La Fortune des Rougon was the first book in the Rougon-Macquart series and was published in 1871.
For images of other covers please look on the Images page.
La Fortune des Rougon was the first book in the Rougon-Macquart series and was published in 1871.
For images of other covers please look on the Images page.
The Fortune of the Rougons (La Fortune des Rougon) was originally published in 1871 and is the first book of the Rougon-Macquart series. It contains a lot of background information of many of the characters that appear in the later novels. Despite this, it is not essential to read it first.
The novel takes place in the fictional Plassans, which is the setting for several of the early novels in the series. Apart from the family history, the main plot is about the coup d’état of Louis-Napoleon in December 1851 and how it affects the small town of Plassans. Louis-Napoleon had been voted in as President of France in 1848 following the revolution that ended the monarchy. This creates a three-way split in allegiances of the population of Plassans as well as in the whole of France. Very loosely the aristocracy support the monarchy, the bourgeoisie support the Empire and the workers support the Republic.
There are only two readily available translations of La Fortune des Rougon; Vizetelly’s translation from 1886 and Brian Nelson’s translation from 2012.
Please note that this is a plot summary and therefore full plot developments are revealed.
Set in Plassans, south of France, December 1851. An area of waste-land, which used to be a graveyard, called Aire Saint-Mittre atracts children, gypsies, lovers etc.
A man arrives on the edge of Aire St-Mittre at night carrying a rifle. He hides the rifle and sits on an upturned tombstone. A girl arrives. They are young lovers, he is Silvère and she is Miette. He is planning on leaving to join the Republicans. They walk about in the moonlight wrapped together in Miette’s brown cloak. They walk to the edge of town where they can hear muffled noises which grow louder. It’s the sound of a marching army singing the Marseillaise; they are marching to Plassans. As they pass, Silvère gets emotional. Silvère and Miette race to Plassans via a short cut but arrive at the same time as the army. The men at the head of the army tease Miette viciously about her father who was found guilty of murder. Miette only takes offence when he is also called a thief. Others back her up and she’s affected by the kind words that are now being said about her father. She takes up the banner and turns her cloak inside out to display the inner red lining. She appears to the others as Liberty and they are fired up with enthusiasm. Silvère runs off to get his gun.
Plassans is divided into three groups: the nobility, the bourgeois and the workers. The nobility keep hidden away in their hôtels.
The Foques were a family of market gardeners before the revolution. Adélaïde Foque (b. 1768) became an orphan at eighteen. She was odd and rumoured to be mad. She married a young gardener Rougon, who was coarse and vulgar. After a year they had a son, Pierre Rougon (1787-1870). Rougon died after fifteen months of marriage and Adélaïde took a lover Macquart – he was a drunkard and would often disappear for long periods. She had two children by him: Antoine Macquart (1789-1873) and Ursule Macquart (1791-1840). They lived together in total freedom.
They rolled about on the vegetable patches, spent their days in the open air playing and fighting like little devils.
Adélaïde had fits. A skilled gardener looked after their land; he robbed them shamelessly.
By the age of seventeen Pierre came to see the house and the fortune as legitimately his. He was disgusted with the antics of his family and the thieving of the gardener. Adélaïde grew fearful of Pierre and became increasingly subservient to him. Pierre tried to use this to his advantage. He took over the house’s finances and sacked the gardener. Antoine was conscripted into the army and Pierre refused to buy him out of this obligation. Ursule married a hatter called Mouret and moved to Marseille. Mouret refused any dowry. Pierre suspected a trap.
Pierre now wanted to get rid of Adélaïde, but he would have preferred it if she left of her own free-will. News reached them that Macquart had been killed in Switzerland whilst smuggling watches. Adélaïde moved to his shack leaving Pierre in charge of the house. He now wished to sell the land and marry the daughter of a merchant. His attentions turned to Félicité Puesch, the daughter of an olive-oil dealer who was close to bankruptcy. Their marriage was agreed. His attentions turned to the sale of the land but it was legally his mother’s and Antoine & Ursule still had a claim. He managed to convince his mother to sell the land for fifty thousand francs with the promise of an annuity of six hundred francs.
