‘Paris’ by Émile Zola

Image source: scan of personal copy

Paris is the last volume in the Three Cities trilogy and was first published in 1898. After the struggle I had with the previous volume, Rome, (see here and here) I did wonder if I would ever finish the trilogy; but I have. Even the first volume in the series, Lourdes, was a bit of a struggle. The main character throughout the series is the Abbé Pierre Froment, a priest who no longer retains his faith, and although Zola makes us sympathise with Froment’s predicament we know right from the start that he will end up leaving the church; it just takes so bloody long for it to happen. The whole series is seriously flawed, in my opinion, Lourdes would have worked better as a piece of journalism, Rome should have been abandoned completely, although a short story could possibly have been salvaged from it, and Paris, which was the best of the three, would still have worked better without Pierre’s struggle with his faith.

Paris opens with Pierre agreeing to take some alms from Abbé Rose to a former house painter, called Laveuve, who is on the verge of starving to death. Abbé Rose is being watched by his superiors as his persistent alms-giving is starting to annoy the church hierarchy. Pierre agrees to take the few francs to the man and visits Laveuve in his working-class slum. Pierre witnesses many scenes of poverty which Zola describes ruthlessly. Pierre enquires with a family as to the whereabouts of Laveuve, whom they know as ‘The Philosopher’. Pierre eventually locates him in a nearby hovel.

Here, on a human face, appeared all the ruin following upon hopeless labour. Laveuve’s unkempt beard straggled over his features, suggesting an old horse that is no longer cropped; his toothless jaws were quite askew, his eyes were vitreous, and his nose seemed to plunge into his mouth. But above all else one noticed his resemblance to some beast of burden, deformed by hard toil, lamed, worn to death, and now only good for the knackers.

Pierre not only delivers the alms from Rose but he also spends the rest of the day trying to get Laveuve admitted into the Asylum of the Invalids of Labour by using his connections with the wealthy people on the board of the organisation. Zola here presents the high-society of Paris, particularly the Duvillard’s family and friends; the Baron Duvillard is a banker involved in an African Railway scheme and his wife, Eve, does at least want to help Pierre. But he’s passed around from person to person, none of whom are willing to help him directly. In the end all his efforts are in vain as Leveuve dies before any decision can be made. He is disgusted with himself that he had allowed his hopes to rise once again, to hope that he could actually help people with charity, and as a result his doubts return.

He had ceased to believe in the efficacy of alms; it was not sufficient that one should be charitable, henceforth one must be just. Given justice, indeed, horrid misery would disappear, and no such thing as charity would be needed.

Pierre is then witness to an act of terrorism as he notices a man, Salvat, whom he had seen when visiting Laveuve, meet Pierre’s brother, Guillaume. Salvat walks away to the Duvillard’s mansion, followed by Guillaume, who is followed by Pierre. Pierre watches Salvat enter a doorway and is soon seen running from the building; Guillaume enters the building and there follows an explosion. Pierre helps his injured brother get away and lets him stay at his house to recuperate. The only casualty of the bomb is a young servant girl.

Pierre and Guillaume, who had been estranged, now become better acquainted and Pierre gets to know both Guillaume’s family and his revolutionary friends. Guillaume is a chemist who had been working on a new explosive and Salvat had managed to pilfer some of this when he was working briefly for Guillaume. The rest of the novel now concentrates on Pierre’s complete disassociation with the church and his appreciation of Guillaume’s scientific and atheistic outlook on life. Pierre is completely astonished and then smitten by Guillaume’s fiancée, Marie, who seems to embody the best of this new, more open, outlook to life. Now that Pierre has lost his faith in God he seems to find a new faith in some sort of scientific positivism, whereby all the problems of the world are going to be solved by socialism, science and work. This was no doubt close to Zola’s personal views but it certainly seems to be highly unrealistic to a modern reader. I wonder how the contemporary reader would have found these arguments? It is strange that all the political talk about socialism and anarchism concentrates on Saint-Simon, Fourier, Proudhon et al. rather than Marx, Engels, Bakunin et al.; it’s almost as if a hundred years of political thought meant nothing to Zola.

There is a lot more in this novel as well; there’s the manhunt of Salvat as well as his public execution; the threat of terrorism; there’s Zola’s look at bourgeois society and its decadence at the end of the nineteenth century by portraying political, financial and moral corruption; there’s the joys of cycling (for men AND women); the joys of marriage and fatherhood. Unusually for Zola this novel has a very positive, almost utopian, ending, predicting the downfall of Catholicism and the rise of Science and Justice.

Therein lies the new hope—Justice, after eighteen hundred years of impotent Charity. Ah! in a thousand years from now, when Catholicism will be naught but a very ancient superstition of the past, how amazed men will be to think that their ancestors were able to endure that religion of torture and nihility!

I wonder what Zola would have made of the world today?

The novel ends with the whole family looking out over a Paris bathed in golden light from the setting sun. Marie holds up her son, Jean, to look at the sight, promising him that he’s going to reap the benefits that Science and Justice are going to bring. Jean would be aged sixteen in 1914.

This was cross-posted on my blog Intermittencies of the Mind.

