‘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.

Doctor Pascal, by Émile Zola, translated by Mary Jane Serrano

Doctor Pascal

Source: Wikipedia Commons

There could be a sense of anti-climax when reading Doctor Pascal, the last of Émile Zola’s great Rougon-Macquart cycle of twenty novels. Having followed five generations of the descendants of Adelaïde Fouque (Tante Dide) over the course of the Second Empire in France, the reader has come across occasional allusions to Doctor Pascal but there has been no hint that he is a person of much interest. He’s a bachelor, he lives in Plassans, and he’s spent his life recording the lives of his extended family in order to confirm his theories about heredity.

(This was Zola’s own pet theory too: he believed that heredity determined physical and mental health, and the bloodlines of the Rougon-Macquart family were a fictional demonstration that the descendants of the mad matriarch Adelaïde would turn out well or badly depending on whether they were of legitimate descent through her respectable marriage to Pierre Rougon, or from her more dubious relationship with the smuggler Macquart. However, Zola believed that it was possible to transcend inheritance, as we shall see).

Zola, genius that he was, created a fitting finale for his series. Doctor Pascal involves the conflict between religion and science; a May-September relationship; a fall from fortune; duty versus love; and at the end, a slightly ambiguous conclusion where – despite the image of a Madonna and babe – we are left wondering how the next generation will fare.

Doctor Pascal is descended from the legitimate branch of the family, so he is respectable and hardworking, albeit a tad obsessive. His niece Clotilde is diligent and respectable too: she is the daughter of the financial wheeler-and-dealer Aristide Rougon who took the name Saccard after his spectacular fall from grace (see my review of L’argent (Money). She, however, has had nothing to do with her father, because she was packed off to Plassans after the death of her mother Angèle Sicardot. Clotilde was brought up by Doctor Pascal at his property, La Souleiade, where in his belief that trees grew straight if they were not interfered with, he had allowed her to grow up in her own way, after teaching her merely to read and write.

As Pascal eventually tells her, it was Clotilde’s good fortune to inherit the best of her mother’s side of the family.

“Your mother has predominated in you; you have her fine intelligence, and you have also something of her coquetry, at times of her indolence and of her submissiveness. Yes, you are very feminine, like her. Without your being aware of it, I would say that you love to be loved. Besides, your mother was a great novel reader, an imaginative being who loved to spend whole days dreaming over a book; she doted on nursery tales, had her fortune told by cards, consulted clairvoyants; and I have always thought that your concern about spiritual matters, your anxiety about the unknown, came from that source. But what completed your character by giving you a dual nature, was the influence of your grandfather, Commandant Sicardot. I knew him; he was not a genius, but he had at least a great deal of uprightness and energy. Frankly, if it were not for him, I do not believe that you would be worth much, for the other influences are hardly good. He has given you the best part of your nature, combativeness, pride, and frankness.” (Kindle Location 1608)

When the story opens, Clotilde is a young woman, Pascal’s fond and dutiful secretary.

BEWARE: SPOILERS

It is because Clotilde sorts Pascal’s documents that she comes into conflict with him. A new firebrand preacher convinces her that Pascal’s research is an affront to God’s omnipotence, and egged on by the pious servant Martine and her grandmother Félicité who has her own reasons for wanting to get her hand on those documents, Clotilde first pleads with Pascal to destroy them, and then resolves to do it herself in order to save his soul. Pascal goes through a dreadful period of not being able to relax in his own home because he fears his niece’s newfound religiosity will impel her to burn his papers. He locks everything up, and he hides the key.

For Pascal, the search for truth has been his life’s work.

… Dr. Pascal had only one belief—the belief in life. Life was the only divine manifestation. Life was God, the grand motor, the soul of the universe. And life had no other instrument than heredity; heredity made the world; so that if its laws could be known and directed, the world could be made to one’s will. In him, to whom sickness, suffering and death had been a familiar sight, the militant pity of the physician awoke. Ah! to have no more sickness. no more suffering, as little death as possible! His dream ended in this thought – that universal happiness, the future community of perfection and felicity, could be hastened by intervention, by giving health to all. (Location 457)

Well, after a long period of quiet hostility between them, Clotilde finally gets hold of the key to Pascal’s cupboard, but he surprises her just as she is about to destroy everything. Although Pascal intended never to burden Clotilde with the shameful secrets of their shared Rougon-Macquart family tree, in his rage he now forces her to listen as he explains his theory and how various members of their extended family embody the evil inherited down through the generations from Adelaïde.

Clotilde then begins to see his quest for the truth in a different light, and although the truth about their family history is painful to her, she admires Pascal’s honesty. She begins to share his optimism that perhaps his research might lead to a different outcome for future descendants. Despite their considerable age difference and their incestuous uncle-niece relationship, they fall in love.

Pascal’s mother Félicité is not best pleased about this. Her hard-won middle-class respectability is at threat because the pair show no sign of wanting to get married, and she is very anxious that Pascal’s research not ever be made public. She doesn’t want anyone to know about her boozy brother-in-law Antoine Macquart and her mad mother-in-law Adelaide (Tante Dide) who has been safely hidden away in an asylum for decades.

Although Félicité is not a sympathetic character, her desire for privacy is something with which many of us might identify. Pascal, oblivious to all but his quest for truth, has never considered the impact on his family. Do today’s family historians cheerfully uploading their family trees to the cloud ever stop to consider that for one reason or another, some family members might object?

