Creative Disruption in Paradise

ParadiseOn-line commentators have now discovered creative disruption – or, more aggressively, creative destruction – the price of progress as new technology and methods disrupt the comfortable status quo. The innovation is not usually the result of customer demand, but of imaginative foresight by some entrepreneur. As Henry Ford is said to have said, “If I asked the customer what he wanted, he would have said ‘a faster horse.’”

You can find a startling example of 19th century creative disruption in Emile Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames), published in 1883, but set in the time of Louis Napoleon about 20 years earlier. Baron Haussmann is dismembering the old Paris of narrow streets and opening up the broad avenues we enjoy today. Light, air, fast movement – shopping! An ambitious young man,Octave Mouret, foresees how it can be and comes into the resources to make it happen. Don’t stock your goods and wait for your price – turn them over once, twice, thirty times a year, taking a small profit each time. The system depends on volume and volume comes from wooing the customer, giving the ladies (for whom this paradise has been designed) reasons to return again and again. The individual shopper may feel seduced, but Mouret has actually created a machine oblivious to humane desires.

But the furnace-like heat with which the shop was ablaze came above all from the selling, from the bustle at the counters, which could be felt behind the walls. There was the continuous roar of the machine at work, of customers crowding into the departments, dazzled by the merchandise, then propelled towards the cash-desk. And it was all regulatedwith the remorselessness of a machine: the vast horde of women were as if caught in the wheels of an inevitable force.

Some critics, including Mouret’s fictional enemies, believe that he really hates women and his retail machine is a form of revenge, but I don’t think it is as simple as that. As he tours his emporium, Mouret expresses joy in the successful logic of his creation. He has power and he has been able to work his will to control a great enterprise. He is satisfied to be what he is.

He repeated that he was a man of his own time. Really, people would have to be deformed, they must have something wrong with their brains and limbs to refuse to work in an age which offered so many possibilities, when the whole century was pressing forward into the future.

Young Denise, the naïve sales girl from the country works in the Paradise and experiences it with a total lack of the control which gives Mouret such pleasure. She sees what it costs, yet regards it as inevitable.

While pretending to joke, Denise produced sound arguments: the middlemen – factory agents, representatives, commission-agents – were disappearing, this was an important factor in reducing prices; besides, the manufacturers could no longer exist without the big shops, for as soon as one of them lost their custom, bankruptcy became inevitable ; in short, it was a natural development of business, it was impossible to stop things going the way they ought to, when everyone was working for it, whether they liked it or not.

Although Denise sees the Paradise as a natural development, a single destination where everything is for sale, she alone is not for sale. She never really explains why except to say that that is what she is, just as Mouret is what he is. You must read the novel to see how Zola successfully maneuvers the final disruptions of the relationship between Mouret and Denise.

 

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Emile Zola, Pot Luck / Pot-Bouille

ZolaPotThe expression Pot-Bouille, the title of one of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series of novels, is difficult to render in English. “Pot luck” in the Midwest, where I come from, implies taking your chance on what may be in the pot that day. A French dictionary calls pot-bouille a “repas ordinaire d’un ménage.” I rather like that – it’s what you usually get, and luck doesn’t much enter into it.

The ménage in which Zola finds this ordinary meal is an apartment house in Paris, in which live a number of bourgeois families and their servants. These human ingredients of Zola’s story are no more exceptional than the ingredients of pot luck; their activities and attitudes are as we would expect. For details, see two posts here at Reading Zola where Jonathan provides a plot summary  and Lisa describes the characters and their interactions. Lisa also remarks that the “smart new building is Zola’s metaphor for the hypocrisy of the bourgeois.”

Almost all the inhabitants of the building are corrupt in some way. The servants steal from their employers and gossip about them. The tenants cheat financially and sleep with each other and with the servants. The bourgeoisie are hypocritical about what is going on; the servants are not. They know what is being concealed. After the morning gossip,

 They [the maids] all plunged back into their kitchens; and from the dark bowels of the narrow courtyard only the stench of the drains came up, like the smell of the hidden filth of the various families, stirred up by the servants’ rancor. This was the sewer of the house, draining off the house’s shames, while the masters lounged about in their slippers and the front staircase displayed all its solemn majesty amid the stuffy silence of the hot-air stove.

