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.

Advertisements

A Love Affair (Une page d’amour), by Emile Zola, translated by Jean Stewart

A Love AffairAdolescent girls have a bit of a reputation for sabotaging their parents’ attempts to re-partner, don’t they? If you think that such brattiness is a modern phenomenon, this novel by Zola will make you think again…

Une page d’amour, translated variously as A Love Episode; A Page of Love; Hélène: A Love Episode; or A Love Affair; was first published in 1878. It’s eighth in the publication order, but tenth in the recommended reading order, following on from The Sin of Father Mouret (see my review) and exploring the same kind of theme of transgressive love. Jean Stewart says in her brief introduction to this edition, that Zola had shocked his readers with his exposé of social evil and human degradation in the nightmare world of The Dram Shop (L’Assommoir, 1877) and he wanted to show that he could also write about a touching subject, treated with the utmost simplicity…a good natured book. (p.5)

A Love Affair is, as Zola apparently said, about nice people and romantic feelings and children and flowers – but he couldn’t help himself, he had to make his romance fit with his dubious theory of heredity and a crude determinist philosophy. And so that malevolent young girl on the cover is the inheritor of the Macquart character flaws. She is the great-granddaughter of mad Adelaide Fouque and the grand-daughter of Mouret who hung himself after his wife died – and, irrevocably stained by this heredity, she is the eleven-year-old saboteur of her mother Hélène’s love.

Jeanne has a morbid illness which means that when she has one of her wild passionate fits of temper, doctors must be called in the middle of the night. Dr Deberle – who just happens to live next door – turns out to be kindly and handsome and he can’t fail to be interested in the beautiful young widow Hélène.

Alas, Henri is married, and his wife Juliette becomes a friend to Hélène, who then becomes a frequent visitor to the Deberle household. And although Paris is full of light-hearted adulterers, as the attraction grows Hélène struggles with the conflict between the serenity of innocence and the dawning of her latent sexuality. She wasn’t in love with her first husband and is unprepared for the tumult of passion.

Jeanne, of course, is alert to any threat to her exclusive ‘love’ for her mother. The Abbe Jouve had suggested that Hélène marry his brother, the good, kind and attractively rich Rambaud – but Jeanne put a stop to that with her tantrums even before Hélène had decided that she wasn’t interested. Jeanne’s self-absorption, possessiveness and jealousy are legendary!

There are some wonderful characters in this novel. Mère Fetu is a splendid old emotional blackmailer who trades on the good natures of Hélène and Henri to wangle money and attention, but she also rents out rooms in her squalid apartment. When Beau Malingnon, a dandy proposed as a suitor for Juliette’s sister Pauline, wants a tryst (no, sorry, no spoilers here!) he sets this room up as a lurid fantasy in pink which reminded me of the bedroom excesses of The Kill. The maid Rosalie and her lover, the soldier Zéphyrin, are also interesting as a lower-class couple who are also constrained from fulfilment of their feelings. Juliette, who today we would label ‘ditzy’ and would have a career in event management, is a wonderful creation: she throws a splendid fancy-dress ball for her seven-year-old son Lucien which Zola uses to satirise the greedy excesses of Paris, and the way she stage-manages the funeral is extraordinary, even sourcing countless April flowers to tastefully match the colour of the outfits for the procession. (No, I’m not going to tell you whose funeral it is).

One other character deserves a mention, and that’s Paris. Yes, the city itself, as viewed from Hélène’s window. Of necessity she spends long hours beside Jeanne’s bed, and she often looks out over the rooftops viewing the city’s moods in one kind of weather or another. Zola uses the city to symbolise radiant hope in Spring and the cruelty of life in Winter. For me, much as I am fond of Paris, these scenes were often too long and too laboured. I was more interested in the psychological study of obsessive jealousy and tormented guilt about sins as yet uncommitted.

For some odd reason A Love Affair is (according to Wikipedia) the only title in the Rougon-Macquart series that doesn’t have a modern translation. I was about to succumb to the Gutenberg version on the Kindle when Jonathan who blogs here at the Books of Émile Zola fortunately intervened and recommended Jean Stewart’s translation instead. It’s excellent and the lurid cover of this edition is a bonus! The Elek translations are notorious for their amusingly tacky covers, and they play a starring role in Jonathan’s post about Lurid, Gaudy or Tasteless Covers at the Books of Émile Zola blog – do check out his slideshow to see what I mean.

Next up in The Zola Project is The Belly of Paris. I have a copy of Brian Nelson’s 2009 translation published by Oxford World’s Classics …

Author: Émile Zola
Translated from the French by Jean Stewart
Title: A Love Affair
Publisher: Elek Books, London, 1957
ISBN: none
Source: O’Connell’s Bookshop, Adelaide, via AbeBooks

Availability
Do as I did and hunt out a copy of this translation…

Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers

‘Une page d’amour’ Cover Images

Une page d’amour was first published in 1878 and has been translated as A Love Episode, A Love Affair and A Page of Love.

For images of other covers please look on the Images page.