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Exceptional Excerpts: The Belly of Paris #3 by Émile Zola

There are so many wonderful passages in Le Ventre de Paris that I am joining Jonathan and posting an excerpt. This is only part of the lengthy, but interesting, description of Gavard. It appears early in the second fifth of the book. The translation, by Ernest Alfred Vizetelly,  is titled The Fat and the Thin, and is available free from Project Gutenberg.

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As he was in the habit of visiting the Quenu-Gradelles almost daily, he determined to take up his residence nearer to them, and came to live in the Rue de la Cossonnerie. The neighbouring markets, with their noisy uproar and endless chatter, quite fascinated him; and he decided to hire a stall in the poultry pavilion, just for the purpose of amusing himself and occupying his idle hours with all the gossip. Thenceforth he lived amidst ceaselesstittle-tattle, acquainted with every little scandal in the neighbourhood, his head buzzing with the incessant yelping around him. He blissfully tasted a thousand titillating delights, having at last found his true element, and bathing in it, with the voluptuous pleasure of a carp swimming in the sunshine. Florent would sometimes go to see him at his stall.

And a few sentences later:

At last, in the middle of the alley, near the water-taps, he found Gavard ranting away in his shirt-sleeves, in front of his stall, with his arms crossed over the bib of his blue apron. He reigned there, in a gracious, condescending way, over a group of ten or twelve women. He was the only male dealer in that part of the market. He was so fond of wagging his tongue that he had quarrelled with five or six girls whom he had successively engaged to attend to his stall, and had now made up his mind to sell his goods himself, naively explaining that the silly women spent the whole blessed day in gossiping, and that it was beyond his power to manage them.

 

‘Rome’ (Part 2) by Émile Zola

Zola_Rome_fcX-700pxEarlier in the year I read the first half of Rome by Émile Zola and in my post I described how boring it was and I wasn’t sure whether to abandon it or not. Well, I decided to continue with it and finished it on New Year’s Eve. I thought that I owed it to Zola to continue and also because I do actually intend to read Paris, which is the last in the series. I read it in smaller, more palatable, chunks but it didn’t really improve; the main story was just as boring and the subplot with Benedetta and Dario was just as ludicrous.

The only saving grace was that Pierre did get to meet the Pope to discuss his book on ‘Socialistic Catholicicm’ only to find that the Pope was not exactly impressed with his ideas. Not only did we, the readers, know that the Pope wouldn’t ever support the book but all the other characters in the novel knew that he was doomed to failure as well. Surprisingly Pierre capitulates and agrees to withdraw his book rather than defend it, and then later when he’s alone he has a petulant fit where he denounces Catholicism and declares that only science has the answers. At no point does it cross his mind to publish his book without the Pope’s blessing or to ditch the Catholicism in his ‘Socialistic Catholicism’, especially as he admits way back at the beginning of Lourdes that he no longer believes in God and Catholicism. By the end of the novel I no longer cared what he did or thought.

The silly subplot with Benedetta and Dario, that even Zola says in the text ‘had no place save in the fifth acts of melodramas’ comes to an even more bizarre conclusion. Benedetta has got her divorce from her husband and now she and Dario are free to marry but some poisoned figs are delivered which are intended for Benedetta’s uncle but end up being eaten by Dario. Whilst on his death-bed Benedetta, stripped naked, goes to him:

   “My Dario, here I am!”
   For a second, which seemed an eternity, they clasped one another, she neither repelled nor terrified by the disorder which made him so unrecognisable, but displaying a delirious passion, a holy frenzy as if to pass beyond life, to penetrate with him into the black Unknown. And beneath the shock of the felicity at last offered to him he expired, with his arms yet convulsively wound around her as though indeed to carry her off. Then, whether from grief or from bliss amidst that embrace of death, there came such a rush of blood to her heart that the organ burst: she died on her lover’s neck, both tightly and for ever clasped in one another’s arms.
   There was a faint sigh. Victorine understood and drew near, while Pierre, also erect, remained quivering with the tearful admiration of one who has beheld the sublime.
   “Look, look!” whispered the servant, “she no longer moves, she no longer breathes. Ah! my poor child, my poor child, she is dead!”
   Then the priest murmured: “Oh! God, how beautiful they are.”

Yes, not only does her heart stop just at the same time as she kisses Dario but they are also buried together locked in this embrace. Graham King has noted in Garden of Zola that this ‘death-kiss syndrome’ had appeared in previous novels by Zola, such as Le Rêve and La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret but this whole subplot just seems totally out of place in this novel. It’s strange how nothing happens for most of the novel, then Zola wraps up both stories in a chapter or two and then limps on with another couple of chapters where Pierre says goodbye to everyone.

It’s fair to say that I didn’t like this book so you may be interested in other blogger’s reviews of Rome such as Behold the Stars’ review which contains much background information that I found interesting when I was trudging through the book and the review on Old Books by Dead Guys blog. Both blogs have many other reviews of Zola’s books.

This post was also posted on my blog Intermittencies of the Mind.

