Category Archives: Zola

His Excellency Eugène Rougon: Zola (Brian Nelson Translation)

A few years ago I completed Zola’s 20 volume Rougon-Macquart Cycle. As I worked my way through the 20 books, I came to the conclusion that some would forever have a place on my-best books of all-time list: The Kill, Nana, L’Assommoir, Pot LuckMoney, Earth, The Ladies’ Paradise, Debacle,His ExcellencyThe Masterpiece, while others were bridge-books and not so memorable. At the time only some of the books were available in new or newish translations, and that left me with the 19th century Vizetelly translations. I don’t intend to knock the Vizetelly translations as the Vizetellys believed in these books, tried to publish them and were heavily penalized for their efforts.

When I discovered the shocking fact that many of the 20-volume cycle hadn’t been re-translated since the 19th century, I thought that the reason these books hadn’t been re-translated had to be because they were the minor novels in the series. But as it turns out, my theory wasn’t correct.

His excellency

That brings me to the new translation of His Excellency Eugène Rougon from Brian Nelson. Nelson has previously translated the following novels in the series:

The Fortunes of the Rougons

The Ladies’ Paradise


The Kill

Pot Luck

The Belly of Paris

I’m excited about this translation as His Excellency Eugène Rougon is due for a reread, and what better reason than a new translation. If you want to read my review of the book, it’s here, but this post is about translation.

The main character, power-hungry Eugène Rougon has a certain attitude towards women:

Vizetelly translation:

“Yes, beware of women,” Rougon repeated, pausing after each word so as to glance at his papers. “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.”

Brian Nelson translation:

“Yes, be very careful with women,” Rougon repeated, pausing after every word as he peered in a file. “If they’re not putting a crown on your head, they’re slipping a noose round your neck… At our age, a man should look after his heart as much as his stomach.”

Perhaps those two quotes don’t seem so different at first glance, but I read them both several times. In the first quote, the word “halter” evokes the imagery of a man being controlled whereas in the second quote, “noose” implies a much more terminal position. Plus then there’s that last line … “a man’s heart wants as carefully looking after as his stomach,” versus “a man should look after his heart as much as his stomach.” The matter of who is doing the care-taking of the heart is not in question in the Nelson version, as we would expect with Eugène Rougon, whereas the Vizetelly version implies that a woman could perhaps be taking care of the heart and the stomach which is in complete contradiction of Rougon’s speech.

But here’s a meatier quote:

Vizetelly translation:

“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.”

Nelson translation:

“What attracted him in Clorinde was the quality of the unknown, a mysterious past, and the ambition he thought he could read in her big, dark eyes. Frightful things were said about her–a first attachment to a coachman, then a deal with a banker, rumoured to have paid for her false virginity with the gift of a house on the Champs-Élysées. On the other hand, there were times when she seemed such a child that he doubted these stories. He swore he would get the truth out of her himself, and kept going back hoping to learn the truth from the strange girl’s own lips. Clorinde had become an enigma which began to obsess him as much as any delicate question of high politics. He had lived his life thus far in disdain of women, and the first woman to whom he was attracted was without doubt the most complicated creature imaginable.”  *(and there’s a note here that Clorinde was modeled on the real-life Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione)

Comparing the two, IMO, the Nelson version is much smoother and also much more effectively conveys Rougon’s fascination with Clorinde. Significantly, Clorinde’s sexuality is absent from the Vizetelly quote. Back to censorship and what the Vizetellys had to deal with. Zola’s incredible, unforgettable characters are human beings who experience great passions: whether is be the passion/obsession for power, money, revenge, or sex, and it’s a shame  crime against literature that the Vizetellys were forced to tone down their translations. Henry Vizetelly was convicted twice for obscenity when he published versions of Zola novels. But that was the 19th century, so I’m going to celebrate the 21st century with a re-read of His Excellency Eugène Rougon.

Review copy.


Filed under Fiction, Zola

Horror Stories: Classic Tales from Hoffman to Hodgson Edited by Darryl Jones

“But there are men, sane men, who are entirely of the opinion that it is quite within the bounds of reason to suppose that there may be what the world commonly calls spiritual manifestations–dealing with the seen and the unseen. Of such men, I avowedly, am one.”

A severed hand with murderous intentions, a portrait that drips blood, a husband out for revenge, opium-fueled dreams, and a locked bedroom in which a brother turns into a monster… yes all this (and more) occurs in Horror Stories: Classic tales from Hoffmann to Hodgson from Oxford University Press. The book, a review copy sent to me from a friend who chose not to read this, comes with a fantastic intro from editor Darryl Jones.  I would not call myself a fan of horror and typically avoid the gore of modern horror novels–although for some reason I have a weakness for a handful of films that fall under that heading: The Shining, The People Under the Stairs, Nightbreed, and Hellraiser. And this brings me back to the informative intro which adds a great deal to the selected stories.

Horror is a phobic cultural form, both in the sense that it is designed to produce a specific reaction–fear and loathing–but also in the way that it is produced by and directly reflects cultural preoccupations, fears and anxieties at any give moment, which it renders obliquely, in displaced and often highly metaphorical guises, as monsters, madmen, ghosts. A very clear example of this can be seen in the rise of colonial horror in the later nineteenth century. As the British Empire and the other empires of nineteenth century Europe reached their zeniths, so appeared the ‘reverse-colonization’ narrative, a paranoid cultural form in which conquered or oppressed colonial subjects return to the West (or to the Western officials in the colonies) to wreak terrifying revenge.

There are several examples of this ‘reverse-colonization’ in this wonderful collection, and I doubt that I would have made the connection but for this savvy intro which also explores the nineteenth century emergence of fascination with spiritualism, the “elements of terror,” the “contradictions” of Horror, and the “terror/horror binary.” Darryl Jones states that “the long nineteenth century was the great age of the ghost story,” and that the ghost story “represents a significant breach in the Victorian narrative of progressivism and modernity.” Jones, who obviously took a great deal of care in making his selections for this collection, points out that Stephen King, “by far the most prominent living horror writer” acknowledges The Monkey’s Paw (included here) as a “quintessential example of the tale of terror.” 

Horror storiesThe 29 stories in this collection are from the period 1812-1916, and while many of the author names are expected (Edgar Allan Poe, Sheridan Le Fanu, M. R. James, Algernon Blackwood, William Hope Hodgson,) many are unexpected–Zola (The Death of Olivier Bécaille), and Balzac (La Grande Bretêche) are just two examples of authors I didn’t expect to find here.

As I read the stories, I was struck by how the authors keyed into our deepest primal fears. In Sheridan Le Fanu’s Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter, for example, the narrator explains how he came across this strange story through his acquaintance with a military man who owns a disturbing painting by the long-dead painter Schalken. The painting seems to capture a horrifying moment, and the owner of the painting relates the tale of a beautiful young woman claimed by a dead man. Yet another terrifying painting plays a role in E.H Benson’s creepy The Room in the Tower–the story of a man who has a recurring dream which involves being left to sleep in a tower room. Inevitably, of course, the person who suffered a lifetime of bad dreams finds himself relegated to the tower room which contains … a painting which drips blood. I’d run for the hills, but our narrator spends the night almost as though he cannot resist this moment. Zola’s The Death of Olivier Bécaille tells the tale of a young man who falls ill and enters some sort of coma state, and of course eventually he faces another of our primal fears: being buried alive. Yet another deep rooted fear is the centre of W. F. Harvey’s August Heat– the story of a man who learns the date of his death.

One of the biggest surprises of the collection was Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Case of Lady Sannox. A childhood exposure to Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes created a lack of curiosity in Arthur Conan Doyle as an author, but I loved this clever story, and perhaps some of my enjoyment can be explained by my newfound recognition of ‘reverse-colonization.’ This is, of course, one of the best aspects of reading a collection from several authors–we are inevitably exposed to someone we’ve never read before.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s  The Case of Lady Sannox, Douglas Stone “one of the most remarkable men in England” is embroiled in a passionate affair with the notorious Lady Sannox. Stone is a “high-handed, impetuous” man, one of the most famous surgeons in London.

Those who knew him best were aware that famous as he was as a surgeon, he might have succeeded with even greater rapidity in any of a dozen lines of life. He could have cut his way to fame as a soldier, struggled to it as an explorer, bullied for it in the courts, or built it out of stone and iron as an engineer. He was born to be great, for he could plan what another man dare not do, and he could do what another man dare not plan. In surgery none could follow him. His nerve, his judgment, his intuition, were things apart. Again and again his knife cut away death, but grazed the very springs of life in doing it, until his assistants were as white as the patients.

