Category Archives: Zola

The Dream by Zola

The Dream (La Reve) is the 16th novel in Zola’s twenty-volume Rougon-Marquart cycle. For those who’ve read my Rougon-Macquart posts, you already know that I am reading the novels in the order in which they were written. This is not the way everyone reads them, and I’ve read plenty of recommendations that say the series absolutely shouldn’t be read this way. The novels do jump around between family members and branches of the Rougon-Macquart family, and the novels also jump around in time. No doubt there’s an argument to read the novels following a time frame or a particular branch of the family, but I decided to read them in the order in which Zola wrote them, and I’m glad I did. More of that later when I finish the series and write a wrap-up post.

The Rougon-Macquart novels explore the two branches of one family. The Rougons are ultimately more successful and in theory more respectable, while the Macquarts are working class and have a tendency to sink into drunkenness. The family matriarch, the last of a noble line, Adelaide Fouque appears in the first novel, The Fortunes of the Rougons. Adelaide–who behaves oddly in her youth, marries a peasant and produces a legitimate son named Pierre. Then Adelaide hooks up with a poacher and produces two more illegitimate children, Antoine and Ursule. Adelaide later goes stark raving mad.

The Macquart family trait of madness appears again in Marthe (The Conquest of Plassans). In Marthe’s case, her madness manifests itself in her excessive religious faith, but her extreme religious devotion is socially accepted. And it’s Marthe I thought of when I read The Dream. Marthe and Sidonie are sisters–and that makes Angelique, Marthe’s niece. And just as Marthe’s madness wrapped itself around religion, so also does Angelique’s. Then again, Angelique is reminiscent of Jeanne Mouret, daughter of Helene (A Love Episode). Jeanne inherits her great-grandmother Adelaide Fouque’s mental instability and in this case, it’s manifested in neuroses and obsession. In The Dream, Zola once again creates a portrait of fanatical religion masking unhealthy neuroses and madness and shows that when religious mania combines with the pathology of institutions and power, the results are toxic.

The Dream (La Reve) concerns Angelique, the daughter of Sidonie Rougon. To place these characters in the Rougon-Macquart family tree, Sidonie is the sister of Eugene “the greatest of the Rougons,” a character who dominates His Excellency (volume 6). Sidonie is one of the most revolting characters in The Kill (volume 2), and in this novel, she pimps her sister-in-law Renee Saccard, contributing to Renee’s destruction. 

In The Dream, Angelique is Sidonie’s bastard child, abandoned by her mother and given to an orphanage. When The Dream begins, Angelique, a child in rags,  is standing outside of a cathedral in Beaumont. It’s snowing, and the child is freezing to death when she’s spotted by Hubert and his wife, Hubertine, a childless couple who make beautiful ecclesiastical embroideries for a living.

Well, you should know what’s coming next…the Huberts take in Angelique and eventually adopt her. Angelique is a strange child who grows into a strange woman. Unhealthily obsessed with tales of the saints, she is an incredibly talented seamstress whose intricate embroideries are matchless. All of her passion and devotion goes into her designs and the cloth she sews, and of course the time comes when Angelique falls in love with a young man.

Angelique’s obsession with her needlework and the lives of the saints is acceptable to her adoptive parents who live (literally) in the shadow of the cathedral, but when she forms an attachment to the heir of a noble family, she simply transfers that level of obsession–with disastrous consequences. Her adoptive mother, Hubertine, contributes to the tragedy by instilling in Angelique the need to “obey” and to “submit.” Hubertine believes that her mother’s curse on a marriage of which she did not approve resulted in the death of her only child, and so her religious beliefs consequently warp into notions of obedience to ecclesiastical authorities. This passage describes Hubertine’s indoctrination of Angelique:

“Little by little, Hubertine gained great authority over her. She was particularly adapted for such a task, with her kind heart, her gentle firmness, her common-sense and her uniform temper. She taught her the duty of obedience and the sin of pride and passion. To obey was to live. We must obey god, our parents, and our superiors. There was a whole hierarchy of respect, outside of which existence was unrestrained and disorderly. So, after each fit of passion, that she might learn humility, some menial labour was imposed upon her as a penance, such as washing the cooking-utensils, or wiping up the kitchen floor; and until it was finished, she would remain stooping over her work, enraged as first but conquered at last.” 

While Angelique daydreams of various saints and the glories of the injustices dealt to them, she creates parallel daydreams involving a handsome, wealthy young man who will come to her and fall in love. Angelique fixates (as she does with everything) on the fact that her suitor will be wealthy. The fantasies she spins rival Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella in their details of castles, gold and happily-ever-after scenarios.  As it turns out, Angelique’s daydreams do partly come true, and her love interest, Felicien is the son of the wealthy Bishop, a proud, stern man who forbids the match.

As a Zola novel, The Dream is a huge disappointment arriving, as it does, after the phenomenal The Earth. It’s hard to grasp that the same mind fashioned both books, and The Dream goes in the stack of the not-great Zolas. Well every book can’t be a masterpiece, right? The book might appeal more to the very romantic or the religious, so that leaves me out. Angelique is a disappointing heroine; she loves to the point of obsession, but refuses to disobey the ‘authorities’ who rule her life. The result is her destruction and about 200 pages of burning martyr. The Dream says a lot about the entwining of pride and religion and the tyranny of those who believe they have religious authority over other people. Those are excellent points, but this is embedded in pages of religious myths as Angelique daydreams and prattles on about various saints and their various trials. At one point I counted either 11 or 12 straight pages of religious myths of saints, and while this was an extreme example, this sort of stuff occurs throughout the novel.

By the end of the story, we can see how all this indoctrination ultimately damages Angelique’s thinking and poisons any free will she might have had, and since her head is filled the martyrdom of her childhood heroes, she’s ready to become one. It’s an interesting exercise but the journey to the last page was, I admit, fairly torturous.

I read the Eliza E Chase translation from Mondial Books.


Filed under Rougon-Macquart, Zola

The Earth by Zola

The soil and nothing else….

The Earth (La Terre) is novel number 15 in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series. My Penguin version, translated by Douglas Parmee runs to 500 pages, so it’s a substantial book, and in it Zola creates the unique world of the peasants of Beauce. La Terre was Zola’s favourite novel, and indeed there does seem to be a loving hand at work, and perhaps this is best seen in Zola’s description of the peasants’ passion for the land. This love, however, causes Zola’s characters to commit acts of incredible viciousness in the drive to acquire and hold the precious acres into which their lives are poured.

The Rougon-Macquart connection in The Earth is found in Jean Macquart. To place him in the family tree, he is the  brother of Lise (The Belly of Paris) and Gervaise (L’Assommoir) and the uncle of Nana (Nana). Whereas some of the Rougon-Macquart novels examine various family members at war with each other (The Kill, The Fortunes of the Rougons), in The Earth, Jean is a drifter, an ex-army corporal who ends up in Beauce as a labourer and remains there for ten years. This is similar to Etienne Lantier (son of Gervaise) in Germinal, a drifter who looks for work and then becomes an integral part of the mining community.  

Parmee notes that Zola’s “scientific enthusiasms had considerably waned” by the time he wrote The Earth, and while those scientific hypotheses appear to the detriment of Therese Raquin, in The Earth Zola instead choses to emphasize the characters in the novel rather than push theories onto the structure of the tale. The result is simply marvellous. The novel’s introduction made me wonder if the doom and gloom of the plot would hamper my enjoyment (something I experienced with Germinal), but and this surprised me a bit, while awful, absolutely terrible things happen in The Earth: robberies, deceit, beatings, spousal abuse, elder abuse, rape, incest, and several murders, I loved every page of this novel for its naked depiction of the human race at its worst. Zola creates intense, vital, incredibly well-drawn characters who live in an insular farming community. There should be an emphasis on the word, community. The peasants have their own moral creed; they don’t have much time for god or for doctors, so the disgruntled priest’s main job is to bury the dead, while the doctor arrives too late because the peasants don’t want to pay his fees. These people are a law unto themselves, and that’s something that Jean grasps too late.

The plot, and Parmee states that Zola had King Lear in mind, concerns a rather unpleasant old farmer named Fouan. Fouan has three children who embody every human vice: a daughter Fanny who’s married to a farmer named Delhomme, and two sons–Hyacinthe (who’s nicknamed Jesus Christ for his appearance) and Buteau. Jesus Christ, probably the best-natured of the bunch, is a poacher and a drunkard, Fanny is mean-spirited, and Buteau is a brutal, vicious man. Fouan and his wife are slowing down and are finding it increasingly more difficult to farm their precious twenty-five acres, and so he decides to divide it between his children while he is still living. The idea is that each of his children will pay him a quarterly pension in return for the land. But things almost immediately go wrong. The children niggle down the pension, cutting out the cost of items they consider ‘luxuries,’ and then they squabble over the division of the land which is drawn by parcel lots. Buteau, a particularly brutal character, is convinced that he’s been cheated, and this begins the downward spiral of Fouan.

