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 Disappearance of Émile Zola’ by Michael Rosen

I haven’t posted much in the last month what with being busy at work, the World Cup occupying much of my time and the warm summer weather not being favourable for sitting at a computer screen. So blogging has taken a bit of a back-seat, but I have been reading quite a bit. One of the books I read recently was Frederick Brown’s book on the belle epoque era in French history, For the Soul of France, which has the subtitle Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus. That book covers significant events such as the rise and fall of General Boulanger, the crash of the Union Générale, the Panama Scandal and of course the Dreyfus Affair as well as others. The Dreyfus Affair becomes more fascinating the more I read of it and Brown’s book was especially useful as it helped put the events into context. I would recommend the book for anyone who would like an introduction to the period. Frederick Brown has also written a book covering the 1914-1940 period called The Embrace of Unreason, a huge biography of Zola that I have yet to read and a biography of Flaubert which I have started to read.

As I was reading For the Soul of France I spotted The Disappearance of Émile Zola by Michael Rosen in my local library and so I felt it would be a good idea to follow the Brown book with this one. It covers Zola’s period of exile in England during the Dreyfus Affair. I had previously read Ernest Vizetelly’s With Zola in England: A Story of Exile which is a great first-hand account of events by Zola’s English publisher and was published in 1899 while the Dreyfus Affair was still raging. Michael Rosen is able to add to that account by referring to Zola’s correspondence and more recent works on Zola.

On the evening of Monday, 18 July 1898, Émile Zola disappeared.

Zola had been convicted for criminal libel following the publication in January 1898 of his explosive article J’accuse. In this article Zola claimed that Dreyfus had been falsely convicted of espionage by the army, that evidence had been fabricated and kept secret from the defence, that the guilty person, Major Esterhazy, was protected by the army and that Dreyfus was convicted because of anti-Semitism in the army. All of this was true but that did not stop Zola from being prosecuted. Zola had hoped that his trial would result in a re-trial of Dreyfus but this failed as the military and judiciary closed ranks. Zola faced a year in prison but was persuaded by his lawyer to flee to England instead.

As we read this book we discover that Zola had a hard time in England. His home affairs were complicated as he shared his life with his wife of nearly thirty years, Alexandrine, and his mistress, Jeanne, with whom he had two children, Denise and Jacques. Zola could speak very little English and now, although a famous author, he found himself alone and in a foreign land having to hide away in damp, cramped houses and having to cope with English weather and food. He wasn’t totally alone of course as Vizetelly and others were there to help him find a place to stay and to direct his correspondence back home. Zola managed to stay hidden away despite attempts by the press to track him down. Amusingly Zola was spotted almost straight away by some French actresses on tour in London but luckily this didn’t get leaked to the press and he managed to remain hidden away for the whole period.

Zola wasn’t to return to France until 5th June 1899, over a year since he decided to leave France. During this year he was compelled to move house several times but he managed to continue his work on the first of his novels from the Four Gospels series, Fruitfulness (Fécondité), which was published whilst he was still in England. Zola’s Four Gospels were to concentrate on influencing French society rather than just documenting it. Strangely, Zola seems to be more positive than ever before. Here he is recorded by a reporter as saying:

Ah! how this crisis has done me good! How it’s made me forget the self-glorifying vanity to which I—like many others—become attached! And how it’s opened up my life, along with problems and profundities that I didn’t ever suspect! I want to devote all my efforts to the liberation of man. I wish that we could all put ourselves up for the test that our group of humanity might come out of this being braver and more fraternal…

Once he’d moved out of London both Alexandrine and Jeanne were able to visit Zola during this period, albeit at separate times. As he became more settled he was able to enjoy his new passions of cycling and photography and included in this book are several of Zola’s photographs of England and of his visiting family. Rosen’s book also includes many extracts from Zola’s correspondence with Alexandrine, Jeanne and his children. These letters help us to understand his unorthodox homelife and how he tried to please everyone. Alexandrine must have found the situation very difficult but she and Zola were still in love and she continued to adminster his affairs in Paris. Zola’s letters to Alexandrine and Jeanne show that he cared for them both.

This is a very interesting book for the Zola enthusiast and even if you’ve read Vizetelly’s book you will find it fascinating to read. It also includes the short story that Zola wrote whilst in England called Angeline or The Haunted House which is a sort of ‘non-ghost story’ and the text of J’accuse is reproduced in full. I suppose the only criticism is that the Dreyfus Affair is only explained very briefly so it would be best to read up beforehand on the scandal that instigated the events laid out in this book.

This was cross-posted on The Intermittencies of the Mind.

His Excellency Eugène Rougon: Zola (new translation by Brian Nelson)

A few years ago I completed Zola’s 20 volume Rougon-Macquart Cycle. As I worked my way through the 20 books, I came to the conclusion that some would forever have a place on my-best books of all-time list: The KillNanaL’AssommoirPotLuckMoney, EarthThe Ladies’ Paradise, Debacle, His Excellency, The Masterpiece, while others were bridge-books and not so memorable. At the time only some of the books were available in new or newish translations, and that left me with the 19th century Vizetelly translations. I don’t intend to knock the Vizetelly translations as the Vizetellys believed in these books, tried to publish them and were heavily penalized for their efforts.

When I discovered the shocking fact that many of the 20-volume cycle hadn’t been re-translated since the 19th century, I thought that the reason these books hadn’t been re-translated had to be because they were the minor novels in the series. But as it turns out, my theory wasn’t correct.

His excellency

That brings me to the new translation of His Excellency Eugène Rougonfrom Brian Nelson. Nelson has previously translated the following novels in the series:

The Fortunes of the Rougons

The Ladies’ Paradise

Earth

The Kill

Pot Luck

The Belly of Paris

I’m excited about this translation as His Excellency Eugène Rougon is due for a reread, and what better reason than a new translation. If you want to read my review of the book, it’s here, but this post is about translation.

The main character, power-hungry Eugène Rougon has a certain attitude towards women:

Vizetelly translation:

“Yes, beware of women,” Rougon repeated, pausing after each word so as to glance at his papers. “when a woman does not put a crown on your head, she slips a halter around your neck. At our age a man’s heart wants as carefully looking after as his stomach.”

Brian Nelson translation:

“Yes, be very careful with women,” Rougon repeated, pausing after every word as he peered in a file. “If they’re not putting a crown on your head, they’re slipping a noose round your neck… At our age, a man should look after his heart as much as his stomach.”

Perhaps those two quotes don’t seem so different at first glance, but I read them both several times. In the first quote, the word “halter” evokes the imagery of a man being controlled whereas in the second quote, “noose” implies a much more terminal position. Plus then there’s that last line … “a man’s heart wants as carefully looking after as his stomach,” versus “a man should look after his heart as much as his stomach.” The matter of who is doing the care-taking of the heart is not in question in the Nelson version, as we would expect with Eugène Rougon, whereas the Vizetelly version implies that a woman could perhaps be taking care of the heart and the stomach which is in complete contradiction of Rougon’s speech.

But here’s a meatier quote:

Vizetelly translation:

“What had first attracted him in Clorinde was the mystery surrounding her, the story of a past-away life and the yearning for a new existence which he could read in the depths of her big goddess-like eyes. He had heard disgraceful scandal about her–an early love affair with a coachman, and a subsequent connection with a banker who had presented her with the little house in the Champs-Elysees. However, every now and then she seemed to him so child-like that he doubted the truth of what he had been told, and again and again essayed to find out the secret of this strange girl, who became to him a living enigma, the solution of which interested him as much as some intriguing political problem. Until then he had felt a scornful disdain for women, and the first one who excited his interest was certainly as singular and complicated a being as could be imagined.”

Nelson translation:

“What attracted him in Clorinde was the quality of the unknown, a mysterious past, and the ambition he thought he could read in her big, dark eyes. Frightful things were said about her–a first attachment to a coachman, then a deal with a banker, rumoured to have paid for her false virginity with the gift of a house on the Champs-Élysées. On the other hand, there were times when she seemed such a child that he doubted these stories. He swore he would get the truth out of her himself, and kept going back hoping to learn the truth from the strange girl’s own lips. Clorinde had become an enigma which began to obsess him as much as any delicate question of high politics. He had lived his life thus far in disdain of women, and the first woman to whom he was attracted was without doubt the most complicated creature imaginable.”  *(and there’s a note here that Clorinde was modeled on the real-life Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione)

Comparing the two, IMO, the Nelson version is much smoother and also much more effectively conveys Rougon’s fascination with Clorinde. Significantly, Clorinde’s sexuality is absent from the Vizetelly quote. Back to censorship and what the Vizetellys had to deal with. Zola’s incredible, unforgettable characters are human beings who experience great passions: whether is be the passion/obsession for power, money, revenge, or sex, and it’s a shame  crime against literature that the Vizetellys were forced to tone down their translations. Henry Vizetelly was convicted twice for obscenity when he published versions of Zola novels. But that was the 19th century, so I’m going to celebrate the 21st century with a re-read of His Excellency Eugène Rougon.

Review copy

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.

 

L’Assommoir (The Dram Shop) by Émile Zola. Translated by Margaret Mauldon

L'Assommoir

L’Assommoir is a stark, emotional story of one woman’s struggle to find happiness in working-class Paris. The seventh title in Émile Zola’s 20-novel cycle about the Rougon-Macquart families, it ultimately cemented Zola’s position as a leading European author although at the time of its publication in 1877 it was hugely controversial.

French conservatives, sensitive to the political implications of the novel, accused Zola of grossly exaggerating the fetid, crowded, unsanitary conditions inhabited by his characters. Zola insisted that his depiction was authentic. It was, he said ‘the first novel about the common people that does not lie’, because it was based not only on his own detailed observations of the lives of the working class but on extensive research of medical texts on the effects of alcoholism.

Zola said his purpose in writing the novel was to show how the fate of the individual is governed by hereditary and environmental forces outside his control. No matter how hard they try, they cannot escape the moral flaws passed down through the generations and the dehumanising effects of the slum conditions that were the product of rapid industrialisation.

His main focus in L’Assommoir is Gervaise Macquart, a laundry worker treated brutally by her lover Lantier and then deserted by him, leaving her and her two children destitute. Eventually she finds a new life with the roofer Coupeau, gives birth to a daughter Nana and begins to dream of owning her own laundry. A loan from a neighbour who is secretly in love with her enables to achieve her ambition. Through determination and hard graft, she makes it a success.  Fate of course has something other than happiness in store for her. Copeau lets his attention slip one day and falls from the roof. Though he survives, he is disabled.  No longer able to resume physical work he spends his days drinking rot gut at L’Assommoir bar. Gervaise’s desire for the good things in life lead her to overspend and from there into a cycle of debt, squalor and despair from which there seems no way out.

The power of this novel comes from the way Zola commands our sympathy for this woman, showing the gulf between her modest dreams and the reality of her life.  Towards the end of the book she reflects what had been her ideal:

To be able to get on with her work, always have something to eat and a half-decent place to sleep, bring up her children properly, not be beaten, and die in her own bed.

Instead she ends up sleeping in filth in a courtyard that feels like a cemetery,  starving battered by her husband and alone, her daughter having become a prostitute.

Although we as readers keep hoping against hope that she will gain happiness, there is a sense of inevitability that this will never be the case given Zola’s view of the world.  His main characters have, like the great tragic heroes, a fatal flaw. A tainted inheritance is repeatedly invoked as a factor that loads the dice against he characters  efforts to avoid a  virtually preordained degeneration. Copeau becomes an alcoholic just as his father did, and also like him, suffers a similar accident. Gervaise, abused by her partners just as her mother was, has a physical defect also in the form of a limp.  Weakened by their inherited flaws, these figures are powerless against the forces of the poisonous atmosphere of their slum neighbourhood.

The world of open sewers and overflowing drains, of the stench of unwashed bodies and discharges from slaughterhouses, that is their mileu are guaranteed to crush the human spirit in Zola’s view. In the preface to the novel he declared:

Intoxication and idleness lead to a weakening of family ties, to the filth of promiscuity, toe the progressive neglect of decent feelings and ultimately to degradation and death.

My characters are not bad, they are only ignorant and ruined by the conditions of sweated toil and poverty in which they live.

Pessimistic yes. Grim, assuredly. But it’s in Zola’s ability to force us to confront the reality of life at a particular moment in time as seen through one woman’s experience, that the enduring power of this novel lies.

Cross-posted at BookerTalk’s blog as part of the Zola Project 

‘Paris’ by Émile Zola

Image source: scan of personal copy

Paris is the last volume in the Three Cities trilogy and was first published in 1898. After the struggle I had with the previous volume, Rome, (see here and here) I did wonder if I would ever finish the trilogy; but I have. Even the first volume in the series, Lourdes, was a bit of a struggle. The main character throughout the series is the Abbé Pierre Froment, a priest who no longer retains his faith, and although Zola makes us sympathise with Froment’s predicament we know right from the start that he will end up leaving the church; it just takes so bloody long for it to happen. The whole series is seriously flawed, in my opinion, Lourdes would have worked better as a piece of journalism, Rome should have been abandoned completely, although a short story could possibly have been salvaged from it, and Paris, which was the best of the three, would still have worked better without Pierre’s struggle with his faith.

Paris opens with Pierre agreeing to take some alms from Abbé Rose to a former house painter, called Laveuve, who is on the verge of starving to death. Abbé Rose is being watched by his superiors as his persistent alms-giving is starting to annoy the church hierarchy. Pierre agrees to take the few francs to the man and visits Laveuve in his working-class slum. Pierre witnesses many scenes of poverty which Zola describes ruthlessly. Pierre enquires with a family as to the whereabouts of Laveuve, whom they know as ‘The Philosopher’. Pierre eventually locates him in a nearby hovel.

Here, on a human face, appeared all the ruin following upon hopeless labour. Laveuve’s unkempt beard straggled over his features, suggesting an old horse that is no longer cropped; his toothless jaws were quite askew, his eyes were vitreous, and his nose seemed to plunge into his mouth. But above all else one noticed his resemblance to some beast of burden, deformed by hard toil, lamed, worn to death, and now only good for the knackers.

Pierre not only delivers the alms from Rose but he also spends the rest of the day trying to get Laveuve admitted into the Asylum of the Invalids of Labour by using his connections with the wealthy people on the board of the organisation. Zola here presents the high-society of Paris, particularly the Duvillard’s family and friends; the Baron Duvillard is a banker involved in an African Railway scheme and his wife, Eve, does at least want to help Pierre. But he’s passed around from person to person, none of whom are willing to help him directly. In the end all his efforts are in vain as Leveuve dies before any decision can be made. He is disgusted with himself that he had allowed his hopes to rise once again, to hope that he could actually help people with charity, and as a result his doubts return.

He had ceased to believe in the efficacy of alms; it was not sufficient that one should be charitable, henceforth one must be just. Given justice, indeed, horrid misery would disappear, and no such thing as charity would be needed.

Pierre is then witness to an act of terrorism as he notices a man, Salvat, whom he had seen when visiting Laveuve, meet Pierre’s brother, Guillaume. Salvat walks away to the Duvillard’s mansion, followed by Guillaume, who is followed by Pierre. Pierre watches Salvat enter a doorway and is soon seen running from the building; Guillaume enters the building and there follows an explosion. Pierre helps his injured brother get away and lets him stay at his house to recuperate. The only casualty of the bomb is a young servant girl.

Pierre and Guillaume, who had been estranged, now become better acquainted and Pierre gets to know both Guillaume’s family and his revolutionary friends. Guillaume is a chemist who had been working on a new explosive and Salvat had managed to pilfer some of this when he was working briefly for Guillaume. The rest of the novel now concentrates on Pierre’s complete disassociation with the church and his appreciation of Guillaume’s scientific and atheistic outlook on life. Pierre is completely astonished and then smitten by Guillaume’s fiancée, Marie, who seems to embody the best of this new, more open, outlook to life. Now that Pierre has lost his faith in God he seems to find a new faith in some sort of scientific positivism, whereby all the problems of the world are going to be solved by socialism, science and work. This was no doubt close to Zola’s personal views but it certainly seems to be highly unrealistic to a modern reader. I wonder how the contemporary reader would have found these arguments? It is strange that all the political talk about socialism and anarchism concentrates on Saint-Simon, Fourier, Proudhon et al. rather than Marx, Engels, Bakunin et al.; it’s almost as if a hundred years of political thought meant nothing to Zola.

There is a lot more in this novel as well; there’s the manhunt of Salvat as well as his public execution; the threat of terrorism; there’s Zola’s look at bourgeois society and its decadence at the end of the nineteenth century by portraying political, financial and moral corruption; there’s the joys of cycling (for men AND women); the joys of marriage and fatherhood. Unusually for Zola this novel has a very positive, almost utopian, ending, predicting the downfall of Catholicism and the rise of Science and Justice.

Therein lies the new hope—Justice, after eighteen hundred years of impotent Charity. Ah! in a thousand years from now, when Catholicism will be naught but a very ancient superstition of the past, how amazed men will be to think that their ancestors were able to endure that religion of torture and nihility!

I wonder what Zola would have made of the world today?

The novel ends with the whole family looking out over a Paris bathed in golden light from the setting sun. Marie holds up her son, Jean, to look at the sight, promising him that he’s going to reap the benefits that Science and Justice are going to bring. Jean would be aged sixteen in 1914.

This was cross-posted on my blog Intermittencies of the Mind.

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