It’s not very original of me to say so, but The Dream (Le Rêve) is not like any other Zola that I’ve read. First published in 1888, seventeen years after he started writing the Rougon-Macquart cycle with the first novel, The Fortune of the Rougons in 1871, The Dream is fifth in the recommended reading order. But this tale of love thwarted by reality is more fanciful than the Zola I’m used to. It seems a kinder, gentler kind of novel, less critical of society and of the individuals in it. Perhaps Zola had mellowed a bit by the time he wrote it?
The Dream begins with a young orphan girl perishing in the snow at the entrance to the cathedral of Beaumont. It is the day after Christmas Day.
The street was still asleep, lazily lying in after the festivities of the day before. Six o’clock struck. In the darkness that glimmered faintly blue in the slow, relentless fall of the snowflakes, the only living thing was the wavering shape of a nine-year-old girl who had taken refuge under the archway of the portal and spent the night there, shivering with cold, and sheltering as best she could. She was dressed in rags, her head wrapped in a tattered scarf, and her feet bare in a man’s heavy shoes. Doubtless she had fetched up here only after tramping the streets for ages, since at this spot she had sunk down in exhaustion. For her this was the end of the world, with nobody and nothing left; final abandonment, gnawing hunger, and deadly cold; and worn out as she was, stifled by the heavy weight of her heart, she gave up the struggle; all that remained was to find a retreat for her body, to follow her instincts and shrink back, huddling deeper into the shelter of those old stones whenever a gust of wind set the snow swirling. (p.3)
Reminiscent of those old fairy tales where a childless couple are miraculously gifted with the child of their dreams, Hubert and Hubertine (who live next to the cathedral) rescue Angélique. They bring her up as their own, occasionally alarmed by her passionate nature, but otherwise living in contentment formerly denied them. Their childlessness, they believe, is a punishment for having succumbed to passion themselves and marrying without the blessing of Hubertine’s mother. They had a child, but it died, and now Angelique joins the family, content to leave her wild past behind and learn their livelihood – the art of ecclesiastical embroidery.
In extremis on the night of her rescue, Angélique had huddled up against an assortment of virginal saints and martyrs, sculpted in stone on the pillars of the cathedral. In the care of the Huberts, she develops an obsession with the stories of these saints in a book called The Golden Legend, and she also develops some fanciful ideas about what her future might be. Like many girls, she dreams about marrying a prince who will elevate her to glory, but her naïve erotic ideas are mixed up with the mysticism of her ardour for saintliness.
All this (especially all the stuff about the saints and their various gory martyrdoms) is very unZolaesque.
Even more unZolaesque is that Angélique meets the man of her dreams. Like the fairytale girls who live in towers, Angélique lives right up at the top of the old house, and from her balcony she sees Félicien working on the stained glass windows. He’s gorgeous, and so is she, and so begins a curious courtship. He follows her about, helping her with the washing, and duplicating her works of charity (which annoys her. She’s got a competitive streak, has Angélique, and she doesn’t like being outdone in Good Works.) All the while she pretends not to fancy him, and says nothing about him at home. And Zola teases the reader with vague references to him being more than he seems, even though he’s dressed like a rustic…
Eventually Félicien ups the ante by commissioning an embroidered mitre for a forthcoming religious celebration, and thus has entrée to the Huberts’ home. As he did in The Ladies’ Paradise, Zola makes symbolic use of white in this novel, (virgin snow, sheets, dresses, etc,) but now Angélique sews in gold thread, an allusion to the wealth of the church and the sumptuous vestments worn by its priests. And even as she rejoices in her love for Félicien, she maintains the façade of dislike for him, leaving him desolate and Hubertine embarrassed by her rudeness.
It can’t last. Alone in her bedroom, Angélique repents for her unkindness but quixotically decides that her punishment should be to deny her love for Félicien forever. But he’s had other ideas and he climbs up the balcony and into her room. His plan was to force himself on her (!), but fortunately for Angélique he is so overcome by the virginal whiteness of the room that he thinks better of it. She thinks better of the self-denial idea, because she believes that the saints have sanctioned his arrival. The couple meets again, they declare their love, and um, yes, they’re going to get married.
Yes, it is all a bit daft, and so utterly unlike Zola that even the author of the Foreword in my edition, Tim Parks, admits that he had ‘difficulty getting his bearings’ with this novel. Félicien is really the wealthy son of the bishop, a proud and arrogant man. He is betrothed to a beautiful wealthy girl of his own class. He’s also a bit cowardly about standing up to his father. The Huberts, for their part, are only too acutely aware of the absurdity of such a union, and they sabotage it in the hope that a quick severance is in Angelique’s best interests.
I’m not going to reveal how Zola resolves all this, except to say that he achieved his goal to ‘write a book no one expects from me’. The miracle of Angelique’s rescue has a dreamlike quality, and that’s not the only miracle that happens. The girl’s naïve faith that everything will be resolved because they love each other is a dream, as is her belief that all she has to do is introduce herself to the Monseigneur and his opposition to the marriage will be overcome. It’s her passion that drives this faith, because for Zola with his belief in heredity destiny, her dubious parentage will always influence her fate, even when it’s moderated by a benign environment. The placidity of her home with the Huberts can never wholly suppress the passion.
It’s a very interesting book, with some beautiful scenes and a plot that gathers momentum till it reaches its unexpected ending.
The translation by Andrew Brown is competent, but (as you can see from the excerpt above) it’s occasionally ungainly with contemporary idiom such as ‘fetched up here’; ‘tramping the street for ages’; and ‘at this spot’. The cover design is dopey, and the green slime effect is singularly unenticing. On the other hand, the Foreword by Tim Parks is helpful (and includes interesting stuff about the religious aspects of the novel that I haven’t delved into here) and the Introduction by Brown is very good indeed, though best left till after the reading because of spoilers. He draws out the intricacies of the novel without being overly academic about it, making it more enjoyable to mull over afterwards.
And now on to La Conquête de Plassans (The Conquest of Plassans/A Priest in the House) – and my timing is excellent because I see from Twitter that Oxford have today just released a new translation of it! See Fishpond: The Conquest of Plassans (Oxford World’s Classics)
Author: Emile Zola
Title: The Dream (Le Rêve)
Publisher: Hesperus Classics, 2005
Source: Personal copy
Out of print. Try AbeBooks or Brotherhood Books.
I read and reviewed this book as part of my Zola Project,
Lisa Hill, 2014