Le grand Michu, a short story by Emile Zola

Easy French Reader: A Three-part Text for Beginning Students (Easy Reader Series) Le grand Michu is a short story by Zola, often set as a reading exercise for students of French because it’s only a couple of thousand words long and its school setting makes it interesting to young people.  For me, it is my first attempt at reading Zola in French, albeit in a modern edition, and from what I can tell from other online editions, slightly simplified.

The story was first published in 1870 in la Cloche and was reprinted in 1874 in Nouveau Contes à Ninon.

Le grand Michu (Big Michu) is a peasant lad of eighteen who holds enormous sway in the school yard.  Big and strong, he is older than the other boys though still not in the eighth grade because he’s one of those boys who finds learning difficult, though once he understands  something, he  never forgets it.  However, the other boys never poke fun at him, indeed they look up to him as their leader.  Michu commands the sworn loyalty of these lads, and he gives them courage.  The narrator tells us that there is nothing in the world that would make him betray Michu.

Zola’s sympathy for student protest and his hostility to the  Second Empire is obvious in this short story.   (It was published more or less contemporaneously with The Fortune of the Rougons (1871) and The Kill (1871-2). Michu’s father was from the Var, a department in southern France on the Mediterranean, and he fought in the Republican rebellion against Louis Napoleon’s coup d’état in 1851. Left for dead on the battlefield, he was lucky to survive, but came back home determined to educate his son Michu and send him to college.  Michu is slow to anger, but he wants to strangle the proctor when he hears him teach that the republicans were thieves and assassins.

But it is not until the narrator is older, looking back on his school days that he realises the real cost to Michu in leading their youthful revolt against the school meals.  They have a particular disdain for codfish in red sauce (tomato sauce, presumably) and for beans in white sauce – so they decide that they will boycott these meals.  They have no hesitation in appointing Michu as their leader, but for Michu, a big boy with an insatiable appetite, it turns out that hunger is not his only sacrifice.  When things get out of hand and the revolt turns into a revolution, the boys barricade the refectory under his leadership and sing la Marseillaise.  In the three hours it takes for the proctor to get help, the boys calm down and most of them leave via the windows.  Michu sees the narrator’s hesitation and releases him from his promise to be loyal forever.  It is enough, he says, for there to be just one of the guilty to take the consequences.  But by leaving Michu in the lurch the others have set him up for the school authorities to take their revenge.  And, just like Napoleon’s purges which took place after the coup d’état, the school rids itself of trouble.

By following in his father’s footsteps, and making this ‘heroic sacrifice for the public good’,  Michu is expelled.

Author: Émile Zola
Title: Le grand Michu, in Easy French Reader: A Three-part Text for Beginning Students (Easy Reader Series), selected and edited by R. de Roussy de Sales
Publisher: McGraw-Hill, 2009
ISBN: 9780071603423
Source: personal copy purchased from Fishpond $19.67 AUD

Money, by Emile Zola: Hunting high and low for money, pleasure or power

La Curée by Émile Zola 1872   English title: The Kill

La Curée is the second volume of the Rougon Macquart cycle. Zola’s aim was to draw the ups and downs of a French extended family during the Second Empire. (1852-1870). In this volume, Eugène Rougon is a rising politician when his brother Aristide moves to Paris to become rich. Eugène manages to have him hired at the Hôtel de Ville, which means he’s a civil servant for the city of Paris. Aristide starts a new life then and changes his surname for Saccard.

Eugène and Aristide also have a sister, Sidonie, a spinster who runs an apparently honest shop, as a façade for her more shady business; she lives upon discreet services to rich persons who confide in her and rely on her for some of their dirty dealings. Knowing many secrets, she manages to marry Aristide to Renée, the pregnant daughter of a respectable and rich bourgeois. Aristide has been on the lookout for a juicy opportunity to launch a business. When he marries Renée, he has just discovered he could make a fortune on speculating on the houses and lands the Hôtel de Ville will have to buy out to current owners to change Paris according to the Baron Haussmann’s plans.

It works. Saccard is now awfully rich and lives as a parvenu. René, who had a miscarriage, launches herself into a life of pleasure made of soirees, gowns, jewelry and lovers. She befriends with Maxime, Saccard’s son from his first marriage. They are close comrades, sharing their love lives, hanging out together like too young men and they have no secrets for each other. One night, they have sex, putting an end to their friendship. And while Maxime sees it as an agreeable fling, Renée is more and more involved emotionally.

The title of the book, La Curée, refers to the moment when dogs kill the animal they are hunting. The hunt is the underlying theme of the novel.

The hunt is in Saccard chasing money, cornering people to have them into his schemes. He noses out Paris when he arrives, in an attempt to smell a source of wealth. He is on the watch for any opportunity at the Hôtel de Ville, hidden, waiting for the right moment to catch hold of his chance for wealth. Nothing can stop him once he has smelled money. He’s alternatively the hunter and the fox. He hunts down people when he needs them; his creditors can hunt him down any time his risky financial schemes fail. The master of the hunt is Eugène, who holds the whistle and can socially kill Saccard at the first faux pas or whenever he wants to end the game.

The hunt is in Renée, relentlessly pursuing pleasure. She too has two roles, the hunter and the bait. Maxime is her prey, she doesn’t hesitate to corner him. Saccard uses her as bait in his hunt for money. He takes advantage of her stunning beauty and of her social skills to attract people in his salons and push forward his business deals. Renée is a great character, abandoning herself to her senses, surrendering to her carnal desires, behaving on instinct.

The hunt is in Madame Sidonie, chasing after comprising information and useful secrets. Confidences are her weapon; she can be unleashed on someone on demand.

The hunt is also in the society. It’s the portrait of a time when the politicians, the nouveaux riches are sent like hounds on the old Paris, tearing it down, putting it to pieces, selling it to the wolves. It’s a strong criticism of the Second Empire. I’m not saying that Zola is inaccurate but the reader must remember that he was a fierce republican; that he wrote under another regime which loathed the previous one. I was interested in Saccard’s shady dealings, the mechanism used to increase the values of the properties bought back by the city to cut what we now know as the Grands Boulevards. I also thought about Les Liaisons Dangereuses. All this sex, this debauchery, the alliance between Maxime and Renée, like Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil. It has a whiff of decadence and all oozes vulgarity, which can be heard in the protagonists’ name, Saccard. In French, the suffix “ard” (pronounce “ar”) is negative, underlying vulgarity.

I’d forgotten how descriptive Zola’s prose is and I thought it lacked dialogues sometimes. He talks to all our senses, describing the lights, the scents, the air, the fabrics, the sounds. I saw languid paintings by Manet or Ingres. The vivid descriptions of the atmosphere match with the characters’ feelings, especially Renée’s. The episode of the promenade in the Bois de Boulogne is a masterpiece. Renée is the only one who really questions her life, touches its limits. She suffers from ennui, knows her life is shallow. She’s a remarkable feminine character, as fascinating as Nana, far more interesting than Madame Bovary. If you still hesitate about reading La Curée, I recommend that you read Guy’s excellent review here. Like him, I wonder why this heroin isn’t more famous; she has everything to be a great literary character. Is it because the sex is rather explicit? Did that prevent to book from reaching high school classes?