Félicité and Pierre helped run the family business. After three years Puesch & Lacamp retired leaving the firm in the young couple’s complete control. The next few years were disastrous financially and they were close to liquidation several times. Félicité dreamt of being rich. Thirty years later her father died; she was expecting an inheritance but he had put his money into a life annuity. Pierre put on weight and became lazy and their business scraped by.
Félicité gave birth to three boys and two girls: Eugène Rougon (b.1811) (His Excellency Eugène Rougon); Pascal Rougon (1813-1873) (Doctor Pascal); Aristide Rougon (Saccard) (b. 1815) (The Kill & Money); Sidonie Rougon (b. 1818) (The Kill) mother of Angélique Rougon (The Dream); Marthe Rougon (1820-1864, The Conquest of Plassans)
Félicité gave up on making a fortune herself and now put all her efforts into her sons’ futures. She sent the three boys to the town’s main school which was a drain on the family’s budget. Two studied law, the other medicine. They complained that they had been educated above their station.
At the beginning of 1848 Eugène was nearly forty, portly, slow, languid, but was contemptuous of modest ambitions and fortunes. His heart wasn’t in his law practice. He looked towards Paris for his fortune. In January he moved to Paris sensing that something was about to happen.
Aristide was sly and had a taste for petty intrigue. He was without scruples and wanted to become rich fast. He was Félicité’s favourite son. He lived off his parents when he returned from Paris. He married Angèle, daughter of Commander Sicardot. He lent Pierre the dowry and used it to keep Pierre in his debt for four years. When Pierre repaid his debt Aristide and family moved out. Aristide and Angèle had a son, Maxime (b. 1840, The Kill).
Pascal was the black sheep of the family. He set himself up as a doctor in Plassans after his studies and he enjoyed the life of the provinces. He studied natural history in his spare time. He had few patients but only the poor would go to him. He was unmarried and he was oblivious of the coming events in Paris.
Pierre and Félicité retired in 1845 with forty thousand francs. They rented an apartment, consisting of three rooms. They still dreamt of being rich. Pierre had grown portly and looked wealthy.
The Revolution of 1848 found all the Rougons on the lookout, frustrated by their bad luck, and ready to use any means necessary to advance their cause. They were a family of bandits lying in wait, ready to plunder and steal.
Plassans was essentially conservative and few predicted the coming Empire of Louis-Napoleon. Marquis de Carnavant used to visit the Rougons and was an enthusiastic Royalist supporter. The reactionary meetings started to take place at the Rougons. Others that turned up at the meetings included M. Isidore Granoux, an almond dealer; M. de Roudier, a rich landowner who could talk for hours; Commander Sicardot, Aristide’s father-in-law, who had a dominant personality; M. Vuillet, a bookseller and producer of a bi-weekly newspaper. Rougon became the public leader of the group.
In April 1849 Eugène left Paris to visit his father for two weeks. He attended the meetings but didn’t join in, though he spoke to Sicardot often. Vuillet was suspicious of his presence. Aristide supported the Republicans as he thought they’d win, he wrote in a democratic newspaper critically of the reactionaries in the town which brought approbation from the Rougon group. After meeting Eugène he wasn’t so certain who would win and backed off his support of the Republicans.
Before leaving for Paris on 1st May, Eugène had a long talk with his father. They seemed to have a plan but did not divulge anything to Félicité. Pierre ended up revealing to her their plan of him becoming the receiver of taxes.
News reaches the group about Louis-Napoleon sending troops to Rome to snuff out the recently created Republic. On 10th December Louis-Napoleon was voted in as President. The group broadly supported him, especially Pierre. By the following year the Rougon group had gained popularity as people tired of the Republic. The Marquis sensed that a coup d’état was now inevitable. He spoke to Félicité who realised this also.
It was now the beginning of January 1851. Félicité managed to get a key from Pierre and read the letters he’d been receiving from Eugène. From these letters it was apparent that Eugène was working for Louis-Bonarparte’s cause. She kept her knowledge a secret from Pierre and she worried about Aristide’s support of the Republic. She even managed to get Pascal to attend some meetings.
