Tag Archives: Rougon-Macquart

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.

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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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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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The Conquest of Plassans by Emile Zola

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Fat and The Thin by Emile Zola

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Kill by Emile Zola

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Fortune of the Rougons by Emile Zola

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

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

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

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

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

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

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