The minute Fouan hands over his land, he loses any ‘value’ he had for his children, and he becomes a burden.  As the story progresses, Fouan moves in between the households belonging to his children–first because he’s lured by promises and then he moves from necessity. The relationship between Fouan and his children plays out like some sort of terrible farce with the cruellest, most vicious child coming out as the ‘victor.’

Human nature is unchanging, and there are times when this fact hits the reader of a classic novel full force. The humans in this novel are really an unpleasant bunch, and this is evident in their relationships which are largely devoid of any sentimentality, tenderness and affection. Animals generally serve a utilitarian purpose for the peasants (with a few exceptions), and while this might be expected given the times and the location, this attitude spreads to the elderly and the infirm who are also seen as useless. When the veterinary surgeon, Patoir, is called out to see an old cat, for example, his suggestion is to: “tie a stone around his neck and chuck him in the river.” Patoir attends to people it seems as often as he attends animals. In a similar vein, the Fouans decide to economise by drowning their old dog. This event serves two purposes: it lessens the sympathy we might have for the elderly couple and it foreshadows the merciless fate of the Foauns.

But where does Jean fit into all this? Well, he works in Beauce as a labourer, working for farmer Hourdequin, and sleeping with his promiscuous mistress, Jacqueline on the sly. Over time, however, Jean takes a fancy to the sisters, Lise and Francoise, orphans who own a nice parcel of parcel land. He proposes to and is rejected by Lise, who has an illegitimate child by Buteau, but he gradually realises that he’s in love with her much younger sister, Francoise. If there is a hero in The Earth, then the hero must be Jean–a good, tender-hearted, simple man who tries to farm the land as well as the Beauce peasants, but he never quite gets the hang of it. In spite of living in the area for 10 long, hard years, Jean remains an outsider. He will never belong, and this becomes bitterly clear to him towards the end of the novel.

And if Jean is the hero, then the heroine must be Francoise–a strange character who fails to understand her own feeling; she’s a woman whose stubbornness and tenacity work against her.

But these are just a few characters in Zola’s amazing tableau. One of the reasons I think the novel works so well is that the characters are mostly an unpleasant, but interesting bunch. As the novel develops, these characters become increasingly more detailed–ok that should happen in every novel, but in The Earth, the characters become very real through their relationships with each other. Old Fouan’s nasty sister, La Grande for example, an elderly woman who stays alive it seems to spite her relatives, has a special wine she keeps just for family members. The wine is so revolting people don’t want to drink it, but that doesn’t stop La Grande serving it (with delight) on the occasions of family announcements and celebrations. La Grande, loathes her children, is gladdened by their deaths, and runs off her grandchildren who live in poverty, dress in rags and quietly starve within her vision. La Grande predicts Fouan’s treatment at the hands of his children, and everything she says comes true. Zola seems to say that La Grande’s attitude in the long run, is perhaps a better evaluation of human behaviour. Fouan trusts his children, and he is gradually ripped apart by his offspring who obsess about getting every penny from him, and who aren’t happy until he’s stripped of every asset. Once Fouan is homeless and penniless, his children then begrudge every spoonful of cabbage soup the old man eats.

 The Earth wouldn’t be so great or so enjoyable a novel without its light moments and humour. For example, the novel has its share of hypocrites, and in this case it’s the Charles family, the local equivalent of landed gentry. Monsieur and Madame Charles (sister and brother-in-law to Old Fouan) have retired to the country to grow flowers, and they pride themselves on being completely respectable, raising their granddaughter in virginal innocence.  The Chartres brothel they ran so profitably is now rapidly being driven to the ground by their daughter and ne’er-do-well son-in-law, a “flabby loafer” who continually uses the prostitutes for freebies. The fact that the Charles family ran a brothel is common knowledge in the village, and yet it’s never directly referred to. Everyone refers to the brothel as a  “sweet shop“, and it’s a ruse all the villagers knows about and accept along with a sly, knowing chuckle or two. In fact when Madame Charles gathers up some old, well-worn linen that’s been cast off from the brothel, she gives it away as a wedding present to Lise.

Another source of humour can be found in the antics of Jesus Christ. He has the most amazing ability to fart which he uses as a sort of after-dinner party trick. He’s always willing to entertain an admiring crowd with his talent. In one scene, he pulls down his trousers and uses his farts to blow out candles; in another scene he farts and knocks over a bailiff’s man. There are also subtle, serious social issues in the novel concerning the beginning of technology in farming, conscription for the Franco-Prussian war, and Beauce even has its own tavern radical, Canon, a man who like to regale the other customers with tales of revolution and uprisings until he drinks himself under the table.

But in spite of its subject matter–family members pitted against each other in a battle to the death–the novel is not all doom and gloom. The phrase that pops into my mind is: Peyton Place (minus the melodrama) transported to the 19th century French countryside. Yes, this is a phenomenal classic novel, but it’s also a damn good read. If The Earth included any ‘nice’ characters, the novel would be much more difficult to read, but as it is, The Earth has to rank as one of Zola’s best.

Parmee’s translation is marvelous; it flows like water and its language is as smooth as silk. Parmee doesn’t shrink from using frank, raw language to complement the novel’s setting. Here’s a short passage from Lise regarding her sister, Francoise:

“You slut!” she screamed. “It’s you who’s leading him on! If you weren’t always hanging around him, he wouldn’t keep sniffing around your dirty bum, which you’re too young to wipe properly anyway.”

Ernest Vizetelly, while proofreading The Earth prior to its publication in English was “struck by the boldness of Zola’s story,” and he removed all references to the nickname, Jesus Christ–along with any mention of this character’s amazing ability to fart almost on demand. Vizetelly labels this “an infirmity.” The Vizetellys were under tremendous pressure and scrutiny, so they can’t be blamed for censoring the novel. It’s just a shame as to take out the nickname Jesus Christ is to miss the entire point. Beauce is, a ‘godless’ community. When the novel begins the villagers of Rognes don’t even have their own priest (one appears later but he’s worn out and has to be finally shipped out, exhausted and ruined). To the peasants, there is no god, no heaven, and no hell. There’s just the earth:

“That’s how it was, there was trouble all round, the only thing to do was to work till you dropped and not complain. Moreover, little by little, as he walked beside them, he found himself being gently lulled by these large green fields. A few April showers had brought the fodder crops on splendidly. The pink of the clover delighted him, and he forgot everything else. Now he took a short cut over the ploughed land to see how his two carters were doing: the earth stuck to his shoes, he could feel how rich and fertile it was, almost as though it wanted to cling to him and embrace him; and once more he felt completely won over by it, he was recovering the strength and joy he had felt as a young man of thirty. Did any woman exist apart from the earth?”


Filed under Rougon-Macquart, Zola

The Masterpiece by Emile Zola

the masterpieceThe Masterpiece  (L’Oeuvre) is the fourteenth novel in Zola’s twenty-volume Rougon- Macquart series, and it is the most autobiographical. The Rougon-Macquart series was planned in 1868 and written over the course of the next twenty-five years, the series was intended to be a “natural and social history of a family during the Second Empire” with the family in question being split into two branches–the Rougons (wealthier, upper class and supposedly more respectable) and the lower born Macquarts. The family line is tainted with madness, a relentless quest for wealth, obsession, and drunkenness. While Zola seems to leave the idea of hereditary at the door for The Masterpiece, actually the taint is still to be found in the protagonist’s single-minded drive to self-destruction.

Set in the 1860s and 1870s, The Masterpiece is the story of artist Claude Lantier. To place Claude in the Rougon-Macquart family, he is the brother of Etienne Lantier (Germinal), half brother to Nana and the son of the laundress, Gervaise (L’Assommoir). Claude appears as a small boy in L’Assommoir, and later in that novel, he’s unofficially adopted by an elderly art dealer from Plassans. Claude then makes an appearance as a young artist in The Belly of Paris. Just as Germinal explored the lives of French miners, The Masterpiece explores the lives of a group of French artists. But while Zola went to his grave admired by grateful miners who never forgot that this writer championed their plight, The Masterpiece costs Zola friendships.

Zola grew up with artist Paul Cezanne in the town of Aix-de-Provence and according to the book’s introduction, the character of Claude Lantier is thought to be an “amalgram of Cezanne, Manet…and Monet.”  After the publication of The Masterpiece, Cezanne never spoke to Zola again. But Cezanne wasn’t the only artist upset with Zola. According to the book’s introduction Claude Monet was “troubled and uneasy,” and even organized “a dinner of protest” for like-minded artists to attend and share their collective disgruntlement.

Why were they so upset?

The Masterpiece is the story of the artist Claude Lantier and his circle of friends. Claude, Pierre Sandoz (a thinly-disguised Zola) and Louis Dubuche are known as “the three inseparables” back in Plassans. While Claude dreams of becoming a famous artist, Pierre has literary ambitions, and Louis, the son of a baker, is enrolled in an architecture course at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Claude lives on a meagre inheritance, Pierre earns money from a menial job and Louis does the occasional odd job for architects he meets. Once in Paris, these young men mingle in the bohemian artistic set, and throughout the course of the novel, the plot not only follows the fortunes of these three characters but also various artists in their circle as they seek fame. The possession of true talent is no indicator of future success. Some artists succeed and others trade talent for regular meals.

The story begins with a meeting between Claude and a young girl named Christine during a rain storm. Over time a relationship develops between them, and Christine even agrees to model for Claude. As an artist, Claude is a nonconformist and he much prefers to paint what he terms “Open Air.” Unfortunately the French Art world is controlled by the Academie des Beaux Arts and its annual Salon.  The conservative judges of the Academie des Beaux Arts dictate the artistic taste of the age, so not being accepted for the Salon is a major blow to an artist’s career, and so conversely, being accepted for the annual Salon and having one’s art displayed there is a goal of all artists.

While Claude admires Delacroix and Courbet as innovators who moved the art world forward, he considers most of those ‘accepted’ artists as hacks. He feels that the art world is ready to move on to “something else” and over the course of the novel, just what that “something else” consumes and eventually destroys him.

Some of the very first scenes of Claude at work predict his doom as a painter. He’s working on a painting he calls “Open Air” and the painting which is eventually exhibited at the Salon des Refuses (Exhibition of Rejects) becomes the laughing-stock of the exhibition. After this humiliation, Claude decides to live with Christine and together they move to Bennecourt in the country, far from Claude’s humiliation and the cruel judgment of the public.

Throughout the novel, Claude’s creative genius is torn between painting for himself and his ideals and the goal of being accepted by the Salon. He’s never happy with a painting and constantly tinkers with the canvas and newer versions are not usually an improvement. As the book continues, Claude’s projects become increasingly impractical as he tackles huge scenes and enormous canvases, but his discontent with the finished project usually leads to the painting’s violent destruction.

The novel follows Claude’s pitiful decline and decent into madness. Art is seen as a harsh mistress as other characters in the novel self-destruct or abandon art in favour of more profitable endeavours.  Dubuche, one of the three original “inseparables”  is seen as a complete sellout. At first he imagines that he can create conformist-style buildings and then ‘move on’ to his own projects later. In reality, he marries for money, is harnessed in a loveless marriage and basically becomes the nursemaid for his two invalid children. Sculptor Mahoudeau and dilettante journalist Jory (another Plassans-ite) are caught up in a competitive menage-a-trois, and Jory turns out to be some sort of sex addict who is totally dominated by the rather revolting Mathilde.

As usual with Rougon-Macquart novels, Zola is the master of the vivid, Naturalist scene, and there are several examples in The Masterpiece–the crowd at the Salon des Refuses, the selection committee as they bicker about paintings, and then the scene as Claude searches for his painting on display at the Salon. The latter is an example of Zola at his very best, for in this scene, Zola captures the vulnerability of Claude as an artist. Claude attends the Salon and standing with his back to a wall full of Salon paintings, he experiences, vicariously, what it must be like to exhibit a painting that has the admiration of the crowd. And in this scene Zola simultaneously creates an amazingly alive tableaux, and he describes the crowd through Claude’s eyes almost as though Claude is surveying a painting. This gives us a brief glimpse into the mind of the artist–the artist rejected and the artist’s vision of his subject:

“The thought of all the admiration rising from the sea of rounded shoulders and craning necks so exasperated Claude that he felt he must see what sorts of faces go to make a triumph. So he worked his way round the fringes of the crowd until he was able to stand with his back to the picture. There he had the public in front of him, in the greyish-light that filtered through the sun-blind, leaving the centre of the room dim, while the bright sunlight that escaped round the edges of the blind fell sheer on the pictures on the walls, putting the warmth of sunshine into the gilt of the frames. As soon as he saw the faces, Claude recognized the people who had once laughed his own picture to scorn; at least, if it was not the very same people, it must have been their brothers, now in serious mood, enraptured, graced by their air of respectful attention. The malignant looks, the marks of overstrain and envy, drawn features, and bilious colouring he had noted earlier were all softened and relaxed in the communal enjoyment of a piece of amiable deception. Two very stout ladies he saw simply gaping in beatitude, and several old gentleman narrowing their eyes and trying to look wise. There was a husband quietly explaining the subject to his young wife, who kept tilting her chin with a very graceful movement of the neck. There was admiration on every face, though the expression varied; some looked  blissful, others surprised or thoughtful or gay or even austere; many faces wore an unconscious smile, many heads were plainly swimming in ecstasy. The shiny black toppers were all tipped backwards, and the flowers on the women’s hats all drooped well down towards their shoulders, while all the faces, after a momentary halt, were pushed along and replaced by others in a never-ending stream, and all exactly the same.”

The Masterpiece is Zola’s homage to the Impressionists. The Impressionists may not have appreciated it at the time, but now in the 21st century, and at a safe distance, Zola’s novel is a vital record of their struggles and their sacrifices for the art they wanted to paint. Zola explores the relationship of the artist and his audience through the marvellous Salon scenes that record the great paintings ignored by an unappreciative crowd, the crushing blows of poverty suffered by those who struggle for art, and the parasitic hangers-on who feed from the artists’ failure. The novel is also a powerful testament to the nature of conformity and the seductive power of the Establishment. Zola’s greatest fault (and it’s not a literary fault), it’s a fault of ego,  is his own thinly disguised portrait of himself as Sandoz– the urbane, saintly, humane and totally rational man amongst the frayed minds of many of the artists in the novel. I can see Zola proudly handing out copies of The Masterpiece and feeling flabbergasted when Cezanne, his lifelong friend dropped him. In its exploration of the vast, unfathomable space between the creative idea and its supreme execution, The Masterpiece succeeds, and it succeeds admirably.

My copy is published by Oxford World Classics and is translated by Thomas Walton, then the translation was revised and edited by Roger Pearson.


Filed under Rougon-Macquart, Zola

Germinal by Emile Zola

When I first began reading Emile Zola’s twenty-volume Rougon-Macquart series, there were some titles I really looked forward to, and Germinal was one of them. Germinal is number 13 in the series and is considered to be Zola’s masterpiece. It took Zola 9 months to write the novel, and I was beginning to think it would take me 9 months to read it.

germinalThe novel’s main character is Etienne Lantier. To place him in the Rougon-Macquart family tree, he is the son of Gervaise (L’Assommoir) and the half brother of one of France’s most infamous and naughtiest prostitutes, Nana. Etienne appears as a child and then as an adolescent in L’Assommoir, and when Germinal begins, Etienne is a young unemployed man, on the brink of starvation who is wandering the countryside looking for work. His travels bring him to Montsou, a coal mining town in Northern France, and as luck would have it, he appears at the right moment and is employed pushing the coal carts down inside the mines. Etienne is at first horrified by life in the mines and the conditions suffered by miners. To Etienne, as the men descend in a cage to the deep bowels of the mine to begin their shift, the monstrous mine’s insatiable appetite seems to consume the men:

 “in more or less greedy mouthfuls, depending on the depth of the level they were bound for, but without ever stopping, always hungry, its giant bowels capable of digesting a nation. It filled, and filled again, and the dark depths remained silent  as the cage rose up from the void, silently opening its gaping jaws.”  

Etienne is befriended by the miner, Maheu and his family–including his daughter, Catherine. While Etienne is attracted to Catherine, the miner, Chaval, who’s staked out Catherine as his some time earlier, uses Etienne’s arrival to coerce Catherine into a sexual relationship.

The book spends some considerable time detailing the miserable daily life of the miners, and this makes for some extremely bleak reading. The Maheu family lives a few mouthfuls away from starvation, and the large family is squashed into a hovel provided by the mining company. The miners are paid a pittance every two weeks, and are subject to various fines that chip away at their already-subsistence level wages. Young children of miners are put to work in the pit and they slave their entire lives under horrendous conditions in the hopes of earning a meagre pension at the age of 60. It’s difficult to put any food on the table at times, and some scenes describe how the smaller children squabble over food, or how family members go without so that others can eat a crust of bread. Children are seen as assets since they contribute to the pot, and as assets, marriage and departure to establish a separate home is viciously discouraged, and this leads to a moral breakdown within the mining family community. Some families are even forced to prostitute their daughters and wives in exchange for food from the local shop owner.

By keeping the miners just one step away from starvation, the mine managers and owners largely manage to subdue any rebellion, and the miners are:

“restrained by the force of hierarchical authority, that military command structure which ran from the lads at the incline right up to the overman, keeping everyone subservient to the person above him.”

A crisis comes when the demand for coal slows, and the owners of the mines decide to take it out of the hides of the workers by paying less per cart of coal. This translates to slow starvation for the workers. Pushed to breaking point, the miners decide to strike, and Etienne Lantier, who during his time at the mine has developed political ideals, becomes one of the leaders. As an outsider, as someone who didn’t spend his childhood in the mine, Etienne isn’t so willing to meekly accept the miner’s yoke. Influenced by the “exterminating angel” anarchist Souvarine, and by the former miner & rabblerouser, Rasseneur, Etienne has had the foresight to organise the miners before the latest cuts, and so the miners have managed to scrape together a tiny contingency fund, but it isn’t enough to stave off starvation.