‘Rome’ (Part 1) by Émile Zola

Zola_Rome_fcX-700pxI’m halfway through Rome, the second volume of the Three Cities trilogy by Zola, and I have to admit it’s a slow slog. After Lourdes I thought I knew what to expect, I knew it wasn’t going to be top-class Zola but I thought it would be readable in its way, but Rome may defeat me yet. I’m taking a break and I may continue at a slower pace, maybe a chapter or two every week or so, or I may just pack it in.

Rome continues the story of Abbé Pierre Froment, who first appeared in Lourdes, and who seems to have regained his faith in some sense. I can never quite understand the Froment character as he seems to have lost his faith before Lourdes began only to accept by the end of that novel that, ok, he’s not a believer but he may as well carry on as a Priest as he can’t do anything else. By the beginning of Rome he’s regained a sense of faith in the form of Catholic Socialism and he’s off to Rome to meet the Pope in order to convince him that he and the Catholic hierarchy should renounce all earthly pleasures and return to a purer form of christianity and help the poor. Now, I’m pretty sure that every reader then, and now, would be certain that in no credible version of the Universe would the Pope agree to such a scheme. So Pierre has the impossible task of convincing the Pope of his plans; but before that he has to arrange a meeting with him and to convince him to get his book, New Rome, taken off the Index of banned books. He has to battle his way past the Papal bureaucracy which seems determined to thwart him at every step.

From the short synopsis this seems quite appealing to me; it sounds similar to Kafka’s The Castle, a tale of a fight against a powerful bureaucracy or one of my favourite films, Patrice Leconte’s Ridicule where the main character has to battle his way through Louis XVI’s court to gain access to the king and ultimately to get funds to drain a mosquito-ridden swamp back home. But Rome consists largely of Zola’s travel notes from his visit to Rome in 1894. We get a tourist’s guide to many of Rome’s buildings at the beginning of the novel, a guide of some of Rome’s ruins, the Appian Way, the catacombs, the Sistine chapel together with a comparison between Michelangelo and Botticelli, the view from St Peter’s and we witness a public Papal event called Peter’s Pence Fund, amongst others. In an attempt to add some drama to the book he invents a Shakespearian subplot that involves Benedetta and Dario who are in love with each other; only there’s a slight problem because Benedetta is already married. As the marriage was never consumated she is trying to get divorced, thus introducing her own battle with the Papal authorities. And so, the first half of Rome reads as a pretty dull tourist’s guide to Rome combined with a bit of history and a melodramatic love story. The book only becomes slightly interesting when Pierre is encountering the obstructive Papal bureaucrats or when they all go to visit some of the ‘lower classes’, even if Zola’s description of them portrays them as little better than lazy pigs rolling about in filth.

It’s interesting to see what others thought of Rome. In the introduction to the physical book I have (see image) the author has this to say of Zola’s work after the Rougon-Macquart series:

…the Three Cities and the Four Gospels will subsequently prove to be fairly mechanically assembled, with plot subservient to ideas. Characters now tend to be stereotypes or mouthpieces, and to recur not in the Balzacian sense – from novel to novel – but at regular and predictable intervals within each.

This is a fair point. With Lourdes Zola seems to be just using the form of the novel because that is what he’s familiar with, whereas it would have worked better as a piece of journalism. With Rome all the tourist stuff and the love-story are just add-ons to make the piece look like a novel; he could have expressed his ideas better in an essay if he could no longer be bothered with plot or character. One of the main criticisms I had with the book is that we rarely know what Pierre, or any of the other characters, are thinking so that all we get are third person descriptions of objects and events. Graham King is a bit more sympathetic to Zola and Rome:

Rome is a long, wide-ranging and complex novel with more merits, I think, than deficiencies. The problem for the modern reader is that it suffers from a marked loss of topicality…Its historical background, vital then, is irrelevant now: Pope Leo XIII’s emerging social conscience, which brought about the establishment of Catholic trade unions.

And so, I’m faced with the decision to continue or not. Because I’ve read the introduction to the book and biographies of Zola I know how Rome ends, so I may just take the less painful way out and abandon it. The next decision will be whether to continue with the final volume, Paris.

This was cross-posted on my blog Intermittencies of the Mind.

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‘Lourdes’ by Émile Zola

Zola_Lourdes_fcXC-700pxLourdes was first published in 1894. Zola first conceived of the book when he visited Lourdes in September 1891 and was taken aback by the number of pilgrims that visited the shrine to the Virgin Mary. He returned the following year during August, which is the busiest period for pilgrimages, and in Zola’s typical fashion he spent time with the pilgrims, carrying out interviews and observations to form the basis of this book.

The book is set over a five-day period starting on Friday 19th August, with each day covering approximately a hundred pages each. The main characters are the Abbé Pierre Froment and his childhood sweetheart Marie de Guersaint, who has been paralysed since the age of thirteen when she fell from a horse. Day one covers the trip by train from Paris to Lourdes and we are introduced to a whole host of characters mostly made up of those pilgrims who have a variety of ailments and who are hoping for a miracle cure at Lourdes. Pierre’s and Marie’s story is revealed early on in the novel and it is noted that Pierre has lost his faith. Marie is aware that Pierre has lost his faith but she is optimistic that she will be cured at Lourdes and that such a miracle may help Pierre believe again. So, if Pierre has lost his faith, why doesn’t he leave the priesthood? He reasons that he is permanently marked as different than other men and that having kept his vow of chastity he should be able to conquer his mind as well. As for Marie’s illness, the doctors are not agreed on the cause of it and are unable to cure her, indeed one young doctor suggests that it is psychosomatic and that a cure at Lourdes may be possible if she believes in it herself.

He even predicted how the miracle would come about; it would be like a lightning stroke, an awakening, an exaltation of the entire being, whilst the evil, that horrid, diabolical weight which stifled the poor girl would once more ascend and fly away as though emerging by her mouth.

When the pilgrims arrive the next day they settle in to their accommodation and eagerly wait for their visit to the Grotto at Lourdes. Pierre meets an old friend Dr. Chassaigne, whose story mirrors Pierre’s, in that he has lost his ‘faith’ in medicine following the deaths of his wife and daughter; his own inability to save either has crushed his spirit and his only hope is for God to re-unite them with his death.

Many believe that bathing in the waters at Lourdes will cure them of their illnesses. This belief is so strong that even the corpse of a man that died on the train is immersed in the waters at the piscina in the hope that he will live again. Pierre is persuaded to help some of the patients enter the waters and here Zola describes the state of the waters in which the sick are to bathe:

…the water was scarcely inviting; for, through fear lest the output of the source should not suffice, the Fathers of the Grotto only allowed the water of the baths to be changed twice a day. And nearly a hundred patients being dipped in the same water, it can be imagined what a terrible soup the latter at last became. All manner of things were found in it, so that it was like a frightful consommé of all ailments, a field of cultivation for every kind of poisonous germ, a quintessence of the most dreaded contagious diseases; the miraculous feature of it all being that men should emerge alive from their immersion in such filth.

Meanwhile Marie visits the Grotto and prays to the Virgin Mary to be cured. Over the next couple of days Pierre visits the Verification Office, where all claims of miracles are assessed by a team of doctors, visits some of the local shops that sell all sorts of souvenirs, accompanies Marie’s father to a communal eating establishment run by some nuns and visits a local barber who rants constantly against the ‘new’ Lourdes that has appeared since the pilgrimages, despite making money by taking in lodgers.

The story culminates with Marie’s cure during a night-time vigil at the Grotto. Pierre arrives in the morning to take Marie back to their accommodation and witnesses Marie’s cure:

But all at once, when the Blessed Sacrament passed by, and she saw the star-like monstrance sparkling in the sun, a sensation of dizziness came over her. She imagined herself sruck by lightning. Her eyes caught fire from the glare which flashed upon her, and at last regained their flame of life, shining out like stars. And under the influence of a wave of blood her face became animated, suffused with colour, beaming with a smile of joy and health. And, suddenly, Pierre saw her rise, stand upright in her little car, staggering, stuttering, and finding in her mind only these caressing words: “Oh, my friend! Oh, my friend!”

The crowd cheer and applaud her, she sobs, and walks, Pierre sobs as well. After all the jubilation Marie ends up at the Verification Office and after much debate it is declared a miracle; only Pierre, who knows the true nature of her illness, is sceptical. And so the last day consists of the return trip; Pierre and Marie have to decide what they want to do with their lives. Will it be together or will they stay apart?

The book is split into five chapters, one for each day, and then each chapter is split into five sections as well. The last section of each chapter recounts the story of Bernadette Soubirous who is the girl to whom the Virgin Mary appeared to eighteen times in 1858 and is the source of the fame of Lourdes as a holy site. Theses sections are interesting enough and give some important background information to the reader. Zola is brilliant at crowd scenes and one is included here, where a whole chapter is devoted to a night procession. There are also some funny episodes and some analysis of the Lourdes phenomena from an outsider’s perspective; but I must admit I had problems reading Lourdes, it proceeds at such a slow plodding pace that it was quite tedious to read at times. It felt so static and the structure of the novel was too restrictive, especially where two of the five chapters are taken up with the train journey to and from Lourdes. At times it felt more like a piece of journalism than a novel and may have been better if it had been written up as an article. Unlike Zola’s previous novels where his extensive research added to the stories, here it just bogged it down in too much detail as he tried to cram everything in. The other criticism is that there is no tension to the story; we know Pierre has lost his faith, we’re pretty sure that Marie will be cured and because Pierre accepts that her illness is psychosomatic he is unlikely to consider her ‘cure’ a miracle and therefore it is not likely to help him regain his faith. Even the multitude of characters is a bit repetitive as they’re all defined by their illnesses.

I was intrigued to see what other critics thought of Lourdes and as always I found Graham King‘s summary the most accurate and entertaining:

Why then isn’t Lourdes read today? With its potentially explosive ingredients, it should be ticking away like a time bomb, even after all these years. The trouble is that despite the proliferation of characters, the swirling, nervous crowds and the fascinating conflict between the sacred and secular activities, the narrative has lead boots, with one foot anchored firmly in a single location, Lourdes, and the other, equally immobile, in Pierre Fromant’s mind. It is a little like being confined to a dreary little holiday hotel for days on end because of bad weather; even though we are in the company of a raconteur who desperately tries to entertain us, it isn’t what we came for.