By the end of November the coup d’état was looking more likely as Louis-Napoleon was accused of seeking the position of Emperor. The Rougon group were now all on the side of the Empire and Sicardot had arms ready. On 1st December a letter arrived from Eugène which stated that the time had arrived, and that Pierre was to tell Félicité everything. However Pierre did not speak to her about it.
On 3rd December the news was officially announced. The mayor and the clergy came out in support of the Empire as it was opposed to their enemy, the Republicans. The democratic sub-prefect resigned and left Plassans. Aristide wrote an article attacking the coup although he visited the Rougons, intrigued with what they were plotting. He overheard Marquis and Félicité discussing recent events. Realising that the coup was going to succeed, he ran to the newspaper’s office and stopped his article being printed. Aristide now had to wait to see who would emerge as victors.
In the next few days revolts occurred in surrounding towns. As the Rougon group met, news reached them that insurgents were on their way. Many left to hide; the commander left to join the his men. Félicité staged a scene where she tried to stop Pierre from leaving. It was agreed that Pierre would stay behind armed with fifty men. After the commander left the rest decided to lay low until it had all blown over. Pierre went to his mother’s to lay low.
Antoine Macquart (half-brother of Pierre) moved to Plassans after the fall of Napoleon. He was idle and drunk and despised anyone that worked for a living. He was furious when he found out that Pierre had taken his inheritance. He went around town telling people how his brother had robbed him of his money. He would hang about outside Pierre’s shop being a nuisance. Eventually Félicité invited him in to discuss it and he eventually settled for two hundred francs, a new set of clothes and a paid apartment for a year. He soon drank his way through the money and couldn’t get any more money out of the Rougons.
Antoine learnt how to plait baskets and hampers so he could earn some money. After ten years of this he was fed up with working. He married Josephine Gauvadin (aka ‘Fine’) who worked at the market. She worked tirelessly whilst he idled away his time. When they drank they would fight. They had three children: Lisa Maquart (1827-1863, The Belly of Paris); Gervaise Macquart (1828-1869, L’Assommoir) and Jean Macquart (b. 1831, The Earth & Debacle). Gervaise was conceived when they were drunk; she was tall and lanky and had a limp. Jean was dull but liked to study. Lisa worked as a maid and moved to Paris in 1839 with her employer. Once Gervaise & Jean were earning money, Antoine had no scruples with living off them as well as Fine. Gervaise & Fine would drink anisette together when Antoine was out of the way.
Antoine supported the Republic as a way to get his revenge on society and the Rougons. Once the Rougons were trying to establish their position among the reactionaries Antoine was a source of embarrasment to them. Antoine, of course, enjoyed causing them embarrasment. He even threatened to publish the story of how Pierre had robbed his mother.
Antoine tried to find accomplices in his attacks on the Rougons. Aristide was wary of him. Meanwhile, his sister, Ursule and her husband, Mouret, were happy running their business. Ursule died in 1839 and Mouret later killed himself. Of their children, Francois (1817-1864, Conquest of Plassans) was employed by Pierre and he married Pierre’s daughter Marthe (1820-1864, Conquest of Plassans) . Silvère was taken in by Adélaïde (Tant Dide). Antoine tried to bend Silvère to his way of thinking. Silvère and Tant Dide were very fond of each other though a little distant. He would watch over her when she had one of her fits. Silvère was serious and largely self-taught, he became an apprentice to a wheelwright. He read Rousseau and considered himself a Republican. Antoine and Silvére would meet and talk politics and Antoine would try to turn him against the Rougons.
At the beginning of 1850 Fine died. Antoine sold many household items to raise cash, then turned to the children’s earnings. A month later Gervaise ran off to Paris with Lantier and her two children, Jean soon followed. He half-heartedly started making his baskets again.
Once the uprisings started in nearby towns after the coup Antoine saw his chance. He joined a group in the main square in Plassans and persuaded them to go to the Rougons house as they were enemies of the Republic. They couldn’t find Pierre as he had left (see end of Ch. 3). The main group from the other town entered Plassans at 11 o’clock and marched to the main square. They confronted the mayor and commander but quickly overcame them.
