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.

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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).

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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.

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

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Fishpond: The Masterpiece (Oxford World’s Classics)

Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers.

 

Exceptional Excerpts: A Love Affair

A Love Affair was originally published as Une Page d’amour in 1878. It’s probably considered one of the minor books of the Rougon-Macquart series but I was pleasantly surprised when I read it. As with many of these lesser known books of R-M, Zola likes to experiment with the structure and he often has a limited number of characters. A Love Affair is split into five parts and each part is split into five chapters; the end chapters are often highly descriptive and impressionistic, they sometimes have a cinematic feel to them. Chapter Five of Part Four is one such piece; it reminded me a bit of Polanksi’s Repulsion or the obsessiveness of Proust.

I would liked to have included the whole chapter as the excerpt but that may have been considered a bit excessive. The chapter would work well as a stand-alone short story and as such little background details of the novel is needed to read it. Jeanne is a sickly twelve-year old girl who has been left alone in her apartment by her mother, Hélène, an attractive young widow. Hélène has left Jeanne on her own in order to meet up with her lover Henri.

The chapter opens thus:

Jeanne sat staring at the door, very unhappy, at her mother’s abrupt departure. She turned to look around her; the room was empty and silent, but she could still hear noises going on, footsteps hurrying away, the rustle of a skirt, the landing door slammed violently. Then the noises stopped. And she was alone.
All alone, all alone. Her mother’s wrapper, casually flung down, was sprawling on the bed, the skirt spread out, one sleeve lying across the bolster, in the curiously crushed attitude of somebody who had collapsed there sobbing, emptied, as it were, by boundless grief. Underclothes lay strewn about, a black fichu made a patch of gloom on the floor. And she was all alone in the untidy room, where the chairs had been pushed about and the table thrust in front of the wardrobe; and she felt tears choking her as she looked at that wrapper, with her mother no longer in it, stretched out in corpse-like thinness. She clasped her hands and shouted for the last time: `Maman, maman !’ But the blue velvet curtains muffled her cry. It was all over, she was alone.

Jeanne is bored, she has nothing to do except feel very sorry for herself. She looks at her doll and ponders:

…and Jeanne started vaguely dreaming about all the people she had loved, since she had first come into the world. Her oldest, dearest friend in Marseilles had been a huge, heavy ginger cat; she used to pick it up with both her arms clutched round its stomach, and carry it thus from chair to chair, and it never got cross; then it had disappeared, and that was the first cruel thing she could remember. Then she had had a sparrow, and that had died; she had picked it up one morning on the floor of its cage; and that made two. And then there were her toys, that got broken on purpose to make her unhappy; it was all most unfair, and she was such a silly that it upset her dreadfully. One doll in particular, no bigger than her hand, had driven her to despair by getting its head smashed; indeed, she was so devoted to it that she had buried it secretly, in a corner of the yard; later on, seized with a longing to see it again, she had dug it up, and the sight of it had made her sick with terror, it was so black and hideous. It was always the same; other people gave up loving before she did. They got spoilt, or else they went away; in any case, they were partly to blame. Why did it happen so? She herself never changed; when she loved anyone, it was for life. She could not understand desertion; it was something so huge, so monstrous that the notion of it made her little heart break. The slow dawning of confused awareness in her mind sent a shiver through her. So, one day, people parted; they went their separate ways, they stopped seeing one another, they stopped loving one another. And she sat gazing out over the huge and melancholy city, horribly depressed by these glimpses of life’s cruelty revealed to her passionate twelve-year-old heart.

Zola captures the self-obsessions of a twelve-year old brilliantly. So she listlessly looks out of the window; she watches other mothers and daughters enjoying themselves outside and wonders why her mother has ‘abandoned’ her. It starts raining very hard and Jeanne opens the window, even though her mother has explicitly told her not to, and enjoys the feel of the rain on her arms. Still sitting at the open window with her arms dangling outside, she looks out over Paris:

She felt as if everything was finished; she realized that she must be growing very old. Let time pass, now; she had stopped looking back into the room. She was forgotten and alone, but she no longer cared. Her childish heart was full of a despair so deep that all around her seemed black. Perhaps she would be scolded for it, as she used to be scolded when she was ill; that would be terribly unfair. It was a burning pain within her, it was something that gripped her like a headache. Surely, a few moments ago, something had broken inside her; somebody had done that to her. She couldn’t help it; she had to let them do what they wanted to her. She was really too weary. She sat with her little arms folded on the window-sill and her head leaning on them, overcome with drowsiness, but opening her eyes wide from time to time to watch the downpour.

