Adolescent 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
Source: O’Connell’s Bookshop, Adelaide, via AbeBooks
Do as I did and hunt out a copy of this translation…