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 

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Great news! New editions of Zola titles

The Sin of Abbe Mouret

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cross posted at ANZ LitLovers

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.

 

‘Rome’ (Part 2) by Émile Zola

Zola_Rome_fcX-700pxEarlier in the year I read the first half of Rome by Émile Zola and in my post I described how boring it was and I wasn’t sure whether to abandon it or not. Well, I decided to continue with it and finished it on New Year’s Eve. I thought that I owed it to Zola to continue and also because I do actually intend to read Paris, which is the last in the series. I read it in smaller, more palatable, chunks but it didn’t really improve; the main story was just as boring and the subplot with Benedetta and Dario was just as ludicrous.

The only saving grace was that Pierre did get to meet the Pope to discuss his book on ‘Socialistic Catholicicm’ only to find that the Pope was not exactly impressed with his ideas. Not only did we, the readers, know that the Pope wouldn’t ever support the book but all the other characters in the novel knew that he was doomed to failure as well. Surprisingly Pierre capitulates and agrees to withdraw his book rather than defend it, and then later when he’s alone he has a petulant fit where he denounces Catholicism and declares that only science has the answers. At no point does it cross his mind to publish his book without the Pope’s blessing or to ditch the Catholicism in his ‘Socialistic Catholicism’, especially as he admits way back at the beginning of Lourdes that he no longer believes in God and Catholicism. By the end of the novel I no longer cared what he did or thought.

The silly subplot with Benedetta and Dario, that even Zola says in the text ‘had no place save in the fifth acts of melodramas’ comes to an even more bizarre conclusion. Benedetta has got her divorce from her husband and now she and Dario are free to marry but some poisoned figs are delivered which are intended for Benedetta’s uncle but end up being eaten by Dario. Whilst on his death-bed Benedetta, stripped naked, goes to him:

   “My Dario, here I am!”
   For a second, which seemed an eternity, they clasped one another, she neither repelled nor terrified by the disorder which made him so unrecognisable, but displaying a delirious passion, a holy frenzy as if to pass beyond life, to penetrate with him into the black Unknown. And beneath the shock of the felicity at last offered to him he expired, with his arms yet convulsively wound around her as though indeed to carry her off. Then, whether from grief or from bliss amidst that embrace of death, there came such a rush of blood to her heart that the organ burst: she died on her lover’s neck, both tightly and for ever clasped in one another’s arms.
   There was a faint sigh. Victorine understood and drew near, while Pierre, also erect, remained quivering with the tearful admiration of one who has beheld the sublime.
   “Look, look!” whispered the servant, “she no longer moves, she no longer breathes. Ah! my poor child, my poor child, she is dead!”
   Then the priest murmured: “Oh! God, how beautiful they are.”

Yes, not only does her heart stop just at the same time as she kisses Dario but they are also buried together locked in this embrace. Graham King has noted in Garden of Zola that this ‘death-kiss syndrome’ had appeared in previous novels by Zola, such as Le Rêve and La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret but this whole subplot just seems totally out of place in this novel. It’s strange how nothing happens for most of the novel, then Zola wraps up both stories in a chapter or two and then limps on with another couple of chapters where Pierre says goodbye to everyone.

It’s fair to say that I didn’t like this book so you may be interested in other blogger’s reviews of Rome such as Behold the Stars’ review which contains much background information that I found interesting when I was trudging through the book and the review on Old Books by Dead Guys blog. Both blogs have many other reviews of Zola’s books.

This post was also posted on my blog Intermittencies of the Mind.

Nana, by Émile Zola, translated by Douglas Parmée

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

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

BEWARE: SPOILERS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Availability

Fishpond: Nana (Oxford World’s Classics)

Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers

‘Rome’ (Part 1) by Émile Zola

Zola_Rome_fcX-700pxI’m halfway through Rome, the second volume of the Three Cities trilogy by Zola, and I have to admit it’s a slow slog. After Lourdes I thought I knew what to expect, I knew it wasn’t going to be top-class Zola but I thought it would be readable in its way, but Rome may defeat me yet. I’m taking a break and I may continue at a slower pace, maybe a chapter or two every week or so, or I may just pack it in.

