Doctor Pascal, by Émile Zola, translated by Julie Rose

It was a disappointment when, back in 2016 when I read the last of Zola’s great Rougon-Macquart series, Doctor Pascal was not available in a modern translation. I ended up reading a 2012 Virago Press Kindle edition which was translated in 1898 by Mary Jane Serrano (c. 1840 – 1923).  Serrano was primarily a translator of Spanish but she also translated from French and Portuguese, and I read her translation in preference to the 1894 edition translated by Ernest Vizetelly or the Elek edition translated by Vladimir Kean in 1957.  It really is quite remarkable that it has taken so long for a modern translation to become available but Oxford World’s Classics has at last completed its project to publish the entire Rougon-Macquart series in modern translations, and Doctor Pascal is now available translated by Julie Rose with an accompanying introduction and notes by Brian Nelson.

Australian Julie Rose is a world-renowned translator of French literature.  She is a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres and has translated Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, as well as works by Dumas, Moliere, Racine, and Marguerite Duras.  (See Australians lead the way in French translation (smh.com.au).  You can see the difference in style from Serrano in this excerpt:

Ah, those abominable papers! she saw them at night, in her nightmares, revealing in letters of fire, the true histories, the physiological blemishes of the family, all that wrong side of her glory which she would have wished to bury forever with the ancestors already dead! She knew how it was that the doctor had conceived the idea of collecting these documents at the beginning of his great studies on heredity; how he had found himself led to take his own family as an example, struck by the typical cases which he saw in it, and which helped to support laws discovered by him. Was it not a perfectly natural field of observation, close at hand and with which he was thoroughly familiar? And with the fine, careless justness of the scientist, he had been accumulating for the last thirty years the most private data, collecting and classifying everything, raising this genealogical tree of the Rougon-Macquarts, of which the voluminous papers, crammed full of proofs, were only the commentary.    (Doctor Pascal, translated by Mary Jane Serrano, 1898, Chapter 1, Kindle Location 204) Ah! She saw those abominable files, at night, in her nightmares, setting out in letters of fire the true stories, the physiological defects of the family, the whole seamy side of its glory that she would have liked to bury once and for all, along with the ancestors already dead! She knew how the doctor had got the idea of putting those documents together when he first embarked on his great studies on heredity, how he’d been led to take his own family as an example, struck by the recurring cases he noted in it and which supported the laws he’d discovered. Wasn’t it a perfectly natural field of observation, one right there in front of him, which he knew all about firsthand? And with the robust disinterestedness of a scientist, he had spent the last thirty years accumulating the most intimate information on his nearest and dearest, gathering and classifying everything, drawing up this Rougon-Maquart Family Tree, of which the voluminous files were merely a commentary, stuffed with proofs. (Doctor Pascal, translated by Julie Rose, 2020, Chapter 1, p.16-17

Likewise, you can see how much more readable the modern translation is in this excerpt from Chapter 2.

… Dr. Pascal had only one belief—the belief in life. Life was the only divine manifestation. Life was God, the grand motor, the soul of the universe. And life had no other instrument than heredity; heredity made the world; so that if its laws could be known  and directed, the world could be made to one’s will.  In him, to whom sickness, suffering and death had been a familiar sight, the militant pity of the physician awoke.  Ah! to have no more sickness. no more suffering, as little death as possible! His dream ended in this thought  – that universal happiness, the future community of perfection and felicity, could be hastened by intervention, by giving health to all.  (Doctor Pascal, translated by Mary Jane Serrano, 1898, Chapter 2, Kindle Location 457) … Doctor Pascal had only one belief: the belief in life.  Life was the sole manifestation of the divine.  Life was God, the great engine, the soul of the universe. And life had no instrument other than heredity, heredity made the world; which meant that, if you could only understand it, harness it so as to control it, you could make the world however you liked. Because he’d seen sickness and suffering up close, a doctor’s militant compassion was stirring inside him.  Ah, to stop people getting sick, stop suffering , to keep people alive as much as possible.  His dream ended in the thought that you could spur on universal happiness, the future city of perfection and bliss, by intervening and ensuring health for all.  (Doctor Pascal, translated by Julie Rose, 2020, Chapter 1, p.16-17

But, as I have said so many times before when lauding this OUP series, it is not only that the new translations don’t betray Zola’s work with self-censoring excisions and abridgements or inaccuracies.  It is not only that contemporary translations avoid the florid prose of the 19th century Vizitelly editions or the dated expressions in the Elek editions.  The OUP series all come with introductions that set the series and the individual title in context.  Brian Nelson, Professor Emeritus of French Studies at Monash University and  author of, amongst other works of literary criticism, Émile Zola a Very Short Introduction (2020) has done eleven of these introductions and I credit the one he wrote for The Ladies Paradise as the catalyst for my entire Zola Project.

The introduction for Doctor Pascal introduces Zola as

…the quintessential novelist of modernity, understood as a time of tumultuous change.  The motor of change was the rapid growth of capitalism, with all that it entailed in terms of the transformation of the city, new forms of social practice and economic organisation,  and heightened political pressures. Zola was fascinated by change, and specifically by the emergence of a new mass society. (p.vii)

For those entirely new to Zola, the Introduction explains how the three branches of the Rougon-Macquart family represent layers of society in 19th century France, and how the series as a whole is an assault on bourgeois morality and institutions.  Zola was above all else, committed to the value of ‘truth’ in art and his belief that the writer must play a social role:

to represent the sorts of things—industrialisation, the growth of the city, the birth of consumer culture, the workings of the financial system, the misdeeds of government, crime, poverty, prostitution—that affect ordinary people in their daily lives.  (p.vii)

I can think of no living writer doing the same thing to the extent that Zola did.

If you’re not familiar with Doctor Pascal you can read my review to get a grasp of the novel, but to understand its place in the series you need to read Nelson’s explanation of the climate of ideas in France in the mid- and late nineteenth century.  Over the course of his career Zola weathered changes in the intellectual climate, from the middle decades of the 19th century when science not only acquired enormous intellectual prestige as the principal, or even the sole, model for the creation of true knowledge, to a reaction against it.  The entire Rougon-Macquart series is predicated on Zola’s belief in a ‘scientific’ form of realism which he called ‘naturalism’.  His characters act the way they do because they inherit behaviours from the inexorable laws of their physical nature.  So Doctor Pascal aims to counter the emerging distrust of science and the growing mood of pessimism during the fin de siècle.  

It’s also a very personal novel because it transposes intimate aspects of Zola’s own life.  Pascal, he says, is a surrogate of of Zola. 

Pascal may thus be seen as Zola’s double in philosophical, writerly and autobiographical terms.

Most importantly, Zola wanted to respond to critics who dismissed his work as morbid because of its dark themes.  He wanted to demonstrate his essential optimism, i.e.  a myth of catastrophe is opposed by a myth of hope. 

The translator’s note clarifies how much I missed by reading an earlier translation.  (I’ve pruned this a little to avoid spoilers.)

Both Serrano and Vizetelly cut sexual material from the text.[…] Yet even Kean, cutting nothing and writing with such uninhibited modernity, can be censorious, as when he described the doctor’s ‘sordid escapades with the first loose women he met’ in Marseilles, adding the adjectives ‘sordid’ and ‘loose’ and thereby providing a judgement Zola carefully refrains from making.  (p. xxii)

In my previous reading of Doctor Pascal, I had missed entirely a significant aspect of the relationship between MaÎtre Pascal and his disciple Clotilde. 

Julie Rose thanks Judith Luna as the guiding spirit of the Zola retranslation program for Oxford’s World’s Classics, and I do too.   It’s a different book when it’s translated for our times.