Silvère got involved in a tussle with a gendarme (Rengade) who was teasing Miette. Silvère believed that he had killed the gendarme and fled to his house, he didn’t notice that Pierre was there at first. Pierre tried to stop Silvère from leaving but Silvère pushed him out of the way as he returned to Miette and the other insurgents. As the insurgents were preparing to leave town Antoine persuaded them to leave him twenty men with which he could try to control Plassans.
The insurgents leave Plassans to Orchères. By daybreak Miette is exhausted. Silvère convinces her to pass the banner to someone else and to take a short cut to Orchères so that they can take a rest. They talk and kiss when they’re alone.
Miette was nine when her father was tried for murder. She ended up living with her aunt, Eulalie Chantegreil and her husband Rébufat and Miette’s cousin, Justin. Her aunt died when Miette was eleven. Rébufat treated her like a farm labourer. They would tease her about her father. The well in the yard of Aunt Dide’s house was connected to the Foques’ property and could be used from both sides. One day the pulley broke when Silvère was using it and when he later built a new one he had to climb on the wall, from where he spotted Miette. They eventually spoke and got to know each other. They started to meet at the well by viewing each other’s reflection in the well via an aperture on each side of the dividing wall. Justin started to suspect something was going on, but he didn’t know what. They tired of seeing only each other’s reflections though. Silvère noticed the door that Macquart and Adélaïde had made and so he hunted for the key to this door in his house and eventually found it. He surprised Miette the following day by sticking his head round the doorway; they held hands and talked. Turning round Silvère was surprised to see Aunt Dide standing in the doorway, she had come to the well at that time by chance. It had been so long since she’d been there and there had been so many changes that she didn’t recognise the place. She then recognised Silvère and became distressed. Without speaking she took him by the hand, led him back to their side and threw the key into the well.
That evening Tante Dide had another attack. They didn’t use the door again but instead they started meeting at Aire Saint-Mittre where they continued to meet for two years. They also rambled over the countryside at night. For a while during the summer they swam in a stream where Silvère taught Miette how to swim. When their rambling tired them they would return to the Aire St-Mittre. One night Miette uncovered a tombstone where they could only make out some of the inscription, which read: ‘Here lies…Marie…died…’. (Miette’s real name was Marie).
Silvère and Miette had slept peacefully. They set out on their way to Orchères to join the insurgents. The insurgents are welcomed in Orchères. Silvère bumps into Dr. Pascal. News reaches the insurgents that events in Paris has gone against the republicans. They stay two more days in Orchères befoe the decision is made to leave. Before they could leave news reaches them that an army of soldiers is approaching. The fighting starts, some men flee. Miette is shot, she clutches her breast and falls, Silvère stays with her. Pascal arrives as Miette breathes her last breath; he pronounces her dead. Meanwhile the insurgents are being massacred. Eventually a gendarme appears and drags Silvère away from Miette.
At five in the morning Rougon leaves his mother’s house. It seems like the city is dead. He is concerned that he’s lost his chance. On returning home he sees a silhouette of his wife in the window involved in a struggle. The key to the shed containing the arms is thrown to him on to the pavement. He rounds up Roudier and Granoux. He finds out from them that the insurgents left during the night. They round up thirty-nine men, collect the arms from the shed and march to the town hall. They find the guards asleep and go inside. Macquart is in the mayor’s office waiting for the insurgents to return. Rougon storms the office, in the tussle Rougon’s gun goes off and the bullet damages a mirror. Macquart is taken prisoner. Rougon issues a proclamation to the town and then returns to Félicité. It is dawn and they talk and dream of their future successes. Others arrive and praise Rougon Only Viuillet is missing but he soon arrives. He had installed himself in the post office during the chaos. They recount the heroic acts of the militia and the breaking of the mirror. Rougon leaves to go to the town hall.
By ten o’clock news of the events has spread through Plassans. News that Rougon has arrested his own brother and that the events had been achieved with only forty-one people was astonishing. The Rougons are applauded as model citizens. Félicité spots Aristide and tries to convince him to join them but he is still unsure who has the upper hand. Rougon takes over the mayor’s office, he visits the injured, including Rengade. People believe that the soldiers will arrive to save them, however by evening they are imagining that the insurgents are on their way. Vuillet is unwilling to print a paper fully supporting the Empire’s position as he is unsure how events will turn out. As rumours of insurgents continued, Rougon takes the others to Carnavant’s mansion which has a view over the surrounding area and where they stand watch throughout the night.