Now, I realise that some people will find this especially cloying, mawkish even, but I feel that Zola handles it brilliantly and it made me realise that Zola rarely gives us a child’s view; the only other one I can think of is when we see Gervaise through young Nana’s eyes briefly in L’assommoir.

Zola_A-Love-Affair-fcXC-700pxA-Love-Affair_Citadel_GRThe excerpts were taken from A Love Affair, which was translated by Jean Stewart and published by Elek Books in 1957. It has also been translated as A Love Episode and A Page of Love.

This has been cross-posted on The Intermittencies of the Mind blog.

L’Assommoir (The Dram Shop), by Émile Zola, translated by Margaret Mauldon

L'Assommoir L’Assommoir, variously translated as The Dram Shop, The Gin Palace, Drunk and Drunkard is said to be Zola’s masterpiece. Well, I haven’t read all of the Rougon-Macquart cycle, this is no. 13 in the recommended reading order so I have seven left to enjoy, but I can certainly attest to the brilliance of this one…

L’Assommoir is overwhelming. Like the very best of Dickens, it tells the story of an underclass with respect and compassion and it leaves its readers emotionally bereft. Its central character Gervaise begins the novel with such hope, and she rises to make a success of her humble life, only to stumble on a downward trajectory that can have no other resolution than degradation. Oxford Worlds’ Classics have compounded the melancholy with a superb portrait by Edgar Degas on the front cover. This image becomes quite haunting as you read…

The Rougon-Maquart novels are not a family saga, but Gervaise’s place in the family of Antoine Maquart serves to emphasise her tragedy. Her sister Lisa lives barely a mile away, confidently running a charcuterie and living a bourgeois lifestyle. But she might as well be on the other side of the planet: Gervaise’s life is a world away and their paths never cross. Would Lisa have rescued Gervaise if she knew about her circumstances? If you’ve read The Belly of Paris you know the answer to that question.

BEWARE: SPOILERS

The fatal mistakes Gervaise makes begin early: she’s only fourteen when she has her first child by her feckless lover Lantier, and when they run away to Paris together in hope of a better life, he spends his way through a small inheritance and then abandons her and the two young boys. It is typical of his moral cowardice that he leaves it to the older boy, Claude, to bring her the room key that signals his departure, that she is hard at work in the laundry when she finds out in this humiliating way, and that he had insisted that very morning that she pawn her shawl and her chemises, money which he has now used for his new adventure. To compound Gervaise’s misery, he has dumped her for Adèle, sister of Virginie, one of the other washerwomen, and a degrading cat-fight ensues over this worthless man. But as the novel progresses, Zola uses both Virginie and Lantier to show Gervaise’s fatal apathy when she lets them both back into her life later on.

Zola’s characters are all marked by his view that human destiny is formed by heredity, environment and their place in time. Gervaise’s fatal flaw is her easy-going nature: she likes to please others and it’s easier to go along with the milieu that surrounds her.

Her only weakness … was being very soft-hearted, liking everybody, getting desperately fond of people who then put her through endless misery. So, when she loved a man, she wasn’t interested in all that nonsense, what she dreamt of was simply living together happily ever after. (p. 38)

Her dreams are not ambitious; what she wants is

to be able to get on with her work, always have something to eat and a half-decent place to sleep, bring up her children properly, not to be beaten, and die in her own bed. (p.421)

If only. Consigned to the seedy parts of Paris at the time when Haussmanisation was impacting on working-class communities and industrialisation was replacing artisanship, Gervaise supports her boys as a washerwoman and eventually – not without some reluctance – marries Coupeau, a teetotaller with a steady job as a roofer. Despite their good intentions they get into debt with the cost of their marriage because of their desire to put on a good show for their friends, but with hard work, a prudent lifestyle and offloading the older boy to an apprenticeship in Plassans, they recover financially, and begin saving towards Gervaise’s dream of running her own laundry. But destiny steps in when Coupeau has a fall from a roof and can’t work for a very long time. This has two fatal effects: Coupeau gets used to idleness and Gervaise has to use all her savings to support the family (which has now grown to include their daughter Nana).