Now that I have read several Zola’s novels, I am struck by his repeated use of human constructions as metaphors for the theme of his story. In Pot-Bouille, it is the apartment house, designed to be impressive, but concealing its decadence. In La Curée, it is the grand, over-decorated mansion constructed by Saccard to display his wealth and social importance. In Germinal, it is the mine and its machinery – underground, yet dominating all above and below. In The Belly of Paris, it is the market, which is large, complex and contains the delights of fresh foods along with the stink of garbage.

In his biography, Zola: A Life, Frederick Brown gives a detailed account of how Zola acquired a modest country property at Medan. As he prospered, he expanded the original house, remodeling it and adding wings and towers. Construction had meaning to Zola, as shown by the attention he paid to his own property and his evident pride in the results. His house was a testimony to his success. With his feeling about the importance of buildings, it is appropriate that an apartment building in Bot-Bouille links together the characters and subplots of the novel. For example, it represented the conventional virtues to the erring Berthe, hiding from her angry husband.

 Then gradually the solemn staircase filled her with fresh anguish; it was so black, so austere. No one could see her; and yet she was overcome with confusion at sitting there in her chemise amid such respectable gilt and stucco. The wide mahogany doors, the conjugal dignity of these hearths, seemed to load her with reproaches. Never had the house appeared to her so saturated with purity and virtue.

Berthe is wrong, of course. The house itself cannot be virtuous, only the people within. Zola notices the details of wide mahogany doors and grants conjugal dignity to hearths. He is sensitive to constructions and what they represent. I hope he was satisfied by what his own domestic constructions meant to him, as well as what they represented to the world.

Frederick Brown, Zola: A Life

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I have now read more than half a dozen of the twenty novels which make up Emile Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle. Wanting to know more about Zola, both as a writer and as a man, I read Mathew Johnson’s 1928 biography, Zola and His Time, and found it disappointing, with too much literary squabbling in Paris and not enough about Zola himself. The last portion of the book, dealing with The Dreyfus Affair, was the most satisfactory. Writing before World War II, however, Johnson had no vision of the eventual outcome of virulent antisemitism.

I looked for something more recent and more comprehensive and found Frederick Brown’s Zola: A Life. More recent (1995) and more comprehensive (803 pages of text, plus notes, etc.), it is neither a quick nor an easy read. Sometimes with a work this massive, it helps to comment at intervals, but it is too late for that now. Still, it does break into three main sections: boyhood and the apprentice years, the Rougon-Macquart cycle, and the years after Rougon-Macquart, including The Dreyfus Affair. The information presented throughout is so wide-ranging, however, that I see these possible divisions only in retrospect.

What does Frederick Brown give us in this “life”?

  • A complete description of the Zola family, including his father’s career and his mother’s struggles.
  • French politics and conflicts before and during his long life. Zola turns out to have been very politically aware, even as a young man, so his later involvement with Dreyfus was far from an aberration.
  • All Zola’s literary and artistic acquaintances – their lives, their struggles, their off-and-on relationships with him. We hear about Cezanne, Flaubert, Maupassant, the Goncourts, Manet, Daudet, Hugo, Balzac and many more. These are not passing references, but full accounts with ample quotations from articles and letters.
  • The regime of Napoleon III, as it played out in reality and in Zola’s novels set in the period.
  • Zola’s writing and research methods, with the sources used for all his works.
  • Detailed synopses and interpretations of all Zola’s major writings, with critical commentary by his contemporaries.
  • Description and examples of Zola’s other writing, including journalism and plays.
  • The ins and outs of Zola marriage; his mistress and children; his houses.

Did all this information change my perception of Zola? I think not, since my perceptions come from his novels. In The Belly of Paris, I find sensitivity to both social justice and the delights of a sensual life. In L’Argent I discover an understanding of greed and how it warps the moral standards of even “good” people. In Germinal I find a willingness to grapple with the dirty details of how things get done in this world, as well as a recognition of the difficulties of achieving social change. In L’Debacle I learn that Zola knows the best and the worst that men will do in trying circumstances and how they justify these actions. Zola’s careful research into military maneuvers or mining techniques or the layout of Les Halles provided him with necessary detail for his novels, but his understanding of human nature and his moral judgment could only come from the man itself.

Some of Brown’s psychological interpretations I found intrusive. Explaining Zola’s turn from gauzy poetry to naturalist fiction, he says,

 Nurtured on romantic literature, his mind found easy purchase at extremes, and it leapt from quaking reverence for magical forces to a belief in science holding sway over the universe. This is to say that Zola wavered between superstition and rationalism, between feelings of impotence and fantasies of omnipotence. What made him conceive the progenitor who masters virgin nature also made him sire those children, prisoners of heredity, who would soon crowd his novels.

He sees patterns in Zola’s plots, and these patterns he relates to Zola’s own obsessions.

 Zola, whose recurrent nightmare was of himself buried alive, could hardly conceive drama without a sacrificial victim or denouement that expunges some character from humankind. Identity and enclosure, the self and an abode standing islandlike on the margin of some larger settlement are linked again and again in disaster.

Reading a chapter every day or so provided me with a chronological narrative of his Zola’s life, but it was too much information to digest. Zola: A Life would work very well as a reference work, to look up Zola’s sources, as well as the activities of his colleagues and critics. There is a great deal of solid information here, worth pondering, whether or not you agree with Brown’s analyses. The pictures are good also. Here is one example:

Emile Zola with his mistress, Jeanne Rozerot, in 1893.

Emile Zola with his mistress, Jeanne Rozerot, in 1893.

 

 

Arnold Bennett reads L’Oeuvre

Arnold Bennett

Arnold Bennett

I have been reading The Journals of Arnold Bennett. Made up of excerpts selected and edited by Frank Swinnerton, the journals represent over 30 years of Bennett’s opinions on a range of literary subjects. Bennett respected Zola as a fellow realist.  In 1905, he commented:

I have just finished reading L’Oeuvre. It has taken me a long time, because I left in the middle to read Wells’s Kipps. What a colossal affair it seems by the side of Kipps, so serious, tremendous, and imposing. The middle parts seem rather carelessly done; the detail piled up without sufficient attention to the form. But the final scene between Calude and Christine — the fight between love and art — is simply magnificent; it moved me; it is one of the finest things in Zola. It is overdone, it goes farther than the truth; but purposely; Zola has stepped into the heroic in this scene, as he does now and then. All the close of the book is most affecting.

Kipps, by Wells, is a worthy book, also realist in tone but devoted to the life and problems of a rather shallow young man who unexpectedly inherits some money. In depicting the struggles of an artist, Zola was developing a much more significant theme. Some people would say that Bennett was closer to Wells than to Zola in his own writing, so it is striking that he can appreciate what Zola was doing in L’Oeuvre.

The Kill: Saccard’s Opulent Paris

I was reading Emile Zola’s The Kill (La Cureé) alternately with Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, so I was struck by de Waal’s description of the Paris inhabited by Zola’s Aristide Saccard during his years of prosperity. The Kill is the third book in the Rougon-Macquart novel series in which Zola portrays the corrupt France of Napoleon III. (The “kill” is not a murder, but the piece of the fox awarded to the hounds after a successful hunt.) For a detailed description of the events in the novel, see Lisa Hill’s plot summary.

When Aristide Rougon leaves Plassans (Aix-en-Provence) for Paris after Louis Napoleon’s coup of 1851 he is poor and must continue to live a frugal existence on his clerk’s salary. An advantageous second marriage gives him the capital to speculate successfully in the real estate of Paris. The city is being transformed by the plans of Baron Haussmann, who creates boulevards and parks, including the Parc Monceau, next to which Saccard builds his mansion.

Parc Monceau, painted by Gustave Caillebotte

Parc Monceau, painted by Gustave Caillebotte

During the Second Empire, the [d’Orleans] family sold lots within the park to real estate developers, who built luxurious town houses, reducing the size of the park by half. The remaining part of the park was purchased by the city of Paris in 1860. All that remained of the original folly was the water lily pond, the stream and the fantasy “tombs,” including the Egyptian pyramid.

In 1860 the park was purchased by the city, and in August 1861 Parc Monceau became the first new public park in Paris to be remade by Baron Haussmann as part of the grand transformation of Paris begun by Emperor Louis Napoleon. Two main alleys were laid out from east to west and north to south, meeting in the center of the park, and the alleys within the park were widened and paved, so carriages could drive the park. An ornamental grill 8.3 meters high was installed along a newly created avenue, Boulevard Malesherbes, Curving paths were laid out around the park for strolling.

Wikipedia

Parc Monceau today

Parc Monceau today

The house Saccard builds dramatizes the opulence he has achieved. After a rather precise explanation of its structure, Zola goes on to describe the decorations.

The display of decoration was profuse. The house was hidden under its sculpture. Around the windows and along the cornices ran volutes of flowers and branches; there were balconies shaped like baskets full of blossoms, and supported by tall naked women with wide hips and jutting breasts; and here and there were fanciful escutcheons, clusters of fruit, roses, every flower it is possible for stone or marble to represent. The higher one looked, the more the building bust into blossom. Around the roof ran a balustrade on which urns, at regular intervals, stood blazing with flames of stone; and there, between the bull’s eye windows of the attics, which opened on to an incredible mass of fruit and foliage, mantled the crowning portions of this amazing spectacle, the pediments of the turrets, in the midst of which the naked women reappeared, playing the apples, adopting poses amidst sheaves of rushes.

So. Fruit and flowers and naked women, but none of them real – just stone representations without any softness at all.

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Hotel Menier, Paris

Zola used as his model for the mansion he calls a “fireworks display” the Hotel Menier, which still stands today in its favored position by the park. After finding the beautiful Hotel Ephrussi, the home of the Parisian branch of his family, Edmund de Waal visits the nearly Hotel Menier.

But nothing compares to the mansion built by the chocolate magnate Émile-Justin Menier. It was a building so splendidly excessive, so eclectic in its garnished decorations, glimpsed above its high walls, that Zola’s description of it as ‘an opulent bastard of every style’ still seems about right. In his dark novel of 1872, La curée, Saccard – a rapacious Jewish property magnate – lives here on the rue de Monceau. You feel this street as the family move in: it is a street of Jews, a street full of people on display in their lavish golden houses. Monceau is slang in Paris for nouveau riche, newly arrived.

That’s an interesting error, calling Saccard a rapacious Jewish property magnate. Rapacious yes, Jewish no. Saccard was a Rougon and nowhere does Zola hint that any of them were Jewish. If, as de Waal suggests, some wealthy Jews were sharp-dealing scoundrels, it does not follow that Saccard was Jew. Many 19th century authors would at least hint at the probability. In Zola’s Money. this same Saccard must deal with the Jewish banker Gunderman. Saccard’s feelings about Gunderman may be those of the character or his author; we cannot be sure. We can be sure, however, to find casual anti-semitic jibes in well-regarded authors right up to the time of World War II.

William Dean Howells on Emile Zola

Emile Zola, 1840-1902

Emile Zola, 1840-1902

It is too bad that William Dean Howells is out of fashion just now. He was a popular American novelist in the last quarter of the 19th century and, as Editor of the Atlantic Monthly, very influential in literary affairs. Howells was a contemporary of Emile Zola but, so far as I know, never met him. He was well read in his novels, however, and used the occasion of Zola’s death in 1902 to write an appreciation, entitled simply “Emile Zola.”

 Because he believed with his whole soul that fiction should be the representation, and in no measure the misrepresentation, of life, he will live as long as any history of literature survives.

He depicts Zola as a realist rebelling against the romantic approach to literature. Howells says this refutes the concept that Zola’s writings were somehow immoral.

 It is to the glory of the French realists that they broke, one and all, with the tradition of the French romanticists that vice was or might be something graceful, something poetic, something gay, brilliant, something superior almost, and at once boldly presented it in its true figure, its spiritual and social and physical squalor

Howells points out that moralist concerns himself with justice and with truth.

 Zola was an artist, and one of the very greatest, but even before and beyond that he was intensely a moralist, as only the moralists of our true and noble time have been. Not Tolstoy, not Ibsen himself, has more profoundly and indignantly felt the injustice of civilization, or more insistently shown the falsity of its fundamental pretensions. He did not make his books a polemic for one cause or another; he was far too wise and sane for that; but when he began to write them they became alive with his sense of what was wrong and false and bad.

As a novelist himself, Howells knows that a writer never simply reports. Even the most “scientific” or fact-bound journalist must select what facts to report.

 What Zola did was less to import science and its methods into the region of fiction, than journalism and its methods; but in this he had his will only so far as his nature of artist would allow. He was no more a journalist than he was a scientist by nature; and, in spite of his intentions and in spite of his methods, he was essentially imaginative and involuntarily creative.

And finally, he suggests that Zola’s work was epic in nature. He says of the Rougon-Macquart novels,

 He wished to be a sort of historiographer writing the annals of a family, and painting a period; but he was a poet, doing far more than this, and contributing to creative literature as great works of fiction as have been written in the epic form.

If you are unfamiliar with William Dean Howells, I recommend The Rise of Silas Lapham. It has social realism and humor and a very interesting young heroine.

This commentary is also posted at Silver Threads.

La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret (Abbe Mouret’s Transgression)

zola-abbe-mouretsAlthough Abbe Mouret’s Transgression, the fifth in the Les Rougon-Macquart series, should not be undertaken unless you’ve read classics like The Earth, Nana, and The Ladies’ Paradise, it has some merit. 

When Serge Mouret, a priest, has a nervous breakdown, his uncle, Dr. Pascal Rougon, leaves him at Paradou, a derelict mansion in the country, where he is nursed by Albine, niece of the misanthropic caretaker.  The two have an innocent, idyllic love affair, because Serge has forgotten who he is.  He has no idea he was a priest.  They wander around eating fruit and making love all day.

Influenced by Rousseau, Zola did not pen the vivid naturalistic exposé we expect from his other books.  It’s very much a tale of the Paradise of Adam and Eve. The style is lyrical and baroque, and it’s a meandering dream of a book.

Commentary courtesy of Kat at Mirabile Dictu

Plassans Then, Aix Now

AixHouses

A residential street in Aix. Cezanne lived in this house at one time.

Emile Zola was born in Aix-en-Provence, the town in Provence where he lived as a boy and to which he gives the name of Plassans in his series of Rougon-Macquart novels. Aix is an old town, founded by the Romans with houses built of the local stone.

AixQuarry

The now-abandoned quarry from which the stone came. Zola and Cezanne undoubtedly played here as boys.

AixQuarry_Cezanne

Cezanne’s paining of the quarry.

In Zola’s time Aix was still surrounded by walls with gates that could be locked at night, as described in The Fortune of the Rougons.

 Until 1853 these opening were fitted out with huge wooden two-leaved gates, arched at the top and reinforced with iron bars. These gates were double-locked at eleven o’clock in summer and ten o’clock in winter. The town having thus shots its bolts like a timid girl, went quietly to sleep.

AixMapThe walls were gone when I visited Aix less than 10 years ago, but the present encircling boulevards follow the lines they once established.

CezanneMap

AixFountainThe former gate, the  Porte des Augustins, has been replaced by La Ronde, a traffic circle in the center of which is a handsome fountain. You also find the Tourist Office there, a very appropriate location since one of Aix’s principal occupations now is tourism.

The Cours Mirabeau, identified as Cours Sauvaire in Zola’s Plassans, begins at La Ronde and has not moved from Zola’s time. The street itself is wide and shaded, and you can still find a café where Cezanne and Zola once enjoyed the local scene. The Cours divides two sections of the town, a community where each group knew and accepted its place.

 It is only once a week, and when the weather is good, that the three districts of Plassans come face to face. The whole town repairs to the Cours Sauvaire on Sunday after vespers; even the nobility venture there.

800px-Aix-en-Provence-Cours-Mirabeau-Oct-2001

Cours Mirabeau today. Note restricted automobile traffic — plenty of room for strollers then and now.

DeuxGarcons

This cafe on the Cours Mirabeau was also popular in Zola’s day.

The contemporary map shown above is one that is given to tourists for a self-guided walking tour of sites associated with Paul Cezanne, currently Aix’s favorite son. Zola is rarely mentioned at the tourist office, except in connection with Cezanne. The two were boyhood friends in Aix, both left it for Paris. Zola stayed in Paris, but Cezanne returned to Aix. They remained in touch but had a falling out when Cezanne saw himself portrayed unflatteringly in Zola’s novel L’Oeuvre.

ZolaDam

Zola Dam, 100 years ago.

 The citizens of Plassans from Zola’s day and the citizens of Aix today have, however, good reason to honor the Zola family. Zola’s father, Francois  Zola, designed and built an important dam to assure a supply of water to the town.

ZolaDam

Zola Dam today. It is still in use.

In Provence today, the countryside relies on a complex system of dams, canals and irrigation ditches to provide water in a semi-arid climate. When Francois Zola died prematurely his family felt cheated of the rewards to which they felt entitled for his work. This bitterness affects Zola’s descriptions of Plassans as a small-minded, conservative place.

IrrigationCanal

Irrigation ditch in the Provence countryside.

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Cezanne’s Studio, 1902

Within Aix, walking in the narrow street of the old parts of town – the area which was once within the medieval walls – one has little sense of the surrounding countryside. Both Zola and Cezanne knew it well however, and one finds it in the night wanderings of Silvere and Miette in The Fortunes of the Rougons. Walk out of central Aix and climb the hill to Paul Cezanne’s old studio, and you can see something of what they knew. The studio itself, built in Cezanne’s mature years of somewhat greater prosperity was once isolated on a hillside.

It is lonely no more, as tourist line up to see where the artist once worked.

CezanneStudiotoday

Cezanne’s Studio on a rainy afternoon.

Best of all, look out from the location.

StudioView

View from the street outside Cezanne’s Studio.

The view reminds me of the anxious night Rougon spent on the terrace looking for signs of the insurrectionists.

 At the end of the garden there was a terrace that overlooked the plain; a large section of the ramparts had collapsed at that point, giving an unimpeded view…. In the distance, in the valley of the Viorne, across the vast hollow that stretched westwards between the chain of the Garrigues and the mountains of the Scille, the moonlight was streaming down like a river of pale light. The clumps of trees and the dark rocks looked, here and there, like islets and tongues of land emerging from a luminous sea. And corresponding to the bends of the Viorne, it was possible to see patches and slithers of the river….

AixBridge

Bridge over the “Viorne.” Zola painted a picture of this bridge so it must have been there in Zola’s day.

The stony ridge in the distance is, of course, Mt. Ste. Victoire, the subject of many of Cezanne’s landscapes.

MtStVictoire

We took a van tour which circled the mountain and found it fascinating. The ridge is so placed that one can never see the entire thing at once. It is long, very steep in places, and presents a different shape when seen from each side and angle. Like the grand canyon, the play of light on the rocks brings the mountain forms nearer during some parts of the day and softens and distances them at other times. When Cezanne returned to Aix from Paris, he found a subject worthy of his skill and could spend the rest of his life interpreting the local scene.

Victoire_Cezanne

Mt. Ste. Victoire by Cezanne — one of many versions of the mountain and the surrounding plain. It looks much the same today, including the stone viaduct.

Zola, on the other hand, could not find in his Plassans a wide enough  canvas for his artistic dream. In L’Oeuvre, the writer lays out a comprehensive program of work and systematically applies himself to bringing it forth. It is not always appreciated but he has confidence in its value. This is very much what Zola did when he wrote his Rougon-Macquart novels. He made a plan and worked at it, book after book, year after year.

Zola’s fictional artist is not appreciated either. He stays in Paris, where he creates and destroys, creates and destroys in an attempt to make something so perfect that it must be acknowledged. This is the characterization which so disturbed Cezanne that he never spoke to Zola again. Since visiting Aix I think the two men were more alike that Zola acknowledged. Both worked in accordance with how they saw the world. Zola could not create as he wanted to within Plassans. He needed a wider scene and found it in Paris. Cezanne did not hang himself like the artist in L’Oeuvre. Instead, he left Paris to live and exercise his imagination in Aix, where his landscapes look out from the town, not back towards it.

Today Plassans/Aix is a short bus ride from the Marseilles airport. Aix in the 21st century is a modern city with a well-preserved older center. I was a tourist there a few years ago, walking in the town and enjoying the landscapes. The experience gave me a strong sense of the physical environment in which Zola lived during his formative years. The spirit of the place seems quite different from the Plassans of Zola. Aix is open, hospitable to tourists, and has a large population of foreign students, adding to a cosmopolitan atmosphere you do not find in the Rougon-Macquart novels.

La Debacle [The Downfall]

allegory-of-the-siege-of-paris-jean-louis-ernest-meissonier

Allegory of the Siege of Paris by Meissonier, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

My translation of Emile Zola’s French novel, La Debacle, translates the title as The Downfall. Downfall is an inadequate equivalent in English for Debacle, a word which suggests a general disaster. The 1870 Franco Prussian War was certainly the downfall of Napoleon III and his imperial pretensions; it was a debacle for France and all the French.

I have been reading through Zola’s Rougon-Macquart novels in no particular order. In the series,  he tells the story of Napoleon III’ s France and what happened to it and the people who, for a time, believed in it.  His characters exemplify certain theories about inherited characteristics as seen in the members of legitimate and illegitimate branches of the same family. Ignore the theories, unless you really like that kind of thing, and revel in as full a picture as you will ever find of a particular society.

LaDebacle is almost the end of the line. Set during the war and its immediate aftermath, it is – like many war novels – a buddy story. Jean, the peasant who has left the land, has become a non com in the French army. He looks after Maurice, a dissolute scholar. Maurice is patriotic, sensitive, and idealistic. Jean is patriotic and knows how to survive. They save each other’s lives. They appear against a journalistic background of the maneuvers, the battles, and the great fire in Paris at the time of the commune.

The journalism becomes tedious at times, but not Jean and his men who scrounge to feed themselves in an army that is too disorganized to provide food for the soldiers.

 “Ah! upon my word, a fine bird! it must weigh twenty pounds.” “We were out walking and met the bird,” Loubet explained in an unctuously sanctimonious voice, “and it insisted on making our acquaintance.” Jean made no reply, but his manner showed that he wished to hear nothing more of the matter. Men must live, and then why in the name of common sense should not those poor fellows, who had almost forgotten how poultry tasted, have a treat once in a way!

The maneuvers before the decisive battle of Sedan remind us of the Grand Old Duke of York who marched his men to the top of the hill and marched them down again. All is movement and waiting and movement back to the first position. The food and the guns and other support march the other way. Generals are replaced. The Emperor is a sick shell, unable to eat, while his staff live very well indeed.

Zola’s judgment on the French leadership is severe:

 They reviled their leaders and loaded them with insult: ah! famous leaders, they; brainless boobies, undoing at night what they had done in the morning, idling and loafing when there was no enemy in sight, and taking to their heels as soon as he showed his face! Each minute added to the demoralization that was already rife, making of that army a rabble, without faith or hope, without discipline, a herd that their chiefs were conducting to the shambles by ways of which they themselves were ignorant.

The war took place in 1870; Zola wrote his interpretation of it in 1892. By 1898 he was writing J’Accuse attacking the military command’s connivance in the trial and punishment of Alfred Dreyfus. They used evidence they knew was false. They prosecuted those who defended Dreyfus as criminals. They covered up. They blustered. No wonder they hated Zola. No wonder he distrusted them from the start. It’s all there in LaDebacle.

Napoleon III, Deceased, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Napoleon III, Deceased, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Belly of Paris

bellypfparis_ZolaThe Belly of Paris is Les Halles, the great food market celebrated by Emile Zola in this 1873 novel. The only previous book I have read by Zola is the more famous Nana. I liked this one better because — I was about to say –of the more realistic people and situations. That’s not quite it. Zola is called a realist, but he uses his very sensual descriptions to make emotional points. For example, when the old gossips get together to tittle tattle with each other they meet in the cheese market.

All around them the cheeses were stinking…. A parmesan added its aromatic tang to the thick, dull smell of the others…. Then came the strong-smelling cheeses…. and, finally, stronger than all the others, the olivets, wrapped in walnut leaves, like the carcasses of animals which peasants cover with branches as they lie rotting in the hedgerow under the blazing sun.

Florent, an idealistic revolutionary, has escaped from his unjust imprisonment on Cayenne (Devils Island) and returned to Paris where he works in Les Halles and plans the downfall of the very Bourgeois government. He knows the sumptuous market is not the place for him. In his very difficult life he has become thin and he identifies with the thin people. Les Halles is the place of supply for the fat people, and the fat people include his half brother, his sister-in-law and all the people who mock his ideals. Florent is not eloquent but his artist friend is.

Claude shook his fist at them. He was exasperated by all this joyousness in the streets and on the rooftops. He cursed the Fat people, for they had won. All around he could see nothing but Fat people, increasing ins size, bursting with health, greeting another day of eating and digesting.

The sadness of the ending is not just that Florent’s impractical schemes have failed. The sadness is that the fat people prefer eating and drinking to the pursuit of justice.