Category Archives: Zola

A Love Episode by Emile Zola

“In this way the old friendship grew closer than ever, and a charming life began afresh. To Helene it seemed as if Henri had never yielded to that moment of folly; it was but a dream of hers; each loved the other, but they would never breathe a word of their love. They were content with knowing its existence. They spent delicious hours, in which, without their tongues giving evidence of their passion, they displayed it constantly; a gesture, an inflexion of the voice sufficed, ay even a silence. Everything insensibly tended towards their love, plunged them more and more deeply into a passion which they bore away with them whenever they parted, which was ever with them, which formed, as it were the only atmosphere they could breathe. And their excuse was their honesty; with eyes wide open they played this comedy of affection; not even a handclasp did they allow each other and their restraint infused unalloyed delight into the simple greetings with which they met.”

A Love Episode (A Page of Love) is the eighth novel in Emile Zola’s 20-volume Rougon-Macquart series. Set in the Second Empire, the story concerns a small group of petite bourgeoisie in Paris. The heroine of the novel is Helene Grandjean, the sister of Francois and Silvere Macquart. To place Helene in the family tree and in the Rougon-Macquart series, she is the granddaughter of Adelaide Fouque. Helene’s brother Francois and his wife Marthe were the subjects of the fourth novel, The Conquest of Plassans.

When the novel begins, Helene, a beautiful young widow lives in Paris with her daughter, Jeanne. Helene moved to Paris with her husband, Charles and their child, but Charles died shortly after their arrival. It’s now eighteen months after his death, and Jeanne, an 11-year-old who endures frail health appears to be dying. Helene goes out into the night to summon the doctor, but her regular physician Doctor Bodin is not home. Desperate, Helene rousts another doctor from bed, and this how doctor Henri Deberle enters the lives of Helene and Jeanne.

Deberle manages to save Jeanne’s life–or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that he pulls her back from death, and thus Deberle enjoys a heroic role with both Helene and her mother. Perhaps this explains, at least initially, why Deberle extends his relationship with Helene and invites her to use his garden for the child’s health. Helene accepts his invitation and in time becomes friends with the doctor’s fickle, shallow wife, Juliette. Helene is drawn to Deberle, and she’s so innocent that it takes her some time to realize that she’s in love with the doctor. Some of the novel’s wonderful scenes occur in the beauty and freshness of the Deberle garden one spring. Helene struggles with the conflicting feelings of guilt over her feelings for Deberle and a desire to be in the warmth of the Deberle family circle. While Helene at first basks in the Deberles’ domestic situation, and it is enough just to be near her idol, she soon realizes that Juliette has a relationship with the foppish Malignon. This knowledge complicates the situation and draws Helene into an affair with Deberle.

Up to this point, Helene’s life has been fairly cloistered. Married in her teens to Charles Grandjean against the wishes of his family, Helene’s marriage was mostly spent in poverty until her husband became his uncle’s beneficiary. But Charles fell ill and subsequently died; for some of their married life, Helene was Charles’s nursemaid, and now that role continues with Jeanne. She realises that she’s never experienced passion, and this makes her vulnerable to a relationship with Deberle. It doesn’t help the situation that Helene isn’t familiar with Paris, knows very few neighbours, and has no social life. Two regular visitors to her home are the Abbe Jouve and his stepbrother, affluent businessman Monsieur Rambaud. These men knew Helene’s husband, and she accepts their regular visits in the spirit of friendship, blissfully unaware that Rambaud is waiting for the appropriate moment to ask for her hand.

As the book continues, Helene and Deberle embark on an affair promoted by the grotesque Mother Fetu–a crafty impoverished woman who sniffs a financial opportunity in the illicit relationship. Sensing a new rival, Jeanne’s jealousy and hatred of Rambaud shifts to Doctor Deberle. Jeanne plays an interesting role in her mother’s life, and violently jealous of her mother’s love and attention, she becomes essentially a tyrannical gaoler, and a living conscience. Emotionally unstable, and extremely volatile, if Jeanne suspects her mother’s thoughts are elsewhere, she falls into a nervous state and has convulsions. Jeanne’s ill health (she is eventually diagnosed with galloping consumption) is exacerbated by her mental anxiety. As the book develops, Jeanne’s obsessive love for her mother becomes increasingly unhealthier, and echoes her great-grandmother’s (Adelaide Fouque) descent into madness and eventual incarceration in an asylum. And so this hereditary taint rears once again in this volume. Jeanne’s grandmother, Ursule Mouret also died of galloping consumption.

All the books in the Rougon-Macquart series contain exquisitely created scenes that sear the memory of the reader. In A Love Episode, one of the great scenes is the children’s fancy dress party organized by Juliette Deberle, and it’s during this scene that Helene’s relationship with Deberle is acknowledged. A Love Episode is not Zola’s greatest novel, and in the Rougon-Macquart series it is dwarfed by Zola’s masterpieces. The novel includes passages of Helene’s soul-searching, guilt and anguish, and some of the scenes with Jeanne are painful to read. Nonetheless A Love Episode is still an excellent novel for Zola fans.

