‘For a Night of Love’ by Émile Zola

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For a Night of Love is a short story collection consisting of three stories by Émile Zola. It was first published by Hesperus Press in 2002 and the translations are by Andrew Brown, who also translated the Hesperus Books version of The Dream.

The three stories are For a Night of Love, Nantas and Fasting. For a Night of Love (Pour une nuit d’amour) was originally published in the Russian periodical Vestnik Evropy (European Messenger) in 1876 and subsequently in L’Echo universel in 1877. Nantas was also published in Vestnik Evropy, in 1878. Fasting (Le Jeûne) was first published in 1870.

I hadn’t previously heard of any of these stories, which is exciting, but makes me wonder just how many other stories by Zola are out there that we don’t know about. Many of the stories in the collection The Attack on the Mill and Other Stories first appeared in Vestnik Evropy as well as the stories here.

The first story in the collection is For a Night of Love and begins by describing the life of loner, Julien Michon, who lives in a first-floor flat in an unnamed town (ok it’s called P***). He’s shy, large and feels ugly; he works as a copy clerk in the local post office and although his life is uneventful he’s relatively happy. If he gets bored he plays tunes on his flute, usually late at night when everyone is asleep. Opposite his flat is a large building occupied by the elderly and wealthy Marsannes whom he rarely sees. He discovers that the Marsannes have a daughter, Thérèse, who grew up with Colombel, who also works at the post office and enjoys teasing Julien. Anyway, one night whilst playing his flute he notices a girl at the window opposite, this girl is Thérèse and he falls in love with her and watches her from his window whenever possible; at some point Thérèse becomes aware that Julien is there but ignores him. One night, however, she opens her window, obviously distraught, she sees Julien at his window and blows him a kiss and summons him to ‘come’. I’m not going to reveal any more of the plot but there are similarities with another story by Zola about a Thérèse. In this story Thérèse is a bit of a sadist and is not as pure as she first appears.

The second story, Nantas, is set in Paris; the eponymous hero lives in a narrow attic room and has come from Marseilles to seek his fortune in Paris. It’s not going well but he comforts himself with his favourite phrase, ‘I’m really strong’. Unfortunately his savings have virtually run out and when he returns to his flat he’s seriously contemplating suicide but even this is difficult when you have no money. He watches the sun set and falls asleep only to be woken by a visitor, Mlle Chuin, who says that she has a proposition for him; he’s expecting and hoping for a job offer but she offers him a marriage to a young, rich girl, who is pregnant by a married man. It doesn’t take Nantas long to accept the offer. When he meets Mlle Flavie and her father a deal is made but Flavie has no interest in Nantas and their marriage just seems like another one of Nantas’s business arrangements. You’ll have to read the story yourself to find out what happens but I must admit it’s a bit predictable – brilliantly told though, and definitely worth reading.

The last story, Fasting is only a few pages long and is one of Zola’s gentle gibes at the hypocrisies of the priesthood. A baroness is in church listening to an impassioned sermon on fasting by the curate. She’s enjoying listening to him, even though she’s having trouble staying awake, but he’s reeling off his sermon in order to get away for a concert and meal with a countess. It’s a slight tale but quite a humorous one for Zola.

I’m on a bit of roll with Zola’s short stories so I’ll have to check out the two ‘Ninon’ collections next.

The Dream, by Emile Zola, translated by Andrew Brown

The DreamIt’s not very original of me to say so, but The Dream (Le Rêve) is not like any other Zola that I’ve read. First published in 1888, seventeen years after he started writing the Rougon-Macquart cycle with the first novel, The Fortune of the Rougons in 1871, The Dream is fifth in the recommended reading order. But this tale of love thwarted by reality is more fanciful than the Zola I’m used to. It seems a kinder, gentler kind of novel, less critical of society and of the individuals in it. Perhaps Zola had mellowed a bit by the time he wrote it?

The Dream begins with a young orphan girl perishing in the snow at the entrance to the cathedral of Beaumont. It is the day after Christmas Day.

The street was still asleep, lazily lying in after the festivities of the day before. Six o’clock struck. In the darkness that glimmered faintly blue in the slow, relentless fall of the snowflakes, the only living thing was the wavering shape of a nine-year-old girl who had taken refuge under the archway of the portal and spent the night there, shivering with cold, and sheltering as best she could. She was dressed in rags, her head wrapped in a tattered scarf, and her feet bare in a man’s heavy shoes. Doubtless she had fetched up here only after tramping the streets for ages, since at this spot she had sunk down in exhaustion. For her this was the end of the world, with nobody and nothing left; final abandonment, gnawing hunger, and deadly cold; and worn out as she was, stifled by the heavy weight of her heart, she gave up the struggle; all that remained was to find a retreat for her body, to follow her instincts and shrink back, huddling deeper into the shelter of those old stones whenever a gust of wind set the snow swirling. (p.3)

Reminiscent of those old fairy tales where a childless couple are miraculously gifted with the child of their dreams, Hubert and Hubertine (who live next to the cathedral) rescue Angélique. They bring her up as their own, occasionally alarmed by her passionate nature, but otherwise living in contentment formerly denied them. Their childlessness, they believe, is a punishment for having succumbed to passion themselves and marrying without the blessing of Hubertine’s mother. They had a child, but it died, and now Angelique joins the family, content to leave her wild past behind and learn their livelihood – the art of ecclesiastical embroidery.

In extremis on the night of her rescue, Angélique had huddled up against an assortment of virginal saints and martyrs, sculpted in stone on the pillars of the cathedral. In the care of the Huberts, she develops an obsession with the stories of these saints in a book called The Golden Legend, and she also develops some fanciful ideas about what her future might be. Like many girls, she dreams about marrying a prince who will elevate her to glory, but her naïve erotic ideas are mixed up with the mysticism of her ardour for saintliness.

All this (especially all the stuff about the saints and their various gory martyrdoms) is very unZolaesque.

BEWARE: SPOILERS

Even more unZolaesque is that Angélique meets the man of her dreams. Like the fairytale girls who live in towers, Angélique lives right up at the top of the old house, and from her balcony she sees Félicien working on the stained glass windows. He’s gorgeous, and so is she, and so begins a curious courtship. He follows her about, helping her with the washing, and duplicating her works of charity (which annoys her. She’s got a competitive streak, has Angélique, and she doesn’t like being outdone in Good Works.) All the while she pretends not to fancy him, and says nothing about him at home. And Zola teases the reader with vague references to him being more than he seems, even though he’s dressed like a rustic…

Eventually Félicien ups the ante by commissioning an embroidered mitre for a forthcoming religious celebration, and thus has entrée to the Huberts’ home. As he did in The Ladies’ Paradise, Zola makes symbolic use of white in this novel, (virgin snow, sheets, dresses, etc,) but now Angélique sews in gold thread, an allusion to the wealth of the church and the sumptuous vestments worn by its priests. And even as she rejoices in her love for Félicien, she maintains the façade of dislike for him, leaving him desolate and Hubertine embarrassed by her rudeness.

It can’t last. Alone in her bedroom, Angélique repents for her unkindness but quixotically decides that her punishment should be to deny her love for Félicien forever. But he’s had other ideas and he climbs up the balcony and into her room. His plan was to force himself on her (!), but fortunately for Angélique he is so overcome by the virginal whiteness of the room that he thinks better of it. She thinks better of the self-denial idea, because she believes that the saints have sanctioned his arrival. The couple meets again, they declare their love, and um, yes, they’re going to get married.

Yes, it is all a bit daft, and so utterly unlike Zola that even the author of the Foreword in my edition, Tim Parks, admits that he had ‘difficulty getting his bearings’ with this novel. Félicien is really the wealthy son of the bishop, a proud and arrogant man. He is betrothed to a beautiful wealthy girl of his own class. He’s also a bit cowardly about standing up to his father. The Huberts, for their part, are only too acutely aware of the absurdity of such a union, and they sabotage it in the hope that a quick severance is in Angelique’s best interests.

I’m not going to reveal how Zola resolves all this, except to say that he achieved his goal to ‘write a book no one expects from me’. The miracle of Angelique’s rescue has a dreamlike quality, and that’s not the only miracle that happens. The girl’s naïve faith that everything will be resolved because they love each other is a dream, as is her belief that all she has to do is introduce herself to the Monseigneur and his opposition to the marriage will be overcome. It’s her passion that drives this faith, because for Zola with his belief in heredity destiny, her dubious parentage will always influence her fate, even when it’s moderated by a benign environment. The placidity of her home with the Huberts can never wholly suppress the passion.

It’s a very interesting book, with some beautiful scenes and a plot that gathers momentum till it reaches its unexpected ending.

The translation by Andrew Brown is competent, but (as you can see from the excerpt above) it’s occasionally ungainly with contemporary idiom such as ‘fetched up here’; ‘tramping the street for ages’; and ‘at this spot’. The cover design is dopey, and the green slime effect is singularly unenticing. On the other hand, the Foreword by Tim Parks is helpful (and includes interesting stuff about the religious aspects of the novel that I haven’t delved into here) and the Introduction by Brown is very good indeed, though best left till after the reading because of spoilers. He draws out the intricacies of the novel without being overly academic about it, making it more enjoyable to mull over afterwards.

And now on to La Conquête de Plassans (The Conquest of Plassans/A Priest in the House) – and my timing is excellent because I see from Twitter that Oxford have today just released a new translation of it! See Fishpond: The Conquest of Plassans (Oxford World’s Classics)

Author: Emile Zola
Title: The Dream (Le Rêve)
Publisher: Hesperus Classics, 2005
ISBN: 9781843911142
Source: Personal copy

Availability

Out of print. Try AbeBooks or Brotherhood Books.

I read and reviewed this book as part of my Zola Project,

Lisa Hill, 2014

Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers