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.


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.