Émile Zola’s Zest for Life (La Joie de vivre, also translated as The Joys of Living/Joy of Life/How Jolly Life Is) was first published in 1884. It’s the 12th novel in both the recommended reading order and the chronological publication order for Zola’s Les Rougon-Macquart cycle. It’s also the most sad of all the Zola novels I have read so far.
The story centres on Pauline Quenu, daughter of the prosperous charcutiers Lisa Macquart and M. Quenu who featured in The Belly of Paris (Oxford World’s Classics) (Le ventre de Paris) which I read in the new translation by Brian Nelson in December last year (see my review). Unfortunately there isn’t a modern translation of La Joie de vivre so I took the advice of my friend and Zola expert Jonathan who contributes to the collaborative blog The Books of Émile Zola (and also blogs at Intermittencies of the Mind,) and sought out a copy of the Elek transation, published in 1955. For anyone considering reading La Joie de vivre in English, it is vital to avoid the self-censored Vizetelly freebie version because as Jonathan explains in this Exceptional Excerpt at The Books of Emile Zola, the Vizetelly version prudishly omits the most powerful scene in the entire novel.
In Zest for Life Pauline’s parents have died and, aged ten, she comes to live with relatives in the small seaside town of Bonneville in Normandy. The sole inheritor of her parents’ legacy, Pauline’s interests are guarded by a collective of well-intentioned but not very effective souls and it is not long before her fortune is at risk.
As usual, Zola contrasts the characters to show how the effects of heredity and environment conform to his theories about eugenics – but in this novel the negative characteristics that are associated with all the descendants of Pauline’s great-grand mother mad Adelaide Fouque (Tante Dide), fall to other characters and not to Pauline. Pauline, while too realistic to be saintly, is one of those good, kind-hearted souls who gets her greatest pleasure from pleasing others. Happiness, to her mind, depended neither on people nor on things but on adapting oneself to people and things in a sensible way. (p.182). For her, with limited resources at her disposal to improve the lives of others, it is enough to reduce their suffering as best she can, and she still feels this way even when their misery is self-inflicted:
‘Isn’t the relief of suffering an end in itself?’ she went on. ‘It’s a pity they don’t mend their ways, for they’d perhaps be less wretched. But when they’ve been fed and warmed, well, that’s enough for me, it makes me happy; it’s that much less suffering in the world.’ (p.188)
Unfortunately this generosity of spirit is too great a temptation for Mme. Chanteau. The Chanteau household is bedevilled by sickness and money worries and its sole hope for advancement lies with the spoilt and selfish Lazare, aged 19 at the beginning of the book. Contrasted with Pauline’s boundless optimism and healthy value system, Lazare is a dreary pessimist and nihilist, convinced that life is futile and that there is no point in doing anything. Rather than finish his studies and take up gainful employment to help his parents, he flits about from one project to another, obsessed with it while it holds his interest but abandoning it at whim. He has a stint at an unfinished Symphony of Sorrow, and later on as a novelist, but it’s when he needs an investor for his seaweed-processing factory that Mme. Chanteau abandons her ostentatiously professed principles and borrows the money from Pauline’s inheritance. Pauline is also manoeuvred into funding a subsequent project to build fortifications against the seas which encroach on the hapless village – in advance of a grant which fails to materialise.
The servant Véronique – a great character – is wise to the goings on, noting the ways in which Pauline’s money is used to pay for pressing bills and how she is exploited as a nurse to M. Chanteau, crippled by gout. Zola’s vivid descriptions of the suffering of this piteous man are offset to some extent by Chanteau’s self-absorption and lack of self-discipline, but no reader can be indifferent to his suffering.
As Pauline was getting up, Chanteau uttered a low cry.
‘Is it starting up again?’
‘Starting up again? Why, it never stops… Did I groan? Isn’t it odd, I’ve got to the point where I groan unconsciously.’
He had become a dreadfully pitiable sight. Gradually his chronic gout had accumulated chalkstone in all his joints, and enormous tophs (sandstone deposits) had formed, piercing through his skin in white growths. His feet, now concealed in slippers, were drawn up like the claws of a sick bird. But his hands displayed their deformity in all its horror; each joint was swollen with red, glistening nodules, and the fingers were distorted by lumps that splayed them out and made them lopsided, particularly on the left hand, made hideous by a chalkstone the size of a small egg. On the left elbow a heavier deposit had caused an ulcer. And his limbs were now completely anchylosed, [fused] he could use neither hands nor feet, and the few joints that still functioned a little creaked and rattled like a bag of marbles being shaken. (p. 275)
Mme. Chanteau is not wholly bad: she did, after all, willingly take the orphaned child into her home, and her initial intentions to leave her fortune alone were sincerely made. But she has a blind spot where Lazare is concerned, and she salves her conscience about embezzling the money by finding ways to blame Pauline, and eventually to sabotage her marriage plans.
The title is, of course, ironic. There is no joy in this book; it is a study of how sickness of body and mind exacerbate poverty and vice, and how its victims are often undeserving of their fate.
My next title in my Zola Project to read the entire Rougon-Maquart cycle is No 13 in the recommended reading order, L’Assommoir (Oxford World’s Classics) in a recent translation by Margaret Mouldon.
Author: Émile Zola
Title: Zest of Life (La Joie de vivre)
Publisher: Elek Books, London, 1955
Source: Personal library, purchased via AbeBooks.
Out of print.