Exceptional Excerpts: The Belly of Paris #3 by Émile Zola

There are so many wonderful passages in Le Ventre de Paris that I am joining Jonathan and posting an excerpt. This is only part of the lengthy, but interesting, description of Gavard. It appears early in the second fifth of the book. The translation, by Ernest Alfred Vizetelly,  is titled The Fat and the Thin, and is available free from Project Gutenberg.

Fat-and-the-Thin_Aegypan_GR02

 

As he was in the habit of visiting the Quenu-Gradelles almost daily, he determined to take up his residence nearer to them, and came to live in the Rue de la Cossonnerie. The neighbouring markets, with their noisy uproar and endless chatter, quite fascinated him; and he decided to hire a stall in the poultry pavilion, just for the purpose of amusing himself and occupying his idle hours with all the gossip. Thenceforth he lived amidst ceaselesstittle-tattle, acquainted with every little scandal in the neighbourhood, his head buzzing with the incessant yelping around him. He blissfully tasted a thousand titillating delights, having at last found his true element, and bathing in it, with the voluptuous pleasure of a carp swimming in the sunshine. Florent would sometimes go to see him at his stall.

And a few sentences later:

At last, in the middle of the alley, near the water-taps, he found Gavard ranting away in his shirt-sleeves, in front of his stall, with his arms crossed over the bib of his blue apron. He reigned there, in a gracious, condescending way, over a group of ten or twelve women. He was the only male dealer in that part of the market. He was so fond of wagging his tongue that he had quarrelled with five or six girls whom he had successively engaged to attend to his stall, and had now made up his mind to sell his goods himself, naively explaining that the silly women spent the whole blessed day in gossiping, and that it was beyond his power to manage them.

 

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Exceptional Excerpts: ‘Doctor Pascal’

Zola_Doctor-Pascal-fcXC-700pxDoctor Pascal is the last novel in the twenty-novel Rougon-Macquart series and although it’s not one of the best of the series it is still a good read, especially if you’ve read the other nineteen.

Although the main subject of the novel is the love affair between Pascal and his niece Clotilde, this excerpt is from Chapter Nine and describes a scene where Pascal’s manipulative mother, Felicité, goes to visit her alcoholic brother-in-law, Antoine Macquart, who lives close to the asylum in which Tante Dide is living. The excerpt is rather long, consisting of two pages of the original novel, but I think that any attempt to shorten it will just diminish its effect. It is quite a famous scene from the novel as it describes a case of spontaneous human combustion. Anyway, it opens with Felicité going to visit Macquart:

It was a magnificent summer’s day, hot and clear. To the right and to the left of the narrow path, she gazed, with mounting resentment, at the fields she had been stupid enough to buy for him; all that fertile ground, the price she had paid, in an attempt to ensure his discretion and good conduct. In the sunshine, the house, with its pink tiles, its walls distempered a bright yellow, looked wonderfully gay and attractive. Under the ancient mulberry trees on the terrace she revelled in their delightful coolness and admired the view. What a worthy and perfect retreat, what a blissful spot for an old man to finish a long, good and dutiful life in peace!

She could neither see nor hear him. Nothing but profound silence! Only the faint buzzing of bees around the giant mallows. There was a little yellow dog on the terrace, the kind called loubet in Provence, stretched out on the bare earth, in the shade. He had raised his head and started growling, but he knew her, put his head down again and made no further movement.

There was something eerie about this solitude, in spite of the blazing sun she shivered and called: “Macquart!.. Macquart!.. ”

The door of the house, under the mulberry trees, was wide open. But she felt too frightened to go in, the entrance was like a gaping maw. And she called out in a louder voice: “Macquart!.. Macquart! ..”

Not a sound, not a breath. There was still that heavy brooding silence, only the bees seemed alive, buzzing around the giant mallows.