By morning everyone’s spirits are low. The gates are closed at midday. Rumours circulate that the coup d’état has failed and Rougon and Félicité are beginning to despair. They wonder why Eugène hasn’t written to them with news. They see a copy of Vuillet’s Gazette which attacks the insurgents violently and realise that only that morning he was too scared to print anything against them. Why the sudden change? Félicité goes to see Vuillet at the post office and as she suspected he had intercepted a letter from Eugène announcing the success of the coup d’état. Félicité makes a deal with Vuillet – his ambitions are low as all he wants is to be able to supply the college with books.
Félicité returns home with the intention of getting revenge on Pierre over the letters. She pretends that she believes that everything is lost. Pierre blows into a rage and blames his whole family and he eventually reveals that he’s been getting letters from Eugène. Rougon has an idea to regain control.
The next day Félicité goes to the town hall to speak to Macquart. Macquart had got used to living in luxurious surroundings and his enthusiasm for the Republic is waning. Macquart agrees, in return for a thousand francs and freedom, to lead remaining Republicans in the town to the town hall where they will be ambushed. Rougon returns to the town hall. In town the tension is high. Granoux arrives at the town hall in the evening to support Rougon. Félicité convinces Aristide that the Republicans’ cause is lost. Macquart hides out at his mother’s house until the evening. He rounds up fellow republicans and marchs on the town hall where they are ambushed. The noise wakes up the town and many people think that the insurgents have entered the town. Granoux rings the tocsin. There are four corpses in the town hall which are left there for the town to see in the morning. The townspeople are now grateful for Rougon for defending them from an attack by insurgents. An army has arrived outside of town under Colonel Masson and M. de Blériot. Masson and Blériot enter the town to reassure the population. Aristide has written a pro-Empire edition of l’Independent. Blériot congratulates Rougon and Granoux publicly.
The following Sunday the troops came back via Plassans. They had been involved in a recent massacre at Saint-Roure. A terror campaign is in full swing. Eugène writes that Rougon will receive the Legion of Honour and receivership of the taxes. They decide to celebrate by inviting other dignitaries to dinner. Rougon goes to his mother’s house where he meets Macquart and Pascal. Aunt Dide is on the bed raving. Macquart recalls that Aunt Dide had gone out for brandy and returned in a state of shock. Pascal tries to get Rougon to release Silvère. He pays Macquart and leaves to return home, to the dinner. Aristide and Rougon make peace.
People toast Rougon’s bravery and his upcoming decoration. At one point Félicité asks Aristide if he has any news of Silvère, whereupon he reveals how he was shot by Rengade: When the troops had returned they started massacring republicans at the Aire Saint-Mittre. People were beaten and shot. Rengade found Silvère amongst the prisoners and took him to be shot. Silvère was still in a daze. He was taken to the path near the tombstone where he used to go with Miette. Whilst kneeling, waiting to be shot he saw Justin watching from the wall and thought he saw Aunt Dide at the end of the path facing him. Then Rengade shoot him.
That evening the Rougons carry on enjoying their popularity. They toast the Emperor and decorate Pierre with a strip of satin in anticipation of his real decoration.
The Kill (1871-2) is the second novel in the publication chronology of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle, but it is third in the recommended reading order. It’s the story of ‘uncontrollable appetites’ let loose by the Second Empire, and where His Excellency Eugene Rougon (1876) is about the lust for power, The Kill is about the lust for money and the lust for pleasure. For the main male characters, Saccard and his son Maxime, these drives for excess derive from their Rougon heredity: all the legitimate offspring of the matriarch, mad Adélaïde Fouque, prosper – but at a cost. They are upper-class, educated, ambitious and generally successful but they are characterised by a lust for power, money, and excess. Renée, brought into this milieu by her marriage to Saccard and her love affair with her stepson Maxime, shares this love of excess through the influence of a domestic environment which – in Haussmann’s new Paris – has no boundaries.
