The Assommoir, by Émile Zola, a new translation by Brian Nelson

Weeks before I listened to this very interesting webinar about ‘The Art of Reviewing Literature in Translation’, I had referred — in this #6Degrees of Separation — to Brian Nelson’s new translation of  Zola’s The Assommoir (L’Assommoir) and specifically mentioned reading the Translator’s Note:

I have just received a brand new translation of it by my favourite translator, Brian Nelson, Emeritus Professor of French at Monash University. Published by Oxford World’s Classics, it has the same Introduction by Robert Lethbridge as the 1995 Margaret Mauldon translation, but (of course) the Notes on the Translation are new, referring to the difficulty of translating C19th French slang and to a change of approach. Where Mauldon writes that she aimed for an English equivalent not of recent vintage to convey the vigour of the original, Nelson asserts the importance of writing for a contemporary audience, aiming to use vigorously colloquial contemporary language. So I am looking forward to see how these differences are manifested in the new translation.

So, listening to the webinar, I was interested to hear that at least one prominent (i.e. paid) reviewer had complained about an aspect of translation that had been specifically explained in a Translator’s Note.  Quite rightly, this not bothering to read the Translator’s Note was judged by the panel to be shabby behaviour, but that behaviour made me realise how far I have come in thinking about translated literature since the early days when I began reading it via the home of translated fiction, Stu’s blog Winston’s Dad.

First up, yes, translators feel strongly that reviewers should acknowledge that a book is translated and has translator.  So that’s a tick for me, because I’ve been doing that for years.  But then it’s a question of how it’s acknowledged.  It’s not just a matter of #NamingTheTranslator, it’s a matter of acknowledging that the work is a co-creation which emerges when a translator reworks the original text and recreates it. That’s not something I’ve always acknowledged, and what’s more, I don’t agree entirely that a translator can or should, to use an example from the webinar, change culturally specific Israeli jokes into something else more accessible.  Firstly, there is always Google; secondly, there can be explanatory notes; and thirdly, whose alternatives do we get that aren’t culturally specific to somewhere else anyway?  Those of us who live in The Rest of the World all know how often there are tiresome assumptions that we are familiar with US culture.  (Anyone learning languages with Duolingo has to put up with this all the time).

Whatever about that, if you — whether reader or reviewer — are at all interested in the reviewing of translation, this webinar is a helpful guide to doing it well, though the speakers were all at pains to say that all reviews of translated fiction are welcome, because it isn’t reviewed enough and nobody wants to discourage potential reviewers with exacting standards…

So in the spirit of the suggestion that reviewers of TL should be ‘daring’ I’m going to assert that Brian Nelson’s translation of The Assommoir is a ‘new book’ in the sense that the panel explained it.  It is a co-creation with Zola, reworked for contemporary readers.  The most obvious aspect of this is the use of contemporary language as an interpretation of Zola’s use of 19th century French slang.  It is, as we often tag it, ‘robust’!

Reading a new translation for review has been a different kind of reading for me.  I already know this powerful story of a woman from the French underclass who starts out well but lapses into moral and financial decline, and you can read my review of the Margaret Mauldon translation here. So I was reading partly for the pleasure of re-reading, but also to note differences in the translation.  This is a kind of reading that scholars and editors do, but I don’t pretend to have that kind of expertise.  For me, comparing the text line-by-line would have killed the pleasure of reading it, but when I came across sections that seemed to me to be new or different or more modern, I compared the two texts.

But first, of course, there’s a different cover, and much as I liked the melancholy of the portrait by Edgar Degas in the Margaret Mauldon edition, ‘The Absinthe Drinker’ also by Degas more acutely depicts the sodden couple and their degradation.  They are together, and yet alone, separated by their addiction and the squalor of their lives.  To me, this new cover represents the way that Coupeau’s role in the novel and the social milieu are integral to Garvaise’s downfall, along with her own fatal flaws.

I admit to being disappointed that this new edition retains the Introduction and Notes by Robert Lethbridge.  I am unabashed fan of the clarity and accessibility of Brian Nelson’s no less comprehensive introductions, which were — from the time I first encountered the one for The Ladies Paradise — the catalyst for me to read the entire Les Rougon-Macquart Cycle.  As far as I can tell, the Introduction and Notes in The Assommoir/L’Assommoir are pretty much the same, except that quotations from the novel in the new edition use the Nelson translation, and there are amendments to some of the Notes as well. (For example, in the notes about the allusion to Pascal, mentioned on p. 89, there is additional information about the poet and song-writer Béranger as an ironic cultural counterpart.) 

There is a world of difference in the Translator’s Notes:

The Assommoir, transl Brian NelsonL’Assommoir, transl by Margaret Mauldon
The act of translation is an empathetic act in the sense that it allows translators to become the authors they admire, to recreate through language the narratives they love. This is doubly true in the case of L’Assommoir, insofar as the central effect of the novel itself is empathy: that is to say, the reader is invited to enter the character’s world, to see and feel the world as they do. This effect is created partly by the phenomenological quality of Zola’s writing: the sensory immediacy that informs his characters’ relationship with their environment. The effect is greatly heightened, however, by Zola’s astonishing invention of a narrative voice that absorbs into itself the thoughts and feelings of the characters. L’Assommoir is a notoriously difficult text to translate. No translation, however faithful its rendering of the novel’s gutter slang and obscenities, could possibly recreate the impact of that language on the nineteenth century reader. Today’s readers have become accustomed to slang and are no longer shocked by obscenity. It follows that much of the original of L’Assommoir to command attention by its unorthodox and audacious language is lost forever—and lost, of course, not simply in translation but to readers of the original text as well.

I see myself as a student encountering this book for the first time as a set text, and I know which one makes me want to read the book.  Not the edition that asserts a sense of loss, but the one that lures me with a promise of empathy.

So, onward with my reading of the edition that does not attempt to recreate French slang that was outmoded and obscure even in Zola’s day, but rather conveys the vigour of the original without introducing incompatible English or American connotations.  

An early example of the difference occurs when Gervaise is warding off Coupeau’s advances.  Gervaise is talking about her contemptible lover Lantier who abandoned her as soon as they got to Paris, leaving her with two small children to support: 

The Assommoir, transl Brian NelsonL’Assommoir, transl by Margaret Mauldon
‘Don’t be silly!’ Gervaise was saying to Coupeau. ‘Sex is all you think about! Of course I loved him… But after the awful way he walked out…’ (p.34)‘Don’t be silly! What a dirty mind you have!’ Gervaise was saying to Coupeau. ‘Of course I loved him… Only, after the horrible way he left me…’ (p.37)

Here’s another example, from the rank humidity of the laundry, where Clemence has stripped off her bodice because of the heat:

The Assommoir, transl Brian NelsonL’Assommoir, transl by Margaret Mauldon
‘Clemence, put your bodice back on,’ said Gervaise. ‘Madame Putois is right, it’s not decent… People might start thinkin’ my shop is something else altogether.’
So Clemence got dressed again, grumbling as she did so. What a fuss about nothing! As if passers-by had never seen a pair of tits before! And she took out her annoyance on the apprentice, squinty Augustine, who was standing next to her ironing easy stuff like stockings and hankies; she pushed her and knocked her with her elbow. But Augustine, with the sly bitchiness of an ugly duckling always being picked on, got her own back by spitting on her dress from behind, without anyone seeing. (p. 125)
‘Clemence, put your bodice on again,’ said Gervaise. ‘Madame Putois is right, it isn’t decent… People’ll take my shop for something it’s not.’
So the great tall girl got dressed again, grumbling. What a lot of bellyaching! Hadn’t the passers-by ever seen a pair of books, then! And she worked off her anger on the apprentice, that cross-eyed Augustine, who was standing beside her ironing plain things like stockings and handkerchiefs, she pushed her, bumping her with her elbow. But with the peevish, shifty nastiness of an ill-favoured drudge Augustine spat on the back of her dress, without anyone seeing, in revenge. (p.139)

