelly’s effort–because I get really fed up with people knocking Vizetelly whose translations have often been the only versions available, while the best of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart have been picked over and retranslated a few times over the past 100 years.
I feel like an ingrate knocking the book so much as most of the Rougon-Macquart novels rank amongst the best books I have ever read. But onward! Next is number thirteen Germinal….