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.
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.