The songs are different too.  This one is a washerwoman’s song, capturing in the Nelson translation both the drudgery of the work and the way the women expressed their sorrows:

The Assommoir, transl Brian NelsonL’Assommoir, transl by Margaret Mauldon
‘Thwack! Thwack! Margot at the wash….
Thwack! Thwack! Swings her beater— slosh…
Thwack! Thwack! Washing from her soul…
Thwack! Thwack! Misery black as coal….’ (p.28)
Bang! Bang! Margot’s wash she’s thwacking,
Bang! Bang! With her beater smacking,
Bang! Bang! Washing out the stain,
Bang! Bang! Of her heart’s black pain. (p.31)

Of course, this is not about picking out snippets to compare a different choice of words.  For most of my reading I was wholly absorbed in the story even though I’d read it before.  I was more conscious this time of Goujet, the gentle giant whose love for Gervaise is unrequited while Gervaise refuses him from the moral high ground of ‘respectable’ marriage when really, it’s her her lazy habits and easy-going ways that keep her mired in degradation.  And —having read Nana since first reading L’Assommoir— I was more alert to the portrayals of Gervaise’s daughter in this novel.  It is quite heart-breaking to read about the birth of this child, her father’s delight and Gervaise’s prescient anxiety about the risks girls faced in a city like Paris, and then to come to the end of the novel where we see Nana beginning her life as a prostitute, entering high society in a grand carriage as her alcoholic mother dies pathetically in abject poverty.  

The new edition also has a much expanded Bibliography, and the Chronology of Zola’s life has slight differences. 

Highly recommended.

Credits:

Webinar: ‘The Art of Reviewing Literature in Translation’ (NBCC), featuring Tara Merrigan, Samuel Martin, Shelley Frisch, Emma Ramadan, Kevin Blankinship, Jeremy Tiang.

‘The Absinthe Drinker in a café’, by Edgar Degas: National Gallery of Victoria.

Author: Émile Zola
Title: The Assommoir (L’Assommoir)
Translated from the French by Brian Nelson, with an Introduction and Notes by Robert Lethbridge, and a map of the setting and a family tree of the Rougon-Macquarts. 
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics, 2021, first published 1877.
ISBN: 9780198828563, pbk., 411 pages
Review copy courtesy of OUP, with thanks to Brian Nelson.

Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers

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Emile Zola, a Very Short Introduction, by Brian Nelson

There are good reasons to read this book: if you know nothing about Émile Zola, Brian Nelson’s Very Short Introduction will convince you to add Zola to your TBR; and if you’ve read Zola in a general reader’s kind of way, the VSI enhances your knowledge of the author and his books, making you want to read or re-read more of this author.

This VSI also explains why you might not want to read the Rougon-Macquart cycle in the chronological order that I used, because themes reveal themselves differently if you read the novels in publication order.  The VSI also provides the historical context for the novels in a way that you might not have understood if you don’t have the OUP editions with their excellent introductions.  (Some of the novels were not available in OUP editions when I first started reading Zola, a problem since rectified.  See my post ‘The Art of Book Introductions, or Why You Should Always Buy the Oxford Editions of Zola’.)

Brian Nelson, Emeritus Professor of French Studies and Translation Studies at Monash University here in Melbourne, translated some of the recent editions of the Rougon-Macquart cycle, and wrote the introductions.  His style, as you will know if you have read the OUP editions that he translated, is clear, free of pedantry and academic jargon, and easy for a general reader to enjoy.  I was really pleased to add this edition to my collections of VSIs.

Zola, (1840-1902) like his predecessor Balzac (1799-1850), used storytelling to examine his society, but Zola’s focus was the changing cultural landscapes of the late 19th century.  He was a novelist of modernity driven by industrial capitalism.  He was interested in the new shapes of the city, new forms of social practice and economic organisation, and the heightened political pressures of the era.  One of the innovative features of his novels is the portrayal of crowds, a feature of the emerging mass society.

Committed to a literature of truth, and to a new freedom of expression, he introduced a new realm of subjects: urban poverty and the working class; class consciousness and class relations; sexuality and gender.  Truth, for him, was not just a matter of personal integrity, but also an aesthetic principle.  He believed in telling it like it is, with no aspect of human experience out of bounds.  He believed [and I do too] that a writer plays a social role.  What Zola shows is the lives of ordinary people but within the context of change: how they were affected by the growth of the city, by the abuse of power, by the growth of consumer culture, by banking, crime, poverty and prostitution.

His style was not documentary but ironic and satiric.  Zola was provocative, combative, critical and subversive.  He was the most criticised and maligned writer of his day, but also the most popular.  Today he is recognised as a narrative artist, a craftsman, a storyteller and a fabulist.

Chapter One delves into Zola’s research methods and his narrative genius.  His best works, says Nelson, are visionary.  They employ poetic character with movement, colour and intensity.  His descriptions are more than just that—they eclipse human beings to express a vision and magnify the material world.  An example from The Ladies Paradise is the cascading images and rising pitch in the description of the department store sales which suggest loss of control, the female shopper’s quasi-sexual abandonment to consumer dreams while mirroring the perpetual expansion that defines the economic principles of consumerism. [And it’s still very relevant today.  Reading this novel and Brian Nelson’s introduction to it redefined my understanding of the way marketing works and I am a cannier shopper for that.]

The predominant feature is Zola’s oeuvre is the machine, in entities that function like one: the department store, the mine, the stock exchange.  He also uses his theme of heredity selectively to create a sense of doom, like an ancient curse.  But running through all his works is a mythopoeic vision, not just parallels between his characters and figures from classical mythology, but also influencing the narrative patterns of his novels.

There is the origin myth of the first novel of the series, The Fortunes of the Rougons; the myths of hell and the universal flood in Germinal; the myth of the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Knowledge in The Sin of Father Mouret (La Faute de Abbé Mouret, 1875); the myth of Man’s lost majesty in The Sin of Father Mouret and L’Assommoir; the myth of the Eternal Return in Earth; the myths of Catastrophe and renewal in the later novels of Les Rougons-Macquart, from Nana onwards. (p.9) [I’ve reviewed all these, see here, but I didn’t recognise this aspect of the oeuvre.)

Chapter Two traces Zola’s career as a writer before he began the Rougons—I was interested to see that he learned the art of self-promotion at Hachette but he over-stepped the mark with Claude’s Confession, his second novel about a prostitute.  As an art critic he made himself notorious in the art world stoush over Impressionism v classical painting, but he also learned from Manet his guiding aesthetic, i.e. to look at life like a modern painter.

Novels which are discussed in detail in the VSI include

  • The Belly of Paris (Chapter 3) from his ‘angry young man’ period;
  • L’Assommoir (Chapter 4), the scandalous first great novel of working-class life;
  • Nana (Chapter 5), about a prostitute whose life span symbolises the disfigurement of French society from the coup d’état in 1852 to the declaration of war against Russia which signalled the collapse of Empire;
  • The Ladies Paradise (Chapter 6): a transitional novel, from the private lives of the bourgeoisie in Pot Luck to a new optimistic focus on progress which depicts the Darwinian struggle between small business retailers and the new new phenomenon of the department store;
  • Germinal (Chapter 7) is about class conflict and the struggle between capital and labour, which Zola foresaw would be the most important question of the 20th century. But it’s also a novel about the importance of working-class leadership: Zola was well aware of the risks of muddled thinking and patchy reading and the consequences for demagoguery;
  • Earth which Nelson thinks is one of Zola’s finest achievements, demolishing the myth of the inherent goodness of peasants and depicting them as they really were, primitive and insular in a harsh environment.  Their savage, sometimes murderous attachment to land is an anti-pastoral.

Chapter 9 introduced me to novels I haven’t read: the more mythic Three Cities trilogy (about a priest who loses his faith) and the unfinished quartet of the Four Gospel novels (exploring a secular replacement for Christianity). In this later period—amid the ideological shifts in la fin de siécle—Zola’s themes were life and death, creation and destruction, degeneration and renewal.  But his signature naturalism began to be rejected, Catholicism was on the rise and there was pessimism about the nation’s future.  Nelson says that some of these are more like tracts.

And then Dreyfus affair overshadowed everything else.  This VSI has one of the best and clearest explanations of this affair and its long-lasting effects on France.  And he also says that it may well have led to the probable poisoning of this genius of French literature.

Author: Brian Nelson
Title: Émile Zola, a Very Short Introduction
Oxford Very Short Introductions Series
Publisher: OUP (Oxford University Press), 2020
ISBN: 9780198837565, pbk., 144 pages including

  • A chronology of Zola’s life and works
  • References
  • Further reading, and
  • Index

Review copy courtesy of Oxford University Press.

Available from Fishpond: Emile Zola: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers

(Re-reading) His Excellency Eugène Rougon (Son Excellence Eugène Rougon) by Émile Zola, translated by Brian Nelson

his excellency eugene rougonI have been re-reading His Excellency Eugène Rougon (Son Excellence Eugène Rougon) because I have a lovely new OUP edition, translated by Brian Nelson.  I’m not going to review the novel again because I’ve already reviewed the Vizetelly translation as part of my Zola Project to read the entire Rougon-Marquet series, but I do want to comment about why it’s so much more enjoyable to read a new edition than a freebie from Project Gutenberg.

I admire the whole concept of Project Gutenberg, and I’ve read plenty of their titles that I couldn’t otherwise source. The wonderful team of volunteers at PG have saved many titles from oblivion, and these titles are free, which makes them accessible to all budgets. But there are limitations with some titles, and the Vizetelly translations of Zola’s novels are particularly problematic…

I call them Vizetelly translations, but actually, Vizetelly was the publisher and although Brian Nelson says in his Translator’s Note that His Excellency was translated by Henry Vizetelly’s son Ernest in 1897, Wikipedia says that it’s not known who the translator was. That’s probably just because WP hasn’t caught up with the scholarship, but it is true that Gutenberg editions sometimes don’t #NameTheTranslator because translators weren’t acknowledged in the original editions. In the case of Zola, it may be that anonymity was desired, perhaps by a lady translator, because Zola was considered salacious and as Vizetelly learned to his cost, it wasn’t just risky for a lady’s reputation… there were worse consequences than that.

Henry Vizetelly (1820-94) was fined and imprisoned for three months in 1889 over the publication of La Terre, which was considered offensive. Subsequent editions of all of Zola’s novels were heavily edited by his son Ernest Vizetelly (1853-1922) in order to avoid further prosecutions. (Source: The Books of Émile Zola)

In the case of His Excellency the 1897 translation is after Henry’s gaol term, so it falls into the category of ‘heavily edited’.

So it’s not just that contemporary readers of Vizetelly have to adjust to reading a 19th century English version of 19th century French. It’s also that the novels were self-censored, as it were. Sometimes this prudishness doesn’t much matter. The missing details of Clorinde in scandalous (un)dress holding court to a coterie of admiring men while an artist paints her as Diana the Huntress, are hardly significant. OTOH readers would understand something completely different about a lovers’ relationship from Nelson’s use of the word ‘enslavement’ when referring to a woman wearing a dog collar and a badge inscribed with ‘I belong to my master,’ compared to Vizetelly’s coy ‘servitude’. Even though I read the Vizetelly back in 2014, I became quite adept at identifying text that had been cut or sanitised. ‘I bet that’s not in Vizetelly!’, I found myself saying, and each time I was right.

But also, there are details which make no sense to a modern reader without explanatory notes. For example, when Rougon is being told about a plot to assassinate the emperor, his informant suddenly says:

‘It’s planned for tomorrow night… They aim to assassinate Badinguet outside the Opera, as he is going in.’ (p.185)

Huh? thinks the modern Australian reader, who is this new character Badinguet and what has he got to do with anything? The Gutenberg edition on my Kindle leaves me none the wiser, but Brian Nelson’s Explanatory Notes helpfully explain that Badinguet was a derisive nickname for the Emperor. Louis-Napoleon had made two unsuccessful attempts at a coup before his triumphant third attempt, and was imprisoned after the second one. He escaped in disguise as a labourer by name of Badinguet. It’s not just a clever bit of French history thrown in at random: Zola is showing that this Emperor is still widely held in contempt.

I don’t often re-read books but this new translation based on the original French was a real treat. Extra features of this edition which enhanced my reading so much compared to the Kindle edition of the Vizetelly translation, include an Introduction; the Translator’s notes; a Bibliography, a Chronology of Zola’s life, and a Family Tree of the Rougon-Macquart, and Explanatory Notes.

PS I should add that there was a 1958 translation by Alec Brown for Elek Books, but my experience with Brown’s translation of La Bête Humaine was that it was utterly unreadable so my advice is to avoid Brown’s translations at all cost.

Author: Émile Zola
Title: His Excellency Eugène Rougon (Son Excellence Eugène Rougon)
A new translation by Brian Nelson
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics, OUP (Oxford University Press), 2018, first published in 1876, 333 pages (not including the Explanatory Notes)
ISBN: 9780198748250
Review copy courtesy of Oxford University Press.

Available from Fishpond: His Excellency Eugene Rougon (Oxford World’s Classics) and from OUP. (Not the easiest site to navigate to find the rest of the Zolas, but if (from the Oxford World’s Classics home page) you click on Show More, and then Click on View All Titles, and then choose search ‘from Z to A’ all the Zolas in OUP editions come up, one after the other.)

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

The Belly of Paris, by Émile Zola, translated by Brian Nelson

The Belly of ParisAs regular readers know, I’m a bit of a ‘foodie’ so I was expecting to really enjoy The Belly of Paris, (Le Ventre de Paris – also translated as The Fat and the Thin; Savage Paris; or The Markets of Paris).   First published in 1873, it’s the 11th novel in the recommended reading order for Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle, and it’s set in Les Halles de Paris, the huge fresh food market in the heart of the city that was a mecca for food-lovers until it was (unwisely) demolished in 1971.

Now, I like buying food, cooking food, admiring the presentation of food, and exploring different cuisines – but I am not especially interested in reading descriptions of food.  And so while I recognise that The Belly of Paris is a favourite of many and it was the first time a food market had been used as a poetic symbol of bourgeois consumerism, I found myself becoming a bit tired of the descriptions of food which litter this novel.  The plot, on the other hand interested me very much.

The central character, Florent Quenu finds himself inadvertently caught up in an insurrection during Louis-Napoleon’s 1851 coup-d’état and falsely accused of murdering a young woman.  He serves many years as a prisoner on the galleys at the notorious Devil’s Island,  eventually escaping to Paris where he finds the city unrecognisable under Haussman’s urban reconstruction program.  His half-brother Quenu takes him in, and despite his reservations about the gluttony symbolised by the markets, Florent eventually takes a position as an inspector at the fish market, reluctantly becoming part of the great market economy that was transforming Paris at the time.

His inertia, and his disdain for money, decent clothing and the bourgeois values that underlie the expansion of the markets, place Florent in conflict with his family and the stallholders.  Quenu’s wife Lisa is proud of the respectability of her charcuterie, and she is suspicious of anything or anyone that might sabotage it.  (As well she might, given the political instability that characterised French history in this period).

What Zola shows so cunningly in this book is the power of the mob.  The plump, placid people of the market harbour doubts about Florent because he is thin – his very physique symbolises his rejection of The Good Life that they sell to Paris in their food stalls.  While some of his actions are imprudent, it’s the whispering campaign that becomes a roar that leads to his downfall.

Visit The Books of Emile Zola for Jonathan’s ‘Exceptional Excerpt’ to read a description of Lisa in her triumph, and check out Nancy’s review at Silver Season.

I also enjoyed Zola’s representation of the artist Claude, prefiguring the later novel The Masterpiece which led Cezanne to rupture his long-standing friendship with Zola.  Many of the scenes are like still life paintings made with words and you can visualise the composition of the pictures as you read.  (I am really looking forward to reading The Masterpiece, I love reading novels about art and artists. )

Savage ParisThe translation by Brian Nelson for the Oxford World’s Classics edition is excellent, and I really like the cover image which is a detail from The Square in Front of Les Halles by Victor-Gabriel Gilbert.   It’s a remarkable contrast with my copy of the 1955 Elek edition cover at left, which emphasises Zola’s theme of the Fat in conflict with the Thin!  (You can see more lurid and tasteless covers of this title  in Jonathan’s amazing collection at The Works of Emile Zola).  Gilbert’s lovely painting  – which for some reason still has copyright restrictions so you can only view the complete painting by visiting one of the sites that  sells prints of it is one of a series of paintings of the markets by Gilbert, and I was able to use the ones at Wikigallery since this blog is not a commercial site.  I have used the collection to make the slide show below.   There are also wonderful B&W photos of the markets here (click to enlarge each image).

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Author: Emile Zola
Title: The Belly of Paris
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics, 2009
ISBN: 9780199555840
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Fishpond.

Availability
Fishpond: The Belly of Paris (Oxford World’s Classics)

Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers

Emile Zola, Pot Luck / Pot-Bouille

ZolaPotThe expression Pot-Bouille, the title of one of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series of novels, is difficult to render in English. “Pot luck” in the Midwest, where I come from, implies taking your chance on what may be in the pot that day. A French dictionary calls pot-bouille a “repas ordinaire d’un ménage.” I rather like that – it’s what you usually get, and luck doesn’t much enter into it.

The ménage in which Zola finds this ordinary meal is an apartment house in Paris, in which live a number of bourgeois families and their servants. These human ingredients of Zola’s story are no more exceptional than the ingredients of pot luck; their activities and attitudes are as we would expect. For details, see two posts here at Reading Zola where Jonathan provides a plot summary  and Lisa describes the characters and their interactions. Lisa also remarks that the “smart new building is Zola’s metaphor for the hypocrisy of the bourgeois.”

Almost all the inhabitants of the building are corrupt in some way. The servants steal from their employers and gossip about them. The tenants cheat financially and sleep with each other and with the servants. The bourgeoisie are hypocritical about what is going on; the servants are not. They know what is being concealed. After the morning gossip,

 They [the maids] all plunged back into their kitchens; and from the dark bowels of the narrow courtyard only the stench of the drains came up, like the smell of the hidden filth of the various families, stirred up by the servants’ rancor. This was the sewer of the house, draining off the house’s shames, while the masters lounged about in their slippers and the front staircase displayed all its solemn majesty amid the stuffy silence of the hot-air stove.

Now that I have read several Zola’s novels, I am struck by his repeated use of human constructions as metaphors for the theme of his story. In Pot-Bouille, it is the apartment house, designed to be impressive, but concealing its decadence. In La Curée, it is the grand, over-decorated mansion constructed by Saccard to display his wealth and social importance. In Germinal, it is the mine and its machinery – underground, yet dominating all above and below. In The Belly of Paris, it is the market, which is large, complex and contains the delights of fresh foods along with the stink of garbage.

In his biography, Zola: A Life, Frederick Brown gives a detailed account of how Zola acquired a modest country property at Medan. As he prospered, he expanded the original house, remodeling it and adding wings and towers. Construction had meaning to Zola, as shown by the attention he paid to his own property and his evident pride in the results. His house was a testimony to his success. With his feeling about the importance of buildings, it is appropriate that an apartment building in Bot-Bouille links together the characters and subplots of the novel. For example, it represented the conventional virtues to the erring Berthe, hiding from her angry husband.

 Then gradually the solemn staircase filled her with fresh anguish; it was so black, so austere. No one could see her; and yet she was overcome with confusion at sitting there in her chemise amid such respectable gilt and stucco. The wide mahogany doors, the conjugal dignity of these hearths, seemed to load her with reproaches. Never had the house appeared to her so saturated with purity and virtue.

Berthe is wrong, of course. The house itself cannot be virtuous, only the people within. Zola notices the details of wide mahogany doors and grants conjugal dignity to hearths. He is sensitive to constructions and what they represent. I hope he was satisfied by what his own domestic constructions meant to him, as well as what they represented to the world.

Pot Luck by Emile Zola, translated by Brian Nelson

6251723Well, here we are at No 7 in the recommended reading order for those wanting to read Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle of novels. It’s Pot-Bouille, written in 1882 and translated variously as Pot Luck, Restless House, and Piping Hot though none of these really capture the metaphorical meaning of the original title, according to Brian Nelson, the translator of this Oxford World Classics edition. There isn’t really an English word which manages to convey the ‘melting-pot of sexual promiscuity’ which pervades the building, and the stewpot of swill as a metaphor for the moral and physical corruption of bourgeois Paris in the 19th century. But if you can’t read the novel in the original French, this translation is a most enjoyable version instead, even if the translator himself isn’t happy with his title!

In this novel, a smart new building is Zola’s metaphor for the hypocrisy of the bourgeois. Octave Mouret, known to me as a man with his eye on the main chance from my previous (out-of-order) reading of The Ladies’ Paradise (see my review), comes to Paris from Plassans to make his fortune. Through his connections with relations of M. Campardon, Octave rents a room on the fourth floor of a new apartment building. The building is distinguished by elegant surface features of fake marble and mahogany which mask shoddy workmanship, peeling paint and sleazy servants’ quarters.

BEWARE: SPOILERS

The concierge M. Gourd spruiks the building’s other tenants as he escorts Octave upstairs (where, alas, the posh red carpet fizzles out as they reach the cheaper rooms). Gourd is at pains to emphasise the respectability of the house, but these tenants are anything but respectable!

The landlord is M. Vabre, whose offspring all live in the building. They are:

  • Clotilde Duveyrier (Vabre’s daughter) likes to hold court in her artistic salon, waylaying every eligible male to sing in her chorus, and subjecting both her piano and her listeners to muscular renditions of Chopin. Her husband Alphonse (a judge) spends most of his time with his mistress Clarisse, who (unbeknown to him) makes many a man welcome in the rooms he has furnished for her.
  • Théophile, (M. Vabre’s second son) is married in name only to Valérie. She married expecting to inherit wealth. But it’s common knowledge that she gave up on Théophile because he’s impotent. She used a local stud to have a child so that they would get their share of the Vabre inheritance when the old man dies, and she’s been having meaningless affairs ever since.
  • Auguste (M. Vabre’s eldest son) is a silk merchant who makes a disastrous marriage to Berthe. She is the daughter of the impecunious Josserands who (like Octave) live on the less salubrious fourth floor. He makes the mistake of making regular business trips away from home…

The other tenants are

  • The Josserand Family: Madame Josserand is a termagant. Determined to marry off her daughters Hortense and Berthe but handicapped by not having enough money for the requisite dowries, she harangues her honest, hard-working husband into fraud and an early grave, and bullies the younger daughter into an unedifying pursuit of Auguste Vabre. The Josserands also have an older son who avoids them as much as possible, and a boy ominously called Saturnin, who suffers bouts of insanity and attacks anyone who upsets Berthe.
  • The Campardon Family: Madame Rose Campardon is a pseudo-invalid, much given to languid loafing about and managing to look quite sexy although her ‘malady’ has made her ‘unavailable’ since the birth of their only child Angèle. Mildly fond of her husband Achille, Rose initially turns a blind eye to his long-standing affair with Gasparine, a distant cousin, but when she gets tired of his too frequent absences, she moves Gasparine in to live with them.
  • The Pichon Family: This strange, completely passionless young couple are under the thumb of Madame Pichon’s interfering parents who have laid down the law about how many children it is respectable to have on their income. They come round for dinner once a week to make sure that proprieties are being observed. Things go badly wrong when Marie borrows a novel…
  • Madame Juzeur: Inexplicably abandoned by her husband after ten days of marriage, she likes to flirt with young men and then refuse them. Today, she would be labelled a ‘tease’.
  • There’s also an anonymous author, who keeps himself to himself!

Into this curious collection of sexually mismatched couples comes Octave, young, virile, and ambitious in more ways than one. He gets himself a job as a salesman at ‘The Ladies’ Paradise’ (just a drapery then, not then the spectacular department store it is to become in the later novel of the same name) and sets out to seduce his employer’s wife, Madame Hédouin. When she’s not interested he turns his attentions elsewhere, and elsewhere, and elsewhere! But he’s not interested in the servants, because he needs his conquests to lead to advancement in other ways.

The hypocrisy and sleaze spread outwards and upwards as well. The Josserands have a dissolute old uncle Bachelard who hangs around with Duveyrier and Trublot, a cynical young man who sleeps with almost all the servants. These hapless young women are caught between Gourd’s insistence on respectability (so much so that he evicts a young woman from the house on the eve of her confinement) and the expectation that they will submit to any man who wants a bit of fun upstairs. They are vulgar and dirty, and they have filthy mouths, but these servants are the only honest characters in the novel. In the most moving scene in the book, one of the servants gives birth alone and in silence, terrified of being caught and losing her job. The fate of her infant is heart-breaking, but was probably not uncommon. (It still happens today, though changes in social attitudes and the status of women make it rare, at least in the West).

Pot Luck is a biting satire, one of Zola’s best.

Next up in my Zola Project will be No 9 in the recommended reading order because I’ve already read No 8, The Ladies’ Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames). There isn’t a nice modern OUP World’s Classic translation of La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret so I shall have to make do with one of these, listed on the Translations page at The Books of Emile Zola by the indefatigable Jonathan who has contributed so much to our collaborative blog there:)

  • Abbé Mouret’s Transgression (1886, Tr: unknown, for H. Vizetelly, Vizetelly & Co.)
  • Abbé Mouret’s Transgression (1900, edited by E. Vizetelly, Chatto & Windus)
  • The Sin of the Abbé Mouret (1904, Tr: M. Smyth, McLaren & Co.)
  • The Abbé Mouret’s Sin (1957, Tr: Alec Brown, Elek Books)
  • The Sin of Father Mouret (1969, Tr: Sandy Petrey, Prentice-Hall)

Author: Emile Zola
Title: Pot Luck (Pot-Bouille)
Publisher: Oxford World Classics, reissued 2009
ISBN: 9780199538706
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Fishpond. (OUP have very generously sent me most of their Zola editions for review, but not this one, because I already had it).

Availability

Fishpond: Pot Luck (Pot-Bouille) (Oxford World’s Classics)

Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers

Lisa Hill, August 2014

 

The Rise of the Department Store: Zola’s Au bonheur des dames

zola-bonheurAu bonheur des dames, Zola’s exploration of the modern department store, is so very relevant in these early years of the 21st century, even though it was written over a century ago. Like the good naturalist novel that it is, Au bonheur studies what happens when mega-stores move in to old, settled neighborhoods and drive the small businesses there into bankruptcy. With the rise of department stores around this time, small-scale merchants with umbrella shops, say, or shops that specialized in scarves or hats, had no chance. The department stores could buy in bulk and undercut their small competitors.

Through the course of the novel, we watch as, one by one, the small shops surrounding the “Bonheur des Dames” store shrivel up and die. Of course, there’s one holdout, but he hangs on out of sheer desperation, rather than hope. Playing out against this backdrop of commercial carnage is the developing love affair between Octave Mouret, the owner of the store, and his lowly employee Denise Baudu. Ironically, Mouret, who prides himself on knowing what women want and how to get their money, finds himself ultimately conquered by a poor and powerless young woman (ahh c’est la vie).

As with most Zola novels, though, this short summary doesn’t do justice to the almost overwhelming amount of detail and information that coalesces into a rich picture of mid-19th-century Paris. Like my man Herman Melville, Zola uses a boatload of facts and in-depth descriptions to immerse us in a particular place in time; in Au bonheur, Zola treats us to detailed discussions of staff responsibilities, retail innovations, pricing and supply chains, and the almost infinite varieties of fabrics and laces and styles and textures offered to the customers. By the time you finish this novel, you feel like you’ve just been in Paris for a year. And you’ll want to go shopping.

(cross-posted at Bookishly Witty)

Plot Summary: ‘The Fortune of the Rougons’

The Fortune of the Rougons (La Fortune des Rougon) was originally published in 1871 and is the first book of the Rougon-Macquart series. It contains a lot of background information of many of the characters that appear in the later novels. Despite this, it is not essential to read it first.

The novel takes place in the fictional Plassans, which is the setting for several of the early novels in the series. Apart from the family history, the main plot is about the coup d’état of Louis-Napoleon in December 1851 and how it affects the small town of Plassans. Louis-Napoleon had been voted in as President of France in 1848 following the revolution that ended the monarchy. This creates a three-way split in allegiances of the population of Plassans as well as in the whole of France. Very loosely the aristocracy support the monarchy, the bourgeoisie support the Empire and the workers support the Republic.

There are only two readily available translations of La Fortune des Rougon; Vizetelly’s translation from 1886 and Brian Nelson’s translation from 2012.

Please note that this is a plot summary and therefore full plot developments are revealed.

Chapter One

Set in Plassans, south of France, December 1851. An area of waste-land, which used to be a graveyard, called Aire Saint-Mittre atracts children, gypsies, lovers etc.

A man arrives on the edge of Aire St-Mittre at night carrying a rifle. He hides the rifle and sits on an upturned tombstone. A girl arrives. They are young lovers, he is Silvère and she is Miette. He is planning on leaving to join the Republicans. They walk about in the moonlight wrapped together in Miette’s brown cloak. They walk to the edge of town where they can hear muffled noises which grow louder. It’s the sound of a marching army singing the Marseillaise; they are marching to Plassans. As they pass, Silvère gets emotional. Silvère and Miette race to Plassans via a short cut but arrive at the same time as the army. The men at the head of the army tease Miette viciously about her father who was found guilty of murder. Miette only takes offence when he is also called a thief. Others back her up and she’s affected by the kind words that are now being said about her father. She takes up the banner and turns her cloak inside out to display the inner red lining. She appears to the others as Liberty and they are fired up with enthusiasm. Silvère runs off to get his gun.

Chapter Two

Plassans is divided into three groups: the nobility, the bourgeois and the workers. The nobility keep hidden away in their hôtels.

The Foques were a family of market gardeners before the revolution. Adélaïde Foque (b. 1768) became an orphan at eighteen. She was odd and rumoured to be mad. She married a young gardener Rougon, who was coarse and vulgar. After a year they had a son, Pierre Rougon (1787-1870). Rougon died after fifteen months of marriage and Adélaïde took a lover Macquart – he was a drunkard and would often disappear for long periods. She had two children by him: Antoine Macquart (1789-1873) and Ursule Macquart (1791-1840). They lived together in total freedom.

They rolled about on the vegetable patches, spent their days in the open air playing and fighting like little devils.

Adélaïde had fits. A skilled gardener looked after their land; he robbed them shamelessly.

By the age of seventeen Pierre came to see the house and the fortune as legitimately his. He was disgusted with the antics of his family and the thieving of the gardener. Adélaïde grew fearful of Pierre and became increasingly subservient to him. Pierre tried to use this to his advantage. He took over the house’s finances and sacked the gardener. Antoine was conscripted into the army and Pierre refused to buy him out of this obligation. Ursule married a hatter called Mouret and moved to Marseille. Mouret refused any dowry. Pierre suspected a trap.

Pierre now wanted to get rid of Adélaïde, but he would have preferred it if she left of her own free-will. News reached them that Macquart had been killed in Switzerland whilst smuggling watches. Adélaïde moved to his shack leaving Pierre in charge of the house. He now wished to sell the land and marry the daughter of a merchant. His attentions turned to Félicité Puesch, the daughter of an olive-oil dealer who was close to bankruptcy. Their marriage was agreed. His attentions turned to the sale of the land but it was legally his mother’s and Antoine & Ursule still had a claim. He managed to convince his mother to sell the land for fifty thousand francs with the promise of an annuity of six hundred francs.

Félicité and Pierre helped run the family business. After three years Puesch & Lacamp retired leaving the firm in the young couple’s complete control. The next few years were disastrous financially and they were close to liquidation several times. Félicité dreamt of being rich. Thirty years later her father died; she was expecting an inheritance but he had put his money into a life annuity. Pierre put on weight and became lazy and their business scraped by.

Félicité gave birth to three boys and two girls: Eugène Rougon (b.1811) (His Excellency Eugène Rougon); Pascal Rougon (1813-1873) (Doctor Pascal); Aristide Rougon (Saccard) (b. 1815) (The Kill & Money); Sidonie Rougon (b. 1818) (The Kill) mother of Angélique Rougon (The Dream); Marthe Rougon (1820-1864, The Conquest of Plassans)

Félicité gave up on making a fortune herself and now put all her efforts into her sons’ futures. She sent the three boys to the town’s main school which was a drain on the family’s budget. Two studied law, the other medicine. They complained that they had been educated above their station.
At the beginning of 1848 Eugène was nearly forty, portly, slow, languid, but was contemptuous of modest ambitions and fortunes. His heart wasn’t in his law practice. He looked towards Paris for his fortune. In January he moved to Paris sensing that something was about to happen.

Aristide was sly and had a taste for petty intrigue. He was without scruples and wanted to become rich fast. He was Félicité’s favourite son. He lived off his parents when he returned from Paris. He married Angèle, daughter of Commander Sicardot. He lent Pierre the dowry and used it to keep Pierre in his debt for four years. When Pierre repaid his debt Aristide and family moved out. Aristide and Angèle had a son, Maxime (b. 1840, The Kill).

Pascal was the black sheep of the family. He set himself up as a doctor in Plassans after his studies and he enjoyed the life of the provinces. He studied natural history in his spare time. He had few patients but only the poor would go to him. He was unmarried and he was oblivious of the coming events in Paris.

Pierre and Félicité retired in 1845 with forty thousand francs. They rented an apartment, consisting of three rooms. They still dreamt of being rich. Pierre had grown portly and looked wealthy.

The Revolution of 1848 found all the Rougons on the lookout, frustrated by their bad luck, and ready to use any means necessary to advance their cause. They were a family of bandits lying in wait, ready to plunder and steal.

Chapter 3

Plassans was essentially conservative and few predicted the coming Empire of Louis-Napoleon. Marquis de Carnavant used to visit the Rougons and was an enthusiastic Royalist supporter. The reactionary meetings started to take place at the Rougons. Others that turned up at the meetings included M. Isidore Granoux, an almond dealer; M. de Roudier, a rich landowner who could talk for hours; Commander Sicardot, Aristide’s father-in-law, who had a dominant personality; M. Vuillet, a bookseller and producer of a bi-weekly newspaper. Rougon became the public leader of the group.

In April 1849 Eugène left Paris to visit his father for two weeks. He attended the meetings but didn’t join in, though he spoke to Sicardot often. Vuillet was suspicious of his presence. Aristide supported the Republicans as he thought they’d win, he wrote in a democratic newspaper critically of the reactionaries in the town which brought approbation from the Rougon group. After meeting Eugène he wasn’t so certain who would win and backed off his support of the Republicans.

Before leaving for Paris on 1st May, Eugène had a long talk with his father. They seemed to have a plan but did not divulge anything to Félicité. Pierre ended up revealing to her their plan of him becoming the receiver of taxes.

News reaches the group about Louis-Napoleon sending troops to Rome to snuff out the recently created Republic. On 10th December Louis-Napoleon was voted in as President. The group broadly supported him, especially Pierre. By the following year the Rougon group had gained popularity as people tired of the Republic. The Marquis sensed that a coup d’état was now inevitable. He spoke to Félicité who realised this also.

It was now the beginning of January 1851. Félicité managed to get a key from Pierre and read the letters he’d been receiving from Eugène. From these letters it was apparent that Eugène was working for Louis-Bonarparte’s cause. She kept her knowledge a secret from Pierre and she worried about Aristide’s support of the Republic. She even managed to get Pascal to attend some meetings.

By the end of November the coup d’état was looking more likely as Louis-Napoleon was accused of seeking the position of Emperor. The Rougon group were now all on the side of the Empire and Sicardot had arms ready. On 1st December a letter arrived from Eugène which stated that the time had arrived, and that Pierre was to tell Félicité everything. However Pierre did not speak to her about it.
On 3rd December the news was officially announced. The mayor and the clergy came out in support of the Empire as it was opposed to their enemy, the Republicans. The democratic sub-prefect resigned and left Plassans. Aristide wrote an article attacking the coup although he visited the Rougons, intrigued with what they were plotting. He overheard Marquis and Félicité discussing recent events. Realising that the coup was going to succeed, he ran to the newspaper’s office and stopped his article being printed. Aristide now had to wait to see who would emerge as victors.

In the next few days revolts occurred in surrounding towns. As the Rougon group met, news reached them that insurgents were on their way. Many left to hide; the commander left to join the his men. Félicité staged a scene where she tried to stop Pierre from leaving. It was agreed that Pierre would stay behind armed with fifty men. After the commander left the rest decided to lay low until it had all blown over. Pierre went to his mother’s to lay low.

Chapter 4

Antoine Macquart (half-brother of Pierre) moved to Plassans after the fall of Napoleon. He was idle and drunk and despised anyone that worked for a living. He was furious when he found out that Pierre had taken his inheritance. He went around town telling people how his brother had robbed him of his money. He would hang about outside Pierre’s shop being a nuisance. Eventually Félicité invited him in to discuss it and he eventually settled for two hundred francs, a new set of clothes and a paid apartment for a year. He soon drank his way through the money and couldn’t get any more money out of the Rougons.

Antoine learnt how to plait baskets and hampers so he could earn some money. After ten years of this he was fed up with working. He married Josephine Gauvadin (aka ‘Fine’) who worked at the market. She worked tirelessly whilst he idled away his time. When they drank they would fight. They had three children: Lisa Maquart (1827-1863, The Belly of Paris); Gervaise Macquart (1828-1869, L’Assommoir) and Jean Macquart (b. 1831, The Earth & Debacle). Gervaise was conceived when they were drunk; she was tall and lanky and had a limp. Jean was dull but liked to study. Lisa worked as a maid and moved to Paris in 1839 with her employer. Once Gervaise & Jean were earning money, Antoine had no scruples with living off them as well as Fine. Gervaise & Fine would drink anisette together when Antoine was out of the way.

Antoine supported the Republic as a way to get his revenge on society and the Rougons. Once the Rougons were trying to establish their position among the reactionaries Antoine was a source of embarrasment to them. Antoine, of course, enjoyed causing them embarrasment. He even threatened to publish the story of how Pierre had robbed his mother.

Antoine tried to find accomplices in his attacks on the Rougons. Aristide was wary of him. Meanwhile, his sister, Ursule and her husband, Mouret, were happy running their business. Ursule died in 1839 and Mouret later killed himself. Of their children, Francois (1817-1864, Conquest of Plassans) was employed by Pierre and he married Pierre’s daughter Marthe (1820-1864, Conquest of Plassans) . Silvère was taken in by Adélaïde (Tant Dide). Antoine tried to bend Silvère to his way of thinking. Silvère and Tant Dide were very fond of each other though a little distant. He would watch over her when she had one of her fits. Silvère was serious and largely self-taught, he became an apprentice to a wheelwright. He read Rousseau and considered himself a Republican. Antoine and Silvére would meet and talk politics and Antoine would try to turn him against the Rougons.

At the beginning of 1850 Fine died. Antoine sold many household items to raise cash, then turned to the children’s earnings. A month later Gervaise ran off to Paris with Lantier and her two children, Jean soon followed. He half-heartedly started making his baskets again.

Once the uprisings started in nearby towns after the coup Antoine saw his chance. He joined a group in the main square in Plassans and persuaded them to go to the Rougons house as they were enemies of the Republic. They couldn’t find Pierre as he had left (see end of Ch. 3). The main group from the other town entered Plassans at 11 o’clock and marched to the main square. They confronted the mayor and commander but quickly overcame them.

Silvère got involved in a tussle with a gendarme (Rengade) who was teasing Miette. Silvère believed that he had killed the gendarme and fled to his house, he didn’t notice that Pierre was there at first. Pierre tried to stop Silvère from leaving but Silvère pushed him out of the way as he returned to Miette and the other insurgents. As the insurgents were preparing to leave town Antoine persuaded them to leave him twenty men with which he could try to control Plassans.

Chapter 5

The insurgents leave Plassans to Orchères. By daybreak Miette is exhausted. Silvère convinces her to pass the banner to someone else and to take a short cut to Orchères so that they can take a rest. They talk and kiss when they’re alone.

Miette was nine when her father was tried for murder. She ended up living with her aunt, Eulalie Chantegreil and her husband Rébufat and Miette’s cousin, Justin. Her aunt died when Miette was eleven. Rébufat treated her like a farm labourer. They would tease her about her father. The well in the yard of Aunt Dide’s house was connected to the Foques’ property and could be used from both sides. One day the pulley broke when Silvère was using it and when he later built a new one he had to climb on the wall, from where he spotted Miette. They eventually spoke and got to know each other. They started to meet at the well by viewing each other’s reflection in the well via an aperture on each side of the dividing wall. Justin started to suspect something was going on, but he didn’t know what. They tired of seeing only each other’s reflections though. Silvère noticed the door that Macquart and Adélaïde had made and so he hunted for the key to this door in his house and eventually found it. He surprised Miette the following day by sticking his head round the doorway; they held hands and talked. Turning round Silvère was surprised to see Aunt Dide standing in the doorway, she had come to the well at that time by chance. It had been so long since she’d been there and there had been so many changes that she didn’t recognise the place. She then recognised Silvère and became distressed. Without speaking she took him by the hand, led him back to their side and threw the key into the well.

That evening Tante Dide had another attack. They didn’t use the door again but instead they started meeting at Aire Saint-Mittre where they continued to meet for two years. They also rambled over the countryside at night. For a while during the summer they swam in a stream where Silvère taught Miette how to swim. When their rambling tired them they would return to the Aire St-Mittre. One night Miette uncovered a tombstone where they could only make out some of the inscription, which read: ‘Here lies…Marie…died…’. (Miette’s real name was Marie).

Silvère and Miette had slept peacefully. They set out on their way to Orchères to join the insurgents. The insurgents are welcomed in Orchères. Silvère bumps into Dr. Pascal. News reaches the insurgents that events in Paris has gone against the republicans. They stay two more days in Orchères befoe the decision is made to leave. Before they could leave news reaches them that an army of soldiers is approaching. The fighting starts, some men flee. Miette is shot, she clutches her breast and falls, Silvère stays with her. Pascal arrives as Miette breathes her last breath; he pronounces her dead. Meanwhile the insurgents are being massacred. Eventually a gendarme appears and drags Silvère away from Miette.

Chapter 6

At five in the morning Rougon leaves his mother’s house. It seems like the city is dead. He is concerned that he’s lost his chance. On returning home he sees a silhouette of his wife in the window involved in a struggle. The key to the shed containing the arms is thrown to him on to the pavement. He rounds up Roudier and Granoux. He finds out from them that the insurgents left during the night. They round up thirty-nine men, collect the arms from the shed and march to the town hall. They find the guards asleep and go inside. Macquart is in the mayor’s office waiting for the insurgents to return. Rougon storms the office, in the tussle Rougon’s gun goes off and the bullet damages a mirror. Macquart is taken prisoner. Rougon issues a proclamation to the town and then returns to Félicité. It is dawn and they talk and dream of their future successes. Others arrive and praise Rougon Only Viuillet is missing but he soon arrives. He had installed himself in the post office during the chaos. They recount the heroic acts of the militia and the breaking of the mirror. Rougon leaves to go to the town hall.

By ten o’clock news of the events has spread through Plassans. News that Rougon has arrested his own brother and that the events had been achieved with only forty-one people was astonishing. The Rougons are applauded as model citizens. Félicité spots Aristide and tries to convince him to join them but he is still unsure who has the upper hand. Rougon takes over the mayor’s office, he visits the injured, including Rengade. People believe that the soldiers will arrive to save them, however by evening they are imagining that the insurgents are on their way. Vuillet is unwilling to print a paper fully supporting the Empire’s position as he is unsure how events will turn out. As rumours of insurgents continued, Rougon takes the others to Carnavant’s mansion which has a view over the surrounding area and where they stand watch throughout the night.

By morning everyone’s spirits are low. The gates are closed at midday. Rumours circulate that the coup d’état has failed and Rougon and Félicité are beginning to despair. They wonder why Eugène hasn’t written to them with news. They see a copy of Vuillet’s Gazette which attacks the insurgents violently and realise that only that morning he was too scared to print anything against them. Why the sudden change? Félicité goes to see Vuillet at the post office and as she suspected he had intercepted a letter from Eugène announcing the success of the coup d’état. Félicité makes a deal with Vuillet – his ambitions are low as all he wants is to be able to supply the college with books.
Félicité returns home with the intention of getting revenge on Pierre over the letters. She pretends that she believes that everything is lost. Pierre blows into a rage and blames his whole family and he eventually reveals that he’s been getting letters from Eugène. Rougon has an idea to regain control.

The next day Félicité goes to the town hall to speak to Macquart. Macquart had got used to living in luxurious surroundings and his enthusiasm for the Republic is waning. Macquart agrees, in return for a thousand francs and freedom, to lead remaining Republicans in the town to the town hall where they will be ambushed. Rougon returns to the town hall. In town the tension is high. Granoux arrives at the town hall in the evening to support Rougon. Félicité convinces Aristide that the Republicans’ cause is lost. Macquart hides out at his mother’s house until the evening. He rounds up fellow republicans and marchs on the town hall where they are ambushed. The noise wakes up the town and many people think that the insurgents have entered the town. Granoux rings the tocsin. There are four corpses in the town hall which are left there for the town to see in the morning. The townspeople are now grateful for Rougon for defending them from an attack by insurgents. An army has arrived outside of town under Colonel Masson and M. de Blériot. Masson and Blériot enter the town to reassure the population. Aristide has written a pro-Empire edition of l’Independent. Blériot congratulates Rougon and Granoux publicly.

Chapter 7

The following Sunday the troops came back via Plassans. They had been involved in a recent massacre at Saint-Roure. A terror campaign is in full swing. Eugène writes that Rougon will receive the Legion of Honour and receivership of the taxes. They decide to celebrate by inviting other dignitaries to dinner. Rougon goes to his mother’s house where he meets Macquart and Pascal. Aunt Dide is on the bed raving. Macquart recalls that Aunt Dide had gone out for brandy and returned in a state of shock. Pascal tries to get Rougon to release Silvère. He pays Macquart and leaves to return home, to the dinner. Aristide and Rougon make peace.

People toast Rougon’s bravery and his upcoming decoration. At one point Félicité asks Aristide if he has any news of Silvère, whereupon he reveals how he was shot by Rengade: When the troops had returned they started massacring republicans at the Aire Saint-Mittre. People were beaten and shot. Rengade found Silvère amongst the prisoners and took him to be shot. Silvère was still in a daze. He was taken to the path near the tombstone where he used to go with Miette. Whilst kneeling, waiting to be shot he saw Justin watching from the wall and thought he saw Aunt Dide at the end of the path facing him. Then Rengade shoot him.

That evening the Rougons carry on enjoying their popularity. They toast the Emperor and decorate Pierre with a strip of satin in anticipation of his real decoration.

The Kill: Saccard’s Opulent Paris

I was reading Emile Zola’s The Kill (La Cureé) alternately with Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, so I was struck by de Waal’s description of the Paris inhabited by Zola’s Aristide Saccard during his years of prosperity. The Kill is the third book in the Rougon-Macquart novel series in which Zola portrays the corrupt France of Napoleon III. (The “kill” is not a murder, but the piece of the fox awarded to the hounds after a successful hunt.) For a detailed description of the events in the novel, see Lisa Hill’s plot summary.

When Aristide Rougon leaves Plassans (Aix-en-Provence) for Paris after Louis Napoleon’s coup of 1851 he is poor and must continue to live a frugal existence on his clerk’s salary. An advantageous second marriage gives him the capital to speculate successfully in the real estate of Paris. The city is being transformed by the plans of Baron Haussmann, who creates boulevards and parks, including the Parc Monceau, next to which Saccard builds his mansion.

Parc Monceau, painted by Gustave Caillebotte

Parc Monceau, painted by Gustave Caillebotte

During the Second Empire, the [d’Orleans] family sold lots within the park to real estate developers, who built luxurious town houses, reducing the size of the park by half. The remaining part of the park was purchased by the city of Paris in 1860. All that remained of the original folly was the water lily pond, the stream and the fantasy “tombs,” including the Egyptian pyramid.

In 1860 the park was purchased by the city, and in August 1861 Parc Monceau became the first new public park in Paris to be remade by Baron Haussmann as part of the grand transformation of Paris begun by Emperor Louis Napoleon. Two main alleys were laid out from east to west and north to south, meeting in the center of the park, and the alleys within the park were widened and paved, so carriages could drive the park. An ornamental grill 8.3 meters high was installed along a newly created avenue, Boulevard Malesherbes, Curving paths were laid out around the park for strolling.

Wikipedia

Parc Monceau today

Parc Monceau today

The house Saccard builds dramatizes the opulence he has achieved. After a rather precise explanation of its structure, Zola goes on to describe the decorations.

The display of decoration was profuse. The house was hidden under its sculpture. Around the windows and along the cornices ran volutes of flowers and branches; there were balconies shaped like baskets full of blossoms, and supported by tall naked women with wide hips and jutting breasts; and here and there were fanciful escutcheons, clusters of fruit, roses, every flower it is possible for stone or marble to represent. The higher one looked, the more the building bust into blossom. Around the roof ran a balustrade on which urns, at regular intervals, stood blazing with flames of stone; and there, between the bull’s eye windows of the attics, which opened on to an incredible mass of fruit and foliage, mantled the crowning portions of this amazing spectacle, the pediments of the turrets, in the midst of which the naked women reappeared, playing the apples, adopting poses amidst sheaves of rushes.

So. Fruit and flowers and naked women, but none of them real – just stone representations without any softness at all.

hotel-emile-menier-344126

Hotel Menier, Paris

Zola used as his model for the mansion he calls a “fireworks display” the Hotel Menier, which still stands today in its favored position by the park. After finding the beautiful Hotel Ephrussi, the home of the Parisian branch of his family, Edmund de Waal visits the nearly Hotel Menier.

But nothing compares to the mansion built by the chocolate magnate Émile-Justin Menier. It was a building so splendidly excessive, so eclectic in its garnished decorations, glimpsed above its high walls, that Zola’s description of it as ‘an opulent bastard of every style’ still seems about right. In his dark novel of 1872, La curée, Saccard – a rapacious Jewish property magnate – lives here on the rue de Monceau. You feel this street as the family move in: it is a street of Jews, a street full of people on display in their lavish golden houses. Monceau is slang in Paris for nouveau riche, newly arrived.

That’s an interesting error, calling Saccard a rapacious Jewish property magnate. Rapacious yes, Jewish no. Saccard was a Rougon and nowhere does Zola hint that any of them were Jewish. If, as de Waal suggests, some wealthy Jews were sharp-dealing scoundrels, it does not follow that Saccard was Jew. Many 19th century authors would at least hint at the probability. In Zola’s Money. this same Saccard must deal with the Jewish banker Gunderman. Saccard’s feelings about Gunderman may be those of the character or his author; we cannot be sure. We can be sure, however, to find casual anti-semitic jibes in well-regarded authors right up to the time of World War II.