In the end, Felicité began to feel ashamed of her fears and boldly went indoors. In the hall, the door on the left opened into the kitchen, where Macquart usually sat. It was shut. She opened it. At first she could distinguish nothing, he must have closed the shutters to keep out the heat. Her first impression was merely one of being almost suffocated by the smell of spirits which filled the room; even the furniture seemed to be oozing with it, the whole house was impregnated with it. Then, as her eyes became accustomed to the dim light, she finally saw Macquart. He was sitting near the table, on which stood a glass and a bottle of double-strength brandy, completely empty. Hunched up in his chair he was soundly asleep, helplessly drunk. This sight aroused her to a fury of contempt:

“Come, Macquart, it is unreasonable and shameful to get yourself in such a state!.. Wake up, it’s disgraceful!”

He was sleeping so deeply that she could not even hear him breathing. She raised her voice, shouted, started beating him with her fists, all to no avail: “Macquart! Macquart! Macquart!.. You are disgusting!”

She gave up trying to rouse him, but she was no longer apprehensive, she walked about and bumped against the furniture. Her walk along the dusty road from the asylum had made her very thirsty. She took off her gloves and put them down on a corner of the table. Then, she had the luck to find a water jug, washed a glass and filled it to the brim. She was about to drink when an extraordinary sight filled her with such amazement that she put the glass down near the gloves without drinking.

She could now see everything clearly, thanks to a few narrow shafts of sunlight which filtered through the cracks of the old shutters. There was her brother, wearing, as always, his neat blue suit and his eternal fur cap. He had grown much stouter in the last five or six years, he looked monstrously bulky with his folds of fat. She had just noticed that he must have been smoking before lapsing into unconsciousness, because his pipe, a short black pipe, had fallen on his knees. Then she stood transfixed with astonishment; the cloth of his trousers had caught fire from the smouldering tobacco; and through a hole in the material, already as large as a crown piece, his naked thigh could be seen, a red thigh and it was burning with a blue flame.

At first Felicité thought that it was his linen, his underpants or his vest, which was burning. But, there was no doubt about it, it was his flesh, burning with a flickering blue flame, light, dancing, like a flame spreading over the surface of a bowl of alcohol. It was still no higher than the flame of a night-light, so feeble, so unstable that the slightest breath of air made it waver. But it was growing,
spreading rapidly and the skin was splitting, and the fat was beginning to melt.

Felicité uttered an involuntary exclamation: “Macquart!.. Macquart!”

Not the slightest movement from him. He was completely unconscious, he was in a drunken stupor, more like a coma, all sensation paralysed; but he was definitely still alive, she could see his chest heaving in a slow and regular rhythm.

“Macquart!..Macquart!”

Now the liquid fat was dribbling through the cracks in his skin, feeding the flame which was spreading to his belly. And Felicité realized that he was burning up, like a sponge soaked in alcohol. He had been saturating himself for years in the strongest, most inflammable of spirits. Soon, doubtless, he would be flaming from head to foot.

Then she stopped making any effort to arouse him, he was too deeply unconscious. During the next few minutes she nerved herself to watch him, terrified, but gradually coming to a decision. Her hands were trembling with a light but uncontrollable tremor. She was choking, she seized the glass with both hands and emptied the water down her throat in a single gulp. She was about to creep out of the kitchen, on tiptoe, when she remembered her gloves. She turned back, thought that she had picked them both up, groping cautiously over the table for them. Then she went out, closed the door carefully and quietly, as if afraid of disturbing someone.

I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s powerful stuff! It almost put me off drinking as well!

By the way, Felicité has only picked up one glove. Pascal and Clotilde meet her on the train returning home from this incident and they notice that she only has one glove with her. Later on Pascal visits Macquart’s house and witnesses the astonishing sight; everything in the room is in its proper place but on the charred chair is a mess of ash and fat and everything is covered with grease. Clotilde notices Felicité’s other green glove under the table.

Excerpt taken from the Elek Book translation, Doctor Pascal from 1957, translated by Vladimir Kean, pp173-5.

Exceptional Excerpts: The Conquest of Plassans, by Emile Zola

The Conquest of Plassans (Oxford World's Classics)It is my good fortune to be reading Zola’s Rougon-Macquart Cycle just as Oxford World Classics is releasing new translations of this wonderful series of books. The Conquest of Plassans (La Conquête de Plassans) (1874) is hot off the presses, arriving here in Australia when I was just about to embark on the sixth novel in the recommended reading order, using the old Vizetelly translation on The Hated Kindle. In this Sensational Snippet from Chapter 5, you can see how the new translation by Helen Constantine has so artfully captured the malice between mother-in-law Félicité Rougon and her daughter Marthe’s husband, Mouret:

Félicité kissed Marthe on the forehead as if the latter were still sixteen. She then extended her hand to Mouret. Their usual mode of conversation had a sharp edge of irony.

‘Well,’ she asked with a smile, ‘have the police not been to arrest you yet, you old revolutionary?’

‘Not yet,’ he replied, also with a laugh. ‘They are waiting until your husband gives them the order.’

‘Oh, very funny, ‘ Félicité replied, her eyes blazing.

Marthe appealed to Mouret with a pleading look; he had certainly gone too far. But he was off and there was no stopping him.

‘Good gracious, what can we be thinking of? Here we are receiving you in the dining room? Let’s go into the drawing room.’

This was one of his usual jokes. When Félicité came calling, he assumed her affectations. It was no good Marthe saying they were fine where they were, she and her mother were obliged to follow him into the drawing room. There he took enormous pains opening the shutters, arranging the armchairs. The drawing room was never used and its windows remained closed more often than not; it was a large unused room, in which stood furniture with white covers yellowed by the damp from the garden.

‘This is terrible, ‘ Mouret murmured, wiping the dust from an occasional table, ‘Rose [their servant] leaves everything in such a state.’

And, turning to his mother-in-law, in a voice laced with irony:

‘Please forgive us for receiving you like this in our poor little residence … we can’t all be rich.’

from The Conquest of Plassans, by Émile Zola, translated by Helen Constantine, Oxford World Classics, 2014

Compare this with the Vizetelly version:

Félicité kissed Marthe on the forehead and then gave her hand to Mouret. She and her son-in-law generally affected a mocking tone in their conversations together.

‘Well,’ she said to him with a smile, ‘the gendarmes haven’t been for you yet then, you revolutionist?’

‘No, not yet,’ he replied with a responsive smile; ‘they are waiting till your husband gives them the order.’

‘It’s very nice and polite of you to say that!’ exclaimed Félicité, whose eyes were beginning to glisten.

Marthe turned a beseeching glance upon Mouret. He had gone too far; but his feelings were roused and he added:

‘Good gracious! What are we thinking of to receive you in the dining-room? Let us go into the drawing-room, I beg you.’

This was one of his usual pleasantries. He affected all Félicité’s fine airs whenever he received a visit from her. It was to no purpose that Marthe protested that they were very comfortable where they were; her husband insisted that she and her mother should follow him into the drawing-room. When they got there, he bustled about, opening the shutters and drawing out the chairs. The drawing-room, which was seldom entered, and the shutters of which were generally kept closed, was a great wilderness of a room, with furniture swathed in white dust-covers which were turning yellow from the proximity of the damp garden.

‘It is really disgraceful!’ muttered Mouret, wiping the dust from a small console; ‘that wretched Rose neglects everything abominably.’

Then, turning towards his mother-in-law, he said with ill-concealed irony:

‘You will excuse us for receiving you in this way in our poor dwelling. We cannot all be wealthy.’

Zola, Emile (2012-11-23). Complete Works of Emile Zola (Illustrated), The Conquest of Plassans, Chapter 5, Delphi Classics. Kindle Edition

It makes a big difference, doesn’t it?

Author: Émile Zola
Title: The Conquest of Plassans
Translated by Helen Constantine
Publisher: Oxford World Classics, 2014
ISBN: 9780199664788
Source: Review copy courtesy of Oxford University Press

Availability
Direct from Oxford University Press and good bookshops everywhere.

Cross-posted at Lisa Hill’s blog as part of the Zola Project at ANZ LitLovers.