Ah, those abominable papers! she saw them at night, in her nightmares, revealing in letters of fire, the true histories, the physiological blemishes of the family, all that wrong side of her glory which she would have wished to bury forever with the ancestors already dead! She knew how it was that the doctor had conceived the idea of collecting these documents at the beginning of his great studies on heredity; how he had found himself led to take his own family as an example, struck by the typical cases which he saw in it, and which helped to support laws discovered by him. Was it not a perfectly natural field of observation, close at hand and with which he was thoroughly familiar? And with the fine, careless justness of the scientist, he had been accumulating for the last thirty years the most private data, collecting and classifying everything, raising this genealogical tree of the Rougon-Macquarts, of which the voluminous papers, crammed full of proofs, were only the commentary. (Location 204)

Clotilde and Pascal in their idyll are oblivious to this: Martine the faithful servant keeps Félicité at bay. But Martine cannot protect them from other troubles. Unlike almost everyone else in his grasping, avaricious family, Pascal is not interested in money. His income comes from investments managed by the local notary, and any money he receives from his (mostly impecunious) patients lies untouched in a drawer in the house (apart from when Pascal imprudently buys Clotilde expensive jewellery – which she doesn’t really want anyway). Martine manages the household comfortably on a shoestring, and all is well for a good long time. But eventually greed raises its ugly head once more, and the notary does a bunk with everyone’s money, leaving Pascal ruined.

Félicité (whose money is unaffected) sees her opportunity, but Pascal who is both naïve about money and stubborn about his mother, won’t have her in the house. La Souleiade is almost down to its last potato, when Clotilde gets a call for help from Paris. Her brother Maxime (he of the ‘uncontrollable appetites’ featured in La Curée), is now an invalid, and he wants her help. Clotilde, of course, doesn’t want to go, but Félicité insists it is her duty, and Pascal persuades himself that Clotilde should not be suffering their poverty.

Rougon-Macquart family treeAll this time, of course, Pascal has been getting older, and tragedy strikes while Clotilde is reluctantly doing her duty in Paris. But Félicité doesn’t get exactly what she wants because the novel concludes with Clotilde in possession of the family tree and with the scandalous birth of Pascal and Clotilde’s son. This birth is a sign of hope which contrasts with the five generations of deaths which symbolise an end to the legacy of Mad old Adelaide. She dies, at the age of 105; so does her alcoholic son Antoine Macquart (in a truly nauseating death); and her grandson Pascal Rougon dies after a series of heart attacks. There is also the death of the dissolute Maxime (Adelaide’s great-grandson by Aristide Rougon-Saccard), and of his feeble-minded haemophiliac son Charles.

Clotilde, musing on how her life has turned out, recognises that Pascal was not just being kind in removing her from the toxic environment of her father’s home in Paris, he was ‘experimenting’ too.

It was an old theory of his which he would have liked to test on a large scale: culture through environment, complete regeneration even, the improvement, the salvation of the individual, physically as well as morally. (Loc 4360)

She had flourished in a different environment and ended by becoming a well-balanced and rational woman. The novel ends with Clotilde nursing her babe and it all looks quite promising.

Except that this nameless child is the grandson of Aristide Saccard, and the product of an incestuous relationship, is he not?

Author: Émile Zola
Title: Doctor Pascal
Translated by Mary Jane Serrano (1898)
Publisher: Kindle edition, first published 1893
ASIN: B0084CFOFW
Source: Personal copy, a freebie ‘purchased’ for the Kindle from Amazon.

Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers for the Zola Project.

La Débâcle, by Émile Zola, translated by Elinor Dorday

La Debacle Well, here we are at the penultimate novel in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle, and what a magnificent novel La Débâcle has turned out to be.  Often compared to Tolstoy’s War and Peace it tells the story of how, in Bismarck’s quest to unify a muddle of German states into a united country, he outmanoeuvred the French military and humiliated them in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.  Under his leadership, Germans overran Alsace and Lorraine, besieged Metz, captured Napoleon at Sedan and triggered the fall of the Empire, which led to the Paris Commune of March-May 1871.  It was indeed a debacle for the French, and Zola writes about it from the point-of-view of ordinary soldiers, depicting their courage and their suffering as pawns in a tragedy over which they have no control.

Although I usually skip the introduction in classic novels, I read this one (by scholar Robert Lethbridge) because my knowledge of 19th century wars is somewhat scanty.  I also scrutinised the maps, so usefully provided in this Oxford’s World’s Classics edition because (as with War and Peace) maps clarify events otherwise confusing to readers unfamiliar with the geography of the story.  The maps of La Débâcle show how cunningly the united German forces encircled crucial strategic positions, and how hopeless the French situation so rapidly became.  Far be it from me to advise anyone on military matters, but maybe La Débâcle should be required reading for the French military, at the very least…

According to Zola, who researched this novel thoroughly (including making field trips to the area), the arrogance of the French military was such that they had only maps of the southern German states, because they expected to trounce the enemy on its own soil.  It beggars belief that none of those in command actually had any maps of the French terrain in Alsace-Lorraine where most of the fighting took place.  It’s the locals, like Weiss at Sedan, who can see that orders to retreat to Mézières are sheer madness:

He began to despair, full of remorse that this was precisely the advice he’d given the day before to General Ducrot of all people, who was now in supreme command.  Yes, certainly, the day before that had been the only plan to follow: retreat, immediate retreat through the Saint-Albert gap.  But that route must be blocked by now, for that was where the entire black swarm of Prussians had gone, down below on the Donchery Plain.  And weighing up folly for folly, there was only one left, a brave and desperate measure, which meant chucking the Bavarians into the Meuse and marching over them to pick up the Carignan road.

Hitching his glasses back into place every second or so, Weiss explained the situation to the lieutenant, who was still sitting propped up against the door, both his legs blown off, extremely pale, bleeding to death. (p.187)

With his last breath the lieutenant tells his men to do as Weiss says, and before long

…from every lane, the enemy were being chased into the meadows with bayonets at their backs, causing a scattered flight into the river which would undoubtedly have turned into a rout had there only been fresh troops to back up the marines who were already exhausted and decimated. (p.187)

Not only was there no backup, the incompetence of the leadership meant that the troops were short of weapons and ammunition, horses, firewood to cook with, and worst of all, marching for days on empty bellies.  Seen through the eyes of class enemies who become friends, the peasant-soldier Jean Macquart (the central character in La Terre (Earth), see my review) and the lawyer Maurice Levasseur, hunger becomes visceral.  They share their last biscuits, until Maurice becomes so desperate that Jean gives him the last one, denying himself altogether.

And although the scenes of human suffering are ghastly, it’s not just the men who suffer:

…on the corner of the avenue, [Jean] caught sight of a trooper, a Chasseur, whom he thought he recognised.  Wasn’t that Prosper, the lad from Remilly he’d seen at Vouziers with Maurice?  He’d dismounted and his horse was haggard, wobbly on its feet, suffering from such hunger that it was reaching out to eat the planks of a wagon parked by the side of the road.  For two days now, the stores had issued no feed for the horses, and they were dying of exhaustion.  His large teeth made a rasping noise against the wood, while the Chasseur just stood and cried.  (p151-2)

The Emperor is treated with surprising compassion by Zola.  He appears in different scenes as a kind of wraith, obviously gravely ill, and although surrounded by his entourage, entirely alone.  In the moment of greatest humiliation when he realises that they have lost the war, and that means the end of the empire, he does not even have the authority to surrender to Bismarck.  His order to save his people from further suffering by raising the white flag is countermanded by his most intransigent general, who refuses to face reality.  Napoleon is a pitiful spectre, denied the right to see his brother King William of Prussia until his generals submit to humiliating terms, and made painfully aware of his change in status by the shabby accommodation he now gets.

For the people of Sedan after defeat, there is worse pain than humiliation.  Thousands of French troops are corralled on the peninsula with no provisions or medical help.  Many of them die of hunger or wounds as the Germans take their desultory time to make arrangements for them.  In the town, homes are occupied, and there are desperate attempts to negotiate over the impossible sums demanded in reparations.  When the local thugs take every opportunity to kill the Occupiers, there are brutal reprisals against the townspeople.  The sound of coarse German songs and their guttural language in the streets reinforces their misery every day.

Meanwhile, the enemy’s grip encircles Paris and the siege begins.  Again, the people can’t quite believe that it is happening.  Previous defeats were accidents of fate, they think, and the invincible French army will be resurrected in the provinces and save them.  But as the weeks go by, supplies diminish; the lights go out; there is no fuel for cooking;  rationing fails and hunger becomes the silent killer.  The enemy waits outside, as negotiations for peace begin.  Versailles recognises that surrender to the Prussians is inevitable but in the face of the reality that they have no options left, they haggle for reasonable terms.

In the pages of a history book, the rise of the Commune seems incomprehensible.  As Jean perceives it, it is madness for a country to be in civil war when the enemy is at the doorstep.  But in Zola’s novel, we see in the character of Maurice that the feverish madness which led to the Commune derives from love of country and a desire to rebuild a new nation after the excesses of Empire.  The rebels’ refusal to acquiesce to Versailles’ surrender was fuelled by irrational optimism, a hope that succour must come from somewhere – some provincial army, some helpful ally offering more than mere words, and a belief in the Commune as some kind of avenging angel for all the shames endured, as a liberating force bringing the severing iron, the purifying flame.

For the modern reader, Zola’s novel brings perspective to the 20th century hostilities between France and Germany.  And like War and Peace it reinforces the truth that it is the ordinary people who get caught up in great events who suffer heroically in war.

La Débâcle is a magnificent book.  I don’t see how Zola can possibly surpass it in the last book of the cycle, Doctor Pascal…

Author: Émile Zola
Title: La Débâcle  (The Debacle)
Translated by Elinor Dorday
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics, 2000
ISBN: 9780192822895
Source: Interlibrary loan courtesy of the Melbourne Library Service via Kingston Library.

Availability:

This edition is out of print.  Hopefully OUP will issue a reprint before long.

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

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.

Fat-and-the-Thin_Aegypan_GR02

 

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.

 

Nana, by Émile Zola, translated by Douglas Parmée

Nana Nana (1880) is one of Zola’s many masterpieces in the Rougon-Macquart cycle, no.17 in the recommended reading order.  It follows the spectacular career of the young girl who ran wild at the end of L’Assommoir (1877) (see my review) and was last seen beginning her life as a prostitute, entering high society in a grand carriage as her alcoholic mother dies pathetically in abject poverty.

In Nana she starts out as a showgirl of very little talent in a (fictional) opera called La blonde Vénus at the Théâtre des Variétés, but her beauty makes her the talk of the town.  From the moment she flaunts her gorgeous body on stage, the audience is agog, and the men who fancy her almost batter down the stage door to gain access to her dressing-room.  While she’s not a cunning woman, and she all too often acts against her own best interests, she soon realises that what she needs is a wealthy patron who can set her up in style, and she finds a helpful servant called Zoé to manage the queues so that they don’t bump into each other.

BEWARE: SPOILERS

This ‘good-time-girl’ symbolising the moral corruption of the Second Empire destroys every man who comes her way, and most often their families too.  Her insatiable appetite for extravagance and her inability to manage money even when she’s got a lot of it, means that she expects to be paid lavishly for her charm, and she bankrupts one man after another.  Her first major victim is Steiner, who buys her a lovely house in the country and is thrown over as soon as he bankrupts himself with speculations on the stock exchange…

That idyll in the Loire also brings her into contact with young, naïve Georges Hugon.  He comes from a very respectable old family and his widowed mother is mortified by the sudden presence of Nana and her disreputable friends in her region, but Georges loses his innocence in no time, and so does his brother Philippe who was subsequently despatched to rescue him.  Both of these young men come to a terrible end, leaving Madame Hugon devastated.

Zola paints the indifference of society to the financial carnage with a mocking pen, but he does not spare his readers an insight into more catastrophic consequences.  Vandeuvres has a vast fortune from inheritance which he was busy wasting even before he met Nana.  But by the time Nana has finished with him, his only recourse to recover what he has lost is to gamble vast amounts at the racecourse.  The scandal that ensues after he gets involved in a betting scam sends him to despair, but society moves on.

And so does Nana.  Her most spectacular victim is Count Muffat, a pious and respectable man of old family who loses his head over her and ends up in ruin.  He’s a foolish man, but it’s hard not to feel a little pity for him when he realises that he’s spent his fortune buying Nana’s fidelity to him, but has never had it.  Her mansion in the heart of Paris is, with its red walls and suffocating heat is a holocaust consuming the honour of the whole of [his] ancient house, and in a superb irony, Muffat’s own wife duplicates the décor in his own home as she, too, descends into debauchery.  In a magnificent set scene at his daughter’s extravagant engagement party, Muffat is forced to shake the hand of his rival and Nana’s lover Fouchery to the strains of The Blonde Venus waltz.  Everyone there is aware of Nana’s presence although she is not there in person: she is responsible for the décor, for the music, for Muffat’s choice of future son-in-law and for his forced reconciliation with his wife.

Muffat, long tortured by the qualms of his Catholic conscience, finally recognises his degradation when he stumbles in on his own father-in-law in bed with Nana.  It is from this point on that Zola starts to chart the downfall of all of Nana’s men, and finally, of Nana herself, exhausted by her own inexhaustible folly and greed, and succumbing at the last, to the corruption of smallpox.  Her death is so horrible and so noxious that none but her old rival Rose will care for her; her men stand vigil outside her hotel window, but they are talking of politics, not of love.

It is a pathetic end for a girl who, in the Loire Valley, dreamed of achieving respectability like old Irma d’Anglars, a former Parisian prostitute who lives in a grand chateau bought by a former lover and has reinvented herself as a pious old lady.  Nana had been enchanted by country life, and was ecstatic that her small child could live with her there.  Alas, that idyll among the plants blooming in the rain was interrupted by the arrival of young Georges, and before long her men had followed her from Paris, bringing their sordid demands with them.

She tries family life too, in an impetuous marriage to Fontan.  She sells off her trinkets and abandons her creditors to try life in Montmartre but that soon sours too.  In a rare example of Zola’s writing making me feel very uneasy, there are disturbing scenes of domestic violence.  As you’d expect in this author’s realism, there have been examples of this in his other novels too, but this is the first in which he writes that the abuse makes her more attractive:

But after that evening, their life together grew increasingly stormy.  From one week’s end to the next, there was a constant sound of slaps, regulating their lives like the ticking of a clock.  Nana got so many thrashings that she became as soft as fine linen, her skin delicate, her complexion pure peaches-and-cream, so tender to the touch and so radiant that she looked even lovelier.  (p.231)

I can’t imagine what made him write that, I really can’t.

What is more authentic is that, like many victims of domestic violence, Nana blames herself, and goes to great lengths to please and placate a man who uses any excuse at fault-finding to beat her.   And as is so often the case, those who witness it do nothing – and even Madame Lerat’s advice to leave him is motivated by wanting Nana to return to earning money.  Her submissiveness is in marked contrast to her usual high-handed behaviour, and she ends up having to go back to street work because he won’t give her any money.  It is only when he throws her out, that she finally escapes from this situation*.

Unlike most of the characters in this novel, Nana is a complex character.  (Even Muffat is a bit of a parody).  In some ways she is incredibly naïve, and her hot temper leads her into all sorts of difficulties.  She wants to be well-off and respectable, but because she is so improvident, she throws her chances away, first with Steiner and then with Muffat.  She thrives on her celebrity status, exulting in the cheers of the crowd at the race course when they cheer the winning horse with her name.  She is scatter-brained, quixotic, and extravagant in manner as well as with money, and she takes a perverse pride in ruining her lovers.  But although there is a lesbian affair between her and young Satin, and although she often derides men, Nana often enjoys their company as friends and regards the sexual act as an act of friendship.  (Except for the marriage with Fontan), she is a woman who has agency over her own body and her own career but not in a way that Zola approves.  She is a symbol of French corruption under the Second Empire, and her characterisation has to serve that.