Leave a comment

Filed under Rougon-Macquart, Zola

L’Assommoir by Emile Zola

“Coupeau was very foul-mouthed and called her revolting names. Lantier, on the other hand, chose his insults with care, thinking up expressions that people just don’t use and which hurt her even more. Fortunately you get used to anything; in the end the abuse and unfair accusations the two men heaped on her just slid off her delicate skin as if it were oilcloth. She even reached the point where she preferred them cross, because on those occasions when they were being nice they pestered her more, they were always after her, so that she couldn’t even iron a bonnet in peace any longer. They’d make her cook them little dishes, which they wanted salted, or not salted, they’d make her say first one thing then another, they’d make her coddle them and swaddle them in cotton wool. By the end of the week her head was spinning and her limbs aching, and she’d stare about her wild-eyed, in a complete daze. It uses a woman up, a job like that does.

 
L’Assommoir (roughly translated to The Dram Shop) is considered one of Zola’s masterpieces. It’s novel number seven in Zola’s phenomenal twenty-volume Rougon Macquart series. L’Assommoir follows His Excellency–a novel that details the political machinations of Eugene Rougon–the most powerful member of the Rougon family. L’Assommoir is a return to the misfortunes of the Macquart branch of the family, and like The Fat and The Thin (the third in the series) the novel focuses on a poor neighborhood of Paris.

Yes, Coupeau and Lantier were using her up, that’s the right word, burning her at both ends like a candle.”

L’Assommoir is the story of the life of Parisian laundress, Gervaise, and as a novel it is a complete change of pace from His Excellency. To place Gervaise in the Rougon-Macquart family tree, she is one of the poverty stricken members of the Macquart branch of the family. Gervaise is the daughter of Antoine, and Gervaise’s sister Lisa appeared as a prominent character as the wife of a butcher in The Fat and The Thin.

When L’Assommoir begins, twenty-two year old Gervaise is living in Paris with her lover, Lantier and has borne two sons. Still in the flush of youth, healthy, beautiful, and with skin that has the “milky transparency of fine porcelain,” Gervaise slaves away as a washerwoman in a hectic laundry in one of the worst slums in the city while Lantier refuses to work. He sponges off of Gervaise, abusing her into the bargain. One night, Lantier doesn’t return home after a night drinking. He’s involved in another relationship with a woman named Adele. When he decides to return to the couple’s pitifully bare room, Lantier forces Gervaise to pawn some of their last possessions, and then he runs off with Adele. But a young roofer, a teetotaler named Coupeau, has had his sights fixed on Gervaise for some time. Within a few weeks, Coupeau begins to court Gervaise, and the two live together and eventually wed. One of the greatest scenes in the novel describes the wedding party as they traverse across Paris visit a museum and end up with a dinner in the Moulin-d’Argent.

At first Coupeau and Gervaise are a happy, productive couple. They begin to prosper and Gervaise dreams of having her own laundry. She gives birth to a girl named Nana, but then tragedy strikes when Coupeau has an accident that wipes out Gervaise’s savings. Friends, the Goujets, lend Gervaise the money to open her laundry, and at first she’s very successful. But overextended, burdened with debt and with a husband who turns to drink, gradually Gervaise slips morally and spiritually down a path from which there is no return.

L’Assommoir is a phenomenal novel, but at the same time it’s easy to see why it was/is so controversial. Zola does not depict the poor as victims of society as much as victims of themselves and their vices. Those who are tightfisted survive and prosper, and generosity is something Zola’s characters cannot afford. After all, those who show kindness to others in L’Assommoir are hardly rewarded in kind. Gervaise is a generous, loving woman who freely admits that her greatest weakness “was being very soft-hearted, liking everybody, getting desperately fond of people who then put her through endless misery.” Unfortunately, she’s swept up in the idea of her own affluence, and forgets that her security–like most of us–comes from working hard and saving.

Some of the novel’s best scenes come in the realism of the descriptions of the settings–the Lorilleux’s workshop, the dram shop, and the heat and the noise of Gervaise’s laundry. A few evocative sentences, and I felt as though I was in the same rooms as these characters.

The novel is peppered with horrible characters: those who hoard and jealously guard their resources, refusing to share in adversity (the Lorilleux, Coupeau’s sister and brother in law who make gold chains, turning their tiny apartment into a hellish workshop.) There’s a similar theme in The Fat and The Thin when Lisa clearly sees her brother in law as a threat to her prosperity, and therefore he had to be destroyed. Then on the other end of the spectrum, there are the leeches: the seductive Virginie and Lantier. While Virginie acts from revenge, Lantier manages to deftly leap from one domestic situation to another, bleeding off the sweat and labour of others until, leaving a hollow out shell, he moves onto the next victim.

L’Assommoir also introduces Nana (the subject and title of the ninth novel in the series). Reading about Nana’s origins, her complete moral corruption, and her sallies into prostitution, we know that she will lead an interesting, tumultuous but ultimately tainted life, poisoning everyone who makes the mistake of worshipping her. But L’Assommoir is Gervaise’s story–her decline and her miserable end. What a phenomenal novel.

12 Comments

Filed under Rougon-Macquart, Zola

His Excellency by Emile Zola

The twenty volumes in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series are set in France during the period 1851-1873, and the novels trace the fortunes of various members of the two branches of the same family. The Rougons are the legitimate, and so-called respectable branch whereas the Macquarts are fairly disreputable. Zola traces the hereditary influences of violence, alcoholism and prostitution through his characters as they nagivate the changing social landscape of life in the Second Empire of Napoleon III (1852-1870) in the years from the coup d’etat (1851) which overthrew the Republic to the aftermath of the Franco Prussian war of 1870-71.

His Excellency (Son Excellence Eugene Rougon) is book number 6 in Zola’s extraordinary 20-volume Rougon-Macquart series.

The book’s main character, Eugene Rougon, is a vital figure and the “greatest of the Rougons,” responsible for the success of the Rougon family. Early in his career, Eugene saw the possibilities of social advancement through political maneuvers. Moving to Paris from Plassans, he was involved in the 1851 coup d’etat, and he was also responsible for placing his parents (Pierre and Felicite Rougon) in a pivotal political role in Plassans.

When the book begins Eugene Rougon, has become a powerful political figure in the Second Empire of Napoleon III, but he has become entangled in a dispute over the matter of an inheritance involving a relative of the Empress. In a pre-emptive move, Rougon submits his resignation to the emperor before he can be asked to resign. This resignation is a gesture of sorts, and Eugene Rougon doesn’t particular expect the Emperor to accept it, but accept it he does, and Rougon suddenly finds himself outside of the sphere of influence. Not only is Rougon cast adrift from the corridors of power, but also his various hangers-on are also cut loose with a sponsor.

Zola meticulously records and analyzes the tiniest details of the relationships between Rougon and his coterie of political parasites–and this coterie consists of those who hoped to use their access to Rougon to advance their own causes. These causes stem from acquiring a dowry so that a young woman can marry to the awarding of contracts, questions of inheritance, and the acquisition of lucrative political posts. Zola shows that these relationships are largely symbiotic. At first, Rougon sees them as parasites as they endlessly hound him for favours. Even when Rougon is out of the sphere of political influence, these hangers-on still hound him, hoping to encourage him to return to politics. And after a time, Rougon’s attitude towards these people he viewed as parasites begins to change. As the hangers-on switch loyalties, he begins to realize that he needs them as much as they need him:

“He loved power for its own sake, without any hankering for riches and honours. Very ignorant, and of little skill in things which were not connected with the management of men, it was only his keen craving for power that elevated him to a position of superiority. The ambition of raising himself above the crowd, which seemed to him to be compounded of fools and knaves, and of leading and driving men by sheer force, developed most energetic skill and cunning in his heavy nature. He believed only in himself, took his convictions for reasons, and held everything subordinate to the increase of his personal influence. Addicted to no vice, he yet reveled as at some secret orgy in the idea of wielding supreme power.”

While Eugene Rougon is a great character and dominates the novel, Zola creates another fascinating figure in Clorinde Balbi. Strikingly beautiful, Clorinde, who lives with her mother, is Italian. There are some questions about Clorinde’s vague background. She clearly wants to marry well, and she sets her sights on Eugene, but due to her background coupled with her temperament, she is a risky marriage prospect. Rougon has very definite ideas about the role of women in his life and at one point tells his friend, Delastang to “beware of women.” And then Rougon extrapolates: “when a woman does not put a crown on your head, she slips a halter around your neck. At our age a man’s heart wants as carefully looking after as his stomach.”

But in spite of Rougon’s “blunt distaste for females wiles” coupled with his determination to marry wisely, he is tempted by Clorinde. While she’s stunningly beautiful, she can also be temperamental and she is extremely eccentric. Rougon cannot help but be intrigued by her. At times she seems calculating and devious, and she has deliberately cultivated an air of light-mindedness, claiming that reading gives her headaches, for example:

“What had first attracted him in Clorinde was the mystery surrounding her, the story of a past-away life and the yearning for a new existence which he could read in the depths of her big goddess-like eyes. He had heard disgraceful scandal about her–an early love affair with a coachman, and a subsequent connection with a banker who had presented her with the little house in the Champs-Elysees. However, every now and then she seemed to him so child-like that he doubted the truth of what he had been told, and again and again essayed to find out the secret of this strange girl, who became to him a living enigma, the solution of which interested him as much as some intriguing political problem. Until then he had felt a scornful disdain for women, and the first one who excited his interest was certainly as singular and complicated a being as could be imagined.”

Clorinde fascinates Rougon, and so he makes a point of studying her through various social situations. But when he realizes that she holds a sort of power over him (he even calls her his ‘pet vice’), and that he is no longer entirely his own master, he quickly and smoothly arranges a marriage between Clorinde and the wealthy Delastang. Clorinde appears to take this news well, but secretly she plots a revenge of sorts. But her plan for revenge is not a simple one–it’s motivated by a desire to show Eugene how mistaken he was not to marry her. She plots to show him just how much she can do for the political career of her husband.

Clorinde is one of Zola’s great female characters. As a powerful, intelligent woman she is in complete contrast to Renee (The Kill V2) a beautiful woman who’s used and destroyed by the men in the Rougon family. Whereas Renee spins out-of-control and is driven by boredom and self-destruction in her pursuit of pleasure, every action Clorinde takes is planned out in advance and the consequences and fallout carefully measured. Clorinde is a female Rougon, ambitious, calculating and driven by a thirst for power. Rougon’s rejection of Clorinde simply fueled this desire.

His Excellency, set in Paris, is one of the political novels in the series. As one of Napoleon III’s chief ministers, Rougon is a major force in the second Empire. Dispensing his favours to friends and sycophants, Rougon is a conservative force of power–urging censorship of “pernicious books” and opposed to “liberty without restraint.” One great scene depicts Napoleon and his ministers discussing the seditious qualities of the book “Friend Jacques’s Evening Chats.” The hypocrisy of the Empire and the co-opting of the revolution is seen in several scenes–the opulence and extravagance of the ceremonies surrounding the baptism of Napoleon’s son, for example, and the scene in which the ministers argue the benefits of dispensing titles (most often to friends and relatives). Rougon and his parasitic friends operate as a microcosm of the French political system–rotten with nepotism, corruption, the orgiastic pursuit of power.

Leave a comment

Filed under Rougon-Macquart, Zola

Abbe Mouret’s Transgression by Emile Zola

“There is nothing of you that you have not given to me.”

The twenty volumes in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series are set in France during the period 1851-1873, and the novels trace the fortunes of various members of the two branches of the same family. The Rougons are the legitimate, and so-called respectable branch whereas the Macquarts are fairly disreputable. Zola traces the hereditary influences of violence, alcoholism and prostitution through his characters as they nagivate the changing social landscape of life in the Second Empire of Napoleon III (1852-1870) in the years from the coup d’etat (1851) which overthrew the Republic to the aftermath of the Franco Prussian war of 1870-71.

The fifth novel in the series is the anti-clerical Abbe Mouret’s Transgression, and Serge Mouret is the Abbe in the title. Serge appears in the fourth novel, The Conquest of Plassans, but that novel mainly concerns his parents, Francois and Marthe Mouret. Over the course of the novel, Marthe becomes a religious fanatic, and her religious fervor is a key element in the destruction of her family.

When Abbe Mouret’s Transgression begins, Serge Mouret–still a young man–is the Cure of a village with 300 inhabitants:

“All its inhabitants were related, all bore the same name, so that from their very cradle they were distinguished amongst themselves by nicknames. An Artaud, their ancestor, had come hither and settled like a pariah in this waste. His family had grown with all the wild vitality of the herbage that sucked life from the rocky borders It had at last become a tribe, a rural community, in which cousin-ships were lost in the mists of centuries. They intermarried with shameless promiscuity. Not an instance could be cited of any Artaud taking himself a wife from any neighbouring village; only some of the girls occasionally went elsewhere. The others were born and died fixed to that spot, leisurely increasing and multiplying on their dunghills with the irreflectiveness of trees, and with no definite notion of the world that lay beyond the tawny rocks, in whose midst they vegetated. And yet there were already rich and poor among them; fowls having at times disappeared, the fowl houses were now closed at night with stout padlocks; moreover one Artaud had killed another Artaud one evening behind the mill. These folk, begirt by that belt of desolate hills, were truly a people apart -a race sprung from the soil, a miniature replica of mankind, three hundred souls all told, beginning the centuries once again.”

Abbe Mouret lives with his teenage sister Desiree and a loyal housekeeper named La Teuse. While Desiree, who has the mental capacity of a small child surrounds herself with animals, Abbe Mouret, who has clearly inherited the religious fanaticism of his mother, spends hours seeking some sort of religious ecstasy.  Prone to hysterical reveries induced by hours of religious contemplation, he cherishes an almost romantic love for religion, and he longs to leave his physical body and its functions behind.

After experiencing a collapse brought on by his religious fanaticism, Abbe Mouret’s uncle, Doctor Pascal takes his nephew to a gorgeous, secluded estate known as The Paradou. Built in the time of Louis XV, it was intended to represent a miniature Versailles. But partially damaged by fire, it now stands neglected and in a state of decay, inhabited only by an elderly caretaker, Jeanbernat and his niece, Albine. When Abbe Mouret recovers from his illness, he forgets his vows and falls in love with Albine.

On one level, Abbe Mouret and Albine become a latter-day Adam and Eve in The Paradou–their garden of Eden. Unlike Adam and Eve, however, they are not tempted by the Devil, but they are separated by the hideous, crude misogynist Brother Archangais. Torn between physical love and religious obligation, Abbe Mouret must choose. Abbe Mouret’s Trangression does not compare favourably to the other books in the series. There are pages and pages of descriptions of Abbe Mouret’s delirious, religious imaginative reveries, and after a while enough is enough. Character is subsumed by symbolism, and this is basically a simple tale in which not much really happens.

Abbe Mouret’s ‘choice’ however, creates an intriguing situation. Prior to knowing and loving Albine, Mouret really had nothing to sacrifice, and by ending his relationship with Albine–the woman he loves–he creates a world of mental self-flagellation. Whereas before he fantasized about enduring various physical and mental hardships in order to prove his love for god, now he really has something to suffer for. So strangely enough, meeting and relinquishing Albine just pushes Mouret one step closer to the state of religious ecstasy he longs for.