Lady Sannox, a former actress, has many lovers in her past, and there’s a degree of speculation as to whether her mild-mannered husband is clueless about her affairs  or “miserably wanting in spirit.” But when Douglas Stone becomes Lady Sannox’s latest lover, there’s no attempt to hide the affair which very quickly becomes a subject of scandal and threatens Stone’s career.

As I noted earlier, I would not classify myself as reader of Horror fiction, but I am certainly a fan of Gothic fiction and the supernatural. The book’s title: Horror Stories: Classic tales from Hoffman to Hodgson may possibly alienate potential readers, and that’s a great shame. Gothic or Supernatural Stories may have a wider appeal, and yet as the intro emphasizes, Gothic “is a term with a bewildering variety of referents.” After reading this excellent collection, the use of “Horror” in the title seems most appropriate as we move from anticipated dread (which in Gothic fiction may not materialize) to the horror of our fully realized fears.


Filed under Balzac, Blackwood Algernon, Dickens Charles, Fiction, Hodgson William Hope, Hoffmann, Jacobs W W, James M R, Machen Arthur, Stevenson Robert Louis, Stoker Bram, Zola

Victorian Murderesses, Scandal and Literature

I recently read and thoroughly enjoyed Thirteen Murderesses: The True History of Thirteen Respectable French and English Women Accused of Unspeakable Crimes by Mary S. Hartman. Originally I thought I was going to read the details of the cases, but while the cases are covered, the book’s emphasis is on the circumstances that lead to murder, and if the women were (possibly) innocent, what led them to being accused and society’s reaction to these women who seemed to be the antithesis of everything Victorian Womanhood was supposed to be.

Anyway, for info on the book there are two parts: here and here.

The book takes a different, much less sensationalistic approach than let’s say a ‘true crime’ book, but one of the issues brought up by the author sticks out, and that is the role of literature in some of the crimes examined here. Repeatedly, during the trials, the reading material consumed by these women became an issue, and an explanation for their deviant behaviour.

The author argues that in the cases of both Madeleine Smith, the daughter of a wealthy architect, who lived in Glasgow and Angélina Lemoine, the daughter of a lawyer, “their educations, in different ways, contributed to their decisions” to engage in actions that led to murders that occurred as the result of sexual relations outside of marriage. The common thread here between the two cases is that both women, fed a steady diet of romantic literature, initiated sexual relationships laced with faux romantic ideals, which compromised their social standing, and that they then took actions to remedy their errors. Both young women had a less-than-stellar education, but that’s hardly unusual for the times; Madeleine Smith attended Mrs. Gorton’s Academy for Young Ladies near London, a finishing school with a drab daily programme of “prayers, piano lessons and practice, walking trips, discussions of current affairs, needlework, and most important, deportment.”

Madeleine Smith was eventually accused of murdering her lover with arsenic, and although there was considerable circumstantial evidence pointing to her guilt, the Scottish jury returned the verdict of “not proven.” Angélina Lemoine was accused and later acquitted of murdering a baby born out-of-wedlock. Since the murder took place immediately after the birth, and with Angélina’s mother in charge making all the arrangements for the disposal of the infant’s body, it’s obvious that she made the fatal decision to kill the newborn baby.

Both trials included evidence from letters written from the accused women to their lovers. Most of us don’t  expect our letters to be read out in public, let alone in a court of law, and it’s in these letters that the issue is raised of just what these young women were reading. Madeleine, in her letters to her lover “announced her intention to abandon Byron, who stood, she knew, for all that was unhealthy and impure.”  Angélina Lemoine’s father wrote her a letter (her parents were separated) in which he admonished her to read history (“a lot of it“) and travel literature.

But above everything do not read these products of the imagination of our so-called modern men of letters, these novelists, the reading of whose works leaves nothing behind, either in the heart or the memory.

Angélina adored the novels of George Sand–including The Confessions of Marion Delorme, a 17th century courtesan, and Angélina, clearly a precocious girl who was eager for sexual experience, saw herself as the heroine in a George Sand novel, at one point stating that “her pregnancy was “the only way to complete my novel.'”

Marie Lefarge, convicted of the arsenic poisoning of her husband, is another woman who seemed to want to live in a romantic novel. Marriage to Charles Lefarge was less than ideal, and Marie, another fan of George Sand, took drastic measures to end the relationship. Author Mary S. Hartman makes the point that “the natural result for the avid readers of such fiction, especially given their limited experience, must have been the creation of a huge ‘credibility gap’ as the realities of actual courtship and marriage in their society dawned on them. But documented evidence of such casualties among bourgeois daughters is difficult to uncover, except in  literary portraits themselves, such as Emma Bovary.”

Another point made in Mary Hartman’s book Victorian Murderesses: The True History of Thirteen Respectable French and English Women Accused of Unspeakable Crimes is that so many ‘respectable’ 19th C women, fascinated by the headlines of murder by ‘respectable’ women, dashed off to the courts to hear the juicy details of these crimes. But is that so surprising given the popularity of Sensation fiction–books that delve into the deep, dark depths of pathological male/female relationships? In the book’s conclusion, Hartman brings up Sensation fiction and how it subverts the “stereotypes of the domestic novel” and that the characters “display ‘female anger, frustration, and sexual energy.’ ”  (Elaine Showalter).

Since I began reading Victorian Sensation fiction, I’ve become fascinated with the genre. In an art-mirrors-life-way, Sensation fiction seemed to fit perfectly with Mary S. Hartman’s scholarly book about Victorian Murderesses. M.E. Braddon doesn’t shy away from those lurid topics of murder, blackmail and bigamy, and let’s not forget that in The Doctor’s Wife, (written by Braddon as a response to Madame Bovary’s “hideous immorality,”) poor Isabel’s mind is ruined by Sensation fiction. Of course, Braddon can’t be serious about Flaubert since her own novels were also criticized as immoral. Perhaps she is having a laugh, I think at her notoriety, and why not? That very notoriety gave her a career.  Nonetheless, Isabel’s dreams of romance lead her to a sad little marriage, and then once shackled for life, she meets a man, a romantic hero, who could very well have walked out of the pages of one of her books.

Victorian Sensation literature is aptly named and great fun, but I’m going to throw another name out here now–a writer who scandalized, whose books were censored and labeled ‘obscene.’ Yes, Zola. Hardly Sensation fiction since it lacks all the melodrama and convenient coincidence, but nonetheless Zola bravely confronted the issue of the unhappily married woman and how women ‘fit’ into 19th century society. Just consider the female characters he created:

Therese Raquin–another woman locked in a loveless marriage, a woman with sexual desires which combined with a “duplicitous nature” lead to an explosive adulterous relationship and murder. Then think of all the women in Zola’s Rougon–Macquart cycle: Gervaise worked to death in a three-way relationship by two exploitive men, and Nana, one of Paris’s most popular prostitutes. In La Bête Humaine, Severine commits adultery and then conspires with her cuckolded husband to murder her lover. Charming. In The Kill, Renee has an adulterous affair with her step-son. The Conquest of Plassans gives us a masochistic woman whose misplaced sexual desires land on religion before she turns into a pyromaniac. In The Earth, two sisters turn on each other. Zola isn’t afraid to show his readers bitterly unhappily marriages and the way people try to compensate and cope with those devilishly difficult relationships.


Filed under Braddon M. E., Fiction, Zola

Money: Emile Zola (translation comparison with spoilers)

Time, we are told, brings round its revenges, and the books burned by the common hangman in one age come to be honoured in the next.” Henry Vizetelly

]Zola’s magnificent 20-volume Rougon-Macquart series examines the history of two branches of a family founded by matriarch Adelaide Fouques–the last of the line of a wealthy landowning family whose “name died out a few years before the Revolution.” First Adelaide shocks her neighbours in the rural town of Plassans by marrying a peasant named Rougon. Their son, Pierre begins the Rougon line, but when, after the death of her husband,  Adelaide shacks up with a drunken poacher, she later produces two illegitimate children: Antoine and Ursule Macquart. The Rougons claw their way up into French society while the Macquarts remain the poorer side of the family. While there’s the occasional character with just a tinge of derangement, mostly these are a motley bunch: “a pack of unbridled, insatiate appetites amidst a blaze of gold and blood” which include scoundrels, adulterers, drunks, swindlers, a religious maniac turned arsonist and of course, one of the most infamous prostitutes of her time: Nana. If you’ve read the novels–the complete series or just a few of the more famous titles, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. Zola’s intent was to trace the hereditary influences of alcoholism and insanity through the two branches of the family set against the backdrop of 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.