Rome continues the story of Abbé Pierre Froment, who first appeared in Lourdes, and who seems to have regained his faith in some sense. I can never quite understand the Froment character as he seems to have lost his faith before Lourdes began only to accept by the end of that novel that, ok, he’s not a believer but he may as well carry on as a Priest as he can’t do anything else. By the beginning of Rome he’s regained a sense of faith in the form of Catholic Socialism and he’s off to Rome to meet the Pope in order to convince him that he and the Catholic hierarchy should renounce all earthly pleasures and return to a purer form of christianity and help the poor. Now, I’m pretty sure that every reader then, and now, would be certain that in no credible version of the Universe would the Pope agree to such a scheme. So Pierre has the impossible task of convincing the Pope of his plans; but before that he has to arrange a meeting with him and to convince him to get his book, New Rome, taken off the Index of banned books. He has to battle his way past the Papal bureaucracy which seems determined to thwart him at every step.

From the short synopsis this seems quite appealing to me; it sounds similar to Kafka’s The Castle, a tale of a fight against a powerful bureaucracy or one of my favourite films, Patrice Leconte’s Ridicule where the main character has to battle his way through Louis XVI’s court to gain access to the king and ultimately to get funds to drain a mosquito-ridden swamp back home. But Rome consists largely of Zola’s travel notes from his visit to Rome in 1894. We get a tourist’s guide to many of Rome’s buildings at the beginning of the novel, a guide of some of Rome’s ruins, the Appian Way, the catacombs, the Sistine chapel together with a comparison between Michelangelo and Botticelli, the view from St Peter’s and we witness a public Papal event called Peter’s Pence Fund, amongst others. In an attempt to add some drama to the book he invents a Shakespearian subplot that involves Benedetta and Dario who are in love with each other; only there’s a slight problem because Benedetta is already married. As the marriage was never consumated she is trying to get divorced, thus introducing her own battle with the Papal authorities. And so, the first half of Rome reads as a pretty dull tourist’s guide to Rome combined with a bit of history and a melodramatic love story. The book only becomes slightly interesting when Pierre is encountering the obstructive Papal bureaucrats or when they all go to visit some of the ‘lower classes’, even if Zola’s description of them portrays them as little better than lazy pigs rolling about in filth.

It’s interesting to see what others thought of Rome. In the introduction to the physical book I have (see image) the author has this to say of Zola’s work after the Rougon-Macquart series:

…the Three Cities and the Four Gospels will subsequently prove to be fairly mechanically assembled, with plot subservient to ideas. Characters now tend to be stereotypes or mouthpieces, and to recur not in the Balzacian sense – from novel to novel – but at regular and predictable intervals within each.

This is a fair point. With Lourdes Zola seems to be just using the form of the novel because that is what he’s familiar with, whereas it would have worked better as a piece of journalism. With Rome all the tourist stuff and the love-story are just add-ons to make the piece look like a novel; he could have expressed his ideas better in an essay if he could no longer be bothered with plot or character. One of the main criticisms I had with the book is that we rarely know what Pierre, or any of the other characters, are thinking so that all we get are third person descriptions of objects and events. Graham King is a bit more sympathetic to Zola and Rome:

Rome is a long, wide-ranging and complex novel with more merits, I think, than deficiencies. The problem for the modern reader is that it suffers from a marked loss of topicality…Its historical background, vital then, is irrelevant now: Pope Leo XIII’s emerging social conscience, which brought about the establishment of Catholic trade unions.

And so, I’m faced with the decision to continue or not. Because I’ve read the introduction to the book and biographies of Zola I know how Rome ends, so I may just take the less painful way out and abandon it. The next decision will be whether to continue with the final volume, Paris.

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

Lourdes-Rome-Paris