The first part of the novel spends a considerable time describing the conditions for the miners–both down in the pits and up in their threadbare, freezing, squalid homes. These early pages set the scene for the later action, and once the horrific details of the lives of the miners are absorbed, it seems impossible that their lives can get worse. But of course, that’s exactly what happens. The feeling of quiet despair slowly evolves into doom, and of course, the doom arrives in the shape of starvation, violent repression and desperate acts.

One of the book’s most interesting and pivotal characters is anarchist Souvarine, a gentle man who nonetheless believes that peaceful protests are meaningless, that strikes only damage the workers, and that all negotiation is pointless:

“As for raising wages, how can they? It is graven in tablets of bronze that wages should be fixed at the absolute minimum, just the barest necessary for the workers to eat a crust of bread and have children…If wages fall too low, the workers die, and the demand for new workmen makes them rise again. If they rise too high, the surplus offer makes them drop again…It’s the balanced budget of empty bellies, a life sentence condemning the workers to the prison camp of poverty.”

To Souvarine, who never underestimates the power of potential abuse from the bourgeoisie, the system as it exists cannot be modified or reformed and he argues for destruction:

“We must destroy everything, or hunger will spring up again. Yes! Anarchy, and end to everything, the earth bathed in blood and purified by fire … Then we’ll have another think.”

Zola shows compassion for the plight of the miners but some of the most poignant passages in the novel concern the horses who slave in the mines. At one point early in the novel Zola describes Bataille, a white horse that has spent 10 years down in the dark mine and his reaction when a new, terrified horse named Trompette is lowered down the mine shaft to join him:

“Soon Trompette was laid out on the iron slabs, a motionless mass, lost in the nightmare of the dark bottomless pit, and the long deafening hall. They were starting to untie him when Bataille who had been unharnessed a little earlier, came up and stretched out his neck to sniff at the new companion who had fallen from earth to meet him. The workmen formed a wide circle round them and laughed. What was it that smelled so good? But Bataille was deaf to their mockery. He was excited by the smell of fresh air, the forgotten scent of sunshine in the meadows. And he suddenly let out a resounding whinny, whose happy music seemed muted with a sorrowful sigh. It was a welcoming shout, and a cry of pleasure at the arrival of a sudden whiff of the past, but also a sigh of pity for the latest prisoner, who would never be sent back alive.”

While there can be no argument that Germinal is one of Zola’s greatest novels, due to the subject matter it is not particularly pleasant reading and is fairly depressing. Zola painstakingly paints a portrait of class war through the deprivation of the miners’ lives, and then just as you think it couldn’t get any worse…it does. Perhaps the lightest part of the book occurs when the mine owning Gregoire family visit the mine manager, Hennebeau for lunch, and the attitudes of the bourgeoisie fly across the table during the feast prepared for their well-tended stomachs. While they stuff themselves, the talk moves to the miners and how spoiled the workers are, living in “luxury.” This scene is a hideous reflection of the bourgeoisie attitude to the working class, and it runs the gamut from worrying that the miners’ delegation will steal the silver to the ultimately unfortunate Cecile Gregoire playing Lady Bountiful.

Zola researched conditions in the mine at length while writing Germinal. He made trips to mining towns in Northern France, witnessed a strike and even went down into the bowels of a pit. Whereas some of the novels in the Rougon-Macquart series are intense character studies (Nana, His Excellency) Germinal is the portrayal of class war–those who struggle to improve their meagre lot in life and those in power, reinforced by the state, who squash the effort.


Filed under Rougon-Macquart, Zola

The Belly Of Paris by Emile Zola

I am not normally someone who rushes out to buy the latest translation of a classic. In fact, I tend to be a bit suspicious of new translations: case in point–a few years ago I bought Remembrance of Things Past and stuck with the Moncrieff edition. I will, however, buy any new translation produced by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. With this talented husband and wife team, I am happy to replace my older translations.

the belly of ParisAnd this brings me to The Belly of Paris recently translated by Mark Kurlansky. I’ve often thought that you’d have to be a bit of a Zola fanatic to translate his novels (but perhaps that statement is applicable to any translator), and in the excellent introduction, Kurlansky confesses that Zola is his “hero.”  Kurlansky’s introduction examines both the influences upon Zola and this French author’s gift to the world–the magnificent Rougon-Macquart cycle. Kurlansky points out that Zola was just ten years old when Balzac died leaving his impressive legacy of The Human Comedy, and that as a writer, “Zola struggled with the question of how to be more than just an imitation of Balzac.” Zola didn’t imitate Balzac, and eventually he created his own unique vision of French society through the Rougon-Macquart cycle:

“Zola resolved to write two novels a year for the next twenty years, all about the fictional Rougon-Macquart family from Provence. He more or less kept to that schedule, occasionally frustrated, such as when Germinal, the miner’s saga that many consider to be his masterpiece, took an entire nine months. By 1869, he had the cycle mapped out, and between 1872, at the age of thirty-two, and 1892, at the age of fifty-three, he carried out this plan.” 

By creating the twenty-volume cycle of novels in the stupendous Rougon-Macquart cycle, Zola created a unique history of two branches of a family set against the backdrop of the Second Empire. While some of the novels explore the poverty and alcoholism of the Macquarts, other novels are concerned with the wealthy, and supposedly more respectable branch–the Rougons.

The Belly of Paris sometimes translated as The Fat and the Thin, the third novel in the series is neither a novel of the wealthy and their political and personal corruption (The Kill) nor a novel of the very poor (Germinal). It’s certainly not one of the most famous novels in the cycle, but then the entirety of the 20-volume cycle is more-or-less forgotten these days–even though a few of the books make the ‘great novel’ lists. Although the Rougon-Macquart novels are interconnecting, they also can be read as stand-alone books, so it’s certainly not essential to commit to reading all twenty of the volumes if you just want to enjoy the highlights. Nana, for example, remains one of the greatest novels in the cycle and many people read it without being aware that L’Assommoir is the tragic story of Nana’s mother, Gervaise. Although I am a hard-boiled Zola fan, even I will admit that a couple of the novels in the cycle are forgettable, but The Belly of Paris stands out as an excellent examination of the bourgeoisie. Through its story The Belly Of Paris shows the bourgeoisie’s desire to maintain the system and their rejection of any political beliefs that might upset the status quo. Zola illustrates this through the destruction of one harmless man named Florent.

The Belly of Paris begins with Florent arriving in Paris. Florent was sent into exile following the 1851 coup, and although Florent was not involved in the coup, he was swept up in the aftermath and condemned to exile. His harsh unjust sentence has turned Florent into a rebel, but he’s basically too damaged to be a serious threat to the state. Now he’s escaped from a prison colony and he seeks shelter from his brother, Quenu.

At one time the brothers were close, but now Quenu, who has a comfortable living at his butcher shop, is married to a woman named Lisa. Lisa, the ultimate bourgeois, sees Florent as a threat to her comfort, and at first she tries to make him fit in to society and seek gainful employment.

The novel is set in the vast Las Halles marketplace of Paris also know as the “stomach of Paris” and so this translation is named after the marketplace–a huge empire devoted to satisfying the appetites of those Parisians who can afford to eat.

The Rougon-Macquart novels have a remarkable history of translation. The first available translations of the Rougon-Macquart were American, and then English publisher Henry Vizetelly began publishing Zola. These translations were ‘toned down’ for the Victorian audience by Henry’s son Ernest. In the book, Emile Zola Novelist and Reformer Ernest Vizetelly admitted that after toning down Zola’s novels, “None of them was an exact replica of the original, all had been expurgated more or less, though care had invariably been taken to preserve the continuity of the narrative.” But even the “toning” down didn’t spare Henry Vizetelly from persecution by the National Vigiliance Association and by the newspapers. The matter of the ‘obscene’ nature of Zola’s novels even reached the House of Commons. And in 1888, Mr. Samuel Smith, member of the House of Commons, when speaking against Zola’s novels, declared  that “nothing more diabolical had ever been written by the pen of man; they were fit only for swine, and those who read them must turn their minds into cesspools.” (Pall Mall Gazette)

Vizetelly found himself on trial for “Obscene Libel.” He was fined but since the publisher had already committed to the Zola novels, rather than abandon them, there was more editing. Ernest admitted that he  “deleted or modified three hundred and twenty five pages out of fifteen volumes.” But this still didn’t help Vizetelly who was hauled back into court. This time he was imprisoned. The rather hypocritical fact of the matter was that Zola’s novels were available in their glorious entirety in French, so the upper classes could read them while those not fluent in French were stuck with the censored version. That reminds me of the 1960 Obscenity trial against Penguin Books following the publication of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Prosecutor Griffith Jones made the mistake of asking the court if Lady Chatterley’s Lover was the sort of book “you would wish your wife or your servants to read.” Again that idea appears of certain classes of people who need to be protected from themselves by those who know better….

But I digress…

A few years ago, when I wanted a copy of The Belly of Paris, the only version available was the Vizetelly translation (The Fat and The Thin). Since that time, Oxford World Classics released a translation by Brian Nelson, and I have read two of Nelson’s translations of Zola (The Ladies Paradise Pot Luck) and enjoyed them very much. Now I have the Kurlansky and the Vizetelly translations, I compared some of the passages, and it didn’t take long to realize that Kurlansky’s translation of The Belly of Paris includes much franker language which complements the text excellently. Here are a couple of passages for comparison:

“A tall brunette pushed open the shop door. It was Louise Mehudin, the beautiful fish woman whom everyone called the Norman. She had a brazen kind of good looks and delicate white skin. She was almost as assertive as Lisa, the look in her eyes was even bolder, and her breasts were more alluring. She came in with a prancing gait, a gold chain jingling against her apron, her uncovered hair combed up in the latest style, and a bow at her throat, a lace bow that made her the queen coquette of Les Halles. She had about her a slight scent of the sea, and on one of her hands, near the little finger, a herring scale shone like a patch of mother-of-pearl.”

Vizetelly’s translation:

“A tall female pushed the shop door open. It was the handsome fish-girl, Louise Mehudin, known as La Normandie. She was a bold looking beauty, with a delicate white skin, and was almost as plump as Lisa, but there was more effrontery in her glance, and her bosom heaved with warmer life. She came in the shop with a light swinging step, her gold chain jingling on her apron, her bare hair arranged in the latest style, and a bow at her throat, a lace bow, which made her one of the most coquettish-looking queens of the markets. She brought a vague odour of fish with her, and a herring-scale showed like a tiny patch of mother-of-pearl near the little finger of one of her hands.”

Historian and food writer Kurlansky seems very much at home with the language of The Belly of Paris. The rich, vibrant translation is alive with the colours, sounds, smells and tastes of Les Halles–a unique corner of Paris stuffed with every sort of food imaginable:

“A huge quantity of crayfish had arrived in crates and baskets from Germany. The market was also flooded with whitefish from England and Holland. Some workers were unpacking shiny carp from the Rhine, all bronzed in beautiful rust-coloured metallic, each scale like a piece of cloisonne enamel; others with huge pike, the coarse grey brigands of the water with long, protruding savage jaws, or magnificent dark tench, red copper stained with the blue green of corroded copper.”

This new translation from Modern Library may bring new readers to Zola and it’s certainly a positive sign that at least some publishers are interested in revisiting classics.


Filed under Rougon-Macquart, Zola

The Joy of Life by Emile Zola

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.

joy of lifeThe 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.”

or this:

“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….


Filed under Rougon-Macquart, Zola

Therese Raquin by Emile Zola

One of my goals in life is to finish Zola’s twenty volume Rougon-Macquart series, and I’d just finished number 11 (The Ladies’ Paradise) when I decided to take a break, well sort of, and begin Zola’s Therese Raquin.

It’s a very dark novel that tells the tale of a love triangle, with a careful-what-you-wish-for horrific aftermath. When the novel begins, Therese is married to her sickly cousin Camille, and they live together with his mother above a drab little shop in a dingy part of Paris. Therese was brought up by Camille’s mother (her aunt) with the understanding that one day she’d marry Camille–a semi-invalid even as a child. Therese is bored and emotionally disconnected from her life, but since she possesses no dreams, no imagination or longings, she doesn’t examine her boredom and unhappiness, but accepts it–rather as someone who accepts shabby surroundings. And then one day, Camille brings home a friend, Laurent.

Laurent works as a petty clerk in the same office as Camille, and since he doesn’t have quite the same means as the Raquins, his life is bleaker and impoverished. He is invited to join the Raquins’ little circle of friends, cadging free meals and attending the ritual Thursday evening domino games with the Raquins’ dull friends.

During his evenings with the Raquins, Laurent brags about being a painter. It seems that at one point, Laurent attended university but dropped out to pursue art. But since Laurent has little talent, he ended up in a meager position as a petty clerk. To Therese, this tiny amount of knowledge releases her imagination, and something in her awakens. Therese and Laurent begin a passionate affair that’s stifled by the mundane details of her home life. The lovers scheme to be together, but Camille stands in their way….

Leonard Tancock is the translator for my Penguin edition, and the translator includes an introduction to the text. Tancock explains that Zola as a “naturalist novelist” saw himself as a “scientist on the same footing as a surgeon or any other experimenter upon organic matter, that his characters are animals motivated solely by the physical processes of their bodies and nervous systems.” Tancock also argues that Zola used this same sort of approach to The Abbe’s Transgression: “the formula is to arrange some temperaments, add some medical or neurological jargon, deliberately omit the interplay of character and all purely psychological reactions, and call the mixture ‘fatality.'” Therese Raquin mainly succeeds as a novel–whereas The Abbe’s Transgression strikes many false and formulaic notes.

For the 2/3 of the novel, Therese Raquin is a marvelous read, and for a while, I thought I was reading a novel on the level of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, but somewhere around Chapter 21, the novel, at least for me, fizzled a bit. Zola’s introduction of guilt’s impact upon the lovers, which takes the form of Poe-like, almost supernatural happenings, is over-the top at some points. Even the translator, obviously a tremendous fan of the book, admits that Zola was “still young and relatively inexperienced” and that he failed to pace the novel’s “climaxes,” and indeed that too is my complaint. While I have this niggling feeling that I am being too picky (and committing Zola Heresy), the last third of novel’s almost hysterical tone is a bit grating after a while.

For me, the very best parts of the novel explain Therese’s duplicitous nature. An indolence, and a general lack of interest in her own life–which could be misconstrued as dullness covers layers of deceit, hatred and submerged passion:

“She preferred to do nothing, staring in front of her and letting her thoughts run on. She still remained equable and easy to get on with–indeed she devoted her whole will power to making herself a passive instrument, completely acquiescent and free from all self interest.”

Suppressed by a twisted childhood, her explosive adulterous joy in the early days of her affair with Laurent, once unleashed, is unstoppable:

 “On her part she seemed to revel in daring and shamelessness. Not a single moment of hesitation or fear possessed her. She threw herself into adultery with a kind of furious honesty, flouting danger, and as it were, taking pride in doing so.”

Zola will always remain one of my favorite 19th century writers, but Therese Raquin is not my favorite Zola by any means. It sits with some of the good ‘stack’ from the Rougon-Macquart cycle (and there will be a post that goes into that subject when I’ve actually finished all twenty). As a novel on the theme of adultery and female sexuality, Therese Raquin must be read. Its depiction of Therese raised to wed her puny cousin, allowed no alternative, and no avenue for her passionate nature is an incredibly strong portrayal. But for me, at least, it wasn’t one of those phenomenal reads that leave me mentally shaken by its power.


Filed under Zola

The Ladies’ Paradise by Emile Zola

“Of supreme importance, more important than the facts he had already given, was the exploitation of Woman. Everything else led up to it, the ceaseless renewal of capital, the system of piling up goods, the low prices that attracted people, the marked prices that reassured them. It was Woman the shops were competing for so fiercely, it was Woman they were continually snaring with their bargains, after dazing her with their displays. They had awoken new desires in her weak flesh; they were an immense temptation to which she inevitably yielded, succumbing in the first place to purchases for the house, the seduced by coquetry, finally consumed by desire. By increasing sales tenfold, by making luxury democratic, shops were becoming a terrible agency for spending, ravaging household, working hand in hand with the latest extravagances in fashion, growing ever more expensive. And if, in the shops, Woman was queen, adulated and humoured in her weaknesses, surrounded by attentions, she reigned there as an amorous queen whose subjects trade on her, and who pays for every whim with a drop of her own blood.”

The Ladies’ Paradise
is volume 11 in Zola’s spectacular Rougon-Macquart series, and this volume serves as a sequel to the preceding novel, Pot-Luck. If you are not familiar with the Rougon-Macquart series, then you would naturally assume that volume 11 follows after volume 10. But in the Rougon-Macquart series, subsequent volumes do not usually pick up the tale where the last book left off. For this reason, some people recommend reading the series out of the order in which they were written, and say, for example read L’Assommoir (v.7) and then read v. 9, Nana (the protagonist in L’Assommoir is Gervaise, Nana’s mother). I have no argument against shuffling up the books from the order in which they were written, but I want to stick to Zola’s creative order.

Pot-Luck introduces Octave Mouret–the son of Marthe (Rougon) and Francois Mouret. Their story erupts in The Conquest of Plassans (v. 4). Francois and Marthe were first cousins and produced three children: Octave, Serge and Desiree. Serge becomes a priest, Desiree has a stunted development, and Octave is the ‘normal’ one of the bunch. The seeds of madness seen in The Fortunes of the Rougons (v 1) in Adelaide Forque now reemerge in her granddaughter, Marthe.

Pot-Luck is the tale of Octave’s arrival and early life in Paris as a young, ambitious man. This was, I think, the most enjoyable novel so far. Note that I didn’t say the ‘best’….

The Ladies’ Paradise, the title of volume 11, is also the name of Mouret’s huge department store. At the end of Pot-Luck, he married the shop’s owner, the widow Madame Hedouin, and now when the book begins, he’s a young widower. Over the years, he’s expanded his shop beyond anything Paris has ever seen before. Mouret is a remarkable salesman, and as a man who loves women, he understands exactly how to lure his female customers into the shop to spend money they don’t have. While his shop is a wonder to behold, Mouret is hated by his neighbours who are slowly being put out of business. The Ladies’ Paradise began as a drapery shop, but over the years it’s expanded to include dozens of different departments, and this leaves his neighbours on the verge of bankruptcy as they see their businesses dry up and their former customers flock to the colorful sales and displays in the windows of  The Ladies’ Paradise.

When the book begins, Denise Baudu and her two younger brothers arrive from the country to try their fortunes in Paris. With their parents dead, Denise, assumes the role of mother and makes the decision to move to Paris and their uncle’s shop. Unfortunately, Uncle Baudu’s dingy little shop is in decline–as are all the shops in the neighbourhood, and Baudu, a bitter, angry man cannot offer Denise a job. She finds a job at The Ladies’ Paradise and begins a very difficult employment there.

The novel follows the expansion of The Ladies’ Paradise as it gradually consumes all the other smaller businesses on the block. While Mouret doesn’t necessarily seek out the destruction of the other businesses, that’s exactly what happens as the huge department store, with thousands of employees gradually destroys all the other businesses in the area. Mouret’s marketing genius spurs the shop forward, and at several points in the novel, he’s almost delirious when learning how many hundreds of thousands of francs the shop took in on a single day.

Mouret isn’t seen as an intentionally bad person, but driven by a naked profit motive, he fires employees on the merest whim and when business is slack, he has the reputation of walking through the shop and mowing down employees with lay-off announcements. A fair number of the employees live in the stark, freezing barracks above the shop and they are served terrible food–two more ways in which management cuts costs.

In spite of Mouret’s unpredictable behavior, the employees consider themselves lucky to work at The Ladies’ Paradise, and this is mainly thanks to Mouret’s ingenious and unique development of a system of commissions which allows sales assistants to increase their salaries considerably:

“Having noticed that the larger the commission an assistant received, the faster obsolete goods and junk were snapped up, he had based a new sales method on this observation. In future he was going to give his salesmen an interest in the sale of all goods; he would give them a percentage on the smallest bit of material, the smallest article they sold: a system which had caused a revolution in the drapery trade by creating among the assistants a struggle for survival from which the employers reaped the benefit. This struggle, moreover, had become his favourite method, a principle of organization he constantly applied. He unleashed passions, brought different forces into conflict, let the strong devour the weak, and grew fat on this battle of interests.”

Unfortunately, while Mouret’s business flourishes due in part to the aggression of his sale assistants, some employees flounder in the cutthroat atmosphere. The novel is incredibly good at depicting the petty rivalries between employees–how one employee, for example, will covet the position of another and then slowly destroy that employee in the eyes of Mouret.

The Ladies’ Paradise is at its best depicting Mouret’s insatiable ambition, and the drawing room observations of the casual observers who wonder when the female sex will be avenged against Mouret’s heartless exploitation of the addicted female shoppers who flock to his shop. Other men, who are subject to their wives’ out-of-control spending habits warn Mouret:

“You can take everything you can from women, exploit them as you would a coal mine, but afterwards they’ll exploit you and make you cough it up! Take care, for they’ll extract more blood and money from you than you’ll have sucked from them.”

The Ladies’ Paradise presents the mature Mouret–the man whose attitudes towards women were just in the development stage in Pot-Luck. His objectification of women continues and his early observations of the female sex have morphed into an uncanny understanding of the psyche of the female customers who flock to his shop:

“He was building a temple to Woman, making a legion of shop assistants burn incense before her, creating the rites of a new cult; he thought only of her, ceaselessly trying to imagine even greater enticements; and, behind her back, when he had emptied her purse and wrecked her nerves, he was full of the secret scorn of a man to whom a mistress had just been stupid enough to yield.”

One of the novel’s very best scenes involves a sale at The Ladies’ Paradise and the novel follows the aimless forays and the deranged squandering that occurs amongst the women who can’t say no to a bargain.

Denise is a problematic heroine, and with her, I think the novel hits its weakest point. Denise’s steely moral determination is admirable, but she fails to make much of a stand on so many other issues–the destruction of her uncle’s business for example, and the crushing of friends and fellow employees. She absorbs these travesties which fail to make more than a ripple on her moral observations, and consequently, in many instances, she lacks the sort of emotional responses one would expect from a red-blooded female–and this was not, I think, Zola’s intention. But while most of the characters hate or envy Mouret, Denise observes his destructive side and tempers it. This implied sainthood renders Denise much less interesting as she, upon occasion, assumes a sort of tortured maytrdom (the scene with Madame Desforges, for example).

In today’s global economy with its continual cannibalization of small business by giant corporations, The Ladies’ Paradise is amazingly prescient. The novel’s somewhat insipid love story pales next to the obsession and compulsive passions of the ardent shoppers, and unfortunately although the novel’s final chapters are marred with excessive sentimentality. I’d put The Ladies’ Paradise in the good pile of the Rougon-Macquart series.


Filed under Rougon-Macquart, Zola

Pot Luck by Emile Zola

“Then, going off on a tangent, he began violently to abuse the Empire; under a republic , things would surely be better. And amid all this rambling talk, the vague generalizations of a man of mediocre intelligence, there came a few acute remarks of the experienced physician thoroughly familiar with all his patients’ foibles. He did not spare the women, some of whom were brought up as dolls and were made either corrupt or crazy thereby, while others had their feelings and passions perverted by hereditary neurosis; if they sinned, they sinned vulgarly, foolishly, without desire as without pleasure. Nor was he more merciful to the men–fellows who merely ruined their constitutions while hypocritically pretending to lead virtuous and godly lives. And in all this Jacobin frenzy one heard, as it were, the inexorable death-knell of a whole class, the collapse and putrefaction of the bourgeoisie whose rotten props were cracking beneath them.”

pot luckPot-Bouille translates to Pot Luck in the Oxford University Press edition of the tenth novel in Zola’s incredible Rougon-Macquart series. After you begin to read the novel, the title will make more sense to you–it also translates to stew-pot, and that’s another apt description of the events that take place in this wonderfully entertaining novel. My edition is translated by Brian Nelson, and while it’s the only translation I’ve read, and therefore I can’t compare, this translation is as smooth as silk.

The protagonist of the novel (and it’s going too far to call him a hero) is Octave Mouret. To place him in the Rougon-Macquart family tree, Octave is the son of Marthe and Francois Mouret. Martha and Francois were cousins (Marthe was a Rougon–the sister of Eugene Rougon). In The Conquest of Plassans, Marthe and Francois are a middle-aged couple who’ve grown apart over the years. Marthe sublimates her sexuality and hunger for passion and attention into religious fanaticism after boarding a priest in the house.

Pot Luck makes no reference to the other novels in the Rougon-Macquart series or to Octave’s troubled background. Instead the novel begins with the young, enthusiastic, and ambitious Octave arriving in Paris from the country and moving into a boarding house full of bourgeois Parisians who cling–rather pathetically at times–to their social status.

Octave’s contact at the boarding house in the Rue de Choiseul is the architect Monsieur Campardon, and the book begins with Campardon showing Octave through the house while giving a rundown of the other tenants. Campardon’s superficial information is heavily coded with social markers, and he notes, for example, that Monsieur Gourd “used to be the valet to the Duc de Vaugelade.” Because Gourd was a servant to nobility, a property owner, and soon to get a respectable pension, he’s elevated to bourgeois status in the eyes of the boarding house residents. Indeed Gourd, not surprisingly is the fiercest combatant in the house when it comes to morality and much more importantly, maintaining strict hierarchy and social status. Gourd, a merciless employer of a poor half-crippled cleaner, is the moral policeman of the building, meting out moral outrage and banishment to the working class residents and turning a blind eye to the love affairs of the bourgeois.

