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
Review copy courtesy of OUP.