His Excellency Eugene Rougon (1876) is the sixth published novel of the Rougon-Macquart series, but the second one to read if you follow the suggested order. It’s the riveting story of Eugène Rougon, the eldest son of Pierre and Félicité Rougon who are first introduced to the reader in The Fortune of the Rougons. (See my thoughts about it here). In The Fortune of the Rougons Eugene makes a late appearance as a cunning manipulator who was involved in the 1851 coup d’état that put Napoleon III on the throne, and by providing his parents with crucial information he enabled them to establish power in the (fictional) town of Plassans. This sets the Rougons up to be the rich and successful side of the family, in contrast to the Macquarts who are on their way to poverty, debauchery and drunkenness.
His Excellency Eugene Rougon is a superb study of political power – how it is won and lost, and how it corrupts. I would like to recommend it as compulsory reading for all aspiring politicians, but alas, a recent translation seems not to be available and this Vizetelly translation is very dated in style. It also omits passages here and there because of prevailing Victorian sensibilities. Reading this book with the group at GoodReads, we soon found examples where allusions to cleavage and other ‘racy’ passages had been self-censored by Vizetelly. Lest we judge him harshly, we should remember that
Henry Vizetelly (1820-94) was fined and imprisoned for three months in 1889 over the publication of La Terre, which was considered offensive. Subsequent editions of all of Zola’s novels were heavily edited by his son Ernest Vizetelly (1853-1922) in order to avoid further prosecutions. (Source: The Books of Émile Zola)
So even though the later publications were more heavily edited than the earlier ones, it would seem that Vizetelly was prudent to be a bit coy even in the novels published before 1889.
The story begins when Rougon has offended Napoleon III (because of an inheritance claim that involves a relative of the Empress), and he’s on the outer. This does not stop his cronies from harassing him night and day over various projects all of which involve graft and corruption to a greater or lesser extent, and they are aghast when he has to resign. Madame Correur speaks for them all when she says ‘It is necessary that you should be everything so that we may be something’.
If he’s feeling a bit downcast about this change in his fortunes he is soon distracted by the arrival of Mademoiselle Clorinde Balbi, a young lady of somewhat obscure antecedents and about whom many rumours circulate. Rougon doesn’t care: she cheers him up. She needs to: by the time of the lavish Imperial Christening all the promises he has made to his pals have fallen through. But, attracted by her eccentricity and her beauty, he makes the grave mistake of underestimating her. She is not like other women: she doesn’t care much about her appearance, she’s as interested in power as he is. He makes an even more serious mistake when he declines to marry her, and he compounds his error by failing to realisethat she is his ally for her own purposes.
Zola modelled his story closely on real events, and when Rougon is reinstated, much to the delight of the hangers-on, he becomes Napoleon’s hatchet man, imposing harsh measures to repress any dissent and ruthlessly purging potential opposition. He becomes a ‘synonym for stern repression, the refusal of all liberties’ and he relishes every aspect of his power to exile, deport, imprison, censor the press and destroy careers. His arrogance is breath-taking: he summons important people to his office and then keeps them waiting for hours, and he ‘revels in his godlike powers’.
The whole country trembled in the terror which like a black storm cloud rolled forth from the room with the green velvet curtains where Rougon laughed aloud while stretching his arms.
For Rougon, this power is what matters:
He loved power for its own sake, without any hankering for riches and honours. Very ignorant, and of little skill in things which were not connected with the management of men, it was only his keen craving for power that elevated him to a position of responsibility. The ambition of raising himself above the crowd, which seemed to him to be composed of fools and knaves, and of leading and driving men by sheer force, developed most energetic skill and cunning in his heavy nature. He believed only in himself, took his convictions for reasons, and held everything subordinate to the increase of his personal influence. Addicted to no vice, he yet rebelled as at some secret orgy in the idea of wielding supreme power.
He surrounds himself with his intimate associates, and distributes honours such as the Legion of Honour to his friends. Kahn gets his dodgy railway line; the Charbonnels win their suit, and there are literally ‘jobs for the boys’ including a completely unqualified and bone-idle son of Jobelin. Under pressure to maintain his power-base Rougon bestows favours through corruptions large and small, and his hubris leads him to reject the Emperor’s warning that he’s going too far. Rougon’s friends are not just a drain on his energy but also the source of his power, and he cannot afford to lose their support: he has to deliver on the promises he makes or lose everything.
In every organisation and institution, there are people who have power, either de jure (as of right, through holding some formal position) or de facto (which is exercised through the persuasive power of personality). What Zola shows in the contrasting figures of Rougon and Clotilde is just how powerful de facto power could be, even when wielded by a woman. The catalyst for Rougon’s climb to de jure power from a position of obscurity is catastrophe (the coup d’état and the failed assassination attempt), and his success derives from his ability to be in the right place at the right time and choosing the right side to be on. But Clotilde, whose origins are not merely obscure but also dubious, wields power on the sly. She gets the ear of the Empress, and she makes her way into the Emperor’s bedroom, triumphantly proclaiming it by wearing a black velvet ‘dog-collar’ bearing the words ‘I belong to my master’. (This seems a bit cringe-worthy, but hey, maybe you had to be there to perceive debasement as an assertion of power?)
Clotilde gets her revenge in a wonderful scene at a charity bazaar where all the characters assemble to support the Empress’s favourite charity. There’s some splendid symbolism in this chapter, Clotilde manning the drinks booth like a common waitress; and the Crown Prince trundling past in a carriage as the dejected Rougon goes for a walk after his downfall. (The Prince never got to take the crown because the monarchy was abolished).
But as we have seen so often in Australian politics, politicians reinvent themselves, and despite what appears to be a disastrous banishment to the back benches, they manage to ‘rehabilitate’ themselves and bounce back into the top job. Zola knew this: Rougon does it too!
Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers
Lisa Hill, January 2014
Author: Emile Zola
Title: His Excellency Eugène Rougon, (Son Excellence Eugène Rougon) in The Complete Works of Emile Zola (Illustrated)
Translated by Ernest Alfred Vizetelly
Publisher: Delphi Classics. Kindle Edition, 2012.
Source: Personal copy.