The Oxford Classics edition has an introduction by its translator, Melbourne’s own Professor Brian Nelson of Monash University. As I found before when reading The Ladies Paradise, the introduction is well worth reading for the way in which it illuminates Zola’s wider concerns. In particular, he explains the political significance of Haussmann’s Paris. Napoleon III set up this program of modernisation for the city in order to establish his authority and to legitimise his rule – he had been elected President in 1848 but staged a coup d’état in 1851, assuming the dictatorial powers of an emperor when in fact his only claim to any throne was that he was the nephew of Napoleon I. He needed to impress.
The slum clearances, the widening of the boulevards, and the beautification of the city were not merely to glorify the empire and to make it the preeminent city of Europe: crucially, these rationalisations were also about social and political control. Nelson’s introduction explains:
In the revolutions of 1789, 1830, and 1848, the barricade had been a potent weapon of resistance in the dense, rabbit-warren streets of the working-class slums. Haussmann’s straight boulevards and avenues linked the new barracks in each arrondissement, thus allowing the rapid deployment of troops in the case of insurrection. Many of the new streets were designed to cut through the densest and most politically hostile districts of Paris. Haussmann admitted quite candidly that one of his aims was to control the unruly and ungovernable poor. He was a great respecter of authority, and saw the keeping of order as one of his main duties. For him there was little difference between this kind of control and the improvement of the city’s sanitation; it was simply another form of hygiene. (p. xii)
The relevance of the Haussmanization of Paris for this novel is that it enabled the emergence of property speculation. The project was funded by the government compulsorily acquiring all the private land on either side of the route of the new boulevards, (displacing hundreds of thousands of people), and then selling it off to property speculators. Developers then built apartment blocks to precise new building regulations, providing new and better housing but at much higher rents. It was all ‘fantastically expensive’ and the financing was expedited by a ‘mixture of direct grants, public loans and ‘creative accounting’, using all the apparatus of the emerging capitalist system and causing ‘wild speculation in real estate and public works’ which included ‘expansion of the railways and in the coal and iron industries’.
The title of the novel in French, La Curée, is a hunting term: it means the scrap of prey tossed to the hounds after they’ve run it to the ground and Zola used it to represent the ‘scramble for political spoils and financial gain that characterized the Second Empire’. Zola’s Saccard embodies this insatiable excess and greed. The Kill is rich in metaphor: the city, animality, appetites, fire, water, disorder and madness (p. xxii) but it’s the images of the theme of gold and flesh which will startle readers even today. Money and sex, and no boundaries for either of them…
Towards the end of the novel, when Maxime has tired of Renée and is about to succumb to an arranged marriage because it improves his financial status (and the girl is conveniently doomed to an early death because of consumption), Zola depicts the conspicuous excess that defined the corruption of Parisian society. Everyone who is anyone turns up at the Saccard mansion for a series of tableaux, a lavish form of entertainment usually based on scenes from well-known myths or plays. It is followed by an extravagant ball.
The tableaux is an adaptation of the myth of Narcissus and Echo. The director is a Prefect, M Hupel de la Noue, and he has spared no expense in exercising his intellectual pretensions (though it’s not in very good taste). It stars Maxime as Narcissus dressed as a hunter in search of prey and Renée dressed in a scanty outfit as Echo, who is trying unsuccessfully to seduce him. In the first scene she takes him to Venus in the hope that Venus will help her, but he is disdainful. In the second scene she tries to tempt him with the riches of Plutus but that fails too. In the third scene, Plutus and Venus take their revenge, turning Narcissus into a flower, leaving Echo to die, her love thwarted. There’s a lot of gold and a lot of flesh on display.
On top of this pile of gold sat Madame de Guende as Plutus, a female Plutus with generously displayed breasts set in the great stripes of her dress, which represented all the metals. Around the god, erect, reclining, grouped in clusters, or blooming apart, were posed the fairy-like flora of the grotto, into which the caliphs of the Arabian Nights seemed to have emptied their treasures. Madame Haffner as Gold, with a stiff, resplendent skirt like a bishop’s cape; Madame d’Espanet as Silver, gleaming like moonlight; Madame Lauwerens in bright blue, as a Sapphire; and by her side little Madame Daste, a smiling Turquoise in the softest blue; then there was an Emerald, Madame de Meinhold; a Topaz, Madame Tessière; and lower down, the Comtesse Vanska, lending her dark ardour to a Coral, recumbent, with raised arms loaded with rosy pendants, like a monstrous, seductive polyp displaying a woman’s flesh amongst the yawning, pink pearliness of its shell. All of these ladies wore necklaces, bracelets, sets of jewels formed of the precious stones they impersonated. Especially noticeable were the jewels worn by Mesdames d’Espanet and Haffner, made up entirely of small gold and silver coins fresh from the mint. In the foreground the story remained unchanged: Echo was still tempting Narcissus who continued to reject her overtures. (p. 217)
In between the scenes, the men in the audience talk business and politics, relating one financial scandal after another so that the reader is left in no doubt that the entire edifice of Parisian wealth is based on a speculative ‘house of cards’. After the tableaux, there is a monstrous ball. Renée reappears dressed up as a Tahitian, wearing very revealing tights and a transparent blouse which leaves nothing to the imagination. Some of the ladies are a bit shocked, most think it’s a great joke, and (of course) the men are all delighted. The house is decorated as if it’s a forest, and the musical instruments are mostly brasses i.e. an allusion to hunting horns. The guests hurl themselves after the food, grabbing, gorging, and ‘capturing it’ in the crush of greedy gluttony. There is a sequence of dances in which the men as hunters go after the women as prey. It’s all very undignified and vulgar and everyone ends up dishevelled and drunk.
As Nelson explains, Zola uses the sense of disorientation in the new city and the way the boundary between domestic and public life has been blurred to illuminate the way that the architecture of family life collapses along with the demolished buildings. The perversion of the characters represents the diseased society: people – especially women – have become commodities. And as Balzac so often also noted, the marketplace rules, and women and their ‘dot’ (dowries) are part of the apparatus of a man with social and economic aspirations.
The tone of the novel is rather lofty: Zola has no affection for any of these characters, not even poor little consumptive Louise, who is the nearest there is to an innocent. Zola provides a tragic back story which accounts for some of Renée’s salacious behaviour, but there is little compassion for her and the author can’t resist telling us that her only legacy is a massive couturier’s bill. Indeed, the heroine of this story is someone the reader will barely notice, a prudent, discreet woman who saves up her earnings so that she can abandon Paris to its corruption. Yet even she is corrupt, in turning a blind eye to behaviour that would generate strong disapproval even in the anything-goes 21st century!
The translation by Brian Nelson is excellent. Trust me, if you want to read Zola, it is worth paying for a modern translation and a reader-friendly introduction that sets the work in context. Check out Nelson’s style with a short intro to Zola’s intentions at the OUP Classics blog.
PS Oxford is just about to release its latest Zola translation in its Oxford World’s Classics series: Money, the 18th novel in the Rougon-Maquart cycle. The translator is Valerie Minogue, and this edition will be the first unabridged i.e. uncensored edition in English. Valerie Martin is the President of the Émile Zola Society in London, and the novel is due for release on March 13th 2014.
Author: Émile Zola
Title: The Kill Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford University Press, 2004, reissued 2008
Source: Personal copy, purchased from the Book Depository, $13.83
This commentary is by Lisa Hill, and cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers.
After I read Germinal a couple of years ago (see my review), Émile Zola became one of those authors that I really wanted to read more of, but it was not until I saw the BBC series based on The Ladies’ Paradise and read the novel (see my review) that I decided to begin a long-term project to read them all. I’ve enjoyed reading this one, The Fortune of the Rougons, which puts the whole sequence into perspective.
With Les Rougon-Macquart, Zola apparently set out to emulate Balzac’s La Comedie Humaine but his 20-volume cycle differs in two significant ways: it consists of novels rather than short stories and novellas, and it focusses on a single family rather than a whole society. Zola believed in the fatalistic effects of heredity and environment, and so the novels trace three branches of the Rougon-Macquart family: the aspirational Rougons, always on the hunt for wealth and position; the Mourets, who are bourgeois tradesmen and provincials; and the low-born Macquarts who are industrial workers. (Or worse).