Desiree represents innocence in the novel, and yet as the story continues it’s apparent that her innocence really masks a horrific indifference. At first, she seems childlike and unfettered by the religious cares that trouble her brother, but Desiree is devoid of any natural feelings. Her love is revealed as warped, hideous and destructive though her relationships with her animals. Similarly Brother Archangais’s love for his fellow man is non-existent. He hates all women, and can only interact with other people through a system permeated with hate and an unquenchable need for punishment.

7 Comments

Filed under Rougon-Macquart, Zola

The Conquest of Plassans by Emile Zola

“She felt a pleasure in his harshness.That iron hand which bent her, and which held her back upon the edge of the adoration in the depths of which she would like to annihilate herself, thrilled her with ever renewed desire. She remained a neophyte, making but little advance in her journey of love, being constantly pulled up, and vaguely divining some yet greater bliss beyond. The sense of deep restfulness which she had first experienced in the church, that forgetfulness of herself and the outside world, now changed, however into actual positive happiness. It was the happiness for which she had been longing since her girlhood, and which she was now at forty years of age, at last finding; a happiness which sufficed her, which absorbed her for all the past-away years, and made her egotistical, absorbed in the new sensations that she felt within her like sweet caresses.”

The twenty volumes in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series are set in France during the period 1851-1873, and the novels trace the fortunes of various members of the two branches of the same family. The Rougons are the legitimate, and so-called respectable branch whereas the Macquarts are fairly disreputable. Zola traces the hereditary influences of violence, alcoholism and prostitution through his characters as they nagivate the changing social landscape of life in the Second Empire of Napoleon III (1852-1870) in the years from the coup d’etat (1851) which overthrew the Republic to the aftermath of the Franco Prussian war of 1870-71. The Conquest of Plassans is the fourth novel in the series, but in many ways it serves as a sequel to the first novel, The Fortunes of the Rougons. In the first novel, a struggle to seize power of the small, provincial town of Plassans take place against the backdrop of the coup d’etat. The second and third novels, The Kill and The Fat and the Thin are both set in Paris. The fourth novel, however, is a return to Plassans and a return to some of the characters we met in The Fortunes of the Rougons. In the time lapse between the first and the fourth novels, a Royalist Marquis is elected as deputy, and this is a sign that the struggle for political power is afoot once again.

The Conquest of Plassans centers on the Mouret family. The family consists of Francois Mouret, a retired merchant, his wife (and cousin) Marthe, and their three children, Octave, Serge, and Desiree. The Mourets seem to be a fairly normal family. Marthe and her husband are not particularly close or affectionate with each another, but the years have created a necessary compatibility. Rose, an elderly, cantankerous servant resents Mouret, but her complaints are mostly restricted to grumbling. Mouret has a lightly adversarial relationship with his mother-in-law, Felicite Rougon.

When the novel begins, Mouret has impulsively decided to let the second floor of his spacious home to Abbe Faujas and his elderly mother. Since the new tenants are complete strangers, Marthe is extremely reluctant to have them in her home. She fears a loss of privacy, but her objections are overruled, as they usually are, by her husband. Mouret has no respect for priests, and while he considers them “lazybones,” he knows he’ll have a reliable tenant. Mouret squashes Marthe’s fears, but ironically, it’s not long before Mouret becomes increasingly more uncomfortable with the priest in his home. Mouret cannot quite explain his feelings, but they are manifested in an obsession with the priest’s activities, and the priest’s presence seems to “affect him with a kind of nervous uneasiness.” He tells Marthe: “what bothers me about these confounded priests is that one can never tell what they are thinking about, or what they are up to.” Meanwhile, Marthe, a lonely woman who’s never been particularly religious begins to find solace in religious activities, becoming increasingly and dangerously fanatical in her devotion to the church and Abbe Faujas.

The Conquest of Plassans is a marvelous addition to the Rougon-Macquart series. Each one of these novels examines different aspects of human behaviour, and in The Conquest of Plassans, the issue of “the priest in the house” is central. A perfectly normal family allows a seemingly harmless priest into their home, and nothing is ever the same. Slowly and subtly a shift in the power structure takes place, and Mouret is oblivious to this at first. He only wakes up to the fact that he’s no longer master in his own home when the situation is too far-gone to correct. Marthe’s allegiance to her husband–which was grounded in familiarity and conditioning–shifts to the priest Faujas. While Faujas is content to receive acknowledgment of his superior authority, Marthe’s adulation for the priest is imbibed with suppressed longings and ultimately the need for sexual gratification. Since the priest cannot address Marthe’s misplaced passion adequately, Marthe’s expressions of religious devotion become alarming acts of sublimation. Over time the situation in the Mouret home spirals out of control leading to a tragic conclusion.

Zola’s wonderful novel explores the Mourets’ decaying marriage in intimate detail while also exploring the political situation in Plassans. Faujas, an agent of the Empire arrives in town shabby and a laughing stock, but by the end of the novel, he has everyone’s fear and respect. Faujas engineers a clever coup involving the town’s political power structure without the townspeople even being aware that there’s more afoot here than meets the eye. Faujas is an incredibly real character–an ambitious agent who makes the fatal mistake of inviting his ne’er-do-well sister and her lowlife husband to share in the bounty of the Mouret household. Many familiar characters reappear here: Felicite Rougon, family matriarch Adelaide Fouque (still locked up in a mental asylum), and the shady, devious Antoine Fouque.

