Tag Archives: Rougon-Macquart

His Excellency Eugène Rougon: Zola (Brian Nelson Translation)

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

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

His excellency

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

The Fortunes of the Rougons

The Ladies’ Paradise


The Kill

Pot Luck

The Belly of Paris

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

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

Vizetelly translation:

“Yes, beware of women,” Rougon repeated, pausing after each word so as to glance at his papers. “when a woman does not put a crown on your head, she slips a halter around your neck. At our age a man’s heart wants as carefully looking after as his stomach.”

Brian Nelson translation:

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

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

But here’s a meatier quote:

Vizetelly translation:

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

Nelson translation:

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

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

Review copy.



Filed under Fiction, Zola

Money: Emile Zola (translation comparison with spoilers)

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

]Zola’s magnificent 20-volume Rougon-Macquart series examines the history of two branches of a family founded by matriarch Adelaide Fouques–the last of the line of a wealthy landowning family whose “name died out a few years before the Revolution.” First Adelaide shocks her neighbours in the rural town of Plassans by marrying a peasant named Rougon. Their son, Pierre begins the Rougon line, but when, after the death of her husband,  Adelaide shacks up with a drunken poacher, she later produces two illegitimate children: Antoine and Ursule Macquart. The Rougons claw their way up into French society while the Macquarts remain the poorer side of the family. While there’s the occasional character with just a tinge of derangement, mostly these are a motley bunch: “a pack of unbridled, insatiate appetites amidst a blaze of gold and blood” which include scoundrels, adulterers, drunks, swindlers, a religious maniac turned arsonist and of course, one of the most infamous prostitutes of her time: Nana. If you’ve read the novels–the complete series or just a few of the more famous titles, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. Zola’s intent was to trace the hereditary influences of alcoholism and insanity through the two branches of the family set against the backdrop of the Second Empire of Napoleon III (1852-1870) in the years from the coup d’etat (1851) which overthrew the Republic to the aftermath of the Franco Prussian war of 1870-71.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now the Vizetelly version:

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

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

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

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

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


Filed under Fiction, Rougon-Macquart, Zola

Money: Emile Zola New Translation by Valerie Minogue

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

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

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

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

Now the new Valerie Minogue translation:

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

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Rougon-Macquart, Zola

Zola Translations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the Vizetelly version (from my Kindle)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Filed under Fiction, Rougon-Macquart, Zola

Doctor Pascal by Zola

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Filed under Fiction, Rougon-Macquart, Zola

Debacle by Zola

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then again:

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

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


Filed under Rougon-Macquart, Zola

Money by Zola

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Filed under Rougon-Macquart, Zola

The Dream by Zola

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I read the Eliza E Chase translation from Mondial Books.


Filed under Rougon-Macquart, Zola

The Earth by Zola

The soil and nothing else….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Filed under Rougon-Macquart, Zola

The Masterpiece by Emile Zola

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

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

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

Why were they so upset?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Filed under Rougon-Macquart, Zola