One of Gervaise’s friends is the gentle giant, Goujet, a blacksmth. He loves Gervaise with a quiet passion, and he and his mother offer a loan that enables Gervaise to fulfil her dream. She moves her family out of their dingy rooms to a place of warmth and light, where she sets up her laundry to general acclaim. Industrious and careful, she is excellent at her work and everybody except her jealous in-laws admires her.

But Zola has structured the novel so that this success is the high point of Gervaise’s life, and portents of her future are already there. Coupeau fills his idle hours by boozing with his layabout friends, and lovely little Nana who might have been a support to her mother later in life, is running wild. The friends who admire and like Gervaise are also only too ready to listen to malicious gossip about her from her sister-in-law Madame Lorilleaux, and they’re also only too ready to encourage a lavish lifestyle that Gervaise can’t really afford because she has a loan to pay back to the Goujets.

It is heartbreaking to read about the downfall of this wonderful character. I suspect that it’s impossible to read L’Assommoir without becoming very fond of Gervaise. But apparently, (according to the introduction by Robert Lethbridge), Zola’s novel didn’t please anybody. Although it was a contemporary bestseller, conservatives didn’t like its dangerous socialist message and thought it proved that the working-class wasn’t fit to vote, and progressives were angry that it showed the underclass as feckless and irresponsible. But when we read it today we can see that Zola has rightly depicted some fundamental truths: that the underclass has the same hopes and dreams for themselves and their children as anyone else, but that their precarious finances make them vulnerable to life events which can plunge them into disaster from which there can be no return. Zola could not have written this novel the way he did, had there been a safety net to tide the family over Coupeau’s injury, and workers’ compensation for his inability to get back to work.

But there was no safety net, and Gervaise (like everyone else) likes the Good Life, and it’s just too easy to let loan payments slide and to spend more than she’s got on a splendid celebration of her name day. And it’s on that fateful day, depicted in a magnificent set piece by Zola, that Lantier slithers back into her life. Coupeau, who’s a bit pickled, goes outside to tell Lantier to stop hanging about and upsetting Gervaise, but he ends up bringing him inside to join the feast. This is partly because Coupeau is a terrible judge of character at the best of times, and partly because Lantier is a master salesman of his tawdry product, that is, himself. It doesn’t take long for him to ingratiate himself so thoroughly that he moves in, starts interfering in the laundry and bossing about the family, and takes turns with Coupeau to beat Gervaise whenever the mood takes them. Not only that, but Lantier also sabotages Coupeau’s unenthusiastic efforts to get back to work …

Needless to say, you can’t go on sprees and work as well. So, after Lantier joined the household, Coupeau, who already hardly raised a finger, got so that he didn’t so much as touch his tools. When, fed up with not earning, he did find himself a job, his mate would track him down at work and tease him mercilessly on seeing him hanging from a knotted rope like a ham that was being smoked; he’d shout to him to come down and have a quick one. That settled it, the roofer would walk off the job and start a binge that went on for days, for weeks. First rate, those binges were a general inspection of all the bars in the neighbourhood, the morning’s boozing slept off at lunchtime and resurrected in the evening; round after round of rotgut stretching into the night like Chinese lanterns at a party, until the last candle and the last glass were consumed. (p. 257)

Squalor descends and at first Gervaise does little but shrug her shoulders in resignation. She didn’t run after her man; indeed if she caught sight of him in a bar she’d go the long way round so as not to make him angry. (p.266) But the time comes when she thinks she may as well join the men in a drink, and then – despite her kind heart and good intentions – it’s all downhill from there. Lantier is after her, and after her business, and everything he does conspires to bring Gervaise down so that he and Virginie can have their revenge.

All the characters, one way or another, symbolise the values in conflict: industriousness, diligence, cleanliness and self-control versus idleness, laziness, filth and self-indulgence. But the one who prefigures Gervaise’s own sordid downfall is an innocent. Lalie Bijard, the child who becomes mother to the other small children after her alcoholic father beats his wife to death, does not – unlike Gervaise – have any choices at all. Her final moments are classic 19th century sentimentality, but no less powerful for that:

Gervaise, meanwhile, was trying her best not to burst into tears. She reached out with her hands, wanting to comfort Lalie, and as the ragged sheet was slipping off she pulled it right down, intending to remake the bed. The poor little body of the dying child was thus exposed. Lord Jesus, what a heart-rending, pitiable sight! The stones themselves would have wept. Lalie was quite naked, with only the remnants of a bodice round her shoulders to serve as a nightgown; yes, quite naked, the nakedness of a martyr, bleeding and tortured. There was no longer any flesh on her, her bones poked through her skin. From her ribs to her thighs thin purple weals reached down, where the whip’s bite had left its vivid imprint. A blue-black bruise circled her left arm, as if the jaws of a vice had crushed this delicate limb, no thicker than a matchstick. On her right leg, there was a gash that hadn’t healed, some nasty wound that must have reopened each morning as she hurried round doing her chores. She was nothing but a bruise from head to toe. Oh what butchery of childhood – that dear little chick crushed under a man’s heavy foot; what infamy – that feeblest of creatures dying under the burden of such a cross! People in churches venerate martyred virgins whose naked flesh is not so pure. Gervaise had crouched down again, forgetting to pull up the sheet, overcome by the sight of this pitiful nothing, lying there sunk into the bed, as with trembling lips, she tried to say a prayer.

‘Please, Madame Coupeau…’ whispered the child.

In her great modesty, and full of shame for her father’s sake, she was trying to pull up the sheet with her short little arms. Bijard stood there stupidly, staring at the corpse he was responsible for, and rolling his head about slowly like an animal that’s bothered by something. (p. 401)

It’s not possible to read this without thinking of today’s little children brutalised by their own parents: Chloe Valentine, Daniel Valerio and the anonymous ones still suffering unchecked abuse. Alcohol used to excess, and now the use of illicit drugs too, still combine with community indifference to allow these things to happen. Gervaise, notwithstanding her tears and prayers, leaves the surviving small children to their fate. Zola shocked his readers with L’Assommoir and it seems tragic that in the 21st century we still rely on shocking media stories to force action in this area of need. (If you have time, do read ‘Child abuse and the media’ by Chris Goddard and Bernadette J. Saunders (2001) on the Australian Institute of Family Studies website – it makes it clear that it is media coverage prompting public outrage that gets action on family violence).

Given its sordid subject-matter, why is L’Assommoir the favourite Zola novel of so many? I think it’s because of the brilliant way this novel is structured to make the reader care about the central, lovable character of Gervaise. The novel’s realism captures the environment in which this humble woman rises to success and then stumbles into tragedy. Instead of judgemental moralising, Zola depicts the pathos of her fall with careful observations that show her helplessness to save herself or anybody else.

Well, what next, to surpass this masterpiece of Zola’s? It’s L’Œuvre (1886) (The Masterpiece), the story of Gervaise’s son Claude, the struggling artist in Paris. I’m going to love that one, I’m sure, because I always enjoys novels about artists.

Author: Émile Zola
Title: L’Assommoir (The Dram Shop)
Translated from the French by Margaret Mauldon
Publisher: OUP (Oxford University Press) (Oxford World’s Classics series), 2009
ISBN: 9780199538683
Review copy courtesy of OUP.

Availability

Do yourself a favour: do not read the freebie editions that you can download: Zola used 19th century vulgar colloquial slang for much of the dialogue, which will either be sanitised or excised from the freebies, or incomprehensible if you try to read the original in French. This title is notorious for being very difficult to translate for contemporary readers. I recommend this translation by Margaret Mauldon (which also has a comprehensive introduction about all kinds of aspects that I haven’t covered here i.e. the politics of the era and the symbolism), but the OUP edition is (of course) the only one I’ve read. However, whatever you choose, make sure that it is a recent translation, uncensored and with annotations that explain the geography of the novel; the significance of the ribald songs and slang; and the cunning way that Zola made allusions to politics in ways that evaded trouble at a time when there was savage repression of any political critique.