The Fortune of the Rougons charts the lives of the first generation. (There’s a helpful family tree at Wikipedia). Adélaïde Fouque (Aunt Dide) – who is a bit loopy, has three children: Pierre Rougon, the legitimate son of her long deceased labourer husband, and Antoine and Ursule who are the children of her liaison with the smuggler Macquart. By the end of the novel Pierre and his ambitious wife Felicité Puech have with a mixture of good luck and cunning overcome their disadvantages and achieved their destiny as influential leaders in the town. Ursule (who marries Mouret) and the drunken layabout Antoine have been swindled out of their inheritance, and are relegated to their respective paths in life.
The novel begins with the naïve idealism of a young couple who have enlisted in the doomed insurgency that led to the December 1851 coup d’état that created the French Second Empire under Napoleon III. (Fortunately, the reader does not need to know much about the interminable revolutions of this period, but if you are keen, you can start at Wikipedia, or try A Traveller’s History of Paris by Robert Cole which has the only explanation I’ve ever enjoyed reading.) Ursule’s son Silvère Mouret and Miette have been sweet on each other since childhood, and they are out canoodling around the periphery of the town when they are swept up into the insurgency. The rude comments of some of the militia reveal that both have grubby forebears, particularly Miette whose father, a poacher, was executed for killing a gendarme. This unpleasantness doesn’t, however, deter Miette from joining the compatriots: in a scene reminiscent of Delacroix’s Liberty Guiding the People she takes up the role of flag bearer so that she can be with Silvère, and off they go. While Zola’s sympathies are obviously with the rebels and against the cynical government in Paris, I wondered whether this allusion was meant to suggest that as things turned out politically in this period, Liberty herself was alas, as naïve as Miette was.
In the next chapter Zola then abruptly abandons these two to tell the story of the Rougons, launching into Adélaïde’s imprudent marriage to Rougon. Adelaide was the daughter of a market gardener, and could have made an advantageous marriage even in Plassans where the options are limited, but no, she fancied Rougon who was a labourer on her father’s land. After his death she formed an eccentric liaison with the alcoholic Macquart and bore him the two children, Antoine and Ursule, before he disappeared and died as well. Pierre resents having to share his inheritance with these two and cunningly arranges affairs so that he doesn’t have to (which isn’t hard because by now Adelaide is well-and-truly unhinged).
Antoine never lets Pierre forget the swindle, much to Pierre and Felicité’s embarrassment. For with money behind him Pierre makes an aspirational marriage and they soon set about ingratiating themselves with their ‘betters’, a tactic which isn’t helped by the drunken Antoine casting accusations at them whenever he gets the opportunity. In this way Zola reinforces the town’s doubts about the legitimacy of Pierre and Felicité’s position throughout the novel, culminating in the closing paragraph with overt symbolism to show that they have blood on their hands, thus making a veiled critique of the legitimacy of Napoleon III’s crown.
As to the next generation, Pierre’s three children are a disappointment. They are educated, thanks to Felicité’s ambition, but without any capital behind them, they get nowhere. Only their middle child, the doctor Pascal turns out to have any integrity, the others are stupid and lazy. It’s just luck that Eugene turns out to have some useful insider information that facilitates Pierre’s elevation to hero and saviour of the town. (He’s awarded the Legion of Honour, no less!)
Zola’s theory was that refinement came through the female line and certainly Felicité is the brains behind Pierre’s triumph. Their shenanigans are portrayed with great comic irony by Zola, setting Pierre up as a small-time Napoleon in a mock-epic drama – with Felicité as his Josephine. As to Silvère and Miette, well, I’m not going to give out spoilers – but some readers may need a hankie…
According to Zola’s recommended reading order (which isn’t the same as the publication order) I’m supposed to read Son Excellence Eugène Rougon next … but I need some advice about which translation to get because Brian Nelson hasn’t done that one.
Commentary by Lisa Hill, 18/11/11 and cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers
Author: Émile Zola
Title: The Fortune of the Rougons
Translated by Brian Nelson
Publisher: Oxford World Classics, Oxford University Press, 2012
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Fishpond $13.64
Fishpond:The Fortune of the Rougons (Oxford World’s Classics)
Book Depository: The Fortunes of the Rougons (Oxford World Classics)