Author: Émile Zola
Title: Doctor Pascal Translated by Julie Rose (2020)
Introduction and Notes by Brian Nelson (2020)
Cover illustration: detail from Sous la lampe, 1887, by Marie Bracquemond
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics, OUP (Oxford University Press), 2020, first published in 1893,
ISBN: 9780198746164, pbk., 296 pages (not including the Explanatory Notes at the back of the book)
Source: Review copy courtesy of OUP.

Cross-posted at  ANZLitlovers

Emile Zola, a Very Short Introduction, by Brian Nelson

There are good reasons to read this book: if you know nothing about Émile Zola, Brian Nelson’s Very Short Introduction will convince you to add Zola to your TBR; and if you’ve read Zola in a general reader’s kind of way, the VSI enhances your knowledge of the author and his books, making you want to read or re-read more of this author.

This VSI also explains why you might not want to read the Rougon-Macquart cycle in the chronological order that I used, because themes reveal themselves differently if you read the novels in publication order.  The VSI also provides the historical context for the novels in a way that you might not have understood if you don’t have the OUP editions with their excellent introductions.  (Some of the novels were not available in OUP editions when I first started reading Zola, a problem since rectified.  See my post ‘The Art of Book Introductions, or Why You Should Always Buy the Oxford Editions of Zola’.)

Brian Nelson, Emeritus Professor of French Studies and Translation Studies at Monash University here in Melbourne, translated some of the recent editions of the Rougon-Macquart cycle, and wrote the introductions.  His style, as you will know if you have read the OUP editions that he translated, is clear, free of pedantry and academic jargon, and easy for a general reader to enjoy.  I was really pleased to add this edition to my collections of VSIs.

Zola, (1840-1902) like his predecessor Balzac (1799-1850), used storytelling to examine his society, but Zola’s focus was the changing cultural landscapes of the late 19th century.  He was a novelist of modernity driven by industrial capitalism.  He was interested in the new shapes of the city, new forms of social practice and economic organisation, and the heightened political pressures of the era.  One of the innovative features of his novels is the portrayal of crowds, a feature of the emerging mass society.

Committed to a literature of truth, and to a new freedom of expression, he introduced a new realm of subjects: urban poverty and the working class; class consciousness and class relations; sexuality and gender.  Truth, for him, was not just a matter of personal integrity, but also an aesthetic principle.  He believed in telling it like it is, with no aspect of human experience out of bounds.  He believed [and I do too] that a writer plays a social role.  What Zola shows is the lives of ordinary people but within the context of change: how they were affected by the growth of the city, by the abuse of power, by the growth of consumer culture, by banking, crime, poverty and prostitution.

His style was not documentary but ironic and satiric.  Zola was provocative, combative, critical and subversive.  He was the most criticised and maligned writer of his day, but also the most popular.  Today he is recognised as a narrative artist, a craftsman, a storyteller and a fabulist.

Chapter One delves into Zola’s research methods and his narrative genius.  His best works, says Nelson, are visionary.  They employ poetic character with movement, colour and intensity.  His descriptions are more than just that—they eclipse human beings to express a vision and magnify the material world.  An example from The Ladies Paradise is the cascading images and rising pitch in the description of the department store sales which suggest loss of control, the female shopper’s quasi-sexual abandonment to consumer dreams while mirroring the perpetual expansion that defines the economic principles of consumerism. [And it’s still very relevant today.  Reading this novel and Brian Nelson’s introduction to it redefined my understanding of the way marketing works and I am a cannier shopper for that.]

The predominant feature is Zola’s oeuvre is the machine, in entities that function like one: the department store, the mine, the stock exchange.  He also uses his theme of heredity selectively to create a sense of doom, like an ancient curse.  But running through all his works is a mythopoeic vision, not just parallels between his characters and figures from classical mythology, but also influencing the narrative patterns of his novels.

There is the origin myth of the first novel of the series, The Fortunes of the Rougons; the myths of hell and the universal flood in Germinal; the myth of the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Knowledge in The Sin of Father Mouret (La Faute de Abbé Mouret, 1875); the myth of Man’s lost majesty in The Sin of Father Mouret and L’Assommoir; the myth of the Eternal Return in Earth; the myths of Catastrophe and renewal in the later novels of Les Rougons-Macquart, from Nana onwards. (p.9) [I’ve reviewed all these, see here, but I didn’t recognise this aspect of the oeuvre.)

Chapter Two traces Zola’s career as a writer before he began the Rougons—I was interested to see that he learned the art of self-promotion at Hachette but he over-stepped the mark with Claude’s Confession, his second novel about a prostitute.  As an art critic he made himself notorious in the art world stoush over Impressionism v classical painting, but he also learned from Manet his guiding aesthetic, i.e. to look at life like a modern painter.

Novels which are discussed in detail in the VSI include

  • The Belly of Paris (Chapter 3) from his ‘angry young man’ period;
  • L’Assommoir (Chapter 4), the scandalous first great novel of working-class life;
  • Nana (Chapter 5), about a prostitute whose life span symbolises the disfigurement of French society from the coup d’état in 1852 to the declaration of war against Russia which signalled the collapse of Empire;
  • The Ladies Paradise (Chapter 6): a transitional novel, from the private lives of the bourgeoisie in Pot Luck to a new optimistic focus on progress which depicts the Darwinian struggle between small business retailers and the new new phenomenon of the department store;
  • Germinal (Chapter 7) is about class conflict and the struggle between capital and labour, which Zola foresaw would be the most important question of the 20th century. But it’s also a novel about the importance of working-class leadership: Zola was well aware of the risks of muddled thinking and patchy reading and the consequences for demagoguery;
  • Earth which Nelson thinks is one of Zola’s finest achievements, demolishing the myth of the inherent goodness of peasants and depicting them as they really were, primitive and insular in a harsh environment.  Their savage, sometimes murderous attachment to land is an anti-pastoral.

Chapter 9 introduced me to novels I haven’t read: the more mythic Three Cities trilogy (about a priest who loses his faith) and the unfinished quartet of the Four Gospel novels (exploring a secular replacement for Christianity). In this later period—amid the ideological shifts in la fin de siécle—Zola’s themes were life and death, creation and destruction, degeneration and renewal.  But his signature naturalism began to be rejected, Catholicism was on the rise and there was pessimism about the nation’s future.  Nelson says that some of these are more like tracts.

And then Dreyfus affair overshadowed everything else.  This VSI has one of the best and clearest explanations of this affair and its long-lasting effects on France.  And he also says that it may well have led to the probable poisoning of this genius of French literature.

Author: Brian Nelson
Title: Émile Zola, a Very Short Introduction
Oxford Very Short Introductions Series
Publisher: OUP (Oxford University Press), 2020
ISBN: 9780198837565, pbk., 144 pages including

  • A chronology of Zola’s life and works
  • References
  • Further reading, and
  • Index

Review copy courtesy of Oxford University Press.

Available from Fishpond: Emile Zola: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers

(Re-reading) His Excellency Eugène Rougon (Son Excellence Eugène Rougon) by Émile Zola, translated by Brian Nelson

his excellency eugene rougonI have been re-reading His Excellency Eugène Rougon (Son Excellence Eugène Rougon) because I have a lovely new OUP edition, translated by Brian Nelson.  I’m not going to review the novel again because I’ve already reviewed the Vizetelly translation as part of my Zola Project to read the entire Rougon-Marquet series, but I do want to comment about why it’s so much more enjoyable to read a new edition than a freebie from Project Gutenberg.