Fishpond: L’Assommoir (Oxford World’s Classics)

Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers

The Belly of Paris, by Émile Zola, translated by Brian Nelson

The Belly of ParisAs regular readers know, I’m a bit of a ‘foodie’ so I was expecting to really enjoy The Belly of Paris, (Le Ventre de Paris – also translated as The Fat and the Thin; Savage Paris; or The Markets of Paris).   First published in 1873, it’s the 11th novel in the recommended reading order for Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle, and it’s set in Les Halles de Paris, the huge fresh food market in the heart of the city that was a mecca for food-lovers until it was (unwisely) demolished in 1971.

Now, I like buying food, cooking food, admiring the presentation of food, and exploring different cuisines – but I am not especially interested in reading descriptions of food.  And so while I recognise that The Belly of Paris is a favourite of many and it was the first time a food market had been used as a poetic symbol of bourgeois consumerism, I found myself becoming a bit tired of the descriptions of food which litter this novel.  The plot, on the other hand interested me very much.

The central character, Florent Quenu finds himself inadvertently caught up in an insurrection during Louis-Napoleon’s 1851 coup-d’état and falsely accused of murdering a young woman.  He serves many years as a prisoner on the galleys at the notorious Devil’s Island,  eventually escaping to Paris where he finds the city unrecognisable under Haussman’s urban reconstruction program.  His half-brother Quenu takes him in, and despite his reservations about the gluttony symbolised by the markets, Florent eventually takes a position as an inspector at the fish market, reluctantly becoming part of the great market economy that was transforming Paris at the time.

His inertia, and his disdain for money, decent clothing and the bourgeois values that underlie the expansion of the markets, place Florent in conflict with his family and the stallholders.  Quenu’s wife Lisa is proud of the respectability of her charcuterie, and she is suspicious of anything or anyone that might sabotage it.  (As well she might, given the political instability that characterised French history in this period).

What Zola shows so cunningly in this book is the power of the mob.  The plump, placid people of the market harbour doubts about Florent because he is thin – his very physique symbolises his rejection of The Good Life that they sell to Paris in their food stalls.  While some of his actions are imprudent, it’s the whispering campaign that becomes a roar that leads to his downfall.

Visit The Books of Emile Zola for Jonathan’s ‘Exceptional Excerpt’ to read a description of Lisa in her triumph, and check out Nancy’s review at Silver Season.

I also enjoyed Zola’s representation of the artist Claude, prefiguring the later novel The Masterpiece which led Cezanne to rupture his long-standing friendship with Zola.  Many of the scenes are like still life paintings made with words and you can visualise the composition of the pictures as you read.  (I am really looking forward to reading The Masterpiece, I love reading novels about art and artists. )

Savage ParisThe translation by Brian Nelson for the Oxford World’s Classics edition is excellent, and I really like the cover image which is a detail from The Square in Front of Les Halles by Victor-Gabriel Gilbert.   It’s a remarkable contrast with my copy of the 1955 Elek edition cover at left, which emphasises Zola’s theme of the Fat in conflict with the Thin!  (You can see more lurid and tasteless covers of this title  in Jonathan’s amazing collection at The Works of Emile Zola).  Gilbert’s lovely painting  – which for some reason still has copyright restrictions so you can only view the complete painting by visiting one of the sites that  sells prints of it is one of a series of paintings of the markets by Gilbert, and I was able to use the ones at Wikigallery since this blog is not a commercial site.  I have used the collection to make the slide show below.   There are also wonderful B&W photos of the markets here (click to enlarge each image).

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Author: Emile Zola
Title: The Belly of Paris
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics, 2009
ISBN: 9780199555840
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Fishpond.

Availability
Fishpond: The Belly of Paris (Oxford World’s Classics)

Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers