I remember I was nineteen when I began reading books by Émile Zola (1840-1902). Nana was the first, which I came on by accident.
My sister had a paperback copy from somewhere, and admiring the cover – a lovely nude by Renoir – I began reading the blurb, and then the novel. Nana (1880) is a lurid, and highly improbable, account of the career of the rise to fame, or anyway, notoriety, of a vulgar courtesan and talentless actress.
Reading in the forward that Nana is the daughter of the main couple in the earlier novel L’Assommoir and that this was just one of a whole series of Les Rougon–Macquart which Zola had written, and fascinated by its lurid account appeal, I read many more of the books.
I want to emphasize that while the titles are French – largely because they don’t translate well into English – my own French isn’t up to reading anything more than the simplest novel, and I read them all in the English translations.
Wickipedia puts Zola’s literary framework in creating this series so well that I’ll b e lazy and quote wholesale: –
More than half of Zola’s novels were part of a set of 20 collectively known as Les Rougon-Macquart. Unlike Balzac, who in the midst of his literary career resynthesized his work into La Comédie Humaine, Zola from the start, at the age of 28, had thought of the complete layout of the series. Set in France’s Second Empire, the series traces the “environmental” influences of violence, alcohol, and prostitution which became more prevalent during the second wave of the Industrial Revolution. The series examines two branches of a family—the respectable (that is, legitimate) Rougons and the disreputable (illegitimate) Macquarts—for five generations.
The series is not only an exploration of Zola’s ideas about how hereditary and environment interacted to shape an individual’s fate, but a condemnation of the empty decadence of the French Second Republic (1852-1870). Convinced that drunkenness and insanity were an hereditary taint which would go on for generations, he depicted his Macquarts as having their lives shaped by this as much as their environments.
I was both fascinated and repelled by the books. They contain brilliantly strong writing, with vivid, inspired passages combined with frankly purple prose. There are often scenes of wonderfully bawdy humour which appalled Victorians.
They obviously lose a lot in translation; for instance, L’Assommoir is one of the novels written in the slangy French of the working people of Zola’s day, and English translations can read as stilted.
Among other criticisms, I disliked Zola’s attitude towards women (comparatively liberal towards women though it was for his age), and thought his view of ‘human nature’ warped. There is indeed, little balance in his depiction of characters. In his work, people are largely selfish opportunists, almost monstrous depictions of base passions, fools, or selfless martyrs who might be dubbed lay saints. There are few of the people who in most people’s experience form the majority of mankind in our current state – those in between these extremes.
For all his cynicism about human nature, Zola was politically to the left; while he took an alarmist and unfairly biased view against the uprising which led to the Paris Commune of 1871, his sympathies are generally with the exploited working people of his era.
However, unlike Dickens, his portrayal of the oppressed was never sentimental and asexual. Intriguingly for a pre-Freduian writer, he wholly acknowledged the massive power of both the sex drives and the death drives in the psyche.
In fact, when late Victorian Britons mentioned ‘French novels’ in tones of horror as to be kept from sheltered young maidens at all costs, I suppose they must have had Zola in mind. When in 1888, a publisher Henry Richard Vizetelly, brought out La Terre in English, the sexual and violent themes led to his being charged with obscentiy.
At the time when I was reading these, the first novel of the series, La Fortune des Rougon, written in 1871, which starts off the cycle, was out of print. In fact, I can’t imagine why I didn’t try and get a copy from the British Library. I had to pick up the relations between the vast cast of characters as I went along. However, all of these novels can basically be read as ‘stand alone’ novels, being fairly self-contained in theme.
Zola deals with various aspects of the corrupt France of the era ending in the Franco Prussian war of 1870-1871, and its immediate aftermath. He travelled about and did exhaustive research.
Son Excellence Eugène Rougon (1876) is about high political skullduggery and the close associates of Napoleon III. The unscrupulous, cold Eugène Rougon, a son of the legitimate and ostensibly bourgeois and respectable branch of the family, is obsessed by obtaining high political power and was active in making Napoleon III Emperor in the coup of 1851. Temporarily out of favour with his master, his fall takes down his group of opportunist supporters.
Zola describes the ‘hereditary taint’ of addictive behaviours from his grandmother, which comes out in Rougon as a form of monomania, tellingly: –
‘With him it was love of power for sheer power’s sake, a love, what is more, untrammelled by any craving for personal glory or wealth or honours. Shockingly ignorant and terribly mediocre in all but the management of other men, it was only by his need to dominate others that he really rose to any height. He loved the mere effort of it, and worshipped his own ability.’
Rougon falls too for the voluptuous and attractive Clorinde Balbi, who helps him regain political influence. After the assassination attempt of 1858, he is made Minister of the Interior, with powers to maintain ‘peace and security’ at any cost. He rewards his long time supporters. Now, however, he refuses to marry Clorinde as a move not furthering his political ambitions. Instead, he arranges passionless marriages of convenience for both of them.
In a pivotal part of the plot, the generally icily controlled Rougon, overcome with lust, tries to force himself on her. She snatches a whip and keeps him off by cutting at him with it, maddening him further. In a romantic novel, this would be the turnaround part of the plot where the hero is won over by the heroine’s spirit, spurring him on finally to propose, but in this less romantic tale, Clorinde gives herself instead to the Emperor, who promotes her husband.
Meanwhile, Rougon has lost the support of his followers, who decide that he failed to reward them sufficiently for their support, though in fact, he granted their original requests, and is finally tricked into resigning from his all powerful post.
La Ventre de Paris (1873) deals with the area about the great Paris market Les Halles, and recounts with the fate of Florent, an escaped political prisoner mistakenly arrested in 1851, who comes to live with his brother Quenu and his unimaginative, status obsessed wife, Lisa – who is a sister of Jean Macquart from La Terre. He begins on an impractical and idealistic scheme to plan an uprising, much to the disapproval of his sister-in-law.
She eventually betrays him to the authorities, only to find out that half her neighbours have beaten her to it. One of her relatives, Claude Lantier, later to feature in the art world of the era in L’œuvre, provides an objective commentary on the actions of the characters. After Florent is arrested, he comments with disgust words to the effect of: ‘How abominable respectable people are!” I believe that was the last sentence in the novel.
L’Assommoir (1877) depicts the life of Gervaise Macquart, also a siser of Jean, who having run away from their native Provence with her heartless, handsome lover Lantier, now lives in Montmartre, then a poor area of Paris. Lantier abandons her with two small sons (one, Jacques, has been left in Provence). However, the roofer Coupeau falls in love with her, they marry and she is able to open her own laundry.
To bring about Gervaise’s downfall into alcoholism and living in a sordid threesome with Coupeau and the returned Lantier, Zola has to make the kind hearted and hard working Coupeau have a complete personality change after he breaks his leg falling from a roof. He becomes a layabout, takes to drink and when he hears of Lantier’s return to the area, is won over by him into accepting him as a ‘lodger’ who never pays his rent.
All this is improbable, given Coupeau’s original character as a open hearted working man, and while Gervaise is assumed by Zola to have an hereditary weakness for drunkenness – which is somehow supposed to be reflected in her having been born with a limp – Coupeau has no such hereditary.
Gervaise has to support both men and their daughter Nana, her three sons, Claude, Jacques and Étienne Lantier having now grown up (they are the subsequent protagonists of L’œuvre (1886), La Bête humaine (1890) and Germinal (1885) ).
Finally ,when Coupeau becomes abusive, her daughter Nana runs away to become a street walker and Lantier deserts Gervaise for a more prosperous rival , Gervaise takes to drink herself, and sinks into total degradation.
La Terre (1887) deals with the peasants, who it seems were generally idealised by the French in this era. In Zola’s sensationalist account of the grasping nature of the residents of a singularly godless village in the Beauce, where the residents are too mean to keep a priest, this illusion was stripped away. Promiscuity, brutality, incest, rape and murder all feature.
One of the main components of the plot consists of the story of the old farmer Fuon, who through living too long when dependant on his offspring, suffers a peasant’s version of the fate of King Lear. The story features Zola’s most appalling villain, Butteau, and one of his nicest heroines, Françoise. The protagonist is in fact, a wholly reasonable, balanced and well meaning member of the Macquart’s, Jean, who seems to have inherited none of the ‘hereditary taint’ of mental imbalance which Zola depicts in the other family members.
La Bête humaine (1890) is a sort of psychological thriller based about the Le Havre to Paris railway. Jacques Lantier, an engine driver, has all his life had a sexual longing to murder women. He controls this, however, partly through his almost sexual relationship with his engine, La Lison. When by chance he catches a glimpse of the station master Roubaud murdering one of the railway directors (having discovered that he had previously been his wife’s lover), Lantier keeps quiet because Roubaud’s wife buys his silence by starting a love affair with him.
Because of her connection with a murder, Lantier finds that at first he can control his desire to kill a woman as part of the sexual act with Séverine, but later it comes back and he kills her. In the last scene, hostility between Lantier and his fireman flares into bloodlust and they fall off the engine in a deathly embrace. The driverless train hurtles on through the night, full of happy, singing, drunken recruits for the war with Prussia. It is a symbol of the fate of France.
These are just a few of the novels from this series which I read, the ones which interested me most. Germinal, Zola’s masterpiece, deserves a separate blog post.
The one which I thoroughly disliked is Le Docteur Pascal. This depicts the work of the eponymous doctor, the grandson of the original source of all the family malaise, Adelaide Forque, through her Rougon marriage. He has invented a serum that he hopes will cure mental and hereditary diseases. He has kept a chart of the lives of the thirty descendants of Adelaide Forque, and made a lifelong study of hereditary and madness. He lives with his mother and niece, Clothilde.
Gradually, he wins his niece over to his views and also to his atheism (Zola was a passionate atheist). Finally, and this is the bit that will probably disgust many people as much as it did me – the sixty-year-old uncle becomes his young niece’s lover. No mention was made of incest in the novel, and I was startled to learn that a relationship between an uncle and a niece was not regarded as incest in France.
Eventually, the couple conceive a baby, but Pascal dies of a heart attack before the birth. His mother destroys his documentary evidence of genetic mental illness as exemplified in his family history records, and Clothilde is left nursing the baby, the hope of the future for the family, as are Jean Macquart’s children by his second marriage.
This is the last of the novels in the series. Zola had now taken a younger mistress, who had two children by him. His depiction of the downright creepy relationship between the aging doctor and his nubile niece is permeated by Zola’s own atttitude towards his relationship with this very young woman. One also supposes he felt a need to justify his actions, to himself, at least. He also seems to have believed in some way that the birth of two children regularised it. His wife maintained, when she found out, that she could have given him children herself. If he refused to let her have any, only to have a family with a younger woman, then that was callous indeed. No wonder she was outraged.
It is impossible to do justice to this complex and varying series in one blog post, but certainly, Zola was an original and exceptionally talented writer who often rose to greatness. If the modern reader only feels that she has time to read one of his novels, I would urge her to make that one Germinal – his epic depiction of the conditions in the mining community in the mid nineteenth century, and the terrible consequences of a failed strike by the miners.
But more on that, in my next post…