The settings of the novel allow for the juxtaposition of the ‘old’ Paris with the new, showing each time how the vulgar and the brash intrude into polite society.  In grand old houses, in the countryside, at the theatre and at the races, the men straddle both worlds, bringing moral decay with them.  Noticeably, there are no young people offering redemption, only the elderly helplessly deploring the situation.  Even Estelle, the plain young girl who is married off to Nana’s old lover Daguenet, is judged incapable of reforming him, she’s completely insignificant.  And as the novel ends with the declaration of war against Bismarck, even the saucy ladies who came to view Nana’s grotesque body are making plans to save what they can from the coming disaster.

As always with this series of Oxford World’s Classic, the artwork on the cover is an aptly chosen painting.  This one is a detail from ‘The Bath’ by Alfred George Stevens in the Musée d’Orsay, but the image has been reversed.

Author: Émile Zola
Title: Nana
Translated from the French by Douglas Parmée
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics, 2009
ISBN: 9780199538690
Review copy courtesy of Oxford University Press.
Nana

(I also have the illustrated 1956 Folio edition of Nana, but I chose to read this edition because it has a good introduction and a more recent translation.  But the etchings by Vertes in the Folio edition are gorgeous!)

*If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000. For more information about a service in your state or local area download the DAISY App in the App Store or Google Play.

Availability

Fishpond: Nana (Oxford World’s Classics)

Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers

La Bete Humaine (The Beast in Man) by Émile Zola, translated by Roger Pearson

La Bete HumaineOh, this is the best Zola yet!

La Bête Humaine is No 15 in the recommended reading order for the Rougon-Macquart cycle, (and I’ve already read Germinal which is No 16, see my review) so I think I’m in a good position to judge.  This novel has a narrative drive which will have your pulse racing – and the ending, oh! the ending is so powerfully dramatic!

According to the excellent introduction by Roger Pearson, the novel received a fierce critical reaction, including the complaint that there were ‘too many trains and too many crimes’.  That should serve as a salutary reminder for book reviewers that we can be so horribly wrong because now La Bête Humaine is in the 1001 Books canon, and rightly so.

The central idea in the novel is the struggle between man’s primordial instincts and the civilising veneer.  Jules Lemaitre, writing in Le Figaro, was one of those who appreciated Zola’s genius, describing him as ‘the poet of man’s darker side’ whose whole work could be described by the title of this particular novel.  Pearson credits Lemaitre with being the best of the early reviewers of La Bête Humaine because he understood its point:

‘In his latest novel M. Zola examines the most frightening and most mysterious of all primordial instincts: the instinct for destruction and slaughter, and the obscure connection between this instinct and the erotic instinct.’ (p. viii)

The novel is set in the railway community, in 1869-70, along the Paris-Le Havre line.  Rail was well-established by the time Zola wrote this in 1890, and indeed, one crime is averted because of technological safety improvements.  But the tension between the onward rush of progress and the age-old emotions of jealousy and greed plays out into murder and violence no matter how the protagonists struggle against it.

The story begins with a respected train-driver called Roubaud and his wife Séverine, and the murder which propels the novel along was based on a real-life murder of a judge in a first-class compartment.  In those days carriages were self-contained: there were no corridors or connectors and no means of getting between carriages once the train was in motion.  So no one heard a thing, and the culprit was never found.  This notorious murder, and another which highlighted the dangers of travelling alone in a compartment, led to the introduction of footboards which ran along the outside of the carriages, the use of which must have been perilous indeed when the train was hurtling along at 80kph.  Pearson says that Zola was influenced by the celebrated serial killer Jack the Ripper as well.

But La Bête Humaine is not sensationalist tabloid rubbish.  Yes, there are shocking murders, and one of them is triggered by the sexual abuse of a young girl and another, which goes wrong, results in the deaths of many innocent victims.  If you are reading it here in Victoria where there is a Royal Commission into Domestic Violence, you will cringe when you see how neighbours hear and do nothing about the routine beating of women. However La Bête Humaine is also Zola’s  roman judiciare (legal novel) and he uses it to expose the corruption of the judicial system which relied so heavily on patronage.  Monsieur Denizet, the prosecuting magistrate, knows not to rock the boat when an important man gets killed and with his usual forensic dissection of character, Zola shows us how this man manages to justify ignoring inconvenient evidence when it doesn’t match up with his own theories.  Further up the food chain, M. Camy-Lamotte, Secretary General at the Ministry, is too easily swayed by a pretty face and his anxieties about the fluid state of the empire.  (Yes, it was about to fall apart again, in the wake of the disastrous war against Prussia).  My guess is that the authorities would have been none too pleased about what they read about themselves in La Bête Humaine.

But interesting as they are, the insights into the minds of these powerful men are sidelines in a book which offers a masterful psychological analysis of the causes of violent crime.  In all cases Zola invokes the struggle between emotion and reason and the clash of base instincts against knowledge of what is right.  He shows with unnerving clarity how civilised behaviour can so easily be vanquished by inexplicable surges of rage and hatred.  In Jacques, we see the triggers which threaten to overwhelm him when he’s with women.  In Flores, we see the inane logic of jealous impulses.  We see how Mizard justifies his grotesque actions, and we see with Cabouche how easy it is to let an innocent fool take the blame.  We also see how easily crime can be forgotten when its proceeds lead to the desired outcome, how a moral gangrene sets in and leads to further wickedness, but how eventually it haunts the criminal from within.

The metaphor of the train as a symbol of runaway progress is brilliant, and the chapter where Jacques coaxes his locomotive La Lison through the snowstorm is Zola at his absolute stunning best.  This is an heroic struggle of man against nature with technology on his side, but we feel the vulnerability of man when the engine finally fails and the panic-stricken passengers are marooned in the icy-cold desolation of La Croix-de-Maufras.  En route, we are reminded that Jacques at the helm and his drunken fireman Pecqueux are exposed to the elements:

Never before had Jacques experienced such penetrating cold.  Pricked by the myriad needles of the snow, his face felt as though it were bleeding; and he had lost all feeling in his hands, which were stiff and achingly numb, so numb indeed, as he shuddered to realise, that his fingers could no longer feel the little gear-wheel.  When he lifted his elbow to pull the whistle, his arm hung from his shoulder with the dead weight of a corpse.  He could not have said whether his legs were supporting him, amidst the endless jarring and jolting which tore at his entrails.  Immense fatigue had overtaken him in this cold, as its icy grip spread to his skull, and he was afraid of simply ceasing to be, of not knowing any more whether he was driving or not, for already he was merely turning the gear-wheel in mindless, automatic response as he gazed in vacant bewilderment at the falling pressure gauge.  (p.190)

There isn’t a better description of imminent hypothermia in literature until you read the Russians.  (Tolstoy, Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn).  And I am not going to think about the final chapter with the runaway train next time I’m on the TGV!

If you only ever read one Zola, then I recommend this one.  It’s brilliant.

Author: Émile Zola
Title: La Bête Humaine
Translated by Roger Pearson
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics, 1999, reissued 2009
ISBN: 9870199528669
Source: Personal library, purchased from the Book Depository (because I just had to get my hands on a good translation really quickly).

Availability

Fishpond: La Bete Humaine (Oxford World’s Classics)

The Beast in ManPS My first attempt to read this novel was with my copy of the 1956 Elek edition, translated by Alec Brown.  It was unbearable.  The dialogue of the working class characters were like excruciating caricatures.  Within five pages I was checking a French edition to see what had been done with it and I was appalled.  Just don’t.  Don’t.

Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers.

‘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.

Lourdes-Rome-Paris

The Masterpiece, by Émile Zola, translated by Thomas Walton

The MasterpieceFor most of us who know a little about Zola’s life, the man is a hero. He is famous for denouncing the anti-Semitic persecution of Dreyfus, and he’s a literary lion for his championing of a realism which portrayed French life warts and all – and bravely spent a lifetime cocking a snook at the regime into the bargain. But in The Masterpiece he bares his soul and shares the struggle that underlies all work in the creative arts. He shows us the loneliness of innovation and the despair that accompanies the quest to make the object match the imagination. It’s a superb book…

First published in 1886 when Zola was forty-six, The Masterpiece has also been translated as A Masterpiece or His Masterpiece and this is, it seems to me, a rare example of a translated title being better than the original. Zola called this book L’Œuvre, a word which translates somewhat clumsily as ‘the body of work’, (which is why English has appropriated the French word oeuvre as a more elegant option). But Zola’s novel isn’t really about a ‘body of work’ or an oeuvre, it’s more about an artist’s obsession with capturing one symbolic image on canvas, which would be his masterpiece. Perhaps Zola was being ironic…

Anyway, the story begins with the optimistic young Claude Lantier arriving in Paris to take it by storm. The art world was astir with the birth of Impressionism and the Paris Salon was exercising its power to humiliate the brash young artists who created strange ‘unfinished’ pictures of unheroic life. (You can read more about the battle between the conservatives and the innovators in Ross King’s The Judgement of Paris, see my review). Lantier doesn’t care: he is certain that ‘old’ art is dead and that the light-filled beauty of the new will sweep it away. But Lantier, first introduced to readers of the Rougon-Macquart cycle as a very young artist in The Belly of Paris (1873) and briefly alluded to as the son sent away to his uncle in Plassans in L’Assommoir (1877), is the son of Gervaise, as doomed as she is by her fatal flaws. (Click the links to see my reviews).

Zola famously got into strife with this novel because (as Roger Pearson explains in the Introduction) it was interpreted as an attack on impressionism, and Cézanne, Zola’s friend since childhood, severed the friendship over it. And it is true that Zola doesn’t depict the new artworks with any great sense of respect. But like many an outraged friend who thinks his flaws have been depicted in a novel, Cézanne failed to see that Lantier is an amalgam of many people that the author knew. From Cezanne, says Pearson, Zola did derive many aspects of Lantier, but he also drew on what he knew of other contemporary painters including Manet and Monet. Still, Cézanne had some grounds for anger:

As well as being the model for Lantier’s Provençal childhood, Cézanne also provides his physical appearance, his obstinate and volatile temperament, his timidity with women, his vaulting and obsessive artistic ambition, his murderous self-doubt (and tendency to put a fist through his canvases), his growing isolation from his fellow painters and a reputation for being a ‘madman’, his failure to have a painting accepted for the Salon except once (in 1882) as an act of ‘charity’ on the part of a lesser, derivative artist (here Antoine Guillemet* is indeed the model for Fagerolles), and – in common with Manet and the Impressionists – his enduring lack of recognition as an original and talented artist. (Introduction, p. xi)

* Guillemet is an artist now so obscure that he rates only a brief page at French Wikipedia, and apart from listing all the honours he was (so undeservedly) given and the (now forgotten) paintings that he exhibited at successive Salons, it mainly covers his role in having one of Cézanne’s paintings accepted by the Salon jury, of which he was a member.

But the artwork which drew so much derision to Zola’s character Lantier is not attributable to Cézanne, it’s a close description of Manet’s striking Dejeuner sur l’Herbe (which you can see at Nancy’s commentary over at The Books of Émile Zola). While I enjoyed these ‘spot-the-painting’ moments, what interested me more was the struggle to create them, that is, to realise the artistic vision in the imagination with hand, eye, and paint.

But for Lantier, there is also the struggle to survive financially. His small legacy is soon gone, and his imprudent marriage to Christine results in an unwanted and badly treated child. Christine loves him, but she doesn’t understand him, and while she is willing to put up with poverty for his sake, she wishes he would paint saleable pictures. It is only the first of many sad moments when he is reduced to painting commercial commissions in order to put bread on the table…

The confessional aspect of this novel comes in the character of Sandoz. Clearly recognisable as Zola himself, Sandoz is determined to ignore the criticism and produce his series of novels, and he diligently sets about doing so. He works solidly as a journalist to pay his way and support his ailing mother, and as his fortunes rise by contrast with his struggling artist friends, he hosts ‘Thursday’ dinners as much to provide them with a decent meal as to enjoy their company.

As young men, Sandoz and Lantier shared the same dreams and confused ideals:

[Sandoz], too, fell silent. The previous winter he had published his first book, a series of pleasant sketches of life in Plassans, in which a harsh note here and there was the only indication of the author’s revolt, of his passion for truth and power. Since then he had been groping his doubtful way through the mass of still confused notions that besieged his brain. He had started toying with the idea of a gigantic undertaking and had projected an ‘Origins of the Universe’ in three phases: the creation, established according to scientific research; the story of how the human race came to play its part in the sequence of living beings; the future in which beings succeed beings, completing the creation of the world through the ceaseless activity of living matter. He had cooled off, however, when he began to realise the hazardous nature of the hypotheses of this third phase, and was now trying to find a more limited, a more human setting for his ambitious plan. (p, 38)

Lantier muses aloud about his dreams:

‘The ideal would be,’ said Claude after a while, ‘to see everything and paint everything. To have acres of walls to cover, to decorate the railway stations, the market-halls, the town-halls, whatever they put up when architects have at last learned some common sense! All we’ll need then is a good head and some strong muscles, for it isn’t subjects we’ll be short of…. Think of it, Pierre! Life as it’s lived in the streets, the life of rich and poor, in market-places, at the races, along the boulevards, and down back streets in the slums; work of every kind in full swing; human emotions revived and brought into the light of day; the peasants, the farmyards and the countryside…. Think of it! Then they’ll see, then I’ll show ’em what I can do! It makes my hands tingle only to think of it! Modern life in all its aspects, that’s the subject! Frescoes as big as the Panthéon! A series of paintings that’ll shatter the Louvre! (p.38)

Sandoz shares Lantier’s ambition to do something new and to be acknowledged for it, but he differs in personality. His capacity for dogged persistence and to adapt when necessary is in marked contrast to Lantier’s fatal flaws, not least because he is willing to revisit and revise his own work whereas Lantier destroys his out of frustration and keeps having to start again. His quest for perfection dooms him in the end.

The glorious artwork on the cover is a detail from Portrait of Frédéric Bazille, c. 1866, by Auguste Renoir. Bouquets to whoever chooses the artworks for the Oxford World’s Classics series of Zola’s novels, the choices are all just perfect for the titles they represent!

Do read Arnold Bennett’s thoughts on The Masterpiece as well.

The Beast in ManThe Masterpiece is the fourteenth title in my quest to read the entire Rougon-Macquart cycle of 20 novels in the recommended reading order. Next up is The Beast in the Man (La Bête Humaine, 1890) and since there isn’t a nice new edition, I have acquired a splendid old Elek edition (1956) with a characteristically lurid cover to match Zola’s most violent work. I plan to read it in July…

Author: Émile Zola
Title: The Masterpiece
Translated by Thomas Walton (1950), revised by Roger Pearson (1993)
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics, 2006
ISBN: 9780199536917
Review copy courtesy of Oxford University Press

Availability

Fishpond: The Masterpiece (Oxford World’s Classics)

Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers.

 

‘Thérèse Raquin’ by Émile Zola

Zola_Therese-Raquin_Penguin1-fcX-700pxThérèse Raquin by Émile Zola was first published in 1867 and was Zola’s first real success. The story is quite simple and was based on a newspaper article, though F.W.J. Hemmings, in his book The Life and Times of Emile Zola, suggests that Zola took the story from a novel by an acquaitance who had used the original news story as source material. However, Zola changed many aspects of the original story to create his novel.

I’m not going to concentrate too much on the plot itself in this post but I shall give a quick outline for anyone unfamiliar with the book. There are four main characters; Madame Raquin, her sickly son Camille, Camille’s friend Laurent and of course Thérèse Raquin who was adopted by her aunt Madame Raquin. Early on in the novel it is decided that Camille and Thérèse will marry and that the family will move to Paris to open a haberdashery whilst Camille works as a clerk for a railway company. Everything runs along smoothly for a while with the shop and Camille bringing in steady money, the Raquins make some friends and hold a weekly ‘get together’ where they chat and play dominoes. One week Camille comes home with an old schoolfriend, Laurent. In no time at all Laurent and Thérèse are having a passionate affair. No one suspects anything but Laurent and Thérèse soon decide that they are fed up with having to sneak around and that the only solution is to kill Camille. They do this with relative ease whilst out boating on the Seine although in the scuffle Laurent is bitten on the neck by Camille. This is about a third of the way through the novel, the rest of the novel is a fascinating and tortuous account of the mental anguish that Laurent and Thérèse go through following their crime.

I read a Penguin edition translated by Leonard Tancock in 1962. This edition also included Zola’s highly entertaining preface to the second edition in which he defends his book from the cries of disgust from ‘certain virtuous people’. It is believed that Zola himself helped to whip up this storm of moral indignation to help sales. Here’s a quote from the preface to give a flavour of Zola’s style:

The critics greeted this book with a churlish and horrified outcry. Certain virtuous people, in newspapers no less virtuous, made a grimace of disgust as they picked it up with the tongs to throw it into the fire. Even the minor literary reviews, the ones that retail nightly the tittle-tattle from alcoves and private rooms, held their noses and talked of filth and stench. I am not complaining about this reception; on the contrary I am delighted to observe that my colleagues have such maidenly susceptibilities.

In this preface Zola also lays out his intentions both for this book and naturalism itself. He states that in

Thérèse Raquin my aim has been to study temperaments and not characters…Thérèse and Laurent are human animals, nothing more…There is a complete absence of soul.

He then makes the claim that his novel is a scientific study of the psychology of the characters, or rather that character type. When people wish to criticise Zola they often concentrate on his claims that his novels were scientific studies and it must be admitted that Zola’s claims are quite absurd. In this preface he states that while he was writing the book he was just ‘copying life exactly and meticulously’ implying that Zola, the artist, had no involvement in the process whatsoever. I can’t really believe that Zola actually believed in this himself and I largely dismiss it from my mind when reading Zola’s works as the modern reader doesn’t need this pseudo-scientific baggage to justify them as works of art.

I really would urge anyone who has read anything by Zola to read this preface as it’s entertaining, funny and instructive and shows how Zola could write great polemical journalism as well as literature. I find it amusing that Edward Vizetelly, in his preface to the 1901 English translation, calls Zola’s preface ‘a long and rather tedious reply to the reviewers of the day’. Vizetelly is completely wrong, it is only seven pages in my edition and it is highly entertaining. I suspect that by 1901 both Zola and Vizetelly may have been a bit embarrassed by it and probably considered it no longer relevant as it had already served its purpose.

Zola_T-Raquin-illustration-XBW-800pxFollowing the murder of Camille the novel is concerned with the mental anguish of the two lovers, Laurent and Thérèse. It was whilst reading this section that I realised that Zola can be very sadistic towards his characters; he doesn’t let them off the hook but just keeps cranking up the pain and misery for all. He also does this with many of his other characters in other novels, such as L’assommoir for example, or The Masterpiece. When it works, as it does with Thérèse Raquin and L’assommoir it can be fascinating but when it doesn’t it can just be depressing; I would probably put The Masterpiece in this group.

Zola said that Laurent and Thérèse are just ‘human animals’ without a soul, and it’s true that at no point in the book do they ever express any regret or moral scruples over their murderous crime even though they are plagued with nightmares and hallucinations and they are witnesses to the pain that Camille’s mother experiences over the loss of her son. Laurent’s condition is described by Zola:

His remorse was purely physical. Only his body, strained nerves, and cowering flesh were afraid of the drowned man. Conscience played no part in his terrors, and he had not the slightest regret about killing Camille; in his moments of calm, when the spectre was not present, he would have committed the murder over again had he thought his interests required it.

So, the murderers have no qualms about their crime and at no point does anyone suspect them of murdering Camille but they still come to a sticky end. After the murder Laurent and Thérèse are bound to each other, they can’t escape through fear that the other will reveal the crime to the police and they can’t enjoy being together. In the end Madame Raquin becomes aware of their crime but she is unable to do anything about it – you’ll just have to read the book to find out more.

As always with Zola there are many brilliant scenes in this novel. The visits that Laurent makes to the morgue are particularly gruesome (see Dagny’s Exceptional Excerpt) as well as the honeymoon scene involving Camille’s portrait. The final page was excellent as well; after all the misery of the last two-thirds of the novel it ends with a bang! All wrapped up neatly! I actually laughed at the end as I thought it a very comedic ending, specifically when Laurent and Thérèse turn round and look at each other. Did anyone else find it funny?

Finally, I had no intention to get involvced with translation comparisons when I started reading Thérèse Raquin but when I was at the end of chapter 12 something made me look at the Vizetelly translation as well and I was astounded at the difference. Here is Leonard Tancock’s translation of the last paragraph of chapter 12. Laurent has returned home following the murder of Camille:

He was really a little stupified, for his limbs and mind were heavy with fatigue. He went home and slept soundly, but during his sleep slight nervous twitchings passed across his face.

And the Vizetelly translation:

At the bottom of his heart, he was a trifle hebetated. Fatigue had rendered his limbs and thoughts heavy. He went in to bed and slept soundly. During his slumber slight nervous crispations coursed over his face.

Er…what!? Apparently hebetate means ‘to make dull or blunt’ and crispations means ‘any slight muscular spasm or contraction that gives a creeping sensation’.

To be fair I read a few paragraphs of chapter 13 and noticed that the Tancock version had this sentence:

The authorities had not been able to take official cognizance of Camille’s decease.

Whereas the Vizetelly version seems more readable to me:

The decease of Camille had not been formally proved.

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

Please note that Lisa’s review can also be found here.