Exceptional Excerpts: A Priest in the House (aka Conquest of Plassans)

I think it’s fair to say that Zola wasn’t a particularly humorous writer but there are the occasional sections in his books that show that he could be funny when he wanted to be. So A Priest in the House (a.k.a. The Conquest of Plassans), a tale of political machinations, madness and murder, set in Zola’s fictional town of Plassans doesn’t seem likely to have any comic moments. There is at least one, and it’s totally unexpected; I couldn’t stop laughing when I originally read it as it made me think of some old 1920s comedy.

I won’t need to reveal too much of the plot as it’s almost a stand-alone piece. All you need to know is that Mouret has become a bit of a recluse and rumours are spreading about the town that he has been beating his wife, Marthe, and that he’s mad. Mouret, meanwhile, is oblivious to these rumours.

This comedic episode opens chapter eighteen and is approximately five pages in its entirety. It starts with Mouret going for a Sunday walk:

One Sunday, as he was setting out from home, he noticed Rose on the side-walk in Balande Street, talking eagerly with Madame Rastoil’s servant. The two cooks stopped talking as soon as they saw him. They stared at him in such a peculiar way that he looked down to see if a handkerchief was trailing out of one of his back pockets. When he reached Government Square he looked back, and saw them still standing at the same place. Rose was imitating the swaying walk of a drunken man, and the judge’s servant was in fits of laughter.

“I’m walking too fast; they’re laughing at me,” thought Mouret. So he walked still more slowly.

So he carries on with his walk; he meets other townspeople who are amazed that he’s allowed to be walking freely amongst them.

“Did you notice how stiffly he walks?”
“Yes. When he wanted to step over the gutter, he nearly came a cropper.”
“They’re all like that, they say.”
“Maybe, but he gave me such a turn. Why do they let him come out? It ought to be forbidden.”

When he enters the market all the housewives draw back to let him through. He interrupts some in the middle of gossiping about him and his supposedly murderous intentions that he has towards his wife. Mouret keeps checking his clothes, concerned that some urchins might have dirtied them. He’s quizzed by some of the ‘old cronies’ who joke about his clothes and the well-being of his wife. Mouret is visibly confused by their comments and when he leaves them they mutter to each other that he’s obviously mad.

When Mouret was passing the Youth Club at the end of Sauvaire Place, he again heard the smothered laughter which had been dogging him ever since he had set out. At the entrance to the club he saw Séverin Rastoil, and unmistakably he was pointing him out to a group of young fellows. There was no doubt about it: the town was laughing at him. Seized with apprehension, he bent his head, very puzzled by this hostility, and slipped away along the house-fronts. Just as he turned into Cluckett Street, he heard noises behind him; he looked round and saw that three boys were following him; two tall and bold-looking, and a tiny one, very solemn, clutching an orange which he had picked out of a gutter. Now he walked down to the end of the street, cut across Récollets Place and found himself in Banne Street. The boys were still following.

“Would you like your ears pulled?” he shouted, suddenly advancing upon them.

They dodged away, laughing, bawling, and scrambled out of range on all fours. Mouret turned red; he was a laughing stock. Doing his best to calm down, he continued his stroll.

He’s still being followed by the urchins and he panics.

So then he couldn’t help it: Mouret took to his heels. Hands stretched out and utterly bewildered, he dashed into Balande Street followed by the crowd of urchins to the number of eleven or twelve. It seemed as though all the shopmen from Banne Street, all the market women, the strollers from Sauvaire Place, the young fellows from the club, the Rougons, the Condamins – every soul in Plassans, were rushing along after him, down the steeply-sloping street. The boys were stamping with their feet, sliding over the pointed cobbles, raising the clamour of a hunting pack in this quiet part of the town.

“Catch him!” they yelled.
“Hoo! hoo! Ain’t he funny, him and his old coat!”
“Hi! you chaps! Run round by Taravelle Street; you’ll nab him.”
“Faster, look sharp!”

Panic-stricken, Mouret made a desperate dash for his gate; but his foot slipped and over he went, rolling down the path, then lay there a few seconds, helpless. The urchins, fearing kicks, danced round him uttering triumphant yells, while the tiny one, stepping forward solemnly, threw the rotten orange; it squashed over his left eye. Mouret rose heavily to his feet and, without wiping his face, got in through the door. Rose had to take a broom to drive the young devils off.

Hmmm, bullying and a near lynching; it seems more sinister now, but I’m sure that Zola meant it to be comical – didn’t he?

(A Priest in the House, by Émile Zola, Elek Books, translated by Brian Rhys, 1957)

Exceptional Excerpts: Thérèse Raquin by Émile Zola

RobinBussPenguin

Thérèse Raquin was published when Zola  was twenty-seven. It was his first book to be translated and published in England by the Vizetellys.

Not for the faint of heart, the first appearance was three installments in Houssaye’s L’Artiste with the title Un mariage d’amour (August – October, 1867). Apparently the Morgue scene was omitted in the periodical publication. In the Preface to his translation in a 1902 edition, Edward Vizetelly wrote: “. . . he consented at the insistence of the Editor, who pointed out to him that the periodical was read by the Empress Eugenie, to draw his pen through certain passages, which were reinstated when the story was published in volume form. I may say here that in this translation, I have adopted the views of the late M. Arsene Houssaye; and, if I have allowed the appalling description of the Paris Morgue to stand, it is, first of all, because it constitutes a very important factor in the story; and moreover, it is so graphic, so true to life, as I have seen the place myself, times out of number, that notwithstanding its horror, it really would be a loss to pass it over.”

There are several descriptive pages of individual bodies and the horror that Laurent feels as he sees them, but I will only quote of the Morgue’s popularity as entertainment.

The Morgue is a show that anyone can afford, which poor and rich passers-by get for free The door is open, anyone can come in. There are connoisseurs who go out of their way not to miss one of these spectacles of death. When the slabs are empty, people go out disappointed, robbed, muttering under their breath. When the slabs are well filled, and when there is a fine display of human flesh, the visitors crowd in, getting a cheap thrill, horrified, joking, applauding or whistling, as in the theatre, and go away contented, announcing that the Morgue has been a success that day.

Laurent soon came to know the regulars who attended the place, a mixed, diverse group of people who came to sympathize with one another or snigger together. Some workmen would come in on their way to their jobs, with a loaf of bread and some tools under their arms; they found death amusing. . . . . Women came in great numbers: pink, young working gils with white blouses and clean skirts, who went briskly from one end of the window to the other, attentive and wide-eyed, as though looking at the display in a fashion store; there were working-class women too, haggard with doleful expressions, and well-dressed ladies, nonchalant, trailing their silk dresses.

(Thérèse Raquin, by Émile Zola, Penguin Classics, translated by Robin Buss, 2004, p 73)

 

Could this possibly be true? A sentence from Paris illustré en 1878 by Adolphe Joanne reads: “When the newspapers announce the discovery of some crime, curious people arrive in large numbers, making a queue from morning until evening that sometimes reaches the number of between 1,000 and 1,500 persons.”

 

The 1902 Vizetelly edition and an edition in French are available free at Project Gutenberg.

Exceptional Excerpts: The Abbé Mouret’s Sin by Émile Zola

The following quote occurs near the beginning of the novel and describes the village in which the young Serge Mouret is the parish priest.

Gradually, lassitude overcame the Reverend Mouret. The rising sun bathed him in such warmth that he relaxed completely against the church door. Tranquil contentment took possession of him. He mused on this village of his, which had sprung up in this place, amid the stones, like the gnarled undergrowth of the valley. All Artaud’s inhabitants were inter-related, all bearing the same surname to such an extent that they used double-barrelled names from the cradle up, to distinguish one from another. At some antecedent date an ancestral Artaud had come like an outcast, to establish himself in this waste land. His family had grown with the savage vitality of the vegetation, drawing nourishment from this stone till it had become a tribe, then the tribe turned to a community, till they could not sort out their cousinage, going back for generations. They inter-married with unblushing promiscuity. It was unknown for an Artaud to bring in a wife from any neighbouring village. There were merely occasional cases of girls going elsewhere to find husbands. These people came into the world and left it bound to their soil, proliferating on their own dung-hills with slow deliberation like the uncomplicated soul of trees which scatter their seed about their feet, with little conception of any larger world beyond the dun rocks among which they vegetated. Even so, there were still poor and rich among them. When hens vanished, hen-houses acquired heavy padlocks at night. An Artaud had once not long since killed another, one evening, behind the mill. Deep in this grim belt of hills they were a people apart, a breed sprung from the soil, a mankind of three hundred heads in whom time began all anew.

(The Abbé Mouret’s Sin, by Émile Zola, Elek Books, translated by Alec Brown, 1957, p.30)

Exceptional Excerpts: The Belly of Paris #2 by Émile Zola

The Belly of Paris cover

The Belly of Paris

The majority of the novel takes place in the Parisian food market, Les Halles which is ‘the belly of Paris’. This excerpt is from the final page of the book and is an excellent ending to the story, symbolising the defeat of the ‘Thins’ by the respectable ‘Fats’, the petit bourgeois shop keepers. Although it consists of the final few paragraphs, I don’t think reading this excerpt will ruin the book for anyone that hasn’t read it.

On his left, La Belle Lisa, looking out from the charcuterie, occupied the entire width of the doorway. Her linen had never been as white as it was now; never had her pink, refreshed complexion been so neatly framed in smooth waves of hair. She exhibited the deep calm of repletion, a massive tranquillity unruffled even by a smile. She was a picture of absolute quietude, of perfect bliss, not only untroubled but lifeless, as she bathed in the warm air. She seemed, in her tightly stretched bodice, to be still digesting the happiness of the day before; her plump hands, lost in the folds of her apron, were not even outstretched to grasp the happiness of the day, for it was sure to fall into them. And the shop window beside her seemed to display the same bliss. It too had recovered; the stuffed tongues lay red and healthy, the hams were once more showing their handsome yellow faces, and the strings of sausages no longer had the sad look that had so upset Quenu. Hearty laughter rang out from the kitchen at the back, accompanied by the joyful rattle of saucepans. Once again the charcuterie exuded health, a kind of greasy health. The great strips of bacon and the sides of pork that hung against the marble brought to the picture the rounded contours of the belly, the belly triumphant, while Lisa, standing there, motionless and imposing, greeted Les Halles with her large, well-fed face.

Then both ladies turned to each other. La Belle Madame Lebigre and La Belle Madame Quenu exchanged a friendly greeting.

Claude, who had no doubt forgotten to have any supper the night before, felt angry at seeing them both looking so well and so respectable, with their great breasts thrust out before them; tightening his belt, he muttered bitterly:

‘Respectable people… What bastards!’

(The Belly of Paris, by Émile Zola, Oxford University Press, translated by Brian Nelson, 2007, p.275)

Exceptional Excerpts: The Kill by Émile Zola

The Kill was originally published as La Curée in 1872. It was the second volume in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series of books. The whole novel revolves around Saccard’s (a.k.a. Aristide Rougon) lust for money and Maxime and Renée’s lust for each other – Maxime is Saccard’s son from his first wife and Renée is Saccard’s second wife.

This excerpt is from the first chapter. A banquet has been held at Saccard’s luxurious house and the guests are leaving. Maxime and Louise, his betrothed, have sneaked off to the hothouse which is filled with exotic plants; Renée has followed them at a distance and spies on them.

Endless love and voluptuous appetite pervaded this stifling nave in which settled the ardent sap of the tropics. Renée was wrapped in the powerful bridals of the earth that gave birth to these dark growths, these colossal stamina; and the acrid birth-throes of this hotbed, of this forest growth, of this mass of vegetation aglow with the entrails that nourished it, surrounded her with disturbing odours. At her feet was the steaming tank, its tepid water thickened by the sap from the floating roots, enveloping her shoulders with a mantle of heavy vapours, forming a mist that warmed her skin like the touch of a hand moist with desire. Overhead she could smell the palm trees, whose tall leaves shook down their aroma. And more than the stifling heat, more than the brilliant light, more than the great dazzling flowers, like faces laughing or grimacing between the leaves, it was the odours that overwhelmed her. An indescribable perfume, potent, exciting, composed of a thousand different perfumes, hung about her; human exudation, the breath of women, the scent of hair; and breezes sweet and swooningly faint were blended with breezes coarse and pestilential, laden with poison. But amid this strange music of odours, the dominant melody that constantly returned, stifling the sweetness of the vanilla and the orchids’ pungency, was the penetrating, sensual smell of flesh, the smell of lovemaking escaping in the early morning from the bedroom of newlyweds.

Renée is overcome by the odours in the hothouse, the night’s excess and from watching Maxime and Louise. The chapter ends with this paragraph:

The shrub that half concealed her was a malignant plant, a Madagascan tanghin tree with wide, box-like leaves with whitish stems, whose smallest veins distilled a venomous fluid. At a moment when Louise and Maxime laughed more loudly in the reflected yellow light of the sunset in the little boudoir, Renée, her mind wandering, her mouth dry and parched, took between her lips a sprig of the tanghin tree that was level with her mouth, and sank her teeth into one of its bitter leaves.

( The Kill, by Émile Zola, Oxford University Press, translated by Brian Nelson, 2004, p39-40)

Exceptional Excerpts: Zest for Life by Émile Zola

Zest for Life is the Elek Books version of La Joie de vivre (1884)  which was published in 1955. Although not one of the best books of the series I found it an interesting read. The novel clips along at quite a leisurely pace until the reader reaches Chapter Ten – this is an astounding chapter, containing some of Zola’s most powerful, descriptive writing. Please note that I give away part of the plot in what follows.

In this chapter Louise, who is eight month’s pregnant, goes into labour. Her husband, Lazare, fetches the local midwife, Mme Bouland, but she discovers that the baby’s arm is showing and recommends that Dr. Cazenove is called for. Eventually the doctor arrives and suggests that it will be difficult to save both mother and child. He proceeds, however and for eight pages we experience the doctor’s attempt to re-align the baby and deliver it safely. The mother, who has been in constant pain for hours is unconscious at this point. I would have liked to quote the whole eight or so pages as it works so well as a whole, but instead I’ve picked out a small section which should give a flavour of the prose.

‘We’ve waited too long, it’s going to be difficult to get my hand in…You see, the shoulder’s already engaged in the opening.’

Amidst the swollen, straining muscles, between pinkish folds of flesh, the child could be seen. But it had stopped there, unable to get past because of the narrowness of the organ. Meanwhile, however, the abdominal and lumbar muscles were still striving to expel it; even unconscious, the mother was still pushing violently, exhausting herself in labour, in the mechanical urge to be delivered; and the waves of pain still swept downwards, each accompanied by a cry in her stubborn battle against the impossible. The child’s hand was hanging out of the vulva. It was a tiny black hand, its fingers opening and closing intermittently as though it were clutching at life.

‘Let the leg give a little,’ said Madame Bouland to Pauline. ‘No need to wear her out.’

Dr. Cazenove was standing between the two knees, each held by one of the women. He turned round, puzzled at the way the light was flickering; Lazare behind him, was trembling so violently that the candle shook in his hand as though in a great gust of wind.

‘My dear fellow,’ said the doctor, ‘put the candlestick on the bedside table. I shall see better.’

Incapable of watching any longer, the husband retreated to the further end of the room and sank into a chair. But although he had stopped watching, he still kept on seeing the little creature’s pathetic hand, clinging to life, seeming to grope for help in this world into which it had led the way.

Unfortunately, if you decide to read the Vizettely translation then this whole eight or nine page section of the book is covered by the following paragraph:

There came a cruel and affecting scene. It was one of those dread hours when life and death wrestle together, when human science and skill battle to overcome and correct the errors of Nature. More than once did the Doctor pause, fearing a fatal issue. The patient’s agony was terrible, but at last science triumphed, and a child was born. It was a boy.

A graphic description of a difficult childbirth was obviously not considered appropriate material for the late Victorian reading public. They could read it in French though if they wished.

(Zest for Life by Émile Zola, published by Elek Books, 1955, translated by Jean Stewart)

Exceptional Excerpts: His Excellency Eugene Rougon, by Emile Zola, translated by Ernest Alfred Vizetelly

I was reading His Excellency Eugène Rougon, by Émile Zola, (No #2 in the Rougon-Macquart cycle and part of my Zola project) when I came across this passage in Chapter 9.  The repression that Rougon exacts in the name of the Emperor and the lust for power at any price made me think of Stalin …

Outside, France was hushed in fear. The Emperor, in summoning Rougon to power, had been desirous of making examples. He knew the great man’s iron hand, and had said to him on the morning after the attempt on his life, with all the anger of one who has just escaped assassination, ‘No moderation, mind! They must be made to fear you.’ He had just armed him, too, with that terrible Law of General Safety, which authorised the confinement in Algeria or the expulsion from the empire of anyone who might be convicted of a poli­tical offence. Although no single Frenchman had taken part in the crime of the Rue Le Peletier, the Republicans were about to be hunted down and transported; there was to be a general sweeping away of the ten thousand ‘suspects’ who had been passed over at the time of the coup d’état. There were rumours of contemplated action by the revolutionary party. The authorities were said to have made a seizure of weapons and treasonable documents. Already in the middle of March, three hundred and eighty persons had been shipped at Toulon for Algeria, and now every week a fresh contingent was sent off. The whole country trembled in the terror which like a black storm cloud rolled forth from the room with the green velvet curtains where Rougon laughed aloud while stretching his arms.

The great man had never before tasted such complete contentment. He felt well and strong, and was putting on flesh. Health had come back to him with his return to power. When he walked about the room he dug his heels into the carpet, as though he wanted his heavy tread to resound throughout France. He would have liked to shake the country by merely putting his empty glass down on the side-table or casting aside his pen. It delighted him to be a source of fear, to forge thunderbolts amidst the smiling grati­fication of his friends, and to crush a whole nation with his swollen parvenu fists. In one of his circulars he had written: ‘It is for the good to feel confidence, and for the wicked only to tremble.’ He revelled in playing this part of a divinity, damning some, and saving others. He was filled with mighty pride; his idolatry of his own strength and intelligence was becoming a real religion with him.

Among the new men who had sprung up with the Second Empire, Rougon had long been known as a partisan of strong government. His name was a synonym for stern repression, the refusal of all liberties; despotic rule, in fact. All knew therefore what they had to expect when they saw him called to office. To his intimate friends, however, Rougon un­bosomed himself. He did not, he said, so much hold opinions as feel a craving for power. Power had too much attraction for him, and was too essential to his appetite for him to refuse it, whatever the conditions on which it might be offered to him.

To rule, to set his foot on the neck of the crowd, was his first and immediate ambition; the rest was merely secondary matter to which he could easily accommodate himself. The one thing which he really wanted was to be chief. It so hap­pened, however, that the circumstances under which he was now returning to power made his success very pleasant. The Emperor had given him complete liberty of action, and he was at last in a position to realise his old dream of driving the multitude with a whip like a herd of cattle. Nothing filled him with greater satisfaction than to know that he was feared and disliked. And sometimes when his friends told him that he was a tyrant, he smiled, and said with deep meaning: ‘If I should become a liberal some day, people will say that I have changed.’ Rougon’s very greatest joy was to stand triumphant amidst those friends of his. He forgot France and the obsequious functionaries and the crowd of petitioners who besieged his doors, to regale himself with the perpetual admiration of his ten or twelve intimate associates. His office was open to them at any hour, he allowed them to make it a home, to take possession of his chairs, and even of his desk itself; he told them that it was a pleasure to have them always about him like a pack of faithful dogs.

from His Excellency Eugène Rougon, by Émile Zola, in the Complete Works of  Émile Zola (Illustrated) (Kindle Locations 64059-64091). Delphi Classics. Kindle Edition.

Instructive, n’est-ce pas?