A Love Affair (Une page d’amour), by Emile Zola, translated by Jean Stewart

A Love AffairAdolescent girls have a bit of a reputation for sabotaging their parents’ attempts to re-partner, don’t they? If you think that such brattiness is a modern phenomenon, this novel by Zola will make you think again…

Une page d’amour, translated variously as A Love Episode; A Page of Love; Hélène: A Love Episode; or A Love Affair; was first published in 1878. It’s eighth in the publication order, but tenth in the recommended reading order, following on from The Sin of Father Mouret (see my review) and exploring the same kind of theme of transgressive love. Jean Stewart says in her brief introduction to this edition, that Zola had shocked his readers with his exposé of social evil and human degradation in the nightmare world of The Dram Shop (L’Assommoir, 1877) and he wanted to show that he could also write about a touching subject, treated with the utmost simplicity…a good natured book. (p.5)

A Love Affair is, as Zola apparently said, about nice people and romantic feelings and children and flowers – but he couldn’t help himself, he had to make his romance fit with his dubious theory of heredity and a crude determinist philosophy. And so that malevolent young girl on the cover is the inheritor of the Macquart character flaws. She is the great-granddaughter of mad Adelaide Fouque and the grand-daughter of Mouret who hung himself after his wife died – and, irrevocably stained by this heredity, she is the eleven-year-old saboteur of her mother Hélène’s love.

Jeanne has a morbid illness which means that when she has one of her wild passionate fits of temper, doctors must be called in the middle of the night. Dr Deberle – who just happens to live next door – turns out to be kindly and handsome and he can’t fail to be interested in the beautiful young widow Hélène.

Alas, Henri is married, and his wife Juliette becomes a friend to Hélène, who then becomes a frequent visitor to the Deberle household. And although Paris is full of light-hearted adulterers, as the attraction grows Hélène struggles with the conflict between the serenity of innocence and the dawning of her latent sexuality. She wasn’t in love with her first husband and is unprepared for the tumult of passion.

Jeanne, of course, is alert to any threat to her exclusive ‘love’ for her mother. The Abbe Jouve had suggested that Hélène marry his brother, the good, kind and attractively rich Rambaud – but Jeanne put a stop to that with her tantrums even before Hélène had decided that she wasn’t interested. Jeanne’s self-absorption, possessiveness and jealousy are legendary!

There are some wonderful characters in this novel. Mère Fetu is a splendid old emotional blackmailer who trades on the good natures of Hélène and Henri to wangle money and attention, but she also rents out rooms in her squalid apartment. When Beau Malingnon, a dandy proposed as a suitor for Juliette’s sister Pauline, wants a tryst (no, sorry, no spoilers here!) he sets this room up as a lurid fantasy in pink which reminded me of the bedroom excesses of The Kill. The maid Rosalie and her lover, the soldier Zéphyrin, are also interesting as a lower-class couple who are also constrained from fulfilment of their feelings. Juliette, who today we would label ‘ditzy’ and would have a career in event management, is a wonderful creation: she throws a splendid fancy-dress ball for her seven-year-old son Lucien which Zola uses to satirise the greedy excesses of Paris, and the way she stage-manages the funeral is extraordinary, even sourcing countless April flowers to tastefully match the colour of the outfits for the procession. (No, I’m not going to tell you whose funeral it is).

One other character deserves a mention, and that’s Paris. Yes, the city itself, as viewed from Hélène’s window. Of necessity she spends long hours beside Jeanne’s bed, and she often looks out over the rooftops viewing the city’s moods in one kind of weather or another. Zola uses the city to symbolise radiant hope in Spring and the cruelty of life in Winter. For me, much as I am fond of Paris, these scenes were often too long and too laboured. I was more interested in the psychological study of obsessive jealousy and tormented guilt about sins as yet uncommitted.

For some odd reason A Love Affair is (according to Wikipedia) the only title in the Rougon-Macquart series that doesn’t have a modern translation. I was about to succumb to the Gutenberg version on the Kindle when Jonathan who blogs here at the Books of Émile Zola fortunately intervened and recommended Jean Stewart’s translation instead. It’s excellent and the lurid cover of this edition is a bonus! The Elek translations are notorious for their amusingly tacky covers, and they play a starring role in Jonathan’s post about Lurid, Gaudy or Tasteless Covers at the Books of Émile Zola blog – do check out his slideshow to see what I mean.

Next up in The Zola Project is The Belly of Paris. I have a copy of Brian Nelson’s 2009 translation published by Oxford World’s Classics …

Author: Émile Zola
Translated from the French by Jean Stewart
Title: A Love Affair
Publisher: Elek Books, London, 1957
ISBN: none
Source: O’Connell’s Bookshop, Adelaide, via AbeBooks

Do as I did and hunt out a copy of this translation…

Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers


11 comments on “A Love Affair (Une page d’amour), by Emile Zola, translated by Jean Stewart

  1. Jonathan says:

    I’m glad you managed to find an Elek version – did it actually have the yellow cover? If so, then I’m very jealous!

