In his book Émile Zola Novelist and Reformer, An Account of His Life and Work (1904), Ernest Alfred Vizetelly, a long-time acquaintance of Zola’s, devoted fifteen pages to explaining a recommended reading order for the twenty Rougon-Macquart novels which differed from the publication order. We have this order shown on our Recommended Reading Order Page. Thank you to Joao for bringing this source to our attention.
Vizetelly says this order was indicated by Zola in Le Docteur Pascal (1893) although I am unclear if it is in the novel itself or in an Introduction. My edition, translated by Mary J. Serrano has no Introduction. Further information is welcome if anyone has an edition with an Introduction addressing this or information from a different source. Le Docteur Pascal was the last of the Rougon-Macquart novels to be published. It should be read last even if you don’t follow a specific reading pattern since it involves the history of many of the characters. Vizetelly further states that the order was confirmed to him personally by Zola.
It has been too long since I read Le Docteur Pascal for me to remember how it was laid out but going by Vizetelly’s book, the order seems logical. La Fortune des Rougon (1871) is first as it sets out the beginnings of the Rougon and Macquart families. The next nine novels detail all of the Rougon side of the family, including the Mourets, with the exception of Doctor Pascal himself. Beginning with Le Ventre de Paris (1873), the next nine novels focus on the illegitimate side of the family, the Macquarts. Finally, the 20th book, Le Docteur Pascal, features Pascal Rougon who has kept a family history to aid his research into heredity.
Depending on their taste, this order would probably work well for readers committed to reading all twenty novels. What I dislike about it is that it might not work for readers who have not yet discovered Zola and are trying a novel or two before deciding to read the entire series. We can assume there is a reason some of the novels are better known and more popular than others. Justified or not, these novels would appear to be of the most interest to the general reading public. Most of these are listed even later in the recommended reading order than in the chronological order. In either case, it is to be feared that the new reader would not be drawn into Zola’s world and would give up before reading one which would encourage them to read the entire series.