It was a disappointment when, back in 2016 when I read the last of Zola’s great Rougon-Macquart series, Doctor Pascal was not available in a modern translation. I ended up reading a 2012 Virago Press Kindle edition which was translated in 1898 by Mary Jane Serrano (c. 1840 – 1923). Serrano was primarily a translator of Spanish but she also translated from French and Portuguese, and I read her translation in preference to the 1894 edition translated by Ernest Vizetelly or the Elek edition translated by Vladimir Kean in 1957. It really is quite remarkable that it has taken so long for a modern translation to become available but Oxford World’s Classics has at last completed its project to publish the entire Rougon-Macquart series in modern translations, and Doctor Pascal is now available translated by Julie Rose with an accompanying introduction and notes by Brian Nelson.
Australian Julie Rose is a world-renowned translator of French literature. She is a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres and has translated Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, as well as works by Dumas, Moliere, Racine, and Marguerite Duras. (See Australians lead the way in French translation (smh.com.au). You can see the difference in style from Serrano in this excerpt:
|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. (Doctor Pascal, translated by Mary Jane Serrano, 1898, Chapter 1, Kindle Location 204)||Ah! She saw those abominable files, at night, in her nightmares, setting out in letters of fire the true stories, the physiological defects of the family, the whole seamy side of its glory that she would have liked to bury once and for all, along with the ancestors already dead! She knew how the doctor had got the idea of putting those documents together when he first embarked on his great studies on heredity, how he’d been led to take his own family as an example, struck by the recurring cases he noted in it and which supported the laws he’d discovered. Wasn’t it a perfectly natural field of observation, one right there in front of him, which he knew all about firsthand? And with the robust disinterestedness of a scientist, he had spent the last thirty years accumulating the most intimate information on his nearest and dearest, gathering and classifying everything, drawing up this Rougon-Maquart Family Tree, of which the voluminous files were merely a commentary, stuffed with proofs. (Doctor Pascal, translated by Julie Rose, 2020, Chapter 1, p.16-17|
Likewise, you can see how much more readable the modern translation is in this excerpt from Chapter 2.
|… 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. (Doctor Pascal, translated by Mary Jane Serrano, 1898, Chapter 2, Kindle Location 457)||… Doctor Pascal had only one belief: the belief in life. Life was the sole manifestation of the divine. Life was God, the great engine, the soul of the universe. And life had no instrument other than heredity, heredity made the world; which meant that, if you could only understand it, harness it so as to control it, you could make the world however you liked. Because he’d seen sickness and suffering up close, a doctor’s militant compassion was stirring inside him. Ah, to stop people getting sick, stop suffering , to keep people alive as much as possible. His dream ended in the thought that you could spur on universal happiness, the future city of perfection and bliss, by intervening and ensuring health for all. (Doctor Pascal, translated by Julie Rose, 2020, Chapter 1, p.16-17|
But, as I have said so many times before when lauding this OUP series, it is not only that the new translations don’t betray Zola’s work with self-censoring excisions and abridgements or inaccuracies. It is not only that contemporary translations avoid the florid prose of the 19th century Vizitelly editions or the dated expressions in the Elek editions. The OUP series all come with introductions that set the series and the individual title in context. Brian Nelson, Professor Emeritus of French Studies at Monash University and author of, amongst other works of literary criticism, Émile Zola a Very Short Introduction (2020) has done eleven of these introductions and I credit the one he wrote for The Ladies Paradise as the catalyst for my entire Zola Project.
The introduction for Doctor Pascal introduces Zola as
…the quintessential novelist of modernity, understood as a time of tumultuous change. The motor of change was the rapid growth of capitalism, with all that it entailed in terms of the transformation of the city, new forms of social practice and economic organisation, and heightened political pressures. Zola was fascinated by change, and specifically by the emergence of a new mass society. (p.vii)
For those entirely new to Zola, the Introduction explains how the three branches of the Rougon-Macquart family represent layers of society in 19th century France, and how the series as a whole is an assault on bourgeois morality and institutions. Zola was above all else, committed to the value of ‘truth’ in art and his belief that the writer must play a social role:
to represent the sorts of things—industrialisation, the growth of the city, the birth of consumer culture, the workings of the financial system, the misdeeds of government, crime, poverty, prostitution—that affect ordinary people in their daily lives. (p.vii)
I can think of no living writer doing the same thing to the extent that Zola did.
If you’re not familiar with Doctor Pascal you can read my review to get a grasp of the novel, but to understand its place in the series you need to read Nelson’s explanation of the climate of ideas in France in the mid- and late nineteenth century. Over the course of his career Zola weathered changes in the intellectual climate, from the middle decades of the 19th century when science not only acquired enormous intellectual prestige as the principal, or even the sole, model for the creation of true knowledge, to a reaction against it. The entire Rougon-Macquart series is predicated on Zola’s belief in a ‘scientific’ form of realism which he called ‘naturalism’. His characters act the way they do because they inherit behaviours from the inexorable laws of their physical nature. So Doctor Pascal aims to counter the emerging distrust of science and the growing mood of pessimism during the fin de siècle.
It’s also a very personal novel because it transposes intimate aspects of Zola’s own life. Pascal, he says, is a surrogate of of Zola.
Pascal may thus be seen as Zola’s double in philosophical, writerly and autobiographical terms.
Most importantly, Zola wanted to respond to critics who dismissed his work as morbid because of its dark themes. He wanted to demonstrate his essential optimism, i.e. a myth of catastrophe is opposed by a myth of hope.
The translator’s note clarifies how much I missed by reading an earlier translation. (I’ve pruned this a little to avoid spoilers.)
Both Serrano and Vizetelly cut sexual material from the text.[…] Yet even Kean, cutting nothing and writing with such uninhibited modernity, can be censorious, as when he described the doctor’s ‘sordid escapades with the first loose women he met’ in Marseilles, adding the adjectives ‘sordid’ and ‘loose’ and thereby providing a judgement Zola carefully refrains from making. (p. xxii)
In my previous reading of Doctor Pascal, I had missed entirely a significant aspect of the relationship between MaÎtre Pascal and his disciple Clotilde.
Julie Rose thanks Judith Luna as the guiding spirit of the Zola retranslation program for Oxford’s World’s Classics, and I do too. It’s a different book when it’s translated for our times.
Author: Émile Zola
Title: Doctor Pascal Translated by Julie Rose (2020)
Introduction and Notes by Brian Nelson (2020)
Cover illustration: detail from Sous la lampe, 1887, by Marie Bracquemond
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics, OUP (Oxford University Press), 2020, first published in 1893,
ISBN: 9780198746164, pbk., 296 pages (not including the Explanatory Notes at the back of the book)
Source: Review copy courtesy of OUP.
Cross-posted at ANZLitlovers