Although I had a physical copy of the novel (the one pictured) I ended up reading most of it on my kindle, partly because of the ease but also because the print was so small in the book. Both were versions of the Vizetelly translation which can be found at Project Gutenberg. The translation is a bit old-fashioned and stuffy and the book could do with a more modern translation but it was still quite readable and I don’t think it would have been bowldlerised that much, if at all.

Despite the faults with Lourdes I shall continue with the others…next stop Rome.

This was cross-posted on my blog Intermittencies of the Mind.

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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.

Elek Book Translations

Elek Books

Elek Book covers – The original 1950s editions often had garish pictures on their covers as with ‘His Excellency’. The more plain covers are from the 1970s reprints.

When I was reading the Rougon-Macquart series I came across Graham King’s book Garden of Zola, in which I discovered that a large portion of Zola’s books were translated in the 1950s and 1960s. As I had realised by this time that not all the R.M. books were available in newer, more readily available translations and that the older Vizetelly translations were not necessarily the best versions to read, I decided to search for some of the Elek books. I found some in my County Library’s store and some I bought on eBay. Admittedly, these are probably not as easy to get outside the U.K. but many were published separately in the U.S. and may be available by different publishers. I have tried to give some information about U.S. publications below.

In the end I read thirteen of the novels as new translations, six were the Elek Book versions and only one was the Vizetelly translation. Until all the books are available in new translations English readers will have to fall back on older translations such as the Elek Book translations, especially if you’re trying to avoid Vizetelly. I have included as much information as possible on the Elek Book translations below – this information is largely taken from Garden of Zola and from personal copies.

I have also included some information, again mostly from Garden of Zola, highlighting the differences between the Elek Book versions and the Vizetelly version. I have limited this to the novels that are, as yet, unavailable in a modern translation. Graham King compares large sections from the books, however, I will limit myself to quoting his summaries and conclusions which are very often amusing and illuminating.

Elek Book Editions

  • Madeleine Ferat (1957) – Madeleine Ferat (1868) translated by Alec Brown. Published in U.S. by Citadel Press, 1957.
  • The Kill (1958) – La Curée (1871/2) translated by A. Texeira de Mattos. Originally published by Lutetian Society in 1895. Includes an introduction by Angus Wilson. Published in U.S. by Citadel Press, 1957.
  • Savage Paris (1955) – Le Ventre de Paris (1873) translated by David Hughes & Marie-Jacqueline Mason. Published in U.S. by Citadel Press, 1955
  • A Priest in the House (1957) – La Conquête de Plassans (1874) translated by Brian Rhys, ISBN 0236309641. Published in U.S. by Citadel Press, 1957.
  • The Abbé Mouret’s Sin (1957) – La Faute de l’abbé Mouret (1875) translated by Alec Brown, ISBN 0236308084, reprinted 1970. Also published as ‘The Sinful Priest’ in 1960.
  • His Excellency (1958) – Son Excellence Eugène Rougon (1876) translated by Alec Brown. Published in U.S. by Dufour Editions, 1958.
  • The Drunkard (1958) – L’Assommoir (1877) translated by Arthur Symons. Originally published by Lutetian Society in 1895 as L’Assommoir.
  • A Love Affair (1957) – Une Page d’amour (1878) translated by Jean Stewart. Reprinted 1972, ISBN 0236309056. Published in U.S. by Citadel Press, 1957.
  • Nana (1957) – Nana (1880) translated by Victor Plarr. Originally published by Lutetian Society in 1895.
  • Restless House (1957) – Pot-Bouille (1882) translated by Percy Pinkerton. Originally published by Lutetian Society in 1895.
  • Ladies’ Delight (1960) – Au Bonheur des dames (1883) translated by April Fitzlyon. Originally published in 1957 by John Calder. Published in U.S. by Abelard-Schuman, 1958.
  • Zest for Life (1955) – La Joie de vivre (1884) translated by Jean Stewart with a preface by Angus Wilson. Reprinted in 1968, ISBN 0236310135. Published in U.S. by Indiana Uni. Press, 1956.
  • GerminalGerminal (1885) translated by Havelock Ellis. Originally published by Lutetian Society in 1894.
  • The Masterpiece (1950) – L’Œuvre (1886) translated by Thomas Walton. The O.U.P. version published in 1993 is a revision by Roger Pearson of the Walton translation.
  • Earth (1954) – La Terre (1887) translated by Ann Lindsay. This was reprinted by Arrow Books in 1967.
  • The Beast in Man (1958) – La Bête humaine (1890) translated by Alec Brown.
  • The Debacle (1968) – La Débâcle (1892) translated by John Hands with an introduction by Robert Baldick.
  • Doctor Pascal (1957) – Le Docteur Pascal (1893) translated by Vladimir Kean with an introduction by Hugh Shelley. ISBN 0236308602. Published in U.S. by Dufour Editions, 1957.

