Exceptional Excerpts: Zest for Life by Émile Zola

Zest for Life is the Elek Books version of La Joie de vivre (1884)  which was published in 1955. Although not one of the best books of the series I found it an interesting read. The novel clips along at quite a leisurely pace until the reader reaches Chapter Ten – this is an astounding chapter, containing some of Zola’s most powerful, descriptive writing. Please note that I give away part of the plot in what follows.

In this chapter Louise, who is eight month’s pregnant, goes into labour. Her husband, Lazare, fetches the local midwife, Mme Bouland, but she discovers that the baby’s arm is showing and recommends that Dr. Cazenove is called for. Eventually the doctor arrives and suggests that it will be difficult to save both mother and child. He proceeds, however and for eight pages we experience the doctor’s attempt to re-align the baby and deliver it safely. The mother, who has been in constant pain for hours is unconscious at this point. I would have liked to quote the whole eight or so pages as it works so well as a whole, but instead I’ve picked out a small section which should give a flavour of the prose.

‘We’ve waited too long, it’s going to be difficult to get my hand in…You see, the shoulder’s already engaged in the opening.’

Amidst the swollen, straining muscles, between pinkish folds of flesh, the child could be seen. But it had stopped there, unable to get past because of the narrowness of the organ. Meanwhile, however, the abdominal and lumbar muscles were still striving to expel it; even unconscious, the mother was still pushing violently, exhausting herself in labour, in the mechanical urge to be delivered; and the waves of pain still swept downwards, each accompanied by a cry in her stubborn battle against the impossible. The child’s hand was hanging out of the vulva. It was a tiny black hand, its fingers opening and closing intermittently as though it were clutching at life.

‘Let the leg give a little,’ said Madame Bouland to Pauline. ‘No need to wear her out.’

Dr. Cazenove was standing between the two knees, each held by one of the women. He turned round, puzzled at the way the light was flickering; Lazare behind him, was trembling so violently that the candle shook in his hand as though in a great gust of wind.

‘My dear fellow,’ said the doctor, ‘put the candlestick on the bedside table. I shall see better.’

Incapable of watching any longer, the husband retreated to the further end of the room and sank into a chair. But although he had stopped watching, he still kept on seeing the little creature’s pathetic hand, clinging to life, seeming to grope for help in this world into which it had led the way.

Unfortunately, if you decide to read the Vizettely translation then this whole eight or nine page section of the book is covered by the following paragraph:

There came a cruel and affecting scene. It was one of those dread hours when life and death wrestle together, when human science and skill battle to overcome and correct the errors of Nature. More than once did the Doctor pause, fearing a fatal issue. The patient’s agony was terrible, but at last science triumphed, and a child was born. It was a boy.

A graphic description of a difficult childbirth was obviously not considered appropriate material for the late Victorian reading public. They could read it in French though if they wished.

(Zest for Life by Émile Zola, published by Elek Books, 1955, translated by Jean Stewart)

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3 comments on “Exceptional Excerpts: Zest for Life by Émile Zola

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    It’s amazing the extent to which Zola has been censored by his earliest translators and publishers. You might be interested to see the fate of some of Balzac’s translators at http://balzacbooks.wordpress.com/translations/

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  2. […] is vital to avoid the self-censored Vizetelly freebie version because as Jonathan explains in this Exceptional Excerpt at The Books of Emile Zola, the Vizetelly version prudishly omits the most powerful scene in the entire […]

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  3. […] is vital to avoid the self-censored Vizetelly freebie version because as Jonathan explains in this Exceptional Excerpt at The Books of Emile Zola, the Vizetelly version prudishly omits the most powerful scene in the entire […]

    Like

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