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.

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The Conquest of Passans, by Emile Zola, translated by Helen Constantine

The Conquest of Plassans (Oxford World's Classics)
What a contrast between The Conquest of Plassans is with The Dream! The Conquest of Plassans (La Conquête de Plassans) was first published in 1874, the fourth novel completed in Zola’s great Rougon-Macquart cycle. But if you are reading in the recommended reading order as I am, it is No 6, and comes after The Dream (Le Rêve) which was not written until 1888 and was a complete departure in Zola’s style. (See my review). With The Conquest of Plassans, we are back in the seedy world of political intrigue, greed, opportunism and gullibility.

19th century French politics are as mystifying as ever in The Conquest of Plassans but all you really need to know is that the town of Plassans has returned the ‘wrong’ candidate. As we know in Australia, marginal seats swing to-and-fro, but there is Serious Dismay if a party loses a seat that is ‘theirs’ by long-standing tradition. You can bet that the Liberal Party has a major campaign already underway to retrieve the seat that Sophie Mirabella lost at the 2013 election, and you can bet that the Labor Party hasn’t given up on the seat that the Greens snaffled in inner city Melbourne either. Well, in Plassans the party of the Empire under Napoleon III wants its seat back, and they have a suitably Machiavellian plan to achieve that.

The two royalist opposition parties (the Legitimists and the Orleanists) have their champions, who live either side of François Mouret. When the story opens, Mouret lives in reasonable contentment with his wife Marthe and their three children, Octave, Serge, and Désirée. Mouret is an irascible, unstable fellow as befits his dubious Macquart heritage, and he enjoys himself bullying Marthe and baiting his mother-in-law Félicité (see my Sensational Snippet), , but it is not until the arrival of the Abbé Faujas that his propensity for malicious gossip arises. An opportunist who seizes a chance to make more money, Mouret has agreed to let the second floor of his large house to the Abbé, but he is not best pleased when the Abbé turns up early and reveals himself to be a secretive fellow who keeps himself to himself. Mouret’s attempts to find out the Abbé’s antecedents and purposes consist mainly of haranguing his wife and his servant Rose into interrogating the lodger and his mother Madame Faujas, while he, Mouret, makes phony declarations that he’s not interested in other people’s business.

The Abbé is shabby and poor, but he has an imposing frame, and his refusal to engage with the bourgeois of Plassans makes him an object of great interest. When the entire town has decided that he’s a dubious sort, Mouret, perversely, becomes his champion. He welcomes Faujas to the warmth of his hearth, playing cards after dinner with Madame Faujas, and telling all who will listen what a great fellow the Abbé is. Fatally, his card games leave Marthe to the mercy of the Abbé, and before long, this placid homebody startles her irreligious husband by attending church, making confession – and starting up a charitable child-care organisation for at-risk children while their parents are at work!

Lo! The town shifts its opinion. Marthe the dynamic fundraiser has got the good bourgeois ladies of Plassans onside and now they all think the Abbé is the bee’s knees. This puts him in a position to achieve his political goals, though of course he’s still stoutly declaring that he has no interest in politics. Mouret, of course, shifts his opinion back again too. There is a serpent in his little bit of Paradise, and he’s not happy. (His reaction to having a wife with interests outside the home reminded me of men I knew in the 1970s when women became working wives who were a threat to their husbands’ sense of identity as Master of the House.)

There’s a splendid cast of characters amongst the townsfolk, who are gossipy, gullible, greedy and corrupt. But it’s the unwelcome arrival of the Abbé’s unscrupulous sister Olympe and brother-in-law Trouche that’s the catalyst for the tragedy that unfolds. Consistent with Zola’s theories about heredity and temperament, Mouret succumbs to his fate, and his wife Marthe to hers.

And who’s behind all these machinations? Ah, you’ll have to read the book to find out!

As with others in the Oxford World’s Classics in this series, there is an excellent introduction. This one is by Patrick McGuinness, with a thoughtful note at the beginning that readers who wish to avoid spoilers should read it after finishing the book.

Next up will be No 7 in the recommended reading order, Pot-Bouille (1882), and I will be reading the OUP World’s Classics edition, Pot Luck, translated by Australian Brian Nelson.

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.