An unhappy assortment of people share the boarding house. It’s difficult to pick the unhappiest family, but perhaps the Josserand family, ruled by domestic tyrant Madame Josserand are the most miserable. Madame Josserand, with her “massive bosom” lives to marry off her children, but frustrated by the lack and money (and subsequent social opportunities), she rains down abuse onto the head of her meek, long-suffering husband, who bears his burden with no complaints. The various servants in the boarding house aren’t treated well either, but the Josserand’s servant, the half-starved Adele, suffers more than most. Then there’s the landlord, Monsieur Vabre and his two sons–Theophile and Auguste–both poor specimens whose ineffectualness with their respective spouses leads to some hilarious scenes in the novel. On the third floor, there’s Marie and Jules Pichon. Marie is the nicest character in the novel. Raised by her boring, close-minded parents the Vuillaumes, she’s simple, innocent, kind, and gullible. Marie gives without asking for anything in return and so is taken advantage of by Octave rapidly:

“She had had a long-drawn-out childhood: all sorts of prohibitions she could not understand; lines in fashion journals which her mother had inked over–black bars that made her blush; pieces cut out of her lessons which embarrassed the governesses themselves when she asked about them. There had been a sweetness about her childhood, a soft tepid growth as in a greenhouse, a waking dream in which the words and the deeds of each day assumed a distorted, foolish significance. And even now, as with a far-off look in her eyes, all these memories come back to her, the smile on her lips was the smile of a child, as ignorant after marriage as she was before.”

It’s in his relationship with Marie that Octave’s character and his attitude towards women begins to develop. Octave studies the women in the boarding house and assesses them for possible seduction, reasoning that now he’s in Paris, love affairs will follow. By studying Marie, he begins to understand the fallow nature of her confined life, and he begins a relationship with her by bringing her novels to read. This maneuver is the first step in Marie’s seduction. It should be said that Octave, is a classical seducer. While he loves women, and the idea of women, finding something to love about each one, his love, for the most part, involves an objectification of the love object: she exists for his pleasure while he glosses over the finer points of his seduction as somehow or other contributing to a ‘greater good.’ Eligible bachelor Octave lays siege to several of the married women in the novel while his friend Trublot prefers the low level challenge of the sexually accessible servants.

It’s not long before Octave finds employment with Madame and Monsieur Hedouin at The Ladies’ Paradise and he is very rapidly absorbed into the social life, such as it is, in the house. This translates to being obligated to attend boring ‘evenings’ at the Josserands and listening to piano recitals in the rooms of the sanctimonious Judge Duveyrier and his wife.

It’s ironic that Campardon warns Octave: “Above all no women. My word! If you brought a woman here there would be a revolution in the house.” What Campardon should have said is: ‘if you have to carry on an affair, pick one of the women in the house because we all ignore that.’ One of the apartments is even maintained as a love nest by a wealthy man for his mistress, and the house residents ignore the fact that the couple meets there for assignations. The message is that the wealthy may have their assignations, but woe betide a working-class stiff who fancies he can have the same thing. Indeed a few working class tenants who rent bleak garrets at the top of the house, fall victim to Monsieur Gourd’s pitiless, skewed morality.

Hypocrisy reigns supreme in this novel. While the characters (both male and female) wax on about marriage and morality, what happens after dark or behind closed doors is another matter entirely. Every married couple in the house is under siege from some dreadful unhappiness, and the married men blatantly maintain mistresses. As Campardon sagely notes to Octave on his very first day in Paris: “You know, women have always got something wrong with them.” Several married woman suffer from some sort of hysterical malady. From the gargantuan, ribbon-sporting Madame Gourd, who rarely moves from her chair, to Madame Campardon who suffers from a legendary vaginal stricture, and to Clotilde (Vabre) Duveyrier who sublimates her passion (and her frustrations) into her thunderous piano playing, the married women in the house lead peculiarly cloistered lives. Maintained as pets by their husbands, they receive a wide range of attention. Plump, rosy Madame Campardon sweetly capitalizes on her invalid status with Monsieur Campardon encouraging this condition by pampering her and placing her in bed. This arrangement suits them both perfectly as Madame Campardon’s mysterious medical condition excuses her from any marital obligations and allows Campardon to continue his long-time affair with Madame Campardon’s crafty cousin Gasparine. Campardon’s behavior is scandalous and even Octave is shocked when he discovers the layers of deceit maintained in the Campardon household, but no one is exempt from Zola’s blistering and yet very, very amusing tale which skewers bourgeois morality. It should be remembered, however, that Pot Luck follows Nana–a novel that skewered the morality of the rich. So with this novel Zola effectively levels the playing field, and we are left idly speculating whether the rich or the bourgeois are worse!

The boarding house is brilliantly detailed within the book’s first few pages, and although this monument to bourgeois style impresses Octave, it’s obvious that the newly constructed house, which is already falling apart, isn’t a particularly pleasant place to live. The house has a certain “gaudy splendor” but most of it is imitation–imitation marble, imitation windows, and imitation oak paneling. Today, we could compare the boarding house to the pretentious mini-mansions of the middle-class, with their grandiose entryways, faux turrets, sweeping staircases and open floor plans that mimic the mansions of the far wealthier sliver of the population. Octave notes that the house’s décor begins to slip the higher one goes, and by the time he reaches the third floor, the “red carpet came to an end and was replaced by a simple grey covering.” This is significant as the house’s décor is directed more to outward appearances and similarly and its occupants are more concerned about image and mouthing platitudes than anything else.

The house also holds its secrets, and the vivid, often sour life of the servant class is largely unnoticed by their bourgeois employers. The servants entertain their lovers who are sometimes their married male employers, and while the employers only notice the servants to bitch and complain about their laziness, simultaneously they imagine that their private lives–which they go to great pains to conceal from their spouses and neighbors–is also hidden from the servants. It’s in the bourgeois employers’ treatment of the servants that hypocrisy is at its worst. To the bourgeois, morality means only one thing: sex and the importance of not speaking about it. Morality towards another human being under your control does not enter into the spectrum of moral behavior, and the bourgeois are mainly concerned with keeping up appearances and maintaining strict hierarchal considerations. The servants however, are fully aware of their employers’ darkest secrets, and the foibles of their ‘betters’ are a matter for gossip, hilarity and disgust. As one servant notes, the houses of the bourgeois are all alike: “if you’ve been in one of ’em you’ve been in ’em all. They’re just pig-sties.”

As always with Zola’s novels, he is the master of constructing marvelous, memorable scenes. In this novel, the memorable scenes include: the night when Octave and Berthe play musical beds (at this point Pot Luck resembles a French bedroom farce), Bachelard showing off his mistress, Octave’s visit to Judge Duveyrier’s mistress, the scene detailing the appalling gentrification of Clarisse, and Auguste Vabre’s wedding.

Of all the Rougon-Macquart novels I’ve read so far (this is number ten), I would say that Pot Luck is the most enjoyable, and there were several points while reading the novel that I laughed out loud. I loved Berthe’s capricious behavior with Octave and his frustration when he realizes that for all the presents he’s buying Berthe with the expectation of getting sexual favours in return, he’s getting less sex than Berthe’s husband. Additionally, the scenes of Judge Duveyrier–a besotted man who exchanges one type of domestic tyranny for another are simply priceless. Pot Luck, which is amazingly frank about sex, may not be considered the greatest of the novels, but it’s the hypocrisy, the squabbling over non-existent dowries and the twisted love triangles that create the sheer enjoyment of reading the antics of the residents of the boarding house.


Filed under Rougon-Macquart, Zola

Nana by Emile Zola

“This was the period of her life when Nana lit up Paris with redoubled splendour. She rose higher than ever on the horizon of vice, dominating the city with her insolent display of luxury, and that contempt of money that made her squander fortunes.”

Nana is the spectacular ninth novel in the 20-volume Rougon Macquart series, and it’s one of the novels frequently read as a stand-alone tale. The first half of the novel follows the spectacular rise and equally great fall of Nana in her stage career, and the second half of the novel focuses on Nana’s glittering career as a courtesan.

To place Nana in the family tree, she is the daughter of Gervaise and great-granddaughter of Adelaide Fouque. Gervaise was the protagonist of Zola’s powerhouse novel L’Assommoir, one of the masterpieces of the Rougon-Macquart series. Nana first appears in L’Assommoir, and even in childhood, the glimpses we see of little Nana are ominous. A mischievous and willful child, by the time Nana hits her teens, she becomes a prostitute as a way to gain the sort of finery she covets. But apart from that L’Assommoir establishes that there’s something not quite right with Nana. Corrupted by her early exposure to the excesses of the human vices in combination with her family history, the implication is that Nana will not come to a good end.

The novel Nana begins with a young, nubile and very beautiful Nana scheduled to appear onstage at the Theatre des Varieties, and a substantial portion of Paris’s affluent male population has turned out to see her premiere performance. The owner of the theatre, Bordenave is a “notorious exhibitor of women” who insists on calling his theatre a “brothel” and it certainly serves as a portal to prostitution for the actresses who perform there. Bordenave predicts that Nana will be a phenomenal success. While Nana may lack talent, the fact that she performs in a state of undress guarantees her triumph, and since the theatre acts as a hunting ground for wealthy men in search of mistresses, many rivals circle like wolves, hoping to secure her favours as they vie for her time and attention. One of the men, a banker named Steiner, is obsessed with Nana, and he’s ready to drop his patronage of another actress, Rose Mignon in order to secure Nana.

The book’s vibrant first chapter introduces most of the characters who appear throughout the novel and also sets the stage for the book’s morality system. It’s in this chapter we see how life works for the actresses whose presence in the theatre signals that they are for sale. A boisterous system exists for these women who sell themselves to the man who offers the biggest prize, but other men who are not so affluent as Steiner carve out niches for themselves in the amorous lives of the most sought-after actresses. There’s Mignon, for example, who pimps his wife, shuffling and entertaining his wife’s lovers while he simultaneously manages her stage career. And then there’s Daguenet who blew his fortune and now contents himself with the crumbs of attention thrown his way. In today’s lingo, pretty boy Daguenet would be called a ‘boy-toy,’ and that’s certainly his role in this novel. Favoured by some of the actresses in the novel, Daguenet whose pet name is ‘Mimi’ seems to act as an erotic antidote to the wealthy, elderly and frequently decrepit lovers of Paris’s most beautiful courtesans.

Prior to her debut at the Theatre des Varieties, Nana juggles two paying lovers she dismissively calls ‘The Dago’ and ‘The Skinflint’ while also adding Daguenet to her roster. Nana alternates the nights she spends with these men, but the mornings are “reserved” for Daguenet, and since the “Old Skinflint” must be home by 8 in the morning, Daguenet waits for him to leave and then slips into the still warm bed with Nana. Even the money from these two lovers cannot keep Nana satisfied, and when a money crunch occurs, she slips off for the occasional paid rendezvous. The first two chapters of the novel establish that Nana has no conventional internal morality system and that men are objects who exist only to satisfy her desire for material gain. There’s one marvelous scene in which Nana has men stashed over her entire house–and even finds one in the closet.

After her stage debut, Nana accepts the banker Steiner as her lover and allows him to buy her a house in the country. But in spite of the huge sums of money spent by Steiner to amuse his capricious mistress, Nana is never faithful, and exploits other men whenever she feels like it, or whenever she needs a little extra money. She falls for the actor, Fontan who quickly becomes her “vice.” Mistreated, beaten and shoved into the streets to earn money to keep Fontan fed and happy, Nana falls from the dizzying heights she once enjoyed and sinks to become a common street prostitute. There are so many savage ironies here: feted and adored by the wealthiest men in Paris who were willing to part with fortunes for a night with Nana, she hawks her wares on the streets and takes her pathetic earnings home to a man who abuses her.

But Nana, a remarkably resilient character, returns to Paris in triumph, and this time she takes Comte Muffat as her protector. He purchases a splendid house for her in the Avenue de Villiers and:

“Thereupon Nana became a woman of fashion, a beneficiary of male stupidity and lust, an aristocrat in the ranks of her calling. Her success was sudden and decisive, a swift rise to gallant fame, in the garish light of lunatic extravagance and the wasteful follies of beauty. She at once became queen among the most expensive of her kind. Her photographs were displayed in shop-windows, and her remarks were quoted in the papers. When she drove along the boulevards in her carriage, people would turn round and tell one another who she was, with all the emotion of a nation saluting its sovereign, while she lolled back in her flimsy dresses, smiling gaily under the rain of golden curls which fell around the blue of her made-up eyes and the red of her painted lips. And the remarkable thing was that that buxom young woman, who was so awkward on the stage, so comical when she tried to play the respectable woman, was able to play the enchantress in town without the slightest effort. She had the supple grace of a serpent, a studied yet seemingly involuntary carelessness of dress which was exquisitely elegant, the nervous distinction of a pedigree cat, an aristocratic refinement, proudly and rebelliously trampling Paris underfoot like an all-powerful mistress. She set the fashion, and great ladies imitated her.”

Count Muffat is one of Nana’s greatest victims (and she has quite a few)–a man whose suppressed sexuality discovers an outlet in his relationship with the glittering courtesan. Obsessed and enamoured of Nana–a woman who possesses no heart and no conscience, he is systematically stripped of his fortune as Nana embarks on spending binges and constant redecorating forays. Muffat, who is putty in her hands, turns a blind eye to her many other relationships. And it’s no wonder that Zola got himself in trouble with this novel as one of Nana’s lovers is a woman.

“However, in the midst of all this luxury, and surrounded by her courtiers, Nana was bored to tears. She had men for every minute of the night, and money all over the house, even among the brushes and combs in the drawers of her dressing-table. But all this had ceased to satisfy her; and she was conscious of a void in her existence, a gap which made her yawn. Her life dragged on without occupation, each day bringing back the same monotonous hours, The next day did not exist: she lived like a bird, sure of having enough to eat, and ready to perch on the first branch she came to. This certainty of being fed caused her to stretch out in languid ease all day, lulled to sleep in conventional idleness and submissions as if she were the prisoner of her own profession. Never going out except in her carriage, she began to lose the use of her legs. She reverted to her childish habits, kissing Bijou from morning to night and killing time with stupid pleasures, as she waited for some man or other whose caresses she would tolerate with weary indulgence. And in the midst of this self-abandonment she no longer thought of anything but her beauty, forever inspecting her body and washing and scenting herself all over, in the proud knowledge that she could strip naked at any moment and in front of anyone without having any cause to blush.”

Her callous and sometimes cruel treatment of men leads to deaths and suicides, ruin and deprivation for the men who come under her spell. But apart from a few brief glimpses of compassion, Nana sees men as commodities, mere wealth machines who are either flush or exhausted, And once a man’s money is exhausted, he is no longer has any use to her.

Nana’s opulent lifestyle at the Avenue de Villiers comprises one of the greatest parts of this masterpiece. Nana’s insatiable appetite for material wealth causes the ruin of several men, but there’s an amazing trickle down result in her household as all of the servants bleed the bloated system to fill their stomachs and pockets with whatever loot isn’t nailed down. There’s one great scene at dinner when Nana tells her lover, Satin: “I must say I had a lot more fun when I hadn’t a sou.” Events at the mansion on the Avenue de Villiers reach a crescendo, as Nana’s house becomes a pulsing factory of consumerism, a “glowing forge, where her continual desires burned fiercely and the slightest breath from her lips changed gold into fine ashes which the wind swept away every hour.” As Nana’s spending explodes out of control, the house almost becomes a living organism:

“Now the crack was growing; it was zigzagging through the house foreshadowing approaching collapse. Among the drunkards in the slums it is utter poverty, empty cupboards, the madness of drink emptying every purse, which finish off tainted families. Here a waltz tune was sounding the knell of an ancient family, in the sudden glare illuminating these accumulated riches, while Nana, an invisible presence, stretched her lithe limbs above the ball, to the vulgar lilt of the music, penetrating and corrupting this society with her ferment of her scent as if it hung in the warm air.”

Nana is an incredible creation, a goddess whose power springs from her sexuality. Her inexhaustible sexuality feds her unquenchable desire for money. There is only one point in the novel when Nana concedes her true power to a man, and that is when she begins the unfortunate, ultimately abusive liaison with actor Fontan. Like a hydra with many heads, Nana is capable of servicing an inexhaustible supply of men, and Zola frankly describes her languid sexuality and complete absence of moral values. Ultimately, however, the novel displays the decadence of the upper classes who are so readily yoked by Nana’s harness–even to the point of completely impoverishing their own families and allowing her to lead them, mesmerized, to their doom.

As with other novels in the Rougon-Macquart series, Zola again shows his genius in the creation of several splendid scenes: Mignon and Fauchery fighting back stage, the dinner party that takes place at Nana’s home which is gate-crashed by all and sundry and the Grand Prix races. At the racetrack a horse named Nana captures everyone’s imagination, and this is possibly the best scene in this wonderful novel.

Above all this splendour and passion reigns Nana, glittering and throbbing with passion–for money–not for men. The pinnacle of Nana’s moral bankruptcy is revealed when she learns that one of her many lovers killed himself in a spectacular fashion. She comments that he should just have told her was penniless and then she could have got rid of him. Entirely missing the point, she thinks it’s “ridiculous” that any blame should rest on her shoulders. It’s not so much that she is oblivious to others’ destruction as much as that’s beside the point. After bleeding her lovers dry, she simply spits out the hollow husks once she’s taken everything they have: “The growing needs of her life of luxury sharpened her appetite, and she would clean a man out with one snap of her teeth.”

Nana observes former courtesans who’ve morphed into successful respectability and also those crushed who now scavenge the gutters of Paris for a crust. Nana has ample opportunities to gather a fortune, but she lacks self-restraint and seems uninterested in anything else except surrounding herself with opulence. Carrying this to its ultimate absurdity, it seems inevitable that Nana, who burns so brightly, will enact her own destruction through the destruction of everyone around her. One of the greatest literary characters ever created, Nana is both a symbol and a result of her decadent times, a great destroyer of those who seek to exploit her, a monstrous mistress as she takes revenge on the upper classes through her savage insatiable appetite for luxury.


Filed under Rougon-Macquart, Zola