Translation Comparisons

  • Madeleine Férat – According to King, Brown puts over Zola’s physiological explanations well, whereas Vizetelly makes them even more ludicrous than they already are. Brown’s translation is the best of the three available.
  • A Priest in the House (The Conquest of Plassans) – King quite likes the Vizetelly translation as there wasn’t too much in the novel to annoy the censor. However, the Rhys translation is described as ‘excellent’ and it ‘captures the gossipy flavour of the narrative.’ I enjoyed the book and had no problems with the translation, though this one should be redundant soon as a new O.U.P. translation is coming out.
  • The Abbé Mouret’s Sin – King compares the Elek/Brown translation with a newer one by Sandy Petrey. Although he has qualms about both he admits that both are ‘highly recommended versions’. The original Vizetelly version is ‘as stodgy as a plot of turnips’ and the ‘revised’ Vizetelly was even worse. The middle section of the book is incredibly lyrical, King says that ‘Zola’s linguistic skills are revealed at their peak’ and the Vizetellys weren’t up to the task. This is one of my favourite books of the series.
  • His Excellency – King says that the Elek/Brown version is a ‘craftsman-like interpretation of a straightforward narrative’ and the early versions are ‘run-of-the-mill Victorian mannerist’. This was my least favourite book of the series but I would think that Vizetelly would probably be ok.
  • A Love Affair – King declares the Elek/Stewart translation as ‘excellent’ especially in relation to the many descriptive passages in the novel. The ‘revised’ Vizetelly suffered quite a bit as they cut a lot out.
  • Zest for Life – King states that Stewart conveys ‘both the sombre atmosphere and the dramatic incidents with equal skill’ and almost approves of the pre-trial Vizetelly version of 1886. However, even here Vizetelly evades a menstruation scene. Further cuts were made in the 1901 version, especially in relation to a particularly harrowing childbirth that takes place in Chapter Ten.I also made some comparisons between the Vizetelly and Stewart translations and was astonished at the differences. For anyone who’s interested you may like to check out this post on this site and my GoodReads review. The amount of culling involved is highlighted by looking at the word counts for Chapter Ten of each version: the original French version had approx. 11,200 words, the Elek version had approx. 11,600 words and the Vizetelly version had approx. 5,200 words. So, avoid the Vizetelly version at all costs!

On Reading the Rougon-Macquart Series

Reading Zola

My first Zola book was the Penguin edition of Nana which I read in the early ’90s; I then read L’Assommoir. The subject matters of prostitution and alcohol abuse must have been what attracted me to the books but I’m intrigued as to where I first heard of Zola; it certainly wasn’t at school. I was reading a lot of Henry Miller at the time, and although he was a source of a lot of interesting books, I don’t think it was from reading him. Anyway, after reading these two books, I declared myself an Émile Zola fan and promptly read nothing else by him for about ten years until I read La Bête humaine.

I think I like a reasonable variety of novels and non-fiction but every now and then I fancy reading a good ol’ 19th Century novel laden with characters and plot developments to keep me interested. In 2011 I must have been in one of these moods when I picked up another Zola book, The Ladies’ Paradise, which really impressed me and it seemed to be quite different than the others that I’d read years before. I read a couple more, including a re-read of L’Assommoir and I think it was then that I started to seriously consider reading the whole series.

I’m still a bit surprised that I read the whole series as I’m usually put off by long series of novels, films or television programmes as I get the feeling that the best material is at the beginning and the later work is just substandard material that was probably rejected from the earlier work. But, this isn’t the case with Zola and the Rougon-Macquart series: it was conceived as a whole and it works as a whole.

The Rougon-Macquart Series

The full title of the series is The Rougon-Macquart: the Natural and Social History of a Family under the Second Empire. The Second Empire existed from 1852 to 1870 with Napoleon III (a.k.a. Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew) as Emperor. Zola originally planned the ten-novel cycle depicting life in the Second Empire in 1869; the series of course, subsequently grew to twenty novels and took Zola over twenty years to complete. The last novel in the series, Doctor Pascal was published in 1893.

Zola made claims that the Rougon-Macquart series was a scientific study into genealogy or heredity. It all seems a bit silly these days and people sometimes rubbish the series because the ‘scientific’ aspect was incorrect. I just ignored his claims and read the books as he still has a lot of interesting insights into human nature.

The Reading Order

Madame Vauquer has already covered the topic of the Reading Order, which I totally agree with, but I would just like to make a few points regarding the reading order:

  • Each novel is completely self-contained and can be read on its own with no knowledge of the other novels in the series.
  • Many people who decide to read the series either read it in publication order or some-sort of chronological order such as Zola’s recommended reading order.
  • If you are not sure if you want to read the whole series but just want to try Zola then it’s best to read a few of the ‘biggies’ first, e.g. Nana, Germinal, L’Assommoir, Pot Luck, La Bête Humaine. Of course, if you’re still interested after some of those then continue with the others.

The short version then, is that the reading order does not really matter that much and the potential reader should not get too obsessed with it. However, there are some extra points that I would like to make that may help people who are planning to read the series – these are for guidance only. I realise that, having set out three clear points above, that I’m now about to confuse the issue with loads of exceptions, so I’ll apologise, but continue anyway:

  • Whatever order you read them in, personally I wouldn’t read The Fortune of the Rougons first. It’s much better read after you’ve read some of the others and after you’ve got to know some of the characters. If you read it first it may just seem confusing. It was my eighth book of the series.
  • It’s probably best, however, to read The Fortune of the Rougons before reading His Excellency, Eugène Rougon, The Conquest of Plassans, The Kill and Abbé Mouret’s Sin.
  • It’s best to read Doctor Pascal last as it’s essentially an epilogue to the whole series.
  • The Debacle portrays the end of the Second Empire and the subsequent Paris Commune, so it’s best to read this near the end, preferably as the penultimate novel.
  • For those readers that like a bit of chronology: Nana appears as a child in L’Assommoir and as an adult in Nana; The Ladies’ Paradise should be read after Pot Luck as Octave Mouret is older in The Ladies’ Paradise; at the end of The Earth Jean Macquart leaves to join the army which leads into The Debacle. I read all of these the ‘wrong’ way round with no ill effects. The only one I got the ‘correct’ way round was with reading The Kill before Money.

Translations

The other main question that crops up if you’re reading them in English is ‘which translation to read?’ The answer is reasonably simple: if there is a modern (say post 1970) translation available then read it, especially if it’s a Penguin or Oxford University Press book (Brian Nelson rules!). If you have no alternative then you may have to fall back on older translations, the most common ones will be the Vizetelly translations. In fact, nearly all of the free digital versions and cheap (and sometimes not-so-cheap) printed versions are versions of the Vizetelly translations, which were originally published in the late Victorian period. The quality, however, varies wildly; some were heavily bowdlerised, especially those novels with a sexual content.

If you’re prepared to wait for all of the Rougon-Macquart novels to get a modern translation then you may have to wait a while. Though things are looking good as modern translations of Money and The Conquest of Plassans are due in 2014. This still leaves five novels that have not received a modern translation yet. Fortunately, when I was reading the series I discovered that many of the novels of the series were translated in the 1950s by various translators and published by Elek Books. Although these translations are now also dated themselves, they are, in my opinion, preferable to the Vizetelly versions. I managed to order some copies from my local library and I bought other copies at reasonable prices from eBay and other sites. Translation information, including Elek Book versions, can be found on the Translations page.

The other option is just to learn French and read them in the original.

Hopefully some of the information above will be of use to people who are thinking of reading any books in the series.

His Excellency Eugene Rougon, by Emile Zola, Translated by Ernest Alfred Vizetelly

The Complete Works of Emile ZolaHis Excellency Eugene Rougon (1876) is the sixth published novel of the Rougon-Macquart series, but the second one to read if you follow the suggested order. It’s the riveting story of Eugène Rougon, the eldest son of Pierre and Félicité Rougon who are first introduced to the reader in The Fortune of the Rougons. (See my thoughts about it here). In The Fortune of the Rougons Eugene makes a late appearance as a cunning manipulator who was involved in the 1851 coup d’état that put Napoleon III on the throne, and by providing his parents with crucial information he enabled them to establish power in the (fictional) town of Plassans. This sets the Rougons up to be the rich and successful side of the family, in contrast to the Macquarts who are on their way to poverty, debauchery and drunkenness.

His Excellency Eugene Rougon is a superb study of political power – how it is won and lost, and how it corrupts. I would like to recommend it as compulsory reading for all aspiring politicians, but alas, a recent translation seems not to be available and this Vizetelly translation is very dated in style. It also omits passages here and there because of prevailing Victorian sensibilities. Reading this book with the group at GoodReads, we soon found examples where allusions to cleavage and other ‘racy’ passages had been self-censored by Vizetelly. Lest we judge him harshly, we should remember 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)

So even though the later publications were more heavily edited than the earlier ones, it would seem that Vizetelly was prudent to be a bit coy even in the novels published before 1889.

The story begins when Rougon has offended Napoleon III (because of an inheritance claim that involves a relative of the Empress), and he’s on the outer. This does not stop his cronies from harassing him night and day over various projects all of which involve graft and corruption to a greater or lesser extent, and they are aghast when he has to resign. Madame Correur speaks for them all when she says ‘It is necessary that you should be everything so that we may be something’.

BEWARE: SPOILERS

If he’s feeling a bit downcast about this change in his fortunes he is soon distracted by the arrival of Mademoiselle Clorinde Balbi, a young lady of somewhat obscure antecedents and about whom many rumours circulate. Rougon doesn’t care: she cheers him up. She needs to: by the time of the lavish Imperial Christening all the promises he has made to his pals have fallen through. But, attracted by her eccentricity and her beauty, he makes the grave mistake of underestimating her. She is not like other women: she doesn’t care much about her appearance, she’s as interested in power as he is. He makes an even more serious mistake when he declines to marry her, and he compounds his error by failing to realisethat she is his ally for her own purposes.

Zola modelled his story closely on real events, and when Rougon is reinstated, much to the delight of the hangers-on, he becomes Napoleon’s hatchet man, imposing harsh measures to repress any dissent and ruthlessly purging potential opposition. He becomes a ‘synonym for stern repression, the refusal of all liberties’ and he relishes every aspect of his power to exile, deport, imprison, censor the press and destroy careers. His arrogance is breath-taking: he summons important people to his office and then keeps them waiting for hours, and he ‘revels in his godlike powers’.

The whole country trembled in the terror which like a black storm cloud rolled forth from the room with the green velvet curtains where Rougon laughed aloud while stretching his arms.

For Rougon, this power is what matters:

He loved power for its own sake, without any hankering for riches and honours. Very ignorant, and of little skill in things which were not connected with the management of men, it was only his keen craving for power that elevated him to a position of responsibility. The ambition of raising himself above the crowd, which seemed to him to be composed of fools and knaves, and of leading and driving men by sheer force, developed most energetic skill and cunning in his heavy nature. He believed only in himself, took his convictions for reasons, and held everything subordinate to the increase of his personal influence. Addicted to no vice, he yet rebelled as at some secret orgy in the idea of wielding supreme power.

He surrounds himself with his intimate associates, and distributes honours such as the Legion of Honour to his friends. Kahn gets his dodgy railway line; the Charbonnels win their suit, and there are literally ‘jobs for the boys’ including a completely unqualified and bone-idle son of Jobelin. Under pressure to maintain his power-base Rougon bestows favours through corruptions large and small, and his hubris leads him to reject the Emperor’s warning that he’s going too far. Rougon’s friends are not just a drain on his energy but also the source of his power, and he cannot afford to lose their support: he has to deliver on the promises he makes or lose everything.

In every organisation and institution, there are people who have power, either de jure (as of right, through holding some formal position) or de facto (which is exercised through the persuasive power of personality). What Zola shows in the contrasting figures of Rougon and Clotilde is just how powerful de facto power could be, even when wielded by a woman. The catalyst for Rougon’s climb to de jure power from a position of obscurity is catastrophe (the coup d’état and the failed assassination attempt), and his success derives from his ability to be in the right place at the right time and choosing the right side to be on. But Clotilde, whose origins are not merely obscure but also dubious, wields power on the sly. She gets the ear of the Empress, and she makes her way into the Emperor’s bedroom, triumphantly proclaiming it by wearing a black velvet ‘dog-collar’ bearing the words ‘I belong to my master’. (This seems a bit cringe-worthy, but hey, maybe you had to be there to perceive debasement as an assertion of power?)

Clotilde gets her revenge in a wonderful scene at a charity bazaar where all the characters assemble to support the Empress’s favourite charity. There’s some splendid symbolism in this chapter, Clotilde manning the drinks booth like a common waitress; and the Crown Prince trundling past in a carriage as the dejected Rougon goes for a walk after his downfall. (The Prince never got to take the crown because the monarchy was abolished).

But as we have seen so often in Australian politics, politicians reinvent themselves, and despite what appears to be a disastrous banishment to the back benches, they manage to ‘rehabilitate’ themselves and bounce back into the top job. Zola knew this: Rougon does it too!

Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers

Lisa Hill, January 2014

Author: Emile Zola
Title: His Excellency Eugène Rougon, (Son Excellence Eugène Rougon) in The Complete Works of Emile Zola (Illustrated)
Translated by Ernest Alfred Vizetelly
Publisher: Delphi Classics. Kindle Edition, 2012.
ISBN: 9788074840357
Source: Personal copy.

Rougon-Macquart Reading Order per Vizetelly

In his book Émile Zola Novelist and Reformer, An Account of His Life and Work (1904), Ernest Alfred Vizetelly, a long-time acquaintance of Zola’s, devoted fifteen pages to explaining a recommended reading order for the twenty Rougon-Macquart novels which differed from the publication order. We have this order shown on our Recommended Reading Order Page. Thank you to Joao for bringing this source to our attention.

Vizetelly says this order was indicated by Zola in Le Docteur Pascal (1893) although I am unclear if it is in the novel itself or in an Introduction. My edition, translated by Mary J. Serrano has no Introduction. Further information is welcome if anyone has an edition with an Introduction addressing this or information from a different source. Le Docteur Pascal was the last of the Rougon-Macquart novels to be published. It should be read last even if you don’t follow a specific reading pattern since it involves the history of many of the characters. Vizetelly further states that the order was confirmed to him personally by Zola.

It has been too long since I read Le Docteur Pascal for me to remember how it was laid out but going by Vizetelly’s book, the order seems logical. La Fortune des Rougon (1871) is first as it sets out the beginnings of the Rougon and Macquart families. The next nine novels detail all of the Rougon side of the family, including the Mourets, with the exception of Doctor Pascal himself. Beginning with Le Ventre de Paris (1873), the next nine novels focus on the illegitimate side of the family, the Macquarts. Finally, the 20th book, Le Docteur Pascal, features Pascal Rougon who has kept a family history to aid his research into heredity.

Depending on their taste, this order would probably work well for readers committed to reading all twenty novels. What I dislike about it is that it might not work for readers who have not yet discovered Zola and are trying a novel or two before deciding to read the entire series. We can assume there is a reason some of the novels are better known and more popular than others. Justified or not, these novels would appear to be of the most interest to the general reading public. Most of these are listed even later in the recommended reading order than in the chronological order. In either case, it is to be feared that the new reader would not be drawn into Zola’s world and would give up before reading one which would encourage them to read the entire series.