The Conquest of Plassans dissects the claustrophobia of small town life–the gossip, the deceit and the ambition of petty officials while analyzing human greed and the disintegration and slow destruction of the Mouret family. City officials mince and prance at soirees at the Rougon household, and while they smile to one another, their words are laced with poisonous gossip and bitter envy. They are “like hyenas sitting around waiting for a piece of carcass.” Loyalty and integrity are replaced by ambition and greed, and the good, the decent, the naive and the unambitious are trampled underfoot in the stampede to divide the spoils.

1 Comment

Filed under Rougon-Macquart, Zola

The Fat and The Thin by Emile Zola

“Those colossal markets and their teeming odoriferous masses of food had hastened the crisis. To Florent they appeared symbolical of some glutted, digesting beast, of Paris, wallowing in its fat and silently holding up the Empire. He seemed to be encircled by swelling forms and sleek, fat faces, which ever and ever protested against his own martyr-like scragginess and sallow, discontented visage. To him the markets were like the stomach of the shopkeeping classes, the stomach of all the folks of average rectitude puffing itself out, rejoicing, glistening in the sunshine, and declaring that everything was for the best, since peaceable people had never before grown so beautifully fat.”

The twenty-volumes in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series are set in France during the period 1851-1873, and the novels trace the fortunes of various members of two branches of the same family. The Rougons are the legitimate, and so-called respectable branch whereas the Macquarts are illegitimate and fairly disreputable. Zola traces the hereditary influences of violence, alcoholism and prostitution through his characters as they navigate the changing social landscape of life in the Second Empire of Napoleon III (1852-1870) in the years from the coup d’etat (1851) which overthrew the Republic to the aftermath of the Franco Prussian war of 1870-71.

The Fat and the Thin is the third novel in the Rougon-Macquart series. Following The Kill, The Fat and The Thin is a complete change of pace. While The Kill, a tale of tragic adultery, lust and greed, takes place in the lavish drawing rooms of wealthy Parisians, The Fat and the Thin takes place in the marketplaces of Paris. Now at this point, I am going to say that I drew a Rougon-Macquart family tree when I decided that I was serious about reading these twenty volumes. I’m so glad I did this as I refer back to it frequently and it really helps me keep track of the characters. For me, The Kill was an emotionally devastating read, and turning to The Fat and The Thin, such a complete change of venue, shook my Rougon-Macquart bearings. So I returned to the family tree and reoriented myself to the various characters.

When the novel begins, Florent arrives exhausted and half starved in Paris. He’s returning to the only home he knows after escaping from prison in Cayenne. Tragically caught up in the bloody events of the 1851 coup, Florent, who was guilty of being in the wrong place in the wrong time, was scooped up in the aftermath, and condemned to exile. After spending years in prison, and enduring indescribable hardships, Florent returns to Paris to seek his younger brother, Quenu. In Florent’s long absence, Quenu has married Lisa, the daughter of Antoine Macquart, and together they run a prosperous pork-butcher shop.

At first, Quenu is thrilled to see Florent again. Long thought dead, Florent’s return completes Quenu’s happiness. Florent’s sister-in-law, Lisa also welcomes Florent. But Florent’s welcome is short lived. Irreparably scarred by his years of imprisonment, Florent’s Republican ideas have jelled into revolutionary thoughts. He simply doesn’t fit in with the rest of the fat, sleek, content Quenu household. Practical-minded Lisa, while aghast at Florent’s tales of injustice, is horrified at any hint of scandal and obsessed with respectability. She expects Florent to be able to move on with his life and pushes him to accept a post in the vast marketplace, Les Halles (known as the stomach of Paris) as a fish inspector.

Florent’s attempts at normalcy and respectability, ironically, help secure his downfall. In his position as fish inspector, he crosses paths with La Normandie, a statuesque fish seller. Antagonistic towards Florent at first, La Normandie eventually establishes an acquaintance with Florent in order to flaunt the friendship to her jealous sister, and also to annoy her rival in the marketplace, Lisa Quenu. Florent’s relationship with La Normandie, although based in innocent interest in her fatherless child, stirs resentment against him, and causes local gossips to spy upon him and spread vicious lies.

Bovine Lisa, placid, content and unwilling to allow any person–including Florent–to threaten the security of her family is a major character in the story. To her, “the breakneck freaks of politics did not provide one with food,” and Florent’s ideals are dangerous. But “Florent was fated to return to politics. He had suffered too much through them not to make them the dearest occupation of his life.” Florent is pushed back to his political ideals when he begins hanging out at the local tavern in order to avoid the increasingly hostile atmosphere at Quenu’s butcher shop. Evenings spent in the company of drunken loudmouths encourage Florent to develop his plans for a revolution. In isolation, Florent’s ideas spin out-of-control and reach astronomical proportions, and even though he is not guilty of any concrete actions, he’s guilty of anti-Empire thoughts.

The vast Les Halles marketplace of Paris, while teeming with life, is also packed with death, blood and cruelty. There are pages devoted to describing the preparation of blood sausage, and the odors of fish guts left rotting on the sidewalks, pages devoted to describing the slaughter of various animals slated to end up on a market stall. This corrosive, inescapable atmosphere sickens Florent:

“The rain of the afternoon had filled the markets with malodorous dampness, and as they wallowed there in the centre of the city, like some drunken man lying, after his last bottle, under the table, they cast all their foul breath into his face. He seemed to see a thick vapour rising from each pavilion. In the distance the meat and tripe markets reeked with the sickening steam of blood; nearer in, the vegetable and fruit pavilions diffused the odour of pungent cabbages, rotten apples, and decaying leaves; the butter and cheese exhaled a poisonous stench; from the fish market came a sharp, fresh gust; while from the ventilator in the tower of the poultry market…a fetid current rising in coils like the sooty smoke from a factory chimney.”

The Fat and The Thin refers to the idea that these are “two hostile groups, one of which devours the other, and grows fat and sleek and enjoys itself.” And this idea–which seems almost a version of the survival of the fittest–is certainly endorsed by this novel. The fat, the sleek, the prosperous and the respectable destroy Florent, a man whose slight figure arouses suspicion in the rapacious vendors of the Paris marketplace, and in The Fat and the Thin, symbolically, the human appetite is pitted against the human soul…and the soul loses. In The Kill, human appetites gravitate towards lust, desire and greed, but in The Fat and the Thin, Zola presents the reader with an entirely different set of equally destructive appetites.

Leave a comment

Filed under Rougon-Macquart, Zola

The Kill by Emile Zola

“He truly feared that some night she might go mad in his arms. In her, the remorse, the fear of being caught, and the cruel pleasures of adultery expressed themselves, not as with other women in the form of tears and misery, but as a more unfettered extravagance and a more irresistible need to kick up a fuss. As her terror increased, a rattle began to make itself heard, a sound that signaled a breakdown of this lovely and astonishing machine, which was falling to pieces.”

The twenty-volumes in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series are set in France during the period 1851-1873, and the novels trace the fortunes of various members of two branches of the same family. The Rougons are the legitimate, and so-called respectable branch whereas the Macquarts are illegitimate and fairly disreputable. Zola traces the hereditary influences of violence, alcoholism and prostitution through his characters as they navigate the changing social landscape of life in the Second Empire of Napoleon III (1852-1870) in the years from the coup d’etat (1851) which overthrew the Republic to the aftermath of the Franco Prussian war of 1870-71.

La Curee, the book’s French title, translates to The Kill, and this refers to the portion of game tossed to the dogs following a hunt. The Kill, which is the second novel in the Rougon-Macquart series, presents a heroine who is arguably every bit as tragic as Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. In The Kill, Zola’s Renee Saccard is a startling beautiful young woman who’s locked in a loveless marriage of convenience to wealthy civil servant/real estate wheeler-dealer Saccard. And as with Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina, Renee Saccard is a desperately unhappy woman who bets all and loses.

Following the 1851 coup d’etat, Aristide Saccard (whose birth name is Aristide Rougon) left his provincial home of Plassans to make his fortune in Paris. Encumbered with a wife and small child, Aristide grudgingly accepts a minor civil servant post from his brother Eugene Rougon, and in this capacity, he waits like a spider, biding his time to make a fortune. In time he does indeed make a fortune by flipping Parisian property designated for seizure by Eminent Domain. He is in his “element” buying properties, creating false companies, and flipping the property deeds several times until he sells back to the city for vastly inflated prices. After his wife conveniently dies, he marries Renee, a much younger, beautiful, but compromised heiress. Theirs is a loveless match that accelerates Aristide’s social position.

When the novel begins, Aristide and Renee have been married for some years. They lead separate lives, although Aristide is clever enough to use Renee to advance his career. Renee thinks she leads a life of total freedom; she indulges every materialistic whim, leads a life of luxury, and has an endless string of lovers she selects and discards ruthlessly. But while Renee may appear to enjoy freedom, this is really just a façade. In reality, she’s little more than an exotic, expensive pet, kept by Saccard, and used by him to further his lust for wealth.

The novel opens with Renee and her adult stepson, Maxime enjoying a carriage ride. Theirs is a peculiar relationship based on playful camaraderie that sometimes tests the bounds of societal propriety. Renee has every materialistic possession a woman in her social position supposedly wants, and yet she’s not happy. She’s bored and restless. According to Maxime, his stepmother has “tasted every conceivable apple,” but with “her eyes aglow with unslaked curiosity” Renee frankly admits that she seeks a new sensation–that she wants “something different.” This elusive new sensation comes in the form of the forbidden sexual relationship between Renee and her weak, effete, androgynous stepson, Maxime.

Although the affair begins accidentally, soon Renee and Maxime indulge their lust in her lavish quarters–a temple designed to complement her sensuality. Renee rapidly becomes obsessed with her young paramour, while Maxime sees Renee as just another passing fling. Renee’s moral destruction takes place against the backdrop of the insatiable appetites of Parisian bourgeois society. She mingles in a superficial society predicated on use and social advancement. Soirees at the Saccard mansion are seen as little better than brothels for the rich and influential, and husbands trade the favours of their wives for promotions and contracts. Trapped in the avaricious jaws of the Saccard (Rougon) family, Renee is gradually destroyed and consumed by this family’s insatiable appetite for wealth and success. While her husband plots to deprive Renee of her last remaining assets, he traps her into marital compliance. Meanwhile Maxime is content to be indulged–both in the bedroom and in the pocketbook, and the sinister Sidonie Rougon, who offers her services as a pimp, arranging profitable assignations for ladies of fashion, conspires to destroy Renee as revenge for rejecting her dubious friendship.

Zola’s well-drawn characters leap from the pages, and while none of them are particularly likeable, they’re all believable. Take the androgynous, Narcissus-like Maxime, who as a boy “had vices before he had desires.” In adulthood Maxime confesses: “As for making money, I’d rather run through it, though that isn’t always as amusing as one first imagines. Loving, being loved–one soon gets sick of it, no?…Yes indeed. One gets sick of it.” And Sidonie Rougon: “She had an instinctive taste for shady deals and a love of chicanery…she was a living catalog of supply and demand.”

Most of the intimate, highly erotic assignations between Renee and her stepson Maxime take place in either her opulent boudoir or the conservatory. Even the Saccard mansion seems complicit in the forbidden affair as Renee’s environment appears to consume and expedite her destruction: The “hothouse joined them in their lovemaking, burned with the heat of their passion. Through the oppressive air, by the white light of the moon, they took in the strangeness of the world around them, as the plants seemed vaguely to move about and embrace one another.” Zola describes a hypocritical world where money, greed and ambition rule, surpassing and destroying every other human emotion.

The Kill is an amazing book. I am astounded that in all in the literature classes I took, NO ONE EVER MENTIONED THIS NOVEL! If you enjoyed Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina, then I urge you to read The Kill. The Arthur Goldhammer translation brings the excesses of 19th century France to life.

13 Comments

Filed under Rougon-Macquart, Zola

The Fortune of the Rougons by Emile Zola

“And vulgar, ignoble farce was turned into a great historical drama.”

The twenty volumes in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series are set in France during the period 1851-1873, and the novels trace the fortunes of various members of the two branches of the same family. The Rougons are the legitimate, and so-called respectable branch whereas the Macquarts are fairly disreputable. Zola traces the hereditary influences of violence, alcoholism and prostitution through his characters as they nagivate the changing social landscape of life in the Second Empire of Napoleon III (1852-1870) in the years from the coup d’etat (1851) which overthrew the Republic to the aftermath of the Franco Prussian war of 1870-71.

The first novel in the Rougon-Macquart series, The Fortune of the Rougons, is set in the town of Plassans in the south of France, and it begins in the year 1851 with two young lovers–Silvere and Miette–both swept up in the struggle between the Republic and the Second Empire. Miette is an orphan who lives with unpleasant relatives, and Silvere is from the notorious Macquart branch of the family.  This novel sets the stage for the rest to follow.

After introducing the young lovers and their defense of the Republic, the novel then explores the background of the Rougon-Macquart family–and its matriarch, Adelaide Fouques–the last of the line of a wealthy landowning family whose “name died out a few years before the Revolution.” Adelaide–who could be described as either eccentric or mad–shocks the inhabitants of Plassans by marrying the peasant Rougon. They have a son named Pierre, but shortly after Pierre’s birth, Rougon dies suddenly. Adelaide creates yet another scandal when she begins co-habiting with an unsavoury poacher named Macquart–a man of “vagrant instincts, rendered vicious by wine.” Adelaide has two children by Macquart–Antoine and Ursule.

The small town of Plassans has a rigid class structure, so even as a child, Pierre is aware of the scandal involving his mother, Macquart, and her two illegitimate children. Pierre bides his time, and with brewing avarice and ambition, he schemes to ensure that his mother’s estate falls to him alone. As the title of the novel suggests, Zola traces the fate and the fortunes of the Rougons, and this sprawling novel covers Adelaide, her children, grandchildren and even mentions her great-grandchildren. It is in Pierre’s old age that he finally attempts to seize his moment of destiny by wresting power from Plassans’ officials in a coup d’etat by manipulating his connections with the Second Empire and Napoleon III. Pierre’s avaricious and ambitious wife, Felicite, loathes the Macquart branch of the family, and she’s quite prepared to spill blood in order to guarantee the Rougons’ ascension to power.

For those interested in French history or French literature, then this classic novel will prove to be an exciting introduction to the twenty volume series. The series covers the vital twenty-year period from 1851-1873–from the coup d’etat of 1851 that overthrew the Republic to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and the destruction of the Second Empire. With this vast array of characters, it’s helpful to sketch a family tree. Zola’s approach to telling history through the fortunes of one extended family is brilliant. Adelaide–the last of a line of aristocrats–is a symbolic figure, and several of her character traits appear in slightly varied forms in her many descendants. Adelaide’s son, Antoine, for example, is a blend of both of his parents’ failings. As the novel continues, and new generations spring forth, traits reappear–sometimes in a twisted form. This beginning, meaty, and satisfying tale of the Rougon-Macquart family–“a pack of unbridled, insatiate appetites amidst a blaze of gold and blood” is highly recommended for lovers of Balzac. All the human vices are here in abundance–and the novel, heavy going in spots,  is at once a glorious read and a savage examination of the worst of human nature.

16 Comments

Filed under Rougon-Macquart, Zola