Inspired by Lisa Hill’s review of Zola’s novel of peasant life, The Earth or La Terre, I have read it in a translation by Douglas Parmée (Penguin Books, 1980). I can’t compare the translation to the newer Brian Nelson translation, but it seemed quite adequate with no archaic language and plenty of the sexual and scatological details that censors don’t like. Actually, I didn’t like them much either – it was the quantity rather than the quality which turned me off about half way through. And yet, some of it is very funny (and I am sure intentionally so), such as the account of the farting contests.
The amount of violence Zola depicts is disturbing. It is not occasional and related to some perceived wrong or strong emotion, but constant and normal. Everything of value relates to violence: sex, money, possessions, relationships, the land. And just off from violence is mockery of the weak and unsuccessful. Violence is an equal-opportunity technique, with the women just as violent as the men. It is both offense, as when two sisters attack each other for their possessions, and defense, as when Francoise repeatedly resists rape by her brother-in-law. The result of successful violence is to establish a claim. If Buteau succeeds in raping Francoise, then he can claim her loyalty and service. He says that he has succeeded, even though he has not, in order to establish this claim with others. Far from being condemned, it is what everybody expects. When Francoise finally leaves the household, it is not the possibility of pleasure that Buteau misses; he misses the opportunity to pinch her and to grab her tender parts.
The importance of the land and of ownership of the land is a central theme in the novel. Many American novels of this period and a little later also make that a principal theme. In O Pioneers!, brothers tell their sister that they are the family because they bear the family name and thus have the stronger claim to the land. Developing that land has not been a romantic enterprise but hard, often disappointing labor which has been performed by all. In Cather’s short stories, the gifted and ambitious leave the land, knowing that engaging with it will drain all their energies and talent. Fast forward to the Depression and Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Just as Zola’s peasants feared, financial interests are taking over the land which has demanded so much and given so little to those who worked on it and loved it.
These are novels of disappointment. I had already met Jean Macquart in Le Debacle. That is also a novel of disappointment, and on a national scale.