The Conquest of Passans, by Emile Zola, translated by Helen Constantine

The Conquest of Plassans (Oxford World's Classics)
What a contrast between The Conquest of Plassans is with The Dream! The Conquest of Plassans (La Conquête de Plassans) was first published in 1874, the fourth novel completed in Zola’s great Rougon-Macquart cycle. But if you are reading in the recommended reading order as I am, it is No 6, and comes after The Dream (Le Rêve) which was not written until 1888 and was a complete departure in Zola’s style. (See my review). With The Conquest of Plassans, we are back in the seedy world of political intrigue, greed, opportunism and gullibility.

19th century French politics are as mystifying as ever in The Conquest of Plassans but all you really need to know is that the town of Plassans has returned the ‘wrong’ candidate. As we know in Australia, marginal seats swing to-and-fro, but there is Serious Dismay if a party loses a seat that is ‘theirs’ by long-standing tradition. You can bet that the Liberal Party has a major campaign already underway to retrieve the seat that Sophie Mirabella lost at the 2013 election, and you can bet that the Labor Party hasn’t given up on the seat that the Greens snaffled in inner city Melbourne either. Well, in Plassans the party of the Empire under Napoleon III wants its seat back, and they have a suitably Machiavellian plan to achieve that.

The two royalist opposition parties (the Legitimists and the Orleanists) have their champions, who live either side of François Mouret. When the story opens, Mouret lives in reasonable contentment with his wife Marthe and their three children, Octave, Serge, and Désirée. Mouret is an irascible, unstable fellow as befits his dubious Macquart heritage, and he enjoys himself bullying Marthe and baiting his mother-in-law Félicité (see my Sensational Snippet), , but it is not until the arrival of the Abbé Faujas that his propensity for malicious gossip arises. An opportunist who seizes a chance to make more money, Mouret has agreed to let the second floor of his large house to the Abbé, but he is not best pleased when the Abbé turns up early and reveals himself to be a secretive fellow who keeps himself to himself. Mouret’s attempts to find out the Abbé’s antecedents and purposes consist mainly of haranguing his wife and his servant Rose into interrogating the lodger and his mother Madame Faujas, while he, Mouret, makes phony declarations that he’s not interested in other people’s business.

The Abbé is shabby and poor, but he has an imposing frame, and his refusal to engage with the bourgeois of Plassans makes him an object of great interest. When the entire town has decided that he’s a dubious sort, Mouret, perversely, becomes his champion. He welcomes Faujas to the warmth of his hearth, playing cards after dinner with Madame Faujas, and telling all who will listen what a great fellow the Abbé is. Fatally, his card games leave Marthe to the mercy of the Abbé, and before long, this placid homebody startles her irreligious husband by attending church, making confession – and starting up a charitable child-care organisation for at-risk children while their parents are at work!

Lo! The town shifts its opinion. Marthe the dynamic fundraiser has got the good bourgeois ladies of Plassans onside and now they all think the Abbé is the bee’s knees. This puts him in a position to achieve his political goals, though of course he’s still stoutly declaring that he has no interest in politics. Mouret, of course, shifts his opinion back again too. There is a serpent in his little bit of Paradise, and he’s not happy. (His reaction to having a wife with interests outside the home reminded me of men I knew in the 1970s when women became working wives who were a threat to their husbands’ sense of identity as Master of the House.)

There’s a splendid cast of characters amongst the townsfolk, who are gossipy, gullible, greedy and corrupt. But it’s the unwelcome arrival of the Abbé’s unscrupulous sister Olympe and brother-in-law Trouche that’s the catalyst for the tragedy that unfolds. Consistent with Zola’s theories about heredity and temperament, Mouret succumbs to his fate, and his wife Marthe to hers.

And who’s behind all these machinations? Ah, you’ll have to read the book to find out!

As with others in the Oxford World’s Classics in this series, there is an excellent introduction. This one is by Patrick McGuinness, with a thoughtful note at the beginning that readers who wish to avoid spoilers should read it after finishing the book.

Next up will be No 7 in the recommended reading order, Pot-Bouille (1882), and I will be reading the OUP World’s Classics edition, Pot Luck, translated by Australian Brian Nelson.

Author: Émile Zola
Title: The Conquest of Plassans
Translated by Helen Constantine
Publisher: Oxford World Classics, 2014
ISBN: 9780199664788
Source: Review copy courtesy of Oxford University Press

Direct from Oxford University Press and good bookshops everywhere.

Cross-posted at Lisa Hill’s blog as part of the Zola Project at ANZ LitLovers.


11 comments on “The Conquest of Passans, by Emile Zola, translated by Helen Constantine

  1. This book was such a fun, wild and crazy read.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Lisa Hill says:

    Absolutely. But I did feel sorry for the Mourets, despite their flaws.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jonathan says:

    I loved this book…not quite up there with L’Assommoir, Germinal etc. but deserves more attention; hopefully the new translation will do that. I may be tempted to read the new translation as well.

    I though that Mouret was quite sane, even though everyone though that he wasn’t, and that it was only after he was committed that he truly became insane, or in other words he became insane because everyone acted as if he was insane. After all, all the examples of his insanity had reasonable explanations – reasonable to me anyway. Did you feel the same way? Or do you think that others just noticed his incipient insanity?


  4. Lisa Hill says:

    I think he was just a bad-tempered, intolerant, intemperate man. Zola, I think, meant to show that the capacity for insanity was always there because of his heredity and that the asylum just brought out what was always there. But I think that, given what asylums were like in the C19th, anybody would became insane from being locked up in one of them.


  5. Conrad says:

    I know I’m a bit late to the discussion, but Macquart says exactly that:to Marthe in chapter XX after she visits Mouret in the asylum:

    “There’s no doubt he’s mad,” said her uncle with a snigger. “Why what did you expect to find? People are not brought here for nothing. And the place isn’t healthy either. If I was shut up there for a couple of hours, I should go mad myself.”

    I came away unsure about Macquart and Abbe Fenil’s plan – did they expect Mouret to do as he did or just for him to make trouble for Abbe Faujas? Given Macquart’s actions in the Fortune of the Rougons I suppose the former isn’t entirely out of the question, if so Macquart really is a truly nasty piece of work,

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Katie Taylor says:

    Just finished reading–possible spoilers! If you haven’t read yet, ignore my comment! So the more Zola I read, the closer I feel like I am coming to pinning down something about what he does that just fascinates me and that I haven’t really seen before. I saw it in the scene in Therese Raquin where Therese and Laurent furtively go for the weapons they meant to use to kill each other and there’s this moment where they look over their shoulders and catch each other red handed–he with his meticulously-researched poison phial, she with her kitchen knife. It is horrible, but it is so funny (maybe I’m the only one who thinks this).

    In ‘The Kill,’ Renee is disposed of carelessly and unexpectedly in a single line with a case of cerebral meningitis, almost as if Zola grew suddenly tired of her, like a child with a broken toy–her life, so intimately examined in this story, merits no more than this casual discarding. This too is both awful and weirdly funny.

    In ‘The Conquest,’ there’s this line: “And he rolled down the flaming stairs with the priest’s body; while Madame Faujas, who had sunk her teeth into him with all her might, drank his blood.” Now this statement is so over the top as to be ridiculous, and it is, and it feels like Zola relishes the fact and wants the reader to laugh in the midst of being horrified. He also wants to drive home how poor Mouret, who has been consumed to the very quick of his substance over the course of this book is still being drained by these people even in his and their death throes. The fact that it is so ridiculous actually makes the reader more susceptible to the real horror. It’s like a very dense one-sentence poem that sums up the import of the entire novel. The only comparable thing I can think of is the work of great lyricists like Fred Ebb or Stephen Sondheim.

    The other thing that struck me about this book, and I’d be curious to know if anyone else felt the same, was that the person at the center of all of this destruction, Abbe Faujas, was sort of a null. He was like a black cutout at the center of every picture he was in, lacking any discernible personality or interests beyond the acquisition of arbitrary power. I think this was also quite awful, and well done by Zola. Very often in situations where politics are manipulated to convince people to vote against their own interests, there is this maw of mindless, pointless, destructive, greedy power hunger at the center of it. It was dreadful watching the Mourets (who as you point out, Lisa, are not without flaws but deserving of pity) devoured by what almost seemed like a social fungus in the shape of the Faujas-Trouche complex and the influence they were able to wield with others who had known and trusted the Mourets for years.

    I’m still trying to figure out what all I make of poor Marthe. What a weirdly tragic figure. She sleepwalks through life until she is 40, then falls in love with a man who detests women and sublimates it into an episode of self-destructive religious mania. At no point in this story does she seem to be truly awake and aware until the end, when she suddenly realizes all she has allowed to happen and (too late), attempts to undo it. This may be pushing things too far, but in a way, Marthe may symbolize how average people deal with situations where the ruthless and powerful are dismantling all we hold dear, making us passive accomplices in their dirty work. We sleepwalk along, our minds filling in the things that have been stolen from us as if they were still there, until it is too late for us to do anything to avert the final disaster.

    This was a great read–bleak, but true. I have a lot more thinking to do about it, but meanwhile, have started ‘The Sin of Abbe Mouret.’ Amnesia! I cannot wait to see what Zola will do with a case of amnesia.


  7. Lisa Hill says:

    Katie, I am loving your insights into these novels, it brings back the joy of reading them all over again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Katie Taylor says:

      I’m happy you are willing to put up with me! It’s been very helpful posting thoughts about the books here as I finish them. It really helps me crystalize my thoughts, and as the books are so complex and layered, I need help!


      • Lisa Hill says:

        Katie, any time you want to join this collaborative blog and share your thoughts in a commentary, just say the word and I’ll join you up in a heartbeat. That would give you a place to crystallise your thoughts in a way that others could find them. Don’t be bashful, all of us are non-academics, just responding to the books as we find them.

        Liked by 1 person

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