Henry Vizetelly’s publishing house released translated versions of Zola’s novels and met a witchhunt led by The National Vigilant Association--a group of people I know I couldn’t stand just from the name of this whacko group. Henry Vizetelly was dragged into court, convicted twice of “obscene libel,” and went to prison for 3 months. Henry’s son Ernest reworked the translations and these are considered “bowdlerized.”  Given the subject matter of Zola’s novels, it only makes sense that the more salacious bits disappeared thanks to censorship. Many of the Rougon-Macquart novels have been freshly translated but oddly Money was not until 2014 by Oxford World Classics and Valerie Minogue. This is the first new translation in over a hundred years and the first unabridged translation in English. Unbelievable really. And here’s a quote from Ernest Vizetelly which appears in the Translator’s Note in the new version of Money. How fitting that a new translation should give credit where it’s due: to the Vizetellys for having the courage to try and defy small-minded petty hypocrisy and censorship. The characters in Zola’s novels are flawed human beings, but who among us cannot recognize human nature here? The message, according to the censors, is people may act like this, but let’s not read about it…

Nobody can regret these changes more than I do myself, but before reviewers proceed to censure me… If they desire to have verbatim translations of M. Zola’s works, let them help to establish literary freedom. (Ernest Vizetelly)

So let’s see what those 19th century prudes didn’t want us to read:

MoneyHere’s a clip from the new translation of Money from Valerie Minogue: 

‘Terrible things happened yesterday,” the Princess went on, “a crime, in fact, that nothing can repair.”

And in her ice-cold manner she related an awful happening. For the last three days, Victor had got himself placed in the infirmary, claiming to have unbearable pains in his head. The doctor had certainly suspected that this might be merely the pretence of an idler, but the child really had suffered from frequent attacks of neuralgia. Now that afternoon, Alice de Beauvilliers was at the Foundation without her mother; she had gone to help the sister on duty with the quarterly inventory of the medicine cupboard. This cupboard was in the room that separated the two dormitories, the girls’ dormitory from the boys’, in which, at that time, Victor was the only occupant; and the sister, who had gone out for a few minutes, had been very surprised on her return not to find Alice; indeed, after waiting a few minutes, she had started to look for her. Her astonishment had increased on observing that the door of the boys’ dormitory had been locked on the inside. What could be happening? She had had to go right round by the corridor, and had stood gaping in terror at the spectacle that presented itself: the young girl lay half-strangled, a towel tied over her face to stifle her screams, her skirts pulled up roughly, displaying the pitiful nakedness of an anaemic virgin, raped and defiled with appalling brutality. On the floor lay an empty purse. Victor had disappeared. The scene could be reconstructed: Alice, perhaps answering a call, going in to give a cup of milk to that fifteen-year-old boy, already as hairy as a man, and then the monster’s sudden hunger for that frail flesh, that overlong neck, and the leap of the nightshirted male, the girl, suffocating, thrown on to the bed like a rag, raped and robbed, and then a hasty pulling on of clothes, and flight. But so many points remained obscure, so many baffling and insoluble questions! How was it no one heard anything, no sound of a struggle, no cry? How could such frightful things have happened so quickly, in barely ten minutes? and above all, how had Victor been able to escape, to vanish, as it were, leaving no trace?

Now the Vizetelly version:

“A terrible thing happened yesterday,” continued the Princess–” a crime which nothing can repair.”

And thereupon, in her frigid way, she began to relate a frightful story. There days previously, it seemed, Victor had obtained admission into the infirmary by complaining of insupportable headaches. The doctor of the Institute had suspected this to be the feigned illness of an idler, but in point of fact the lad was prey to frequent neuralgic attacks. Now on the afternoon in question it appeared that Alice de Beauvilliers had come to the Institute without her mother, in order to help the sister on duty with the quarterly inventory of the medicine closet. Victor happened to be alone in the adjoining infirmary, and the sister, having been obliged to absent herself for a short time, was amazed on her return to find Alice missing. She had begun to search for her, and at last, to her horror and amazement, had found her lying in the infirmary most severely injured–in fact more dead than alive. Beside her, significantly enough lay her empty purse. She had been attacked by Victor, and, brief as had been the sister’s absence, the young miscreant had already contrived to flee. The astonishing part of the affair was that no sound of struggle, no cry for help, had been heard by anyone. In less than ten minutes the crime had been planned and perpetrated, and its author had taken to flight. How could Victor have thus managed to escape, vanish, as it were, without leaving any trace behind him?

The first translated passage (from Oxford World’s Classics: Valerie Minogue) makes it perfectly clear that Alice de Beauvilliers has been brutally raped. Here’s the revolting image of hairy Victor against ” the pitiful nakedness of an anaemic virgin, raped and defiled with appalling brutality.  Defective Victor, Saccard’s bastard son feels  a “sudden hunger for that frail flesh, that overlong neck, and the leap of the nightshirted male, the girl, suffocating, thrown on to the bed like a rag, raped and robbed, and then a hasty pulling on of clothes.” She’s even gagged to muffle her screams. This is an important incident in the novel for Saccard raped Victor’s mother in a violent coupling on the stairs, so the repetition of rape across two generations emphasizes Zola’s examination of hereditary behaviour. Plus then there’s the victim herself–Alice de Beauvilliers. Alice and her mother, impoverished aristocrats, the last of an “ancient race,” have invested all they own with Saccard with the goal that they will finally be able to secure a dowry for Alice. The great irony here is that Saccard is ruined; there will be no dowry; there will be no marriage; and instead of a wedding, Alice is violently raped by Victor who seems to have inherited all of his father’s animal appetites but without inheriting his brain and social skills. Alice’s rape will scar the poor woman for life; if there was any hope of a bridegroom before, now those hopes are dashed forever,. So much for the de Beauvilliers line or …. will Alice bear a bastard child?

 The Vizetelly translation makes it sound as though Alice were pushed over during the course of a mugging and that Victor stole the contents of her purse and not her virginity–which sad to say, isn’t much coveted by the males of her class, but after all Alice and her mother have been dreaming of the “long-awaited” bridegroom, scrimping and saving twenty thousand francs for Alice’s dowry–even as Alice ages and her prospects wither. But this goal of a bridegroom for Alice, no matter, how slim the possibility, has kept Alice and her mother directed in sustained hope. Saccard comes along and scoops up their nestegg along with the proceeds from the sale of Les Aublets. Alice de Beauvilliers and her mother are but another couple of victims of  Saccard’s speculations, but the rape of Alice, while vile, violent and guaranteed to shatter the poor timid girl is also symbolic. There is no bridegroom; there never will be any bridegroom and Alice, the last of a long line of aristocrats will die unmarried, utterly ruined and without hope. Saccard loots them of their money and their hope, and his bastard son, Victor delivers the coup de grace, and through the rape, robs them of their pride. Not that their pride could ever feed them, but at least it give the two women some sort of purpose in life.  Saccard’s sins come home to roost, but who pays the price? And after all this is typically what happens with this family; they’re simply bad news.

The true meaning of this significant incident is lost in the censored Vizetelly version. Once again–no Vizetelly bashing here, but which version would you rather read?


Filed under Fiction, Rougon-Macquart, Zola

Money: Emile Zola New Translation by Valerie Minogue

Regular readers of the blog know that it took me a few years to read my way through Zola’s phenomenal 20-volume Rougon-Macquart cycle. To anyone out there even remotely interested in Zola or 19th century French literature, I urge you to read these novels–some of them became the best novels I’ve ever read.

One of the issues I encountered when reading the novels of the Rougon-Macquart cycle was an issue of translation. While the better known novels had been recently translated, the lesser known novels had not. That left readers with the Vizetelly “bowdlerized” translations, and I’m not going to launch into Vizetelly bashing as the Vizetelly family attempted to bring Zola to the British reading public and were subsequently dragged into court on obscenity charges; they paid dearly for their efforts, and Henry Vizetelly was even sent to prison for his ‘crime.’ So when I approached the RM cycle I read new translations when they were available and Vizetelly when they were not.

MoneyI was, then, delighted to hear that Money was finally receiving a new translation, thanks to Oxford University Press and Valerie Minogue. This is the first new translation in over a hundred years, and the first unabridged translation in English. I’m not going to spend a great deal of time on the plot, but for those who haven’t read this fantastic, prescient novel here’s a little background:  Money is the 18th novel in the cycle, and its main character is a financial speculator, Saccard. Saccard was also in The Kill, and in The Kill (the second novel in the series) Saccard was a married man and on his way to a meteoric rise in Parisian society. In Money, Saccard is widowed, and the novel opens with him a bankrupt, more or less a pariah, thanks to his wild speculations. In the book’s opening scenes, he has arranged to meet someone to discuss his future. Saccard, ever the optimist at all the wrong moments, expects his brother, a powerful political figure, Eugène Rougon (the main character in the sixth novel in the series, His Excellency, Eugène Rougon) to bail him out of his current situation. Rougon, who knows that Saccard is a dangerous loose cannon,  will help, but only if Saccard agrees to go abroad. That’s the deal. Saccard refuses the offer and remains in Paris; he can’t leave the Paris Stock Exchange, the Bourse. These initial scenes show Saccard’s relationship to the Bourse. He has an overwhelming obsession–addiction to making money through speculation, and he also desires to show other men of means that he will make a come-back. Here is a translation comparison for any potential readers out there:

For  a moment he stood quivering on the edge of the footway. It was that active hour when all the life of Paris seems to flow into that central square between the Rue Montmartre and the Rue Richelieu, those two teeming arteries that carry the crowd along. From the four crossways at the four corners of the Place, streams of vehicles poured in uninterruptedly, whisking across the pavement amid an eddying mob of foot passengers. The two rows of cabs at the stand, beside the railings, were continually breaking and reforming; while along the Rue Vivienne the Victorias of the remisiers stretched away in a compact line, above which towered the drivers, reins in hand and ready to whip up at the first signal. The steps and peristyle of the Bourse were quite black with swarming frock-coats; and from among the coulissiers, already installed under the clock and hard at work, there rose the clamour of bull and bear, the flood-tide roar of speculation dominating all the rumbling hubbub of the city. Passers-by turned their heads, curious and fearful as to what might be going on there–all those mysterious financial operations which few French brains can penetrate, all that sudden ruin and fortune brought about–how, none could understand–amid gesticulation and savage cries. And Saccard, standing on the kerb of the footway, deafened by the distant voices, elbowed by the jostling crowd, dreamed once more of becoming the Gold King, the sovereign of that fever-infested district, in the centre of which the Bourse, from one till three o’clock, beats as it were some like some enormous heart. (Vizetelly)

Now the new Valerie Minogue translation:

For a moment he stood tremulously on the edge of the pavement. It was the busy time when all the life of Paris seems to pour into this central square between the Rue Montmartre and the Rue Richelieu, the two congested arteries carrying the crowds.  From each of the four junctions at the four corners of the square flowed a constant, uninterrupted stream of vehicles, waving their way along the road through the bustling mass of pedestrians. The two lines of cabs at the cab-stand along the railings kept breaking up and the re-forming; whilst on the Rue Vivienne the dealers’ victorias stretched out in a close-packed line, with the coachmen on top, reins in hand, ready to whip the horses forward at the first command. The steps and the peristyle of the Bourse were overrun with swarming black overcoats; and from the kerb market, already set up and at work beneath the clock, came the clamour of buying and selling, the tidal surge of speculation, rising above the noisy rumble of the city. Passers-by turned their heads, impelled by both desire and fear of what was going on there, in that mysterious world of financial dealings into which the French brains but rarely penetrate, a world of ruin and bankruptcy and sudden inexplicable fortunes, in the midst of all that barbaric shouting and gesticulation. And Saccard, on the edge of the stream, deafened by the distant voices and elbowed by the jostling bustle of the crowd, was dreaming once more of the royalty of Gold in this home of every feverish passion, with the Bourse at its centre, beating, from one o’clock until three, like an enormous heart.

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Rougon-Macquart, Zola

Zola Translations

Due to questions about the merits of one translation over another, and just how much the Vizetellys chopped from the original Zola novels in the Rougon-Macquart cycle, I decided to write a post comparing passages from Zola’s L’Assommoir. I’d say L’Assommoir is one of the naughty ones, and that means the 19th century censors probably had a whooping fun time tutting over it while slyly slobbering over the salacious bits.

The first quote is from the copy I read. It’s published by Oxford World Classics, and the translator is Margaret Mauldon. In the section “notes on the translation,” Mauldon states:

 L’Assommoir is a notoriously difficult text to translate. No translation, however faithful its rendering of the novel’s gutter slang and obscenities, could possibly recreate the impact of that language on the nineteenth century reader.

That gives it away right there: gutter slang and obscenities. Now we’re talking….

When I started the reading the series, I found that the Vizetelly translations were dismissed as “bowdlerized,” and this was discouraging. I almost didn’t want to bother reading the cycle since so many of the novels were only available in the Vizetelly versions.

Most of what I’ll term the ‘better‘ novels in the series have been translated–some more than once, and a couple of new translations appeared since I started reading the cycle in 2007 ( I finished in 2010). Fortunately, I didn’t let myself be put off by the Vizetelly translations. I should add here that I read other translations when available, but if the Vizetelly version was the only thing out there, then that’s what I read. BTW, when I started reading the Rougon-Macquart series, I thought Vizetelly translations were altered on some whim, but a bit of digging told me that the Vizetelly family paid dearly for their commitment to publish Zola. Discovering how they were dragged into court on obscenity charges put a different light on the subject. Henry Vizetelly was even sent to prison for his ‘crime.’

So here we have it: some books in the cycle are ONLY available in Vizetelly. Be grateful for what you can get. If you can read another translation, then I strongly encourage it. And here to make a point are two comparison quotes from L’Assommoir. As a matter of explanation, Gervaise operates a laundry. She’s married to Coupeau who’s turned to booze following a roofing accident. Coupeau strikes up an unfortunate relationship with Gervaise’s ex-lover Lantier, and he moves into the household. Both men lay around while Gervaise slaves away, and eventually both men have sex with Gervaise who simply becomes worn down and lacks resistance.

I compared the Mauldon translation with the Vizetelly version that’s FREE on my kindle. Here’s Mauldon:

Gervaise, meanwhile, was quite untroubled on this score, because such filthy ideas never crossed her mind. It even came to the point where she was accused of being cold-hearted. The family couldn’t understand why she was so down on Lantier. Madame Lerat, that inveterate meddler in affairs of the heart, now dropped in every evening; Lantier’s attractions were irresistible she declared, and even the poshest of ladies would fall eagerly into his arms. As for Madame Boche, had she been ten years younger, she wouldn’t have answered for her virtue. An unacknowledged but relentless conspiracy was spreading and spreading, slowly pushing Gervaise towards him, as if all the women around her must satisfy their own need by giving her a lover.

Here’s the Vizetelly version (from my Kindle)

Gervaise lived quietly indifferent to, and possibly entirely unsuspicious of, all these scandals. By and by it came to pass that her husband’s own people looked on her as utterly heartless. Mme Lerat made her appearance every evening, and she treated Lantier as if he were utterly irresistible, into whose arms each and every woman would be only too glad to fall. An actual league seemed to be forming against Gervaise: all the women insisted on giving her a lover.

Just one paragraph but the first has quite a different implication and addresses the idea that Gervaise’s sex life is a matter of scandal but also that she’s a surrogate for the unsatisfied sexual appetites of her female acquaintances. Sex is in the air and not just for Gervaise.

Here’s a second quote. The incident takes place when Gervaise and Lantier return home to find Coupeau drunk. It’s an important scene as Gervaise has so far resisted Lantier’s advances, and on this night her bed is fouled by Coupeau’s vomit:

‘Christ Almighty!’ muttered Lantier when they were inside. ‘Whatever’s he been doing? The stink’s revolting.’

And indeed it stank to high heaven. Gervaise who was hunting for matches, kept stepping in something wet. When she finally managed to light a candle, a pretty spectacle lay before them. Coupeau had vomited his guts out; the room was covered in vomit; the bed was plastered with it, the carpet too, and even the chest of drawers was splashed. And what’s more Coupeau had fallen off the bed where Poisson must have dumped him and was lying right in the middle of his filth, snoring. He was sprawled in it, wallowing like a pig, with one cheek all smeared, breathing foul breath through his open mouth, while his already greying hair brushed the puddle surrounding his head.

‘Oh, the swine, the swine!’ Gervaise kept repeating, fuming with indignation. ‘He’s got everything in a muck …  No, not even a dog would have done that, a dying dog’s cleaner than that.’

They neither of them dared move or take a step. Never before had the roofer come home so pissed or got the room into such an unspeakable state. Consequently, the sight was a harsh blow to any feeling his wife might still have for him. In the past, when he’d come home just a bit tiddly or absolutely plastered. she’d been sympathetic rather than disgusted. But this, this was too much; her stomach was heaving. She wouldn’t have touched him with a barge pole. The mere thought of that lout’s skin close to hers was as repugnant to her as if she’d been asked to lie down beside a corpse that had died of some foul disease.

A powerful passage indeed. Now here’s the Vizetelly version thanks to the censors:

Gervaise stood aghast at the disgusting sight that met her eyes as she entered the room and saw where Coupeau lay wallowing on the floor.

She shuddered and turned away. This sight annihilated every ray of sentiment remaining in her heart.

Not much comparison. So again: if there’s a newer translation of Zola out there grab it. Most of the Rougon-Macquart novels that lack a newer translation are the lesser novels (exceptions in my view and those in dire need of re-translation are The Conquest of Plassans, Money and His Excellency). And don’t blame the Vizetellys. Blame prudery.


Filed under Fiction, Rougon-Macquart, Zola

Doctor Pascal by Zola

Doctor Pascal is Zola’s final novel in the twenty-volume Rougon-Macquart cycle. Zola wrote the Rougon-Macquart series as a social history of France’s Second Empire of Napoleon III (1852 to 1870), and so history is told through the stories of various family members. The novels extend from the 1851 coup d’etat which overthrew the Republic  t0 1873 (the aftermath of the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War).

Doctor Pascal follows the phenomenal tale Debacle, and this final novel does not finish the series with a bang but a whimper. And some of the whimpering came from me. I’m not sure what I expected, but it was not easy to segue into the tediousness of Doctor Pascal after the splendour and the destruction of Debacle.

To place Doctor Pascal in the Rougon-Macquart family tree, he is a member of the third generation–the son of Pierre and Félicité Rougon, and the brother of Eugene Rougon and Aristide Saccard. Pascal appears in a minor capacity at various points in the series (The Fortune of the Rougons, The Kill, Abbe Mouret’s Transgression). When the novel begins the year is 1872 and Pascal lives in Plassans (where the series began) with his niece Clotilde (the daughter of  Saccard) and a servant, Martine. Pascal is a devoted and much-loved doctor in the town; at first he seems to be one of the more normal, rational family members until the nature of his research is revealed. Pascal, you see, is a big believer in heredity, and using his relatives as prime examples of his belief, he keeps a family tree along with substantial notes regarding the various family traits: madness, alcoholism, and obsessiveness. Pascal’s research into his family could, of course fall into the obsessive category, but it’s Pascal’s medical research that’s questionable. Ok, it is, after all the 19th C and medical treatments were archaic anyway, but even so…. Pascal, in the remote corner of Plassans, and feeding only on his own ideas, has developed a serum which he hopes will cure all hereditary illness:

About this time, the doctor, reading an old medical book of the fifteenth century, was greatly struck by a method of treating disease called signature. To cure a diseased organ, it was only necessary to take from a sheep or an ox the corresponding organ in sound condition, boil it, and give the soup to the patient to drink.

Doctor Pascal takes this one step further. In order to:

 regenerate those enfeebled by hereditary influences, he had only to give them the normal and healthy nerve substance. The method of the soup, however, seemed to him childish, and he invented in its stead that of grinding in a mortar the brain of a sheep, moistening it with distilled water, and then decanting and filtering the liquor thus obtained. He tried this liquor then mixed with Malaga wine, on his patients, without obtaining any appreciable result. Suddenly, as he was beginning to grow discouraged, he had an inspiration one day, when he was giving a lady suffering from hepatic colics an injection of morphine with the little syringe of Pravaz.

So things are looking up; Pascal adds Morphine to the mix and lo and behold, this formula appears to do the trick. Doctor Pascal doesn’t connect the formula’s success to the addition of morphine, and later in the novel, he becomes disillusioned with his research and starts injecting water in his patients instead. The book doesn’t use the word quack so I’m including it here.

Pascal believes in the power of science and is not religious. This puts him at odds with Clotilde and Martine who are both extremely religious. After Pascal’s mother discovers that her son has extensive notes on the shenanigans of Rougon-Macquart family, she begins to scheme for ways to get the evidence of past misdeeds destroyed, and to this end she ropes in Clotilde using religious beliefs to argue against science & against Pascal’s research. Here’s Félicité on Pascal’s years of research on his family:

A collection of falsehoods, of gossip, all the lies that our enemies, enraged by our triumph, hurled against us in former days!

I know Doctor Pascal has its fans–I’m just not one of them. I suppose part of my disappointment is that I hoped for something better for the last novel in the series. There’s a quote from Zola on the back of my copy:

Pascal’s works on the members of his family is, in small, what I have attempted to do on humanity, to show all so that all may be cured. It is not a book which, like La Debacle, will stir the passions of the mob. It is a scientific work, the logical deduction and conclusion of all my preceding novels, and at the same time it is my speech in defence of all that I have done before the court of public opinion.

Doctor Pascal does partially act as a wrapping up for loose ends. Fair enough. But the plot itself, based around the big romance between Pascal and Clotilde was implausible. There’s the age gap for one thing (he’s 59 & she’s 25); then there’s the vast differences in their belief systems. In addition, the novel begins their relationship clearly as uncle and niece. The leap to lovers just never worked for me, and perhaps this is due in part to the fact she calls him ‘master’.

Apart from that complaint, there are pages and pages of the two main characters and their religious debates. So very tedious. And then at other points Zola peers through the pages as the voice of Pascal when he heavy-handedly lectures about hereditary. 

Was there anything good about Doctor Pascal? Absolutely! It simply must be read in order to complete the cycle, and this last novel does indeed give a sense of completion. For example, the book’s first few scenes depict Clotilde drawing the most exotic pictures of flowers. These scenes hinted at shades of the fantastic embroideries of Angélique in The Dream. As a reader, I could see the thread of hereditary as it spread throughout the generations: the madness (in its various manifestations) and those on the edge of madness through the trait of destructive obsessiveness. At one point, for example, Félicité allows someone to burn to death (shades of the Conquest of Plassans here). It’s the perfect Rougon Crime of Opportunity (the best bit in the book), and although it’s suspected she played a role in his  death, what can be done about it? So yes, Zola’s intention to show the Rougon-Macquart family traits does work. Additionally, Doctor Pascal is a reunion of sorts as we hear about the continuing lives of other distant, rascally characters. Aristide Saccard, for example, after ruining the lives of thousands of people with his run-away investment schemes in Money is back. Maxime (The Kill, Money) the son of Saccard is gravely ill. The family matriarch, Adelaide Fouque (The Fortunes of the Rougons) is still alive and still living in the asylum. Octave Mouret (The Ladies’ Paradise, Pot Bouille) is a “King of Commerce,” and Jean (The Earth, Debacle) is alive, well, married and happy. It’s probably a healthy decision to stay away from the rest of his relatives.

My edition is from Mondial books and is translated by Mary J. Serrano


Filed under Fiction, Rougon-Macquart, Zola

Debacle by Zola

Debacle is the 19th novel in Zola’s 20 volume Rougon-Macquart series. The novels are a history of France’s Second Empire told through two branches of a family and set against the  backdrop of historical events. The Rougons are the wealthier, legitimate and supposedly the more respectable branch of the family. That leaves the Macquarts as the more disreputable bunch. The Rougons are the power brokers & the wealth seekers while the Macquarts are in much humbler positions in life. The family is plagued with alcoholism and madness–although the madness can take various forms, and in some cases is even masked by religious fanaticism.

Debacle takes place in 1870-71, and the novel concerns the collapse of France’s Second Empire (1852-1870). In 1870, France declared war on Prussia, and by the summer of 1870 the French army suffered a succession of defeats at the hands of the Prussians culminating with the catastrophic Battle of Sedan. While the Emperor Napoleon III was captured and subsequently went into exile, France’s provisional government continued to fight to hold Paris for the next five months. This led to the Siege of Paris and the Paris Commune.

 Debacle which follows Money was published in 1892 and initially appeared in serial form. To place Jean, the main character of Debacle in the Rougon-Macquart family tree, he is the brother of Gervaise (L’Assommoir) and Lisa (The Belly of Paris). Jean also appeared in The Earth, and in that book, he married a peasant girl and worked as a farmer. At the end of The Earth, he’s lost his wife and decides to return to the army life. Can’t say I blame him as Zola’s book hardly presents a bucolic view of the vicious farming community.

I’ve been slowly reading my way through this series since 2007. Debacle was a novel which I dreaded reading as I knew it focused on the Franco-Prussian war, and I expected the novel to be dour heavy going. To my surprise, I enjoyed the novel far more than I expected to. Yes, there are horrible scenes of bloody mangled men and starving horses, and there are times that Zola seems to dwell on the minutia with an almost sadistic delight, but nonetheless, this really is a marvellous book, one of the best in the series, thanks to its incredibly strong characterizations. This is the Franco-Prussian war complete with details of battles, fuck-ups, routs and slaughter, but Zola never loses sight of his characters or their humanity.

The novel (I have the Penguin Classics edition translated by Leonard Tancock) is more or less spilt into three sections. The excellent introduction (also by Tancock) explains that Act I–the Trap (as he calls it) is the build-up to the war. Act II-The Disaster concerns the Battle of Sedan, and Act III-The Aftermath covers 3 Sept 1870 until May 1871. My copy even has a map of the countryside surrounding Sedan and a map of central Paris.

The novel’s first section builds with incredible, gruesome tension as Jean, a Corporal in the 7th army corps accompanies the soon-to-be defeated army to its doom. The soldiers are basically a disconnected lot–not happy to be there and not exactly brimming with patriotism. From the start, everything is a total muddle. The army is ordered one place then another. Divisions don’t arrive as expected while others go missing. There are rumours that the enemy is defeated or conversely that the Prussians have crushed the French army. Meanwhile the men are marched in the rain on empty stomachs and then marched back over the same territory a couple of days later. This is a logistics nightmare: fodder for horses is sent where there are no horses, weapons and ammunition are separated. Basically the army is starved and worn down until at its lowest point, it is driven into a trap where the slaughter takes place. Perhaps the most telling screw-up of all is that the French army officers do not have maps of France; they never anticipated they’d need them.

In one very early scene, Jean listens to a civilian named Weiss express uneasiness about a quick French victory against the Prussians. Weiss sees Prussia as a formidable enemy compared to the French Empire which he describes as “rotten” and “weakened.” The rational points Weiss raises are ignored or diminished by his audience but send an ominous chill of warning through the reader.

Debacle follows the fates of Jean & his fellow soldier Maurice as they march to and then are trapped in Sedan. It’s fascinating to see the civilians morph from cheering the troops on to realising that the battle isn’t going to take place in some far off land but may very well take place outside their front door. Some of the civilians join in the battle (and enter the story); others take enormous risks to smuggle a crust of bread to the captured French prisoners while the opportunitistic, declaring this is their contribution to the war effort, sell rotten food at inflated prices to the victorious Prussians.

War seems to naturally bring out the best and the worst in people, and in this novel Zola creates the spectrum of human behaviour.  Human nature at its best is compassionate and at its worst it’s self-serving. In Jean’s case, he strikes up a relationship with Maurice and tenderly watches out for the younger man, sharing his starvation rations and nursing him through illness. On the flip side, soldiers are prepared to murder each other for a crust of bread and in one particularly revolting scene, they slaughter a starving horse, eating chunks of grey meat until they collapse with stomach pains. Zola shows human nature in its duality–he’s unsparing in his depiction of callous brutality.

The third and final section of the book concerns the Paris Commune. Tancock states that Zola wasn’t much of a fan of the Commune. He makes the point that Zola, who was a journalist at the time and was therefore, an eyewitness to events in Paris ‘disapproved’ of the Commune as he “saw it as a degrading exhibition of human bestiality, with unspeakable atrocities committed by both sides, but his protest is against violence, cruelty, and destruction in whatever form and from whatever side.”  The air of mutiny, apparent in the novel’s very first pages, spills over to the aftermath of the war, so by the time we get to the novel’s third section, it’s easy to understand the rage of the Communards and their desire to initiate radical change. Jean and Maurice’s relationship assumes a symbolic meaning by the novel’s conclusion–a severing of the two sides of France–with the revolutionary elements, at least for now, squashed and discarded.

One of the egregious outrages in the story has to be in the huge difference between the  type of war fought by the foot soldier vs. the experience of the officers. From the very beginning some of the soldiers think they’ve been “sold-out.” They are premature in that declaration but yes they are sold out later on. In yet another instance of the discrepancy between the classes, the defeated French officers are freed by the Prussians while the French soldiers, the plebs, are imprisoned, kept under the most appalling circumstances and hauled out of France to an uncertain fate. On the other hand, here’s the Emperor (he appears as a self-defeated, largely confused hen-pecked husband) who travels to ‘war’ in style :

“And the wretched Emperor, this poor man who no longer had a job in his own empire, was to be carried round like some useless clutter in the baggage of his troops, condemned to drag after him the irony of his imperial establishment, his lifeguards, coaches, horses, cooks, vanloads of silver utensils and champagne, all the pomp of his robe of state, embroidered with imperial bees, trailing the roads of defeat in the blood and mire.”

 Zola still manages to find sympathy (he’s more generous than I am) for the spineless architect of this catastrophe. On the other hand, Zola creates Chouteau, a rather unpleasant character, who according to Zola is “a typical agitator,” a lazy trouble-maker who urges his fellow soldiers to desert the ranks. And yet even while Zola portrays Chouteau unappealingly, nonetheless Chouteau is also right, the soldiers will be herded to their doom and any who survive will be abandoned.

In Money, Zola brought the vast financial machinery of Paris to life. The Earth was an amazing tale of a close-knit, violent and hypocritical farming community, and now in Debacle, it’s war–the mounds of bodies sweltering & bloating in the sun while thousands of starving horses charge at night desperately looking for food:

“Over the top of a near-by slope some hundred  horses, riderless, some still carrying a full pack, were bearing down on them at breakneck speed. These were the stray animals left on the field of battle, who had instinctively gathered in a herd. They had had no hay or oats for two days, and had eaten the scanty grass, cropped hedges and even gnawed the bark of trees. whenever hunger caught them in the belly like a prick of the spurs, they all set off together in a mad stampede, charging straight through the empty, silent country, trampling on the dead and finishing off the wounded.”

And then again:

“As Maurice had foreseen, the thousands of horses interned with the army and which had not been fed were a menace that increased in seriousness each day. They had begun by eating the bark of trees, then they attacked trellises and fences, any sort of planks they could find, and now they were devouring each other. They could be seen hurling themselves on each other to tear the hair from their tails, which they chewed madly, foaming at the mouth, But it was above all at night that they became terrible, as though darkness brought them nightmares. They would gather together and charge at the few tents standing, looking for straw. It was useless for the men to light big fires to keep them off; the fires seemed to excite them still more. Their whinnyings were so pitiful and unnerving that they seemed like the roaring of wild beasts. If you drove them away they came back fiercer and more numerous than ever. And every minute during the hours of darkness you could hear a long cry of agony from some stray soldier trampled to death in this mad stampede.”

If Eugene Rougon is the greatest of the Rougons, then Jean is the best of the Macquarts. And this leaves me with just one more book left in the series…


Filed under Rougon-Macquart, Zola

Money by Zola

Money is the eighteenth volume in Zola’s spectacular Rougon-Macquart cycle–a “natural and social history of a family during the Second Empire.” The series is winding down, and as it turns out, so is the Second Empire.  Under examination in these volumes are various members of the Rougon-Macquart family which is split into two branches: the wealthier and supposedly more respectable branch, the Rougons and the lower-born Macquarts. The establishment of the family is discussed in the first volume The Fortunes of the Rougons, and then the subsequent volumes follow the lives of various family members while exposing the reappearance of family traits: the relentless quest for wealth, madness and alcoholism. The Rougon-Macquarts aren’t exactly a pleasant bunch, and that brings me to Money.

The main character of Money is Aristide Saccard. Saccard appears in the first volume of the series, The Fortunes of the Rougons, and he is also a main character in the second volume The Kill. Money is a sequel of sorts to The Kill, but these two novels were written almost 20 years apart from each other (The Kill was published in 1871 and Money was serialised in 1890). To place Saccard in the Rougon-Macquart family tree, his real name is Aristide Rougon; originally from Plassans, he’s the youngest son of Pierre & Felicite Rougon, and the brother of Eugene and Sidonie Rougon.

Money begins a few months after the death of Renee Saccard (The Kill). It’s Paris in 1864, and Saccard is now a bankrupt. The novel opens with Saccard loitering in the Bourse (stock exchange), noting that people can measure their success or failure by whether or not they are greeted, fawned upon or avoided like pariahs. At this point in Saccard’s life, he falls into the latter category. Saccard’s currency has plummeted since the boom years of Baron Haussman’s reconstruction of Paris, and  “he realised the necessity of slipping into some new skin.” Saccard, who is nothing more than an embarrassment to his politician brother, Eugene Rougon, hopes that a little nepotism will guarantee a political career as he feels “discontented with speculation.” While Saccard daydreams of a position in the “upper circles of the Civil Service” Rougon intends using his influence to get rid of Saccard by shipping him off to be a governor in some remote colony.

Schemers like Saccard are naturally drawn to idealistic dreamers, and propinquity leads to a relationship with an impoverished brother and sister team, the engineer Hamelin and Madame Caroline. The three friends spend many evenings together concocting plans, and consequently “the bond of intimacy between them was drawn tighter.”  Saccard, sparked by the desire to one-up his brother, combined with his rabid anti-Semitism, conceives of a grand plan to create The Universal Bank. Hamelin and Madame Caroline fuel Saccard’s plans with their enthusiastic ideas to improve trade routes in Asia Minor. While Saccard wants to make millions, Hamelin is motivated by religious fervour–ultimately he plans to establish the pope in Palestine.

The first hurdle for Saccard is to get enough money to start his bank, and by sheer force of personality (and a few connections) he manages it. The bank stock is initially distributed at 500 francs a share, and then Saccard goes to work committing large-scale fraud. He buys up various newspapers which function to fuel excitement about the bank’s profits. Saccard also uses a number of agents to buy stock, thus falsely inflating its worth.

Of course, the fraud cannot continue forever, and when the bank shares inflate to more than 3000 francs, it becomes obvious that there is something wrong….

A large portion of Money is devoted to Saccard’s endless and tireless endeavours to build up the Universal Bank. Many of these scenes take place at the Bourse with various agents scrambling around for clients or forming alliances. As the share prices mount, the shareholders wonder if the success can be sustained, and Saccard becomes obsessed with continuing the madness–no matter the cost. Some stockholders panic, but Saccard’s assurances have a “tranquilizing” result on those who want to sell and make a profit while they can. Throughout it all, impoverished family members pin their meagre fortunes on Saccard who is seen as a messianic figure. In one great scene, Saccard compares his ventures to that of Napoleon and reveals his megalomania in the process:

“Not succeed, nonsense! Money was lacking , that was all. If Napoleon, on the day of Waterloo, had had another hundred thousand men to send to the butchery, he would have triumphed, and the face of the world would have been changed. And if I had had the necessary few millions to throw into the gulf, I should now be the master of the world.”

Money is a study in human nature, and as the story develops, Zola illustrates how money enters every aspect of life and just how far people will go to possess it. Women prostitute themselves for a sou or for a fortune, and relatives turn on each other, neglecting duty and obligation for the promise of profit. Sordid histories are revealed with money gained from nefarious circumstances and in other instances fortunes are drained through a range of human vices. As the insane euphoria continues and stockholders think that they are millionaires, many become consumed with greed and grandiosity. Madness reigns as dowries are imagined and advantageous marriages are planned.

The stock exchange, once handed over to the likes of Saccard, is little more than a gambling den, and it becomes clear that the only way to stop Saccard is to take away the dice. Here’s financier Gundermann when Saccard hits him for investment money:

“You are wrong to go into business again; I render you a real service in refusing to launch your syndicate; you will inevitably come to grief, it is mathematically certain, for you are much too enthusiastic, you have too much imagination; and besides, matters always end badly when one deals with other people’s money. Why doesn’t your brother find you a good post, eh? a prefecture, or else a financial receivership–no, not a receivership, that also is too dangerous. Beware, my good friend, beware.”

As it turns out, Gundermann has Saccard’s number–the man simply shouldn’t be allowed around money. To Saccard money is an addiction. Put a little money in his hands, set him loose, and he won’t stop scheming until he’s taken away in chains.

Since the issue of money is at the fore in the novel, it’s appropriate that debt collectors are included in the bazaar-like atmosphere surrounding the Bourse. The debt-collectors are integral to the plot–mainly because Victor, a hideously misshapen lad is under the care of debt-collector bottom-feeders La Mechain and Busch. Victor becomes valuable when it’s discovered that he’s Saccard’s bastard son. The creation of Victor also allows Zola to introduce his ideas of scientific determinism.  Madame Caroline compares Victor to Saccard’s foppish son, Maxime:

“So much vile wretchedness, hunger, and filth on one hand, and on the other such exquisite refinement, abundance and beautiful life. Could money, then be education, health, intelligence? And if the same human mud remained beneath, if not all civilisation consist in the superiority of smelling nice and living well?”

Sigismond, the brother of bottom-feeder Busch is another minor, yet important idealistic character. Sigismond believes that a healthy society can only be formed with the abolition of money and the wage system. While Sigismond hopes to convert the world to Marxism, he’s diametrically opposed to Hamelin who hopes to convert everyone to religion through commerce. In spite of the fact that Sigismond sees money as a toxic, corrupting force, he’s also consumed with the subject of money and how it operates within the world. There’s one great scene in which Sigismond holds up a sou to Saccard and declares that the day is coming when money and its misused power will be no more. Saccard declares this is nonsense, but deeply unsettled by the prospect, he mutters “there would be nothing left.”

Another great character, Saccard’s son, Maxime must be mentioned. He appeared in The Kill, and here he is again. Now he is completely and sensibly estranged from his father Saccard, and he refuses to get involved with the bank. Maxime is hardly the book’s moral centre, and instead he’s a bored bystander. Here’s Maxime, a perfumed, cosseted dandy when he hears that he has a bastard brother:

“What, what! So I am not the only son! A frightful little brother falls on me from the sky, without so much as shouting ‘look out!’ “

Once Maxime gets over the initial shock, he starts shining his nails with a “tortoiseshell polisher.”

Money is a splendid addition to the Rougon-Macquart cycle, and once again I am impressed with Zola’s ability to create vastly different worlds. This novel seems amazingly modern, but perhaps this is possibly due to the fact that Zola captures the unchanging face of human nature. Here’s my favourite passage:

“Madame Caroline raised her eyes. She had reached the Place de la Bourse, and saw the Temple of Money in front of her. The twilight was falling. Behind the building a ruddy cloud hung in the fog-laden wintry sky–a cloud like the smoke of a conflagration, charged with the flames and the dust of a stormed city. And against this cloud the Bourse stood out grey and gloomy in the melancholiness born of the catastrophe which, for a month past, had left it deserted, open to the four winds of heaven, like some market which famine had emptied. Once again had the inevitable, periodical epidemic come–the epidemic which sweeps through it every ten or fifteen years–the Black Fridays, as the speculators say, which strew the soil with ruins. Years are needed for confidence to be restored, for the great financial houses to be built up anew, and time goes slowly by until the passion for gambling, gradually reviving, flames up once more and repeats the adventure, when there comes another crisis, and the downfall of everything in a fresh disaster. This time, however, beyond the ruddy smoke on the horizon, in the distant parts of the city, it seemed as though one could hear a vague sound of splitting and rending, betokening the end of a world–the world of the Second Empire.”

My copy from Mondial books is translated by Vizetelly. Mondial Books (an independent book publisher in New York) has a number of Zola novels (and many other interesting titles) to their credit.  


Filed under Rougon-Macquart, Zola

La Bete Humaine by Zola

I read Zola’s La Bete Humaine years ago without realising that it is number 17 in the Rougon-Macquart series, and I find that I liked it more the first time around. For the first reading, I didn’t have many other Zola novels under my belt, but now at this later date, La Bete Humaine doesn’t make my favourite list. As a novel it has its problems, but more of that later….

If anyone out there has followed my blog posts regarding the Rougon-Macquart cycle, I started reading this 20-volume series back in 2007. Set in France’s Second Empire, the novels concern several generations of the Rougon-Macquart family. The Rougons are the wealthier branch and, in theory at least, the most respectable. The Macquarts hold a range of positions in life but they are certainly poorer and are plagued with madness and alcoholism–family traits which pop up at the very worst moments.

One of the main characters in La Bete Humaine is Jacques Macquart. To place Jacques in the Rougon-Macquart family tree, he is the son of Gervaise Macquart and Lantier (L’Assommoir), the brother of Claude (The Masterpiece), the brother of Etienne (Germinal) and the half-brother of Nana (Nana). Zola originally only created two brothers, Etienne and Claude, and these two are mentioned early in the series in L’Assommoir. Since Claude goes bonkers and is killed off  in The Masterpiece and Etienne appears in Germinal as a fairly stable character, this left Zola to  ‘invent’ a third brother rather late in the series. In La Bete Humaine, Zola adds a paragraph explaining that when Gervaise and Lantier left Plassans they ditched the middle boy Jacques with relatives. There is NO mention of Jacques in Gervaise’s story (L’Assommoir) so Jacques is an addendum, and indeed Zola’s paragraph explaining this sudden emergence of a third brother does feel a little awkward:

“Already down in Plassans as a youngster he had tried to understand himself. It was true that his mother Gervaise had had him when she was very young, fifteen and a half, but he was her second, and she was well under fourteen when she had her first, Claude. But neither of his two brothers, Claude or Etienne, who was born later, seemed to suffer because their mother was such a child and their father only a kid as well.”

Later in the same paragraph, Zola introduces the subject of the Macquart family trait of madness:

“The family was really not quite normal, and many of them had some flaw. At certain times he could clearly feel this hereditary taint, not that his health was bad, for it was only nervousness and shame about his attacks that had made him lose weight in his early days. But there were sudden attacks of instability in his being, like cracks or holes through which his personality seemed to leak away, amid a sort of thick vapour that deformed everything.”

The novel begins in Paris with married couple Roubaud and his much younger, beautiful wife, Severine.  Severine brought a 10,000 francs dowry to the marriage (from her guardian) and after the marriage, Roubaud was instantly promoted. Roubaud considers himself a very lucky man, and indeed they do seem to be a mis-matched and yet extraordinarily fortunate couple. Middle-aged Roubaud is a deputy stationmaster at Le Havre, and Severine, who is treated rather like a much-treasured and indulged pet, makes a few trips a year to Paris to shop. On this occasion, however, while Severine shops, Roubaud has an important meeting with a railroad official about an incident that took place some weeks previously. The incident could very well have cost Roubaud his job if not for the intervention of one of the directors of the Western Railway Company, President Grandmorin–a man who has a special interest in Severine. Severine’s father was one of Grandmorin’s servants and Grandmorin became Severine’s guardian when she was orphaned. She was raised with Grandmorin’s daughter, Berthe, and the two girls even attended the same boarding school together. Now that Roubaud is in trouble with the company, his connection–through Severine– with Grandmorin has proved useful yet again.

The afternoon following Roubaud’s meeting with railroad officials, a few choice questions lead to Roubaud’s shattering discovery that Severine was Grandmorin’s plaything. Roubaud uses the word ‘mistress’ but given Severine’s age and vulnerability at the time, I think that’s a bit misleading. Grandmorin’s continued sexual interest in Severine certainly explains his treatment of Severine, the marriage, the dowry and the favoured treatment. Enraged and violently jealous, Roubaud decides the murder of Grandmorin is the only way to satisfactorily cope with the rage and the humilation. Severine and Roubaud board the same train as Grandmorin, and during the trip Roubaud stabs Grandmorin to death with Severine’s assistance.

The crime looks like a robbery, but there are complications. For one thing, Jacques Lantier caught a flash of the murder scene as the train sped by, and also there are some extremely ugly rumours circulating about Grandmorin’s relationships and behaviour with vulnerable young women. In fact, it seems that he’s responsible for the death of Louisette, who worked as a maid in Grandmorin’s home until she fled  “badly knocked about” and later succumbed to these injuries. This makes Cabuche, Louisette’s fiance a convenient scapegoat for the crime…..

As the investigation gears up, then flounders and sinks, Roubaud and Severine’s marriage deteriorates. Roubaud’s pride in Severine moves to loathing and finally disinterest. Roubaud knows that Jacques is a witness to the murder, and so he encourages Severine’s relationship with Jacques–effectively pimping his wife in the process.

I was some way into The Bete Humaine when I began to connect similarities with Therese Raquin. Both novels concern a love affair and the murder of the husband, and both novels illustrate the idea that relationships are corrupted by murder. Roubaud regrets involving his wife in the murder, and the murder creates an unbreachable barrier:

“Weariness, indifference, such as comes with age, seemed to have been produced between them by the dreadful crisis and the spilt blood.”

But back to Jacques….

Early in the novel, it’s clear that Jacques wants to murder a woman, and this throbbing drive is connected with sexual desire. In fact when Jacques has successful sex with Severine, he marvels that he doesn’t want to murder her:

“With other women he had not been able to touch their flesh without feeling the urge to dig into it with an abominable lust for slaughter. Could he really love this one and not kill her?”

Does Jacques have an impotence problem that is sublimated by the desire to kill? At one point, Jacques thinks that murdering Roubaud will satisfy the desire to kill–but no–ultimately Jacques wants to murder women and his sexual  “desire had always gone to his head and made him see red.” In Jacques’ case Zola brings up the old Macquart family trait of madness and drops in the idea of Man as Beast:

“At such times he lost control of himself and just obeyed his muscles, the wild beast inside him. Yet he did not drink, not even allowing himself a single tot of spirits, having seen that the least drop of alcohol drove him out of his mind. He was coming to think that he was paying for others, fathers, grandfathers who had drunk, generations of drunkards, that he had their blood, tainted with a slow poison and a bestiality that dragged him back to the woman-devouring  savages in the forest.”

La Bete Humaine is a problematic novel. Zola created the Rougon-Macquart cycle partly to explore hereditary weaknesses (specifically madness), and in Jacques’ case, his madness is manifested by his desire to kill.  Zola’s imperative to explore the family trait of madness is challenged as Jacques isn’t the only one with a murderous streak, and unfortunately the impact of the Macquart madness is diluted by the sheer number of murders and murderers in the novel. I lost count of the number of people trying to off someone. Zola describes this drive to kill as Jacques’ bestial nature, but what excuse does everyone else have? Zola drops a few references to Man as Beast, indicating that Jacques is not the only person plagued by violent impulses. Roubaud, for example, becomes addicted to gambling–a habit which results in “removing all desire for women from this bestial male.” And then there’s Grandmorin running around deflowering virgins and engaging in sadistic practices with his maid.

 Are some of the Macquart family as nutty as a Cadbury’s Whole Nut bar or is the state of humanity just one step away from murder and mayhem if given half the chance? Well which is it?

My Penguin version includes an introduction by translator Leonard Tancock which answers that question. Zola outlined the series originally in 1868, and then after being influenced by two sensational murder cases, Zola decided to create a novel with “his central figure cursed with the hereditary taint of his family, fighting against it as a man but doomed to succumb to it as a beast.” But at one point the Man as Beast theory is no more than Jacques’ justification regarding the murder of Roubaud:

“He was only clearing away the obstacle, that was all. If two wolves come up against each other in the forest when a she-wolf is there, doesn’t the stronger get rid of the weaker with a snap of the jaws? And in ancient times when men found shelter like the wolves in the depths of the caves, wasn’t the desirable woman the property of the member of the tribe who could win her with the blood of his rivals? So as it was the law of life it had to be obeyed, irrespective of scruples invented later in order to make life in society liveable. Little by little his right seemed absolute.”

Zola argues for man’s bestiality–not just Macquart madness manifested as bestiality, but then sends a mixed message when Jacques uses the Man as Beast argument as a final justification for murder.  After 17 novels in the Rougon-Macquart cycle, I’ve read about so many of these family members now, and I know how potty they are. I mean, this is a man who has a better love affair with his train than with his woman….This torrid tale may be peppered with characters who almost unanimously sink to their baser natures but the motivations are complex and range from love, jealousy, revenge and money.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of the novel is not the plot but the undercurrents referring to justice–or the lack thereof. At one point in the novel, the investigators are convinced that Cabuche is the murderer, but then there’s solid evidence that the Roubauds are the killers. Monsieur Camy-Lamotte, Secretary to the Minister of Justice ruminates over the alternate cases of guilt and the potential impact of each:

“He was busily calculating the results of the alternate case, that of the Roubauds. What was certain was that if the husband were committed for trial he would blurt out everything, how his own wife had also been seduced when she was a young girl, and the subsequent adultery and the jealous rage that must have goaded him to murder, to say nothing of the fact that it was no longer a case of a servant-girl and an old lag, and moreover that this official, married to this pretty wife, would rag in a whole section of the bourgeoisie and people on the railway staff. And besides, with a man like the President, could you ever tell what thin ice you were on? Perhaps they would come upon undreamed-of abominations. No, decidedly, the case of the Roubauds, who were the real guilty ones, was filthier still. He had made up his mind and he rejected it absolutely. If one case had to be followed up, he would be inclined to stick to that of the innocent Cabuche.”

This  passage struck me most particularly. In the late 1800s Zola became involved in the notorious Dreyfus case when he wrote J’Accuse. La Bete Humaine was published in 1890, and in 1898 Zola wrote the letter J’Accuse in which he pointed out the egregious miscarriage of justice in the Dreyfus case. The Dreyfus case–which involved espionage–included the suppression of evidence and the imprisonment of a man who was known to be innocent–because the truth was judged to be too been inflammatory. This is a simplification, but I drew parallels between Zola’s plot in La Bete Humaine and the Dreyfus case which occurred a few years later.

On a final note, I’ve seen two interesting versions of this novel on screen:  Jean Renoir’s La Bete Humaine (1938)  & Fritz Lang’s  noir film Human Desire (1954) . For some reason, the latter–which stars Gloria Grahame–is the one that kept coming to mind when I read the novel. I’m not sure why.


Filed under Rougon-Macquart, Zola