I think it’s fair to say that Zola wasn’t a particularly humorous writer but there are the occasional sections in his books that show that he could be funny when he wanted to be. So A Priest in the House (a.k.a. The Conquest of Plassans), a tale of political machinations, madness and murder, set in Zola’s fictional town of Plassans doesn’t seem likely to have any comic moments. There is at least one, and it’s totally unexpected; I couldn’t stop laughing when I originally read it as it made me think of some old 1920s comedy.
I won’t need to reveal too much of the plot as it’s almost a stand-alone piece. All you need to know is that Mouret has become a bit of a recluse and rumours are spreading about the town that he has been beating his wife, Marthe, and that he’s mad. Mouret, meanwhile, is oblivious to these rumours.
This comedic episode opens chapter eighteen and is approximately five pages in its entirety. It starts with Mouret going for a Sunday walk:
One Sunday, as he was setting out from home, he noticed Rose on the side-walk in Balande Street, talking eagerly with Madame Rastoil’s servant. The two cooks stopped talking as soon as they saw him. They stared at him in such a peculiar way that he looked down to see if a handkerchief was trailing out of one of his back pockets. When he reached Government Square he looked back, and saw them still standing at the same place. Rose was imitating the swaying walk of a drunken man, and the judge’s servant was in fits of laughter.
“I’m walking too fast; they’re laughing at me,” thought Mouret. So he walked still more slowly.
So he carries on with his walk; he meets other townspeople who are amazed that he’s allowed to be walking freely amongst them.
“Did you notice how stiffly he walks?”
“Yes. When he wanted to step over the gutter, he nearly came a cropper.”
“They’re all like that, they say.”
“Maybe, but he gave me such a turn. Why do they let him come out? It ought to be forbidden.”
When he enters the market all the housewives draw back to let him through. He interrupts some in the middle of gossiping about him and his supposedly murderous intentions that he has towards his wife. Mouret keeps checking his clothes, concerned that some urchins might have dirtied them. He’s quizzed by some of the ‘old cronies’ who joke about his clothes and the well-being of his wife. Mouret is visibly confused by their comments and when he leaves them they mutter to each other that he’s obviously mad.
When Mouret was passing the Youth Club at the end of Sauvaire Place, he again heard the smothered laughter which had been dogging him ever since he had set out. At the entrance to the club he saw Séverin Rastoil, and unmistakably he was pointing him out to a group of young fellows. There was no doubt about it: the town was laughing at him. Seized with apprehension, he bent his head, very puzzled by this hostility, and slipped away along the house-fronts. Just as he turned into Cluckett Street, he heard noises behind him; he looked round and saw that three boys were following him; two tall and bold-looking, and a tiny one, very solemn, clutching an orange which he had picked out of a gutter. Now he walked down to the end of the street, cut across Récollets Place and found himself in Banne Street. The boys were still following.
“Would you like your ears pulled?” he shouted, suddenly advancing upon them.
They dodged away, laughing, bawling, and scrambled out of range on all fours. Mouret turned red; he was a laughing stock. Doing his best to calm down, he continued his stroll.
He’s still being followed by the urchins and he panics.
So then he couldn’t help it: Mouret took to his heels. Hands stretched out and utterly bewildered, he dashed into Balande Street followed by the crowd of urchins to the number of eleven or twelve. It seemed as though all the shopmen from Banne Street, all the market women, the strollers from Sauvaire Place, the young fellows from the club, the Rougons, the Condamins – every soul in Plassans, were rushing along after him, down the steeply-sloping street. The boys were stamping with their feet, sliding over the pointed cobbles, raising the clamour of a hunting pack in this quiet part of the town.
“Catch him!” they yelled.
“Hoo! hoo! Ain’t he funny, him and his old coat!”
“Hi! you chaps! Run round by Taravelle Street; you’ll nab him.”
“Faster, look sharp!”
Panic-stricken, Mouret made a desperate dash for his gate; but his foot slipped and over he went, rolling down the path, then lay there a few seconds, helpless. The urchins, fearing kicks, danced round him uttering triumphant yells, while the tiny one, stepping forward solemnly, threw the rotten orange; it squashed over his left eye. Mouret rose heavily to his feet and, without wiping his face, got in through the door. Rose had to take a broom to drive the young devils off.
Hmmm, bullying and a near lynching; it seems more sinister now, but I’m sure that Zola meant it to be comical – didn’t he?
(A Priest in the House, by Émile Zola, Elek Books, translated by Brian Rhys, 1957)