On Reading the Rougon-Macquart Series

Reading Zola

My first Zola book was the Penguin edition of Nana which I read in the early ’90s; I then read L’Assommoir. The subject matters of prostitution and alcohol abuse must have been what attracted me to the books but I’m intrigued as to where I first heard of Zola; it certainly wasn’t at school. I was reading a lot of Henry Miller at the time, and although he was a source of a lot of interesting books, I don’t think it was from reading him. Anyway, after reading these two books, I declared myself an Émile Zola fan and promptly read nothing else by him for about ten years until I read La Bête humaine.

I think I like a reasonable variety of novels and non-fiction but every now and then I fancy reading a good ol’ 19th Century novel laden with characters and plot developments to keep me interested. In 2011 I must have been in one of these moods when I picked up another Zola book, The Ladies’ Paradise, which really impressed me and it seemed to be quite different than the others that I’d read years before. I read a couple more, including a re-read of L’Assommoir and I think it was then that I started to seriously consider reading the whole series.

I’m still a bit surprised that I read the whole series as I’m usually put off by long series of novels, films or television programmes as I get the feeling that the best material is at the beginning and the later work is just substandard material that was probably rejected from the earlier work. But, this isn’t the case with Zola and the Rougon-Macquart series: it was conceived as a whole and it works as a whole.

The Rougon-Macquart Series

The full title of the series is The Rougon-Macquart: the Natural and Social History of a Family under the Second Empire. The Second Empire existed from 1852 to 1870 with Napoleon III (a.k.a. Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew) as Emperor. Zola originally planned the ten-novel cycle depicting life in the Second Empire in 1869; the series of course, subsequently grew to twenty novels and took Zola over twenty years to complete. The last novel in the series, Doctor Pascal was published in 1893.

Zola made claims that the Rougon-Macquart series was a scientific study into genealogy or heredity. It all seems a bit silly these days and people sometimes rubbish the series because the ‘scientific’ aspect was incorrect. I just ignored his claims and read the books as he still has a lot of interesting insights into human nature.

The Reading Order

Madame Vauquer has already covered the topic of the Reading Order, which I totally agree with, but I would just like to make a few points regarding the reading order:

  • Each novel is completely self-contained and can be read on its own with no knowledge of the other novels in the series.
  • Many people who decide to read the series either read it in publication order or some-sort of chronological order such as Zola’s recommended reading order.
  • If you are not sure if you want to read the whole series but just want to try Zola then it’s best to read a few of the ‘biggies’ first, e.g. Nana, Germinal, L’Assommoir, Pot Luck, La Bête Humaine. Of course, if you’re still interested after some of those then continue with the others.

The short version then, is that the reading order does not really matter that much and the potential reader should not get too obsessed with it. However, there are some extra points that I would like to make that may help people who are planning to read the series – these are for guidance only. I realise that, having set out three clear points above, that I’m now about to confuse the issue with loads of exceptions, so I’ll apologise, but continue anyway:

  • Whatever order you read them in, personally I wouldn’t read The Fortune of the Rougons first. It’s much better read after you’ve read some of the others and after you’ve got to know some of the characters. If you read it first it may just seem confusing. It was my eighth book of the series.
  • It’s probably best, however, to read The Fortune of the Rougons before reading His Excellency, Eugène Rougon, The Conquest of Plassans, The Kill and Abbé Mouret’s Sin.
  • It’s best to read Doctor Pascal last as it’s essentially an epilogue to the whole series.
  • The Debacle portrays the end of the Second Empire and the subsequent Paris Commune, so it’s best to read this near the end, preferably as the penultimate novel.
  • For those readers that like a bit of chronology: Nana appears as a child in L’Assommoir and as an adult in Nana; The Ladies’ Paradise should be read after Pot Luck as Octave Mouret is older in The Ladies’ Paradise; at the end of The Earth Jean Macquart leaves to join the army which leads into The Debacle. I read all of these the ‘wrong’ way round with no ill effects. The only one I got the ‘correct’ way round was with reading The Kill before Money.

Translations

The other main question that crops up if you’re reading them in English is ‘which translation to read?’ The answer is reasonably simple: if there is a modern (say post 1970) translation available then read it, especially if it’s a Penguin or Oxford University Press book (Brian Nelson rules!). If you have no alternative then you may have to fall back on older translations, the most common ones will be the Vizetelly translations. In fact, nearly all of the free digital versions and cheap (and sometimes not-so-cheap) printed versions are versions of the Vizetelly translations, which were originally published in the late Victorian period. The quality, however, varies wildly; some were heavily bowdlerised, especially those novels with a sexual content.

If you’re prepared to wait for all of the Rougon-Macquart novels to get a modern translation then you may have to wait a while. Though things are looking good as modern translations of Money and The Conquest of Plassans are due in 2014. This still leaves five novels that have not received a modern translation yet. Fortunately, when I was reading the series I discovered that many of the novels of the series were translated in the 1950s by various translators and published by Elek Books. Although these translations are now also dated themselves, they are, in my opinion, preferable to the Vizetelly versions. I managed to order some copies from my local library and I bought other copies at reasonable prices from eBay and other sites. Translation information, including Elek Book versions, can be found on the Translations page.

The other option is just to learn French and read them in the original.

Hopefully some of the information above will be of use to people who are thinking of reading any books in the series.

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23 comments on “On Reading the Rougon-Macquart Series

  1. I’ve been trying to recall which of Zola’s books I read first. Unlike my first Balzac, it does not stick in my mind. It could well have been with the French Literature group at Yahoo, in which case it would have been, like you, Nana. We next read Germinal and then L’Assommoir. Nana wasn’t a favorite. I enjoyed the stay in the country but got bored with the theatrical bits. Strictly a matter of taste. Germinal I liked very much and next came L’Assommoir which really did it for me. I was now a fan of Zola. Somewhere along the line early on came Teresa Raquin which I found awesomely horrific.

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    • Jonathan says:

      My first Zola is clear in my mind (Nana), I read it in the summer, though I can’t remember the precise year, and I was blown away by it….but L’Assommoir was even better. The good thing was that when I re-read them in my recent R-M read I thought they were even better than I remembered. If my arm was twisted and I had to decide on a favourite of the series then it would be close, between L’Assommoir and The Earth but I think The Earth would just win – it’s just so brutal, it’s amazing!

      So what was your first Balzac? I’ve just got the recent NYRB short story collection, so I may embark on some Balzacian reading soon.

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      • Pere Goriot was my first Balzac. I think you’ve already read that one? It was in the late 70s and a neighbor loaned me her paperback which was falling apart–literally, it was held together with a rubberband–and she wanted it back. I fell in love with it and the quest was on. All of Balzac is available free at Project Gutenberg. Because of the content, reading a modern translation generally isn’t as critical as with so many of Zola’s.

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  2. David Long says:

    Jonathan: Couldn’t help responding when you wrote Brian Nelson rules! I went so far as to write him a fan letter last year–we’re guys of the same vintage, and it was nice to have a little back and forth with him. I’ve been downloading lots of 19th C. texts on my Kindle–there’s no reason not to read, say, Dickens, for free, but Zola, no, you want to get the keenest translation.

    I’m up to my tenth R-G novel now and pressing on [reading The Sin of Father Mouret in a 1969 translation by Sandy Petry, which seems fine, thankfully. Here’s a link I just bumped into–you may have seen it.

    http://swiftlytiltingplanet.wordpress.com/2011/01/16/zola-translations/

    Anyway, Zola, what a writer!

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    • Jonathan says:

      Hi David. I’m glad you’re enjoying your R-M experience. Brian Nelson & OUP seem to be translating quite a few Zola books – I hope they continue, Joie de vivre could do with a new translation.

      Of all the books in R-M I thought that ‘Mouret’s Sin’ was the strangest, in a good way though, and I wanted to re-read it as soon as I’d finished. It’s the middle section that blew me away – it’s Zola at his lyrical best, it’s almost like a description of a pre-Raphaelite painting. I’ll be interested to know what you think of the Petrey translation; I read the Elek version from the ’50s.

      I discovered Guy’s blog when I was reading the series and found it very useful. He has contributed here as well.

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  3. Rachel says:

    My first Zola novel was Le ventre de Paris, and it absolutely knocked my socks off. I really need to reread it…

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    • I’ll be rereading that one at some point. I read the old translation, The Fat and the Thin, probably ten or so years ago. I have the 2007 Brian Nelson translation, The Belly of Paris. I’ll probably wait and read it with the Goodreads group, but don’t think it’s scheduled there for quite a while.

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    • Jonathan Idle says:

      I agree Le Ventre de Paris is great. I love the picture he paints of Les Halles – the lingustic riches even in translation.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Edie says:

    Hi Jonathan,
    Im so glad i found your site. Im also a Zola fan especially R-M series fan, only read 4 of the series yet, but already bought like 13 or 14 books. Im really having hard time to find the rest. Do you know about any new edition of the following?
    Une Page d’amour
    La Joie de vivre
    La Terre
    Le Rêve
    Le Docteur Pascal

    I read the Masterpiece first (because of a connection with Cezanne – thats how i started my interest in Zola). Than after the L’Assommoir i just knew i have to read all. I hope they will print these few ones again by the time i finish with the rest i already have.

    And great page! Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jonathan says:

      Hi Edie, I’m glad you’re enjoying reading R-M and the blog. We’re trying to make it as useful as possible for new and old Zola fans.

      We’ve collected as much info as we can on English translations of Zola’s work on the translations page. In short there are modern translations of La Terre (The Earth) and Le Rêve (The Dream) but the most modern translations of the others listed are the Elek translations from the ’50s. The old Vizetelly translations are usually available on Project Guttenberg or as cheap versions from Amazon etc. but are generally to be avoided if possible – see also my post on Elek book translations.

      Hopefully those that are missing a modern translation will be rectified soon. OUP seem to be translating a lot of Zola’s work in recent years but I don’t know if there are any definite plans for specific titles. La Joie de vivre could really do with a modern translation.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Edie says:

        Jonathan, Thanks for the quick reply.
        Yeah its too bad when old books are not available anymore. I would like to read them in my native language (hungarian) but there are only 5 (!) books available in hungarian in the stores. I found some used old editions and i bought like 5 or 6 from the oxford series.. I also hope that they will continue with the releases of the missing titles so at least i could read them in English.

        Thanks for all the info!

        Liked by 1 person

    • Dagny says:

      Hi, Edie. I was the same as you after reading L’Assommoir and wanted to read them all.

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  5. Edie says:

    Hi Jonathan,
    It is me again with another question. Do you have like a family tree of the RM characters? I actually do have the tree but im more interested in which character appears in which books. Thanks again!

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  6. Jonathan Idle says:

    I have read nine but over so many years I don’t bother trying to remember who is who in the overall family tree. The rich language of La Terre, La Curee and Le Ventre de Paris was exhilarating and it was those that made me determine to read all 20. But I ignore Zola’s notion of it a some sort of scientific investigation – Zola controls what happens; he doesn’t observe them from some disconnected objective position.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan says:

      I think the novels are distinct enough that the reader doesn’t have to try to connect each one together as often the links between the novels are quite tenuous—I liked this aspect of the series as I don’t really like having to remember how all these characters relate to each other over twenty novels.

      Some people dismiss his writing because it doesn’t fulfill his early ‘scientific’ claims, but this seems silly to me; personally I ignore Zola’s scientific claims as you do. I’m not sure if he believed in it himself by the end.

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