Category Archives: Rougon-Macquart

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

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.


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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.


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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.

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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.


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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.

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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.


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