I admire the whole concept of Project Gutenberg, and I’ve read plenty of their titles that I couldn’t otherwise source. The wonderful team of volunteers at PG have saved many titles from oblivion, and these titles are free, which makes them accessible to all budgets. But there are limitations with some titles, and the Vizetelly translations of Zola’s novels are particularly problematic…

I call them Vizetelly translations, but actually, Vizetelly was the publisher and although Brian Nelson says in his Translator’s Note that His Excellency was translated by Henry Vizetelly’s son Ernest in 1897, Wikipedia says that it’s not known who the translator was. That’s probably just because WP hasn’t caught up with the scholarship, but it is true that Gutenberg editions sometimes don’t #NameTheTranslator because translators weren’t acknowledged in the original editions. In the case of Zola, it may be that anonymity was desired, perhaps by a lady translator, because Zola was considered salacious and as Vizetelly learned to his cost, it wasn’t just risky for a lady’s reputation… there were worse consequences than that.

Henry Vizetelly (1820-94) was fined and imprisoned for three months in 1889 over the publication of La Terre, which was considered offensive. Subsequent editions of all of Zola’s novels were heavily edited by his son Ernest Vizetelly (1853-1922) in order to avoid further prosecutions. (Source: The Books of Émile Zola)

In the case of His Excellency the 1897 translation is after Henry’s gaol term, so it falls into the category of ‘heavily edited’.

So it’s not just that contemporary readers of Vizetelly have to adjust to reading a 19th century English version of 19th century French. It’s also that the novels were self-censored, as it were. Sometimes this prudishness doesn’t much matter. The missing details of Clorinde in scandalous (un)dress holding court to a coterie of admiring men while an artist paints her as Diana the Huntress, are hardly significant. OTOH readers would understand something completely different about a lovers’ relationship from Nelson’s use of the word ‘enslavement’ when referring to a woman wearing a dog collar and a badge inscribed with ‘I belong to my master,’ compared to Vizetelly’s coy ‘servitude’. Even though I read the Vizetelly back in 2014, I became quite adept at identifying text that had been cut or sanitised. ‘I bet that’s not in Vizetelly!’, I found myself saying, and each time I was right.

But also, there are details which make no sense to a modern reader without explanatory notes. For example, when Rougon is being told about a plot to assassinate the emperor, his informant suddenly says:

‘It’s planned for tomorrow night… They aim to assassinate Badinguet outside the Opera, as he is going in.’ (p.185)

Huh? thinks the modern Australian reader, who is this new character Badinguet and what has he got to do with anything? The Gutenberg edition on my Kindle leaves me none the wiser, but Brian Nelson’s Explanatory Notes helpfully explain that Badinguet was a derisive nickname for the Emperor. Louis-Napoleon had made two unsuccessful attempts at a coup before his triumphant third attempt, and was imprisoned after the second one. He escaped in disguise as a labourer by name of Badinguet. It’s not just a clever bit of French history thrown in at random: Zola is showing that this Emperor is still widely held in contempt.

I don’t often re-read books but this new translation based on the original French was a real treat. Extra features of this edition which enhanced my reading so much compared to the Kindle edition of the Vizetelly translation, include an Introduction; the Translator’s notes; a Bibliography, a Chronology of Zola’s life, and a Family Tree of the Rougon-Macquart, and Explanatory Notes.

PS I should add that there was a 1958 translation by Alec Brown for Elek Books, but my experience with Brown’s translation of La Bête Humaine was that it was utterly unreadable so my advice is to avoid Brown’s translations at all cost.

Author: Émile Zola
Title: His Excellency Eugène Rougon (Son Excellence Eugène Rougon)
A new translation by Brian Nelson
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics, OUP (Oxford University Press), 2018, first published in 1876, 333 pages (not including the Explanatory Notes)
ISBN: 9780198748250
Review copy courtesy of Oxford University Press.

Available from Fishpond: His Excellency Eugene Rougon (Oxford World’s Classics) and from OUP. (Not the easiest site to navigate to find the rest of the Zolas, but if (from the Oxford World’s Classics home page) you click on Show More, and then Click on View All Titles, and then choose search ‘from Z to A’ all the Zolas in OUP editions come up, one after the other.)

Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers.

The Art of Book Introductions, and why you should always buy the Oxford World’s Classics editions of Zola

I like Book Introductions. I find them very helpful when I’m reading classic literature, especially if the book is from a less familiar culture or an historical period I don’t know much about. I like it when an expert puts the work in context for me, and draws my attention to aspects of the novel that I might otherwise miss. But it is always a matter of judgement whether to read the Introduction before reading the book, or afterwards.  And if I decide that the work merits reading it with some understanding of its context and features, I get very snaky indeed if the Introduction reveals spoilers.

One could argue that anyone who reads an Introduction beforehand does so at their peril.  But I think that the best writers of Introductions don’t ruin things for their readers, and if they must reveal some crucial plot point in order to discuss the novel, they signal it properly in time for the reader to decide whether to continue or not.

At the beginning of the Brian Nelson’s Introduction in the Oxford World’s Classic edition of his translation of Zola’s The Fortune of the Rougons, there is this clear warning:

Readers who do not wish to learn details of the plot will prefer to read the Introduction as an Afterword.

Yes, this brings me to the Introductions in Oxford World’s Classics.  My Zola Project took me two years to complete, and I read a variety of editions to achieve it.  I read some Elek editions with their lurid covers from the 1950s, a couple of American editions with unfortunate translation issues, a dog-eared old Penguin, and – worst of all –  a couple of archaic self-censored editions from the 19th century publisher Vizetelly (who was scared of being locked up for obscenity that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow now).  When I could get my hands on them, I read modern Oxford World’s Classic editions but alas, at the time I was reading my way through The Rougon-Maquart Cycle, OUP hadn’t issued editions of the whole series.  As time went by, however, my reading coincided with the release of new editions, and OUP kindly sent these new editions to me as they were published.  One (La Débacle) was a welcome reissue of an edition that had gone out-of-print (and all I’d been able to get hold of was an ancient library copy), but the others were beaut new translations which enhanced my reading of Zola enormously.  But even when I’d already read the novel in some other edition, I kept the OUPs to read the Introductions, with the intent of also re-reading the novel in due course.

Reading Brian Nelson’s Introduction to The Fortune of the Rougons is a real treat.  Nelson is Emeritus Professor of French Studies and Translation Studies at Monash University, and he is IMHO the best translator of Zola, effortlessly capturing the nuances of dialogue amongst the different classes as the Americans don’t seem to be able to do.   I never imagined that one day I would become a fangirl of a translator, but it is such a pleasure to read Nelson’s translations that I find it difficult not to gush when I meet him at Translation events with AALITRA (the Australian Association for translators, who put on occasional events that are of interest to readers of translations like me).  And he is so knowledgeable about French culture and history of the 19th century that his Introductions are gems, as I first discovered when I read The Ladies’ Paradise.

Nelson’s Introduction to The Fortune of the Rougons  begins with a general introduction to Zola as the Balzac of his era and includes a helpful summary of the way the characters of this novel all become protagonists of novels in the rest of the series.  If you can’t remember where Angélique Rougon ends up, page viii tells you that her story is The Dream and lists all the others as well. There is also an explanation of Zola’s ‘scientific observation’ and his poetic vision, which is important to understand when you encounter the criticism that his naturalism was considered ‘putrid’ by some of his contemporaries. There is a warning not to skip Zola’s celebrated physical descriptions [despite the occasional temptation to do so] because they express the very meaning, and ideological tendencies of his narratives.

… the originality of Zola’s fiction lies in its remarkable symbolising effects.  Emblematic features of contemporary life – the market, the machine, the tenement building, the laundry, the mine, the apartment house, the department store, the stock exchange, the theatre, the city itself – are used as giant symbols of the society of his day. Zola sees allegories of contemporary life everywhere. (The Fortune of the Rougons, translated by Brian Nelson, Oxford World’s Classics, 2012, p.xi)

I wish I’d realised this right at the beginning of my Zola Project when I read my first Zola, Germinal!