    I’ve found that Zola plays around with the structure a lot more with these ‘minor novels’ of the series, where he tends to have a fairly simple story with few characters. I was pleasantly surprised with these ‘minor’ ones as I’d originally, incorrectly, thought they’d been ignored (in English) because they weren’t any good.

    With this book he has the end chapter of each part contain a lot of descriptive prose. I loved the end chapter of Part Four where Jeanne is left alone in the flat when her mother has gone to meet the doctor; it shows just how self-obsessed children can be – I certainly remember being a bit like that! I keep meaning to use this bit for an ‘Exceptional Excerpt’ post but I really just want to include the whole chapter.


    • Lisa Hill says:

      Yes indeed, my copy has the dust-jacket, and it’s in pretty good shape. Pencilled inside it, it still has H/C 20/-, and next to that in a different hand it has the bookseller’s stock no #5362, 1st UK edition and $22. It’s a lovely copy, only a little bit of foxing, a tiny bit of what looks like a water stain on the back cover of the dust-jacket and very, very minor curling at the edges along the spine. Someone has looked after it very carefully. I’m going to take it down to Grant’s Bookshop (the one I posted about the other day) and see if I can get a proper mylar cover for it.
      You know, this makes *two* Eleks on my Zola shelf now. *musing* Could be the start of a whole new collection to pursue….
      I’m fascinated as to why this novel is the only one not to have a modern translation. I’m wondering if maybe it has something to do with its Stendhal-like qualities? In the introduction Stewart says something about how Stendhal and his psychological study novels had become unfashionable, and perhaps that still holds true? Another possible explanation is that A Love Affair does offend feminist sensibilities – all that suppression of Helene’s desire in the service of others – so maybe it’s thought that the novel wouldn’t appeal to modern readers?


      • Jonathan says:

        The only non post-1970s translation? I’ve just checked your link to the Wikipedia site and it’s been ‘updated’ since I read the R-M series. I think they’re including new editions using old translations such as Mondial & Aegypan. I read several Elek versions as they were the most modern – ‘His Excellency’, ‘Zest for life’, ‘A Love Affair’ etc. I’d be surprised that newer translations had been produced recently without us hearing about it. I’m on my mobile at the moment but I’ll investigate further.


        • Lisa Hill says:

          *blush* Well, I did write ‘according to Wikipedia’, which is my shorthand for ‘don’t trust it 100%’!


          • Jonathan says:

            Well it is difficult, for readers, reviewers, Wikipedia editors, to keep track of all the recycling and regurgitation of older translations. Even some of the Elek editions, such as ‘The Earth’ & ‘Restless House’ are older Victorian translations – although these are the ‘good’ private translations. It’s a real minefield isn’t it?

            Liked by 1 person

            • Lisa Hill says:

              Well, yes, I had a brief foray into writing for WP (though not about Zola, only about OzLit where I have a little expertise) – and of course it’s not only that info changes, the WP Police can mess around with your stuff too. (Which is why I gave up and left them to it.)


              • Jonathan says:

                I have done a little bit of WP editing/writing as well. I may have a go at changing the page but people like ‘doing battle’ over these things – I just get bored with it when it becomes a war though. That’s why I concentrated on getting our pages as informative as possible.


  2. Conrad says:

    I really struggled with the first three sections, and nearly gave up on this one. Perhaps the change in scene was just too much for me after L’assommoir? It was all just a little too domestic for my tastes. However once things started moving along I ended up really becoming engrossed by the book, and had to find out how Zola would wrap it all up. The chapter where Jeanne is left alone really is a masterpiece (as you highlighted in your exceptional excerpt) and really made the book for me.

    Poor little Jeanne gets a harsh rap it seems. After losing her father young, and being sick virtually all her life is it any wonder she becomes morbidly attached to Helene? Helene’s struggle between her desire for the handsome doctor next door and her wish to conform with her moral code is well told. I’ve always been quite drawn to tales of people trying to be good.

    It seems I read the C C Starkweather translation (although it was mislabelled as Viztelly in my copy it looks identical to the Gutenberg version) and Starkweather’s ‘Afterward’ (sic) was interesting reading, emphasising the themes of fate and remorse in the book.

    I really hope Zephyrin wasn’t shipped off to the Crimea, and that he and Rosalie had a long and happy life together.


  3. Lisa Hill says:

    Yes, I often feel like that about Zola’s minor characters, I wish he’d lived longer and revisited some of them in novels of their own.


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