There’s also a very helpful section on the historical and political themes in the series, and in The Fortune of the Rougons in particular.  French history in this era is very complicated yet in a masterful page and a bit, Nelson manages to explain how Louis-Napoleon’s seizure of power was achieved by fraud, duress and murder, but it had the overwhelming backing of the French people. With respect for Nelson’s warning about spoilers, I shall say no more, except to note that reading this Intro four years after reading the book brings it to life again before my eyes.  And as it happens I have a spare copy of this edition, and for readers with an Australian postcode who have read thus far, a giveaway copy is available and all you need to do is say that you want it in the comments and it will be yours.  (First in, best dressed, as we say!)

In 2017 Oxford World’s Classics published The Sin of Abbé Mouret with an introduction by Valerie Minogue who also did the translation.  Minogue is Emeritus Professor of French at the University of Wales, Swansea, co-founding editor with Brian Nelson of the journal Romance Studies, and co-editor of the Emile Zola Society Bulletin. I had already read the 1969 Prentice-Hall edition translated by Sandy Petrey, (complete with a dustjacket that gives away a good part of the plot) and you can read what I thought about the translation in my review.  But you will also see from that review that I was floundering with the change in Zola’s approach in this novel, and that I did find Petrey’s Afterword helpful.  But Minogue’s Introduction is more expansive.  I was especially interested in the explanation about the research that Zola did for his priest-in-love novel.   

He studied the Bible, the Catholic Missal, and the methods and teachings of the seminaries.  He went to Mass and made detailed notes on clerical dress and accessories, and the whole complicated choreography of the ritual.  He read L’Imitation de Jésus Christ, the fifteenth-century Catholic devotional book generally attributed to Thomas à Kempis, and the accounts of saints and martyrs that were part of the education of would-be priests.  He read the Spanish Jesuits on the cult of Mary, as well as general works on the Church and the priesthood. (The Sin of Abbé Mouret, translated by Valerie Minogue, Oxford World’s Classics, 2017, p. ix).

If that ain’t authorial dedication to research, I don’t know what is!  (I can’t help imagining the disapproving looks of the parishioners as they see Zola scribbling away in his notebooks at Mass!!)

What is also revealing is Minogue’s suggestion that the theorising Zola is overtaken by the creator in this novel and how his interest in contemporary art in the era of the Impressionists influenced his aesthetic.  I hadn’t noticed either, as I read on through the series, that the best of Zola’s priests turn away from the Church and become parents and reformers rather than priests.  Another snippet of interest is that Zola’s disapproval of celibacy came at a time when there was serious concern in France about the declining birth rate.  And I also like the feminist slant on the characterisation of Rosalie as a valuable commodity.  Again the Introduction comes with a warning about spoilers, so again I shall confine myself to saying that this novel is first on my list for re-reading in due course.

Second on my list for re-reading is Germinal, the first Zola that I read, in a battered 1969 reissue of the 1954 Penguin edition, translated by L.W. Tancock.  The reissued 2008 Oxford World’s Classics edition from 1993 is translated by Peter Collier, with an introduction by Robert Lethbridge (who also wrote the splendid Introduction for the OWC edition of La Débâcle.) OUP sent me this one right at the beginning of my Zola Project but I’d already read Germinal and put it to one side to read the others in the series first. I should have paused to read the Introduction anyway because it begins like this:

Germinal is a resonant title, in every sense.  Fifty thousand people followed behind Émile Zola’s funeral procession on 5 October 1902, and among them a delegation of miners from the Denain coalfield rhythmically chanted, ‘Germinal! Germinal!’ through the streets of Paris.  Even today, the novel has a special place in the folklore of the mining communities of France. (Germinal, translated by Peter Collier and an Introduction by Robert Lethbridge, Oxford World’s Classics, 1993, reissued 2008, p.vii)

Can you imagine miners in Australia in procession behind an author’s cortege?  Perhaps that’s because no one has written a novel that speaks to them as Germinal did for the miners of France.  (Has Thomas Keneally done so?  Or maybe David Ireland?)

Lethbridge goes on to explain other resonances that I did not know about from reading Tancock’s somewhat discouraging Introduction in the Penguin edition.  I’m sure Tancock didn’t mean it to be, but after beginning with a quotation from André Gide that says Germinal is one of the ten best novels in the French language, he goes on to devote an entire paragraph to criticism of the novel as unsubtle and crude, oversimplified and melodramatic, psychologically rudimentary and improbable not to mention bestial and insulting to our dignity as human beings, its language coarse and obscene, its style repetitive and emphatic.  And while he goes on to be patronising about the critics who say these things, he seems blissfully unaware that he’s adding to the damage himself! I suspect that Tancock was an old Tory because he’s not happy about Zola’s ‘socialism’ and he rants on about how Zola painted inaccurate pictures of industrial conditions which took no account of things that had ‘been put right’.  Tell that to modern-day miners, still working in perilous conditions and not just in China – as the recent Pike River disaster in New Zealand and the Beaconsfield Mine Collapse in Tasmania show.  Anyway, enough about him… Tancock was a product of his Cold War times.

Lethbridge explains that

‘Germinal’ was the name given to the month of April in the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution, when those convinced that 1789 marked a new beginning had recast the calendar, starting with year 1.  More precisely, it was on 12 Germinal year III that starving Parisians staged a famous uprising against the government of the Convention. (ibid, p.vii)

Perhaps this is information known to every French schoolboy but it was news to me, and of course it adds immeasurably to understanding the novel.  (BTW this edition doesn’t come with a spoiler warning).  Lethbridge tells us also that Zola knew it was prophetic of ‘the twentieth century’s most important question’, namely the conflict between the forces of modern Capitalism and the interests of the human beings necessary to its advance.  (As it turns out, that question is just as relevant in the 21st century, if not more so, given that there’s no socialist alternative to offset unbridled capitalism and many people are finding that their working conditions are bearing the brunt of it.) And far from being inaccurate about mining conditions, Zola had visited industrial unrest in the Valenciennes area in 1884, and found himself struck not so much by the violence he’d read about in the press, but by chilling resignation and despair.  What Zola found in the region close to the Belgian border was human suffering in contemporary form.

Zola’s stance is ultimately to be located between compassion and an awareness of fatalities which combine to render almost insignificant the vicissitudes of individual lives (on both sides of the class struggle). (ibid p. viii)

Lethbridge goes on to discuss the debate about whether Germinal is a reactionary or a revolutionary work but he says it is a timeless work and one of the finest novels ever written in French. 

I like the way Lethbridge clarifies Zola’s problematic interest in biological imperatives, (something I have sometimes mocked in my reviews).

By tracing the destiny of a single family and its descendants, Zola felt he could give due weight to biological imperatives lent intellectual credibility in France by the 1865 translation of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. That is to suggest neither that Zola uncritically subscribed to theories of heredity being popularised at the time, nor that these are systematically illustrated in his Rougon-Maquart novels.  Preliminary notes for the series as a whole, drawn up in 1868-9, make it clear that he considered heredity a conveniently scientific substitute for the outmoded concept of Fate. (ibid p.ix)

The sections that outline Zola’s thinking as he worked his way through the Rougon-Maquart cycle are fascinating, showing that rather than being circumscribed by its origins in specific events of 1869 or 1884 [the Anzin miners’ strike which Zola also observed first-hand], the novel accommodates the conflicts of the century extended, by a process of repetition, from 1789 onwards. Lethbridge says that in this way this novel of the working class brought together his reflections on two decades of militant socialism neither checked by, nor limited to, a failed revolution. 

Lethbridge’s is such a very good Introduction that I am not surprised that OUP felt no need to commission a new one for their reissue.

I do hope that I have convinced would-be readers of Zola’s Rougon-Maquart Cycle that the OUP editions are the ones to read, not only because the translations are infinitely better than anything else I found, but also because the Introductions will add to your enjoyment of the novels and the series.

Cross-posted at ANZLitlovers.

 

Great news! New editions of Zola titles

The Sin of Abbe Mouret

Readers who followed my Zola journey will know that there were some titles in the Rougon-Macquart cycle that were hard to find, and #BeingPolite there were others that needed a modern translation.

The standard, for me, was set by Brian Nelson’s translations for Oxford World’ Classics: not only were the translations very good, there were also excellent introductions which enhanced my reading of the series.

La Debacle (Oxford World's Classics)Well, I was delighted yesterday to find two new editions in my postbox: La Débâcle, translated by Elinor Dorday – a title which was out of print and very hard to find – has been reissued by Oxford World’s Classics, and *drumroll* they have also issued a new translation of The Sin of Abbé Mouret.  It’s by Valerie Pearson Minogue, who also translated the recent edition of Money in 2014.

As usual in this series, the cover art comes from French artists.  The image on the cover of La Débâcle is a detail from Artillery Skirmish in the Forest during the Siege of Paris by Édouard Detaille, and Cézanne is featured on The Sin of Abbé Mouret with a detail from Forest Interior, 1898-9.

Both titles are available now and you should be able to find them on any online site or in good bookshops.

As I’ve said before, I know that you can find free versions of Zola’s novels online, but if you can afford it, buy these OWC titles, they really will enhance the reading experience for you.

Doctor Pascal, by Émile Zola, translated by Mary Jane Serrano

Doctor Pascal

Source: Wikipedia Commons

There could be a sense of anti-climax when reading Doctor Pascal, the last of Émile Zola’s great Rougon-Macquart cycle of twenty novels. Having followed five generations of the descendants of Adelaïde Fouque (Tante Dide) over the course of the Second Empire in France, the reader has come across occasional allusions to Doctor Pascal but there has been no hint that he is a person of much interest. He’s a bachelor, he lives in Plassans, and he’s spent his life recording the lives of his extended family in order to confirm his theories about heredity.

(This was Zola’s own pet theory too: he believed that heredity determined physical and mental health, and the bloodlines of the Rougon-Macquart family were a fictional demonstration that the descendants of the mad matriarch Adelaïde would turn out well or badly depending on whether they were of legitimate descent through her respectable marriage to Pierre Rougon, or from her more dubious relationship with the smuggler Macquart. However, Zola believed that it was possible to transcend inheritance, as we shall see).

Zola, genius that he was, created a fitting finale for his series. Doctor Pascal involves the conflict between religion and science; a May-September relationship; a fall from fortune; duty versus love; and at the end, a slightly ambiguous conclusion where – despite the image of a Madonna and babe – we are left wondering how the next generation will fare.

Doctor Pascal is descended from the legitimate branch of the family, so he is respectable and hardworking, albeit a tad obsessive. His niece Clotilde is diligent and respectable too: she is the daughter of the financial wheeler-and-dealer Aristide Rougon who took the name Saccard after his spectacular fall from grace (see my review of L’argent (Money). She, however, has had nothing to do with her father, because she was packed off to Plassans after the death of her mother Angèle Sicardot. Clotilde was brought up by Doctor Pascal at his property, La Souleiade, where in his belief that trees grew straight if they were not interfered with, he had allowed her to grow up in her own way, after teaching her merely to read and write.

As Pascal eventually tells her, it was Clotilde’s good fortune to inherit the best of her mother’s side of the family.

“Your mother has predominated in you; you have her fine intelligence, and you have also something of her coquetry, at times of her indolence and of her submissiveness. Yes, you are very feminine, like her. Without your being aware of it, I would say that you love to be loved. Besides, your mother was a great novel reader, an imaginative being who loved to spend whole days dreaming over a book; she doted on nursery tales, had her fortune told by cards, consulted clairvoyants; and I have always thought that your concern about spiritual matters, your anxiety about the unknown, came from that source. But what completed your character by giving you a dual nature, was the influence of your grandfather, Commandant Sicardot. I knew him; he was not a genius, but he had at least a great deal of uprightness and energy. Frankly, if it were not for him, I do not believe that you would be worth much, for the other influences are hardly good. He has given you the best part of your nature, combativeness, pride, and frankness.” (Kindle Location 1608)

When the story opens, Clotilde is a young woman, Pascal’s fond and dutiful secretary.

BEWARE: SPOILERS

It is because Clotilde sorts Pascal’s documents that she comes into conflict with him. A new firebrand preacher convinces her that Pascal’s research is an affront to God’s omnipotence, and egged on by the pious servant Martine and her grandmother Félicité who has her own reasons for wanting to get her hand on those documents, Clotilde first pleads with Pascal to destroy them, and then resolves to do it herself in order to save his soul. Pascal goes through a dreadful period of not being able to relax in his own home because he fears his niece’s newfound religiosity will impel her to burn his papers. He locks everything up, and he hides the key.

For Pascal, the search for truth has been his life’s work.

… Dr. Pascal had only one belief—the belief in life. Life was the only divine manifestation. Life was God, the grand motor, the soul of the universe. And life had no other instrument than heredity; heredity made the world; so that if its laws could be known and directed, the world could be made to one’s will. In him, to whom sickness, suffering and death had been a familiar sight, the militant pity of the physician awoke. Ah! to have no more sickness. no more suffering, as little death as possible! His dream ended in this thought – that universal happiness, the future community of perfection and felicity, could be hastened by intervention, by giving health to all. (Location 457)

Well, after a long period of quiet hostility between them, Clotilde finally gets hold of the key to Pascal’s cupboard, but he surprises her just as she is about to destroy everything. Although Pascal intended never to burden Clotilde with the shameful secrets of their shared Rougon-Macquart family tree, in his rage he now forces her to listen as he explains his theory and how various members of their extended family embody the evil inherited down through the generations from Adelaïde.

Clotilde then begins to see his quest for the truth in a different light, and although the truth about their family history is painful to her, she admires Pascal’s honesty. She begins to share his optimism that perhaps his research might lead to a different outcome for future descendants. Despite their considerable age difference and their incestuous uncle-niece relationship, they fall in love.

Pascal’s mother Félicité is not best pleased about this. Her hard-won middle-class respectability is at threat because the pair show no sign of wanting to get married, and she is very anxious that Pascal’s research not ever be made public. She doesn’t want anyone to know about her boozy brother-in-law Antoine Macquart and her mad mother-in-law Adelaide (Tante Dide) who has been safely hidden away in an asylum for decades.

Although Félicité is not a sympathetic character, her desire for privacy is something with which many of us might identify. Pascal, oblivious to all but his quest for truth, has never considered the impact on his family. Do today’s family historians cheerfully uploading their family trees to the cloud ever stop to consider that for one reason or another, some family members might object?

Ah, those abominable papers! she saw them at night, in her nightmares, revealing in letters of fire, the true histories, the physiological blemishes of the family, all that wrong side of her glory which she would have wished to bury forever with the ancestors already dead! She knew how it was that the doctor had conceived the idea of collecting these documents at the beginning of his great studies on heredity; how he had found himself led to take his own family as an example, struck by the typical cases which he saw in it, and which helped to support laws discovered by him. Was it not a perfectly natural field of observation, close at hand and with which he was thoroughly familiar? And with the fine, careless justness of the scientist, he had been accumulating for the last thirty years the most private data, collecting and classifying everything, raising this genealogical tree of the Rougon-Macquarts, of which the voluminous papers, crammed full of proofs, were only the commentary. (Location 204)

Clotilde and Pascal in their idyll are oblivious to this: Martine the faithful servant keeps Félicité at bay. But Martine cannot protect them from other troubles. Unlike almost everyone else in his grasping, avaricious family, Pascal is not interested in money. His income comes from investments managed by the local notary, and any money he receives from his (mostly impecunious) patients lies untouched in a drawer in the house (apart from when Pascal imprudently buys Clotilde expensive jewellery – which she doesn’t really want anyway). Martine manages the household comfortably on a shoestring, and all is well for a good long time. But eventually greed raises its ugly head once more, and the notary does a bunk with everyone’s money, leaving Pascal ruined.

Félicité (whose money is unaffected) sees her opportunity, but Pascal who is both naïve about money and stubborn about his mother, won’t have her in the house. La Souleiade is almost down to its last potato, when Clotilde gets a call for help from Paris. Her brother Maxime (he of the ‘uncontrollable appetites’ featured in La Curée), is now an invalid, and he wants her help. Clotilde, of course, doesn’t want to go, but Félicité insists it is her duty, and Pascal persuades himself that Clotilde should not be suffering their poverty.

Rougon-Macquart family treeAll this time, of course, Pascal has been getting older, and tragedy strikes while Clotilde is reluctantly doing her duty in Paris. But Félicité doesn’t get exactly what she wants because the novel concludes with Clotilde in possession of the family tree and with the scandalous birth of Pascal and Clotilde’s son. This birth is a sign of hope which contrasts with the five generations of deaths which symbolise an end to the legacy of Mad old Adelaide. She dies, at the age of 105; so does her alcoholic son Antoine Macquart (in a truly nauseating death); and her grandson Pascal Rougon dies after a series of heart attacks. There is also the death of the dissolute Maxime (Adelaide’s great-grandson by Aristide Rougon-Saccard), and of his feeble-minded haemophiliac son Charles.

Clotilde, musing on how her life has turned out, recognises that Pascal was not just being kind in removing her from the toxic environment of her father’s home in Paris, he was ‘experimenting’ too.

It was an old theory of his which he would have liked to test on a large scale: culture through environment, complete regeneration even, the improvement, the salvation of the individual, physically as well as morally. (Loc 4360)

She had flourished in a different environment and ended by becoming a well-balanced and rational woman. The novel ends with Clotilde nursing her babe and it all looks quite promising.

Except that this nameless child is the grandson of Aristide Saccard, and the product of an incestuous relationship, is he not?

Author: Émile Zola
Title: Doctor Pascal
Translated by Mary Jane Serrano (1898)
Publisher: Kindle edition, first published 1893
ASIN: B0084CFOFW
Source: Personal copy, a freebie ‘purchased’ for the Kindle from Amazon.

Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers for the Zola Project.

La Débâcle, by Émile Zola, translated by Elinor Dorday

La Debacle Well, here we are at the penultimate novel in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle, and what a magnificent novel La Débâcle has turned out to be.  Often compared to Tolstoy’s War and Peace it tells the story of how, in Bismarck’s quest to unify a muddle of German states into a united country, he outmanoeuvred the French military and humiliated them in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.  Under his leadership, Germans overran Alsace and Lorraine, besieged Metz, captured Napoleon at Sedan and triggered the fall of the Empire, which led to the Paris Commune of March-May 1871.  It was indeed a debacle for the French, and Zola writes about it from the point-of-view of ordinary soldiers, depicting their courage and their suffering as pawns in a tragedy over which they have no control.

Although I usually skip the introduction in classic novels, I read this one (by scholar Robert Lethbridge) because my knowledge of 19th century wars is somewhat scanty.  I also scrutinised the maps, so usefully provided in this Oxford’s World’s Classics edition because (as with War and Peace) maps clarify events otherwise confusing to readers unfamiliar with the geography of the story.  The maps of La Débâcle show how cunningly the united German forces encircled crucial strategic positions, and how hopeless the French situation so rapidly became.  Far be it from me to advise anyone on military matters, but maybe La Débâcle should be required reading for the French military, at the very least…

According to Zola, who researched this novel thoroughly (including making field trips to the area), the arrogance of the French military was such that they had only maps of the southern German states, because they expected to trounce the enemy on its own soil.  It beggars belief that none of those in command actually had any maps of the French terrain in Alsace-Lorraine where most of the fighting took place.  It’s the locals, like Weiss at Sedan, who can see that orders to retreat to Mézières are sheer madness:

He began to despair, full of remorse that this was precisely the advice he’d given the day before to General Ducrot of all people, who was now in supreme command.  Yes, certainly, the day before that had been the only plan to follow: retreat, immediate retreat through the Saint-Albert gap.  But that route must be blocked by now, for that was where the entire black swarm of Prussians had gone, down below on the Donchery Plain.  And weighing up folly for folly, there was only one left, a brave and desperate measure, which meant chucking the Bavarians into the Meuse and marching over them to pick up the Carignan road.

Hitching his glasses back into place every second or so, Weiss explained the situation to the lieutenant, who was still sitting propped up against the door, both his legs blown off, extremely pale, bleeding to death. (p.187)

With his last breath the lieutenant tells his men to do as Weiss says, and before long

…from every lane, the enemy were being chased into the meadows with bayonets at their backs, causing a scattered flight into the river which would undoubtedly have turned into a rout had there only been fresh troops to back up the marines who were already exhausted and decimated. (p.187)

Not only was there no backup, the incompetence of the leadership meant that the troops were short of weapons and ammunition, horses, firewood to cook with, and worst of all, marching for days on empty bellies.  Seen through the eyes of class enemies who become friends, the peasant-soldier Jean Macquart (the central character in La Terre (Earth), see my review) and the lawyer Maurice Levasseur, hunger becomes visceral.  They share their last biscuits, until Maurice becomes so desperate that Jean gives him the last one, denying himself altogether.

And although the scenes of human suffering are ghastly, it’s not just the men who suffer:

…on the corner of the avenue, [Jean] caught sight of a trooper, a Chasseur, whom he thought he recognised.  Wasn’t that Prosper, the lad from Remilly he’d seen at Vouziers with Maurice?  He’d dismounted and his horse was haggard, wobbly on its feet, suffering from such hunger that it was reaching out to eat the planks of a wagon parked by the side of the road.  For two days now, the stores had issued no feed for the horses, and they were dying of exhaustion.  His large teeth made a rasping noise against the wood, while the Chasseur just stood and cried.  (p151-2)

The Emperor is treated with surprising compassion by Zola.  He appears in different scenes as a kind of wraith, obviously gravely ill, and although surrounded by his entourage, entirely alone.  In the moment of greatest humiliation when he realises that they have lost the war, and that means the end of the empire, he does not even have the authority to surrender to Bismarck.  His order to save his people from further suffering by raising the white flag is countermanded by his most intransigent general, who refuses to face reality.  Napoleon is a pitiful spectre, denied the right to see his brother King William of Prussia until his generals submit to humiliating terms, and made painfully aware of his change in status by the shabby accommodation he now gets.

For the people of Sedan after defeat, there is worse pain than humiliation.  Thousands of French troops are corralled on the peninsula with no provisions or medical help.  Many of them die of hunger or wounds as the Germans take their desultory time to make arrangements for them.  In the town, homes are occupied, and there are desperate attempts to negotiate over the impossible sums demanded in reparations.  When the local thugs take every opportunity to kill the Occupiers, there are brutal reprisals against the townspeople.  The sound of coarse German songs and their guttural language in the streets reinforces their misery every day.

Meanwhile, the enemy’s grip encircles Paris and the siege begins.  Again, the people can’t quite believe that it is happening.  Previous defeats were accidents of fate, they think, and the invincible French army will be resurrected in the provinces and save them.  But as the weeks go by, supplies diminish; the lights go out; there is no fuel for cooking;  rationing fails and hunger becomes the silent killer.  The enemy waits outside, as negotiations for peace begin.  Versailles recognises that surrender to the Prussians is inevitable but in the face of the reality that they have no options left, they haggle for reasonable terms.

In the pages of a history book, the rise of the Commune seems incomprehensible.  As Jean perceives it, it is madness for a country to be in civil war when the enemy is at the doorstep.  But in Zola’s novel, we see in the character of Maurice that the feverish madness which led to the Commune derives from love of country and a desire to rebuild a new nation after the excesses of Empire.  The rebels’ refusal to acquiesce to Versailles’ surrender was fuelled by irrational optimism, a hope that succour must come from somewhere – some provincial army, some helpful ally offering more than mere words, and a belief in the Commune as some kind of avenging angel for all the shames endured, as a liberating force bringing the severing iron, the purifying flame.

For the modern reader, Zola’s novel brings perspective to the 20th century hostilities between France and Germany.  And like War and Peace it reinforces the truth that it is the ordinary people who get caught up in great events who suffer heroically in war.

La Débâcle is a magnificent book.  I don’t see how Zola can possibly surpass it in the last book of the cycle, Doctor Pascal…

Author: Émile Zola
Title: La Débâcle  (The Debacle)
Translated by Elinor Dorday
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics, 2000
ISBN: 9780192822895
Source: Interlibrary loan courtesy of the Melbourne Library Service via Kingston Library.

Availability:

This edition is out of print.  Hopefully OUP will issue a reprint before long.

Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers

Earth (La Terre) by Émile Zola, translated by Brian Nelson and Julie Rose

Earth (La Terre)As I come towards the end of my two-year Zola project, I am starting to feel a little bit melancholy.  What can I find to read that might bring as much sustained pleasure as reading the 20-volume Rougon-Macquart cycle?  Earth (La Terre) (1887) is 15th in the publication order but 18th in the recommended reading order; so for me after this all that’s left to read is only La Débâcle (1892) (The Downfall/The Smash-up/The Debacle) and Le Docteur Pascal (1893) (Doctor Pascal).  Oh woe!

Earth (also translated as The Soil) is a masterpiece.  It is a tale of terrible family conflict over land-ownership.  The peasants of this novel have such a distorted love of land that causes only toil and heartbreak, that they are prepared to abandon the ordinary impulses of humanity to keep it.

As with everything else he wrote, Zola researched his subject thoroughly, and it shows.  On the one hand there are lyrical descriptions of the landscape lush with the harvest or the desolation of a field after hail, and on the other there are crude, lewd descriptions of the earthy peasants, their drinking and carousing, their brutish work, their use and abuse of women, and their exasperating ignorance and stupidity.  As Brian Nelson says in his excellent introduction, Zola was not like other novelists of his era in idealising rural life; he wrote naturalism and he painted a frank portrait of what he saw on his research trip to the Beuce.  To quote Nelson:

The novelist attended a big cattle market, visited farms, conducted interviews, and took extensive notes.  This research is undoubtedly reflected in the remarkable particularity of authentic detail that informs his descriptions of the peasants’ world and his elaboration of scenes that evoke ‘the eternal round of things’. (p.118): the evening gatherings in the cowshed, weddings, baptisms, fairs, funerals, as well as the sowing, haymaking, and harvesting.  However, it did not alter (but rather, reinforced) his imaginative conception of the reality he wished to depict.  (Introduction, p. xv)

The story revolves around the fortunes of the Fouan family, into whose orbit Jean Macquart falls when he comes looking for work as a carpenter after his discharge from the army.  Estranged from his family and looking for a quiet life after the horrors of war, Jean finds himself attracted to life on the land and takes up work as a labourer.  Before long he finds himself feeling protective towards Lise and Françoise Mouche, and then in different ways, attracted to both.  Lise is pregnant to Buteau, the brutish son of old Fouan, but he’s abandoned her and taken off for elsewhere, partly because of a stupid row over land.

Old Fouan is a parody of King Lear: old and tired, he decides to divide his holdings between his three children, Fanny (respectably married to Delhomme); Buteau (a pig-headed oaf); and Hyacinthe, (a drunkard, gambler and poacher, known scandalously as Jesus-Christ).  The deal is that he and his wife will continue to live in the family home and all three children will pay him a pension.  There is one sordid scene after another while they haggle over every last sou, and in the end when they draw lots for who is to get which parcel of land, Buteau doesn’t get the one he wanted and he goes off in a huff.

As Zola makes clear, it’s the inheritance of land that results in these ignoble family quarrels.  After all the post-revolution redistributions of land, peasant families never had enough land to make a decent living.  Inherited land was redistributed into smaller and smaller parcels as it was shared amongst the offspring, and the only way that more land could be acquired was to marry it.  Women were prized according to the land they’d inherited, and where it was sited.  (It was most convenient if it were adjacent to a prospective spouse’s land, of course).

While Jean eyes off Lise as a prospective wife, Buteau eventually comes to his senses and returns to take up his share of the Fouan land and marry her, because she and her sister have inherited land from their father, and because Françoise is underage he will have the use of her land as well.  Jean then finds himself attracted to Françoise – but is also not averse to a little hanky-panky elsewhere as well, because, well, that’s how it is.  Two parish priests try and fail to establish a bit of morality but with only one or two exceptions, all the women in the novel sleep around, indoors and outdoors, with anyone at all.  The men, for their part, regard it as their right to take women as and when they please.  This might seem a bit confronting, but it is part of Zola’s intention to show that women are a commodity used to get land, and that the fecundity of the earth creates a lusty attitude to life that is natural in that society.

Zola also shows that peasant life not only breeds cynical politicians at the local and national level, it also creates tragedy for the vulnerable.  Palmyre’s brother is disabled, physically and intellectually, and he has a truly terrible life, finally meeting his end when he explodes in rage and tries to rape an old woman.  Françoise spends her young life fending off sexual assault by Buteau because he thinks that if he makes her his, she won’t be able to marry and therefore he can keep her share of the sisters’ inheritance.  Old Fouan’s children renege on their obligations, and he ends up trudging from one to the other in the cold and the rain, looking for a bed for the night:

Fouan stepped back, afraid that they might catch sight of him at the door, like a beaten dog crawling back to its food-bowl.  He was so overcome by shame that he was filled with a fierce resolve to creep into a corner and die.  They’d see if all he thought about was his food!  He went down the slope once more and collapsed on the end of a beam outside Clou’s smithy.  His legs were giving way under him and he lost heart completely as he sat in the dark beside the deserted road.  There was not a soul to be seen, for the evening gatherings had already begun and bad weather was keeping everyone indoors.  The rain had made the wind drop and was now teeming down. He did not feel strong enough to stand up and look for shelter.  With his stick between his knees, and his bare skull streaming with water, he sat motionless, stupefied by his wretched plight.  (p.346)

(The translation, as you can see, is excellent!)

The insularity of the peasant society can be seen in the way they react to the free trade versus protection issue.  Down at the tavern, the drunks gather to thrash the issues around.  (The women gossip at the market, and at Mass).  American wheat is flooding the market, and small scale farming can’t compete.  A lack of capital impedes one farmer’s efforts to innovate, and the positioning of a road meant to improve access to markets is manipulated to maximise government compensation rather than efficiency.  A free trade politician promising improvements that will never be delivered is more popular than his protectionist opponent, and communism and anarchism get an airing too.

The schoolteacher’s efforts to educate the next generation are doomed to failure, because for all the hot air, no one wants to change anything.  And that includes anyone trying to join this society where families have lived for generations and the only people ever to travel are the conscripts forced to fight in foreign wars.

So Jean Macquart, for all that he works hard and is a decent man, is always the outsider, and the novel concludes with his wife’s betrayal because he is not ever going to belong.

There are things you can only share with your own flesh and blood, keep buried in the little spot of earth where you have all grown up together, things which you must never, in any circumstances, be mentioned to strangers; and Jean was a stranger … (p.374)

Zola’s novel is rich in insights like this.  It’s an outstanding example of Zola’s storytelling in the service of a bigger picture, revealing the complexity of small village life without romanticising it or populating it with unrealistic quirky characters.  Highly recommended!

Author: Émile Zola
Title: Earth (La Terre)
Translated  by Brian Nelson and Julie Rose
Publisher: Oxford University Press, Oxford World’s Classics series, 2016
ISBN: 9780199677870
Review copy courtesy of OUP.

Cross posted at ANZ LitLovers

Nana, by Émile Zola, translated by Douglas Parmée

Nana Nana (1880) is one of Zola’s many masterpieces in the Rougon-Macquart cycle, no.17 in the recommended reading order.  It follows the spectacular career of the young girl who ran wild at the end of L’Assommoir (1877) (see my review) and was last seen beginning her life as a prostitute, entering high society in a grand carriage as her alcoholic mother dies pathetically in abject poverty.

In Nana she starts out as a showgirl of very little talent in a (fictional) opera called La blonde Vénus at the Théâtre des Variétés, but her beauty makes her the talk of the town.  From the moment she flaunts her gorgeous body on stage, the audience is agog, and the men who fancy her almost batter down the stage door to gain access to her dressing-room.  While she’s not a cunning woman, and she all too often acts against her own best interests, she soon realises that what she needs is a wealthy patron who can set her up in style, and she finds a helpful servant called Zoé to manage the queues so that they don’t bump into each other.

BEWARE: SPOILERS

This ‘good-time-girl’ symbolising the moral corruption of the Second Empire destroys every man who comes her way, and most often their families too.  Her insatiable appetite for extravagance and her inability to manage money even when she’s got a lot of it, means that she expects to be paid lavishly for her charm, and she bankrupts one man after another.  Her first major victim is Steiner, who buys her a lovely house in the country and is thrown over as soon as he bankrupts himself with speculations on the stock exchange…

That idyll in the Loire also brings her into contact with young, naïve Georges Hugon.  He comes from a very respectable old family and his widowed mother is mortified by the sudden presence of Nana and her disreputable friends in her region, but Georges loses his innocence in no time, and so does his brother Philippe who was subsequently despatched to rescue him.  Both of these young men come to a terrible end, leaving Madame Hugon devastated.

Zola paints the indifference of society to the financial carnage with a mocking pen, but he does not spare his readers an insight into more catastrophic consequences.  Vandeuvres has a vast fortune from inheritance which he was busy wasting even before he met Nana.  But by the time Nana has finished with him, his only recourse to recover what he has lost is to gamble vast amounts at the racecourse.  The scandal that ensues after he gets involved in a betting scam sends him to despair, but society moves on.

And so does Nana.  Her most spectacular victim is Count Muffat, a pious and respectable man of old family who loses his head over her and ends up in ruin.  He’s a foolish man, but it’s hard not to feel a little pity for him when he realises that he’s spent his fortune buying Nana’s fidelity to him, but has never had it.  Her mansion in the heart of Paris is, with its red walls and suffocating heat is a holocaust consuming the honour of the whole of [his] ancient house, and in a superb irony, Muffat’s own wife duplicates the décor in his own home as she, too, descends into debauchery.  In a magnificent set scene at his daughter’s extravagant engagement party, Muffat is forced to shake the hand of his rival and Nana’s lover Fouchery to the strains of The Blonde Venus waltz.  Everyone there is aware of Nana’s presence although she is not there in person: she is responsible for the décor, for the music, for Muffat’s choice of future son-in-law and for his forced reconciliation with his wife.

Muffat, long tortured by the qualms of his Catholic conscience, finally recognises his degradation when he stumbles in on his own father-in-law in bed with Nana.  It is from this point on that Zola starts to chart the downfall of all of Nana’s men, and finally, of Nana herself, exhausted by her own inexhaustible folly and greed, and succumbing at the last, to the corruption of smallpox.  Her death is so horrible and so noxious that none but her old rival Rose will care for her; her men stand vigil outside her hotel window, but they are talking of politics, not of love.

It is a pathetic end for a girl who, in the Loire Valley, dreamed of achieving respectability like old Irma d’Anglars, a former Parisian prostitute who lives in a grand chateau bought by a former lover and has reinvented herself as a pious old lady.  Nana had been enchanted by country life, and was ecstatic that her small child could live with her there.  Alas, that idyll among the plants blooming in the rain was interrupted by the arrival of young Georges, and before long her men had followed her from Paris, bringing their sordid demands with them.

She tries family life too, in an impetuous marriage to Fontan.  She sells off her trinkets and abandons her creditors to try life in Montmartre but that soon sours too.  In a rare example of Zola’s writing making me feel very uneasy, there are disturbing scenes of domestic violence.  As you’d expect in this author’s realism, there have been examples of this in his other novels too, but this is the first in which he writes that the abuse makes her more attractive:

But after that evening, their life together grew increasingly stormy.  From one week’s end to the next, there was a constant sound of slaps, regulating their lives like the ticking of a clock.  Nana got so many thrashings that she became as soft as fine linen, her skin delicate, her complexion pure peaches-and-cream, so tender to the touch and so radiant that she looked even lovelier.  (p.231)

I can’t imagine what made him write that, I really can’t.

What is more authentic is that, like many victims of domestic violence, Nana blames herself, and goes to great lengths to please and placate a man who uses any excuse at fault-finding to beat her.   And as is so often the case, those who witness it do nothing – and even Madame Lerat’s advice to leave him is motivated by wanting Nana to return to earning money.  Her submissiveness is in marked contrast to her usual high-handed behaviour, and she ends up having to go back to street work because he won’t give her any money.  It is only when he throws her out, that she finally escapes from this situation*.

Unlike most of the characters in this novel, Nana is a complex character.  (Even Muffat is a bit of a parody).  In some ways she is incredibly naïve, and her hot temper leads her into all sorts of difficulties.  She wants to be well-off and respectable, but because she is so improvident, she throws her chances away, first with Steiner and then with Muffat.  She thrives on her celebrity status, exulting in the cheers of the crowd at the race course when they cheer the winning horse with her name.  She is scatter-brained, quixotic, and extravagant in manner as well as with money, and she takes a perverse pride in ruining her lovers.  But although there is a lesbian affair between her and young Satin, and although she often derides men, Nana often enjoys their company as friends and regards the sexual act as an act of friendship.  (Except for the marriage with Fontan), she is a woman who has agency over her own body and her own career but not in a way that Zola approves.  She is a symbol of French corruption under the Second Empire, and her characterisation has to serve that.

The settings of the novel allow for the juxtaposition of the ‘old’ Paris with the new, showing each time how the vulgar and the brash intrude into polite society.  In grand old houses, in the countryside, at the theatre and at the races, the men straddle both worlds, bringing moral decay with them.  Noticeably, there are no young people offering redemption, only the elderly helplessly deploring the situation.  Even Estelle, the plain young girl who is married off to Nana’s old lover Daguenet, is judged incapable of reforming him, she’s completely insignificant.  And as the novel ends with the declaration of war against Bismarck, even the saucy ladies who came to view Nana’s grotesque body are making plans to save what they can from the coming disaster.

As always with this series of Oxford World’s Classic, the artwork on the cover is an aptly chosen painting.  This one is a detail from ‘The Bath’ by Alfred George Stevens in the Musée d’Orsay, but the image has been reversed.

Author: Émile Zola
Title: Nana
Translated from the French by Douglas Parmée
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics, 2009
ISBN: 9780199538690
Review copy courtesy of Oxford University Press.
Nana

(I also have the illustrated 1956 Folio edition of Nana, but I chose to read this edition because it has a good introduction and a more recent translation.  But the etchings by Vertes in the Folio edition are gorgeous!)

*If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000. For more information about a service in your state or local area download the DAISY App in the App Store or Google Play.

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Fishpond: Nana (Oxford World’s Classics)

Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers