(Re-reading) His Excellency Eugène Rougon (Son Excellence Eugène Rougon) by Émile Zola, translated by Brian Nelson

his excellency eugene rougonI have been re-reading His Excellency Eugène Rougon (Son Excellence Eugène Rougon) because I have a lovely new OUP edition, translated by Brian Nelson.  I’m not going to review the novel again because I’ve already reviewed the Vizetelly translation as part of my Zola Project to read the entire Rougon-Marquet series, but I do want to comment about why it’s so much more enjoyable to read a new edition than a freebie from Project Gutenberg.

I admire the whole concept of Project Gutenberg, and I’ve read plenty of their titles that I couldn’t otherwise source. The wonderful team of volunteers at PG have saved many titles from oblivion, and these titles are free, which makes them accessible to all budgets. But there are limitations with some titles, and the Vizetelly translations of Zola’s novels are particularly problematic…

I call them Vizetelly translations, but actually, Vizetelly was the publisher and although Brian Nelson says in his Translator’s Note that His Excellency was translated by Henry Vizetelly’s son Ernest in 1897, Wikipedia says that it’s not known who the translator was. That’s probably just because WP hasn’t caught up with the scholarship, but it is true that Gutenberg editions sometimes don’t #NameTheTranslator because translators weren’t acknowledged in the original editions. In the case of Zola, it may be that anonymity was desired, perhaps by a lady translator, because Zola was considered salacious and as Vizetelly learned to his cost, it wasn’t just risky for a lady’s reputation… there were worse consequences than that.

Henry Vizetelly (1820-94) was fined and imprisoned for three months in 1889 over the publication of La Terre, which was considered offensive. Subsequent editions of all of Zola’s novels were heavily edited by his son Ernest Vizetelly (1853-1922) in order to avoid further prosecutions. (Source: The Books of Émile Zola)

In the case of His Excellency the 1897 translation is after Henry’s gaol term, so it falls into the category of ‘heavily edited’.

So it’s not just that contemporary readers of Vizetelly have to adjust to reading a 19th century English version of 19th century French. It’s also that the novels were self-censored, as it were. Sometimes this prudishness doesn’t much matter. The missing details of Clorinde in scandalous (un)dress holding court to a coterie of admiring men while an artist paints her as Diana the Huntress, are hardly significant. OTOH readers would understand something completely different about a lovers’ relationship from Nelson’s use of the word ‘enslavement’ when referring to a woman wearing a dog collar and a badge inscribed with ‘I belong to my master,’ compared to Vizetelly’s coy ‘servitude’. Even though I read the Vizetelly back in 2014, I became quite adept at identifying text that had been cut or sanitised. ‘I bet that’s not in Vizetelly!’, I found myself saying, and each time I was right.

But also, there are details which make no sense to a modern reader without explanatory notes. For example, when Rougon is being told about a plot to assassinate the emperor, his informant suddenly says:

‘It’s planned for tomorrow night… They aim to assassinate Badinguet outside the Opera, as he is going in.’ (p.185)

Huh? thinks the modern Australian reader, who is this new character Badinguet and what has he got to do with anything? The Gutenberg edition on my Kindle leaves me none the wiser, but Brian Nelson’s Explanatory Notes helpfully explain that Badinguet was a derisive nickname for the Emperor. Louis-Napoleon had made two unsuccessful attempts at a coup before his triumphant third attempt, and was imprisoned after the second one. He escaped in disguise as a labourer by name of Badinguet. It’s not just a clever bit of French history thrown in at random: Zola is showing that this Emperor is still widely held in contempt.

I don’t often re-read books but this new translation based on the original French was a real treat. Extra features of this edition which enhanced my reading so much compared to the Kindle edition of the Vizetelly translation, include an Introduction; the Translator’s notes; a Bibliography, a Chronology of Zola’s life, and a Family Tree of the Rougon-Macquart, and Explanatory Notes.

PS I should add that there was a 1958 translation by Alec Brown for Elek Books, but my experience with Brown’s translation of La Bête Humaine was that it was utterly unreadable so my advice is to avoid Brown’s translations at all cost.

Author: Émile Zola
Title: His Excellency Eugène Rougon (Son Excellence Eugène Rougon)
A new translation by Brian Nelson
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics, OUP (Oxford University Press), 2018, first published in 1876, 333 pages (not including the Explanatory Notes)
ISBN: 9780198748250
Review copy courtesy of Oxford University Press.

Available from Fishpond: His Excellency Eugene Rougon (Oxford World’s Classics) and from OUP. (Not the easiest site to navigate to find the rest of the Zolas, but if (from the Oxford World’s Classics home page) you click on Show More, and then Click on View All Titles, and then choose search ‘from Z to A’ all the Zolas in OUP editions come up, one after the other.)

Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers.

His Excellency Eugène Rougon: Zola (new translation by Brian Nelson)

A few years ago I completed Zola’s 20 volume Rougon-Macquart Cycle. As I worked my way through the 20 books, I came to the conclusion that some would forever have a place on my-best books of all-time list: The KillNanaL’AssommoirPotLuckMoney, EarthThe Ladies’ Paradise, Debacle, His Excellency, The Masterpiece, while others were bridge-books and not so memorable. At the time only some of the books were available in new or newish translations, and that left me with the 19th century Vizetelly translations. I don’t intend to knock the Vizetelly translations as the Vizetellys believed in these books, tried to publish them and were heavily penalized for their efforts.

When I discovered the shocking fact that many of the 20-volume cycle hadn’t been re-translated since the 19th century, I thought that the reason these books hadn’t been re-translated had to be because they were the minor novels in the series. But as it turns out, my theory wasn’t correct.

His excellency

That brings me to the new translation of His Excellency Eugène Rougonfrom Brian Nelson. Nelson has previously translated the following novels in the series:

The Fortunes of the Rougons

The Ladies’ Paradise

Earth

The Kill

Pot Luck

The Belly of Paris

I’m excited about this translation as His Excellency Eugène Rougon is due for a reread, and what better reason than a new translation. If you want to read my review of the book, it’s here, but this post is about translation.

The main character, power-hungry Eugène Rougon has a certain attitude towards women:

Vizetelly translation:

“Yes, beware of women,” Rougon repeated, pausing after each word so as to glance at his papers. “when a woman does not put a crown on your head, she slips a halter around your neck. At our age a man’s heart wants as carefully looking after as his stomach.”

Brian Nelson translation:

“Yes, be very careful with women,” Rougon repeated, pausing after every word as he peered in a file. “If they’re not putting a crown on your head, they’re slipping a noose round your neck… At our age, a man should look after his heart as much as his stomach.”

Perhaps those two quotes don’t seem so different at first glance, but I read them both several times. In the first quote, the word “halter” evokes the imagery of a man being controlled whereas in the second quote, “noose” implies a much more terminal position. Plus then there’s that last line … “a man’s heart wants as carefully looking after as his stomach,” versus “a man should look after his heart as much as his stomach.” The matter of who is doing the care-taking of the heart is not in question in the Nelson version, as we would expect with Eugène Rougon, whereas the Vizetelly version implies that a woman could perhaps be taking care of the heart and the stomach which is in complete contradiction of Rougon’s speech.

But here’s a meatier quote:

Vizetelly translation:

“What had first attracted him in Clorinde was the mystery surrounding her, the story of a past-away life and the yearning for a new existence which he could read in the depths of her big goddess-like eyes. He had heard disgraceful scandal about her–an early love affair with a coachman, and a subsequent connection with a banker who had presented her with the little house in the Champs-Elysees. However, every now and then she seemed to him so child-like that he doubted the truth of what he had been told, and again and again essayed to find out the secret of this strange girl, who became to him a living enigma, the solution of which interested him as much as some intriguing political problem. Until then he had felt a scornful disdain for women, and the first one who excited his interest was certainly as singular and complicated a being as could be imagined.”

Nelson translation:

“What attracted him in Clorinde was the quality of the unknown, a mysterious past, and the ambition he thought he could read in her big, dark eyes. Frightful things were said about her–a first attachment to a coachman, then a deal with a banker, rumoured to have paid for her false virginity with the gift of a house on the Champs-Élysées. On the other hand, there were times when she seemed such a child that he doubted these stories. He swore he would get the truth out of her himself, and kept going back hoping to learn the truth from the strange girl’s own lips. Clorinde had become an enigma which began to obsess him as much as any delicate question of high politics. He had lived his life thus far in disdain of women, and the first woman to whom he was attracted was without doubt the most complicated creature imaginable.”  *(and there’s a note here that Clorinde was modeled on the real-life Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione)

Comparing the two, IMO, the Nelson version is much smoother and also much more effectively conveys Rougon’s fascination with Clorinde. Significantly, Clorinde’s sexuality is absent from the Vizetelly quote. Back to censorship and what the Vizetellys had to deal with. Zola’s incredible, unforgettable characters are human beings who experience great passions: whether is be the passion/obsession for power, money, revenge, or sex, and it’s a shame  crime against literature that the Vizetellys were forced to tone down their translations. Henry Vizetelly was convicted twice for obscenity when he published versions of Zola novels. But that was the 19th century, so I’m going to celebrate the 21st century with a re-read of His Excellency Eugène Rougon.

Review copy

Emile Zola, Pot Luck / Pot-Bouille

ZolaPotThe expression Pot-Bouille, the title of one of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series of novels, is difficult to render in English. “Pot luck” in the Midwest, where I come from, implies taking your chance on what may be in the pot that day. A French dictionary calls pot-bouille a “repas ordinaire d’un ménage.” I rather like that – it’s what you usually get, and luck doesn’t much enter into it.

The ménage in which Zola finds this ordinary meal is an apartment house in Paris, in which live a number of bourgeois families and their servants. These human ingredients of Zola’s story are no more exceptional than the ingredients of pot luck; their activities and attitudes are as we would expect. For details, see two posts here at Reading Zola where Jonathan provides a plot summary  and Lisa describes the characters and their interactions. Lisa also remarks that the “smart new building is Zola’s metaphor for the hypocrisy of the bourgeois.”

Almost all the inhabitants of the building are corrupt in some way. The servants steal from their employers and gossip about them. The tenants cheat financially and sleep with each other and with the servants. The bourgeoisie are hypocritical about what is going on; the servants are not. They know what is being concealed. After the morning gossip,

 They [the maids] all plunged back into their kitchens; and from the dark bowels of the narrow courtyard only the stench of the drains came up, like the smell of the hidden filth of the various families, stirred up by the servants’ rancor. This was the sewer of the house, draining off the house’s shames, while the masters lounged about in their slippers and the front staircase displayed all its solemn majesty amid the stuffy silence of the hot-air stove.

Now that I have read several Zola’s novels, I am struck by his repeated use of human constructions as metaphors for the theme of his story. In Pot-Bouille, it is the apartment house, designed to be impressive, but concealing its decadence. In La Curée, it is the grand, over-decorated mansion constructed by Saccard to display his wealth and social importance. In Germinal, it is the mine and its machinery – underground, yet dominating all above and below. In The Belly of Paris, it is the market, which is large, complex and contains the delights of fresh foods along with the stink of garbage.

In his biography, Zola: A Life, Frederick Brown gives a detailed account of how Zola acquired a modest country property at Medan. As he prospered, he expanded the original house, remodeling it and adding wings and towers. Construction had meaning to Zola, as shown by the attention he paid to his own property and his evident pride in the results. His house was a testimony to his success. With his feeling about the importance of buildings, it is appropriate that an apartment building in Bot-Bouille links together the characters and subplots of the novel. For example, it represented the conventional virtues to the erring Berthe, hiding from her angry husband.

 Then gradually the solemn staircase filled her with fresh anguish; it was so black, so austere. No one could see her; and yet she was overcome with confusion at sitting there in her chemise amid such respectable gilt and stucco. The wide mahogany doors, the conjugal dignity of these hearths, seemed to load her with reproaches. Never had the house appeared to her so saturated with purity and virtue.

Berthe is wrong, of course. The house itself cannot be virtuous, only the people within. Zola notices the details of wide mahogany doors and grants conjugal dignity to hearths. He is sensitive to constructions and what they represent. I hope he was satisfied by what his own domestic constructions meant to him, as well as what they represented to the world.

The Kill: Saccard’s Opulent Paris

I was reading Emile Zola’s The Kill (La Cureé) alternately with Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, so I was struck by de Waal’s description of the Paris inhabited by Zola’s Aristide Saccard during his years of prosperity. The Kill is the third book in the Rougon-Macquart novel series in which Zola portrays the corrupt France of Napoleon III. (The “kill” is not a murder, but the piece of the fox awarded to the hounds after a successful hunt.) For a detailed description of the events in the novel, see Lisa Hill’s plot summary.

When Aristide Rougon leaves Plassans (Aix-en-Provence) for Paris after Louis Napoleon’s coup of 1851 he is poor and must continue to live a frugal existence on his clerk’s salary. An advantageous second marriage gives him the capital to speculate successfully in the real estate of Paris. The city is being transformed by the plans of Baron Haussmann, who creates boulevards and parks, including the Parc Monceau, next to which Saccard builds his mansion.

Parc Monceau, painted by Gustave Caillebotte

Parc Monceau, painted by Gustave Caillebotte

During the Second Empire, the [d’Orleans] family sold lots within the park to real estate developers, who built luxurious town houses, reducing the size of the park by half. The remaining part of the park was purchased by the city of Paris in 1860. All that remained of the original folly was the water lily pond, the stream and the fantasy “tombs,” including the Egyptian pyramid.

In 1860 the park was purchased by the city, and in August 1861 Parc Monceau became the first new public park in Paris to be remade by Baron Haussmann as part of the grand transformation of Paris begun by Emperor Louis Napoleon. Two main alleys were laid out from east to west and north to south, meeting in the center of the park, and the alleys within the park were widened and paved, so carriages could drive the park. An ornamental grill 8.3 meters high was installed along a newly created avenue, Boulevard Malesherbes, Curving paths were laid out around the park for strolling.

Wikipedia

Parc Monceau today

Parc Monceau today

The house Saccard builds dramatizes the opulence he has achieved. After a rather precise explanation of its structure, Zola goes on to describe the decorations.

The display of decoration was profuse. The house was hidden under its sculpture. Around the windows and along the cornices ran volutes of flowers and branches; there were balconies shaped like baskets full of blossoms, and supported by tall naked women with wide hips and jutting breasts; and here and there were fanciful escutcheons, clusters of fruit, roses, every flower it is possible for stone or marble to represent. The higher one looked, the more the building bust into blossom. Around the roof ran a balustrade on which urns, at regular intervals, stood blazing with flames of stone; and there, between the bull’s eye windows of the attics, which opened on to an incredible mass of fruit and foliage, mantled the crowning portions of this amazing spectacle, the pediments of the turrets, in the midst of which the naked women reappeared, playing the apples, adopting poses amidst sheaves of rushes.

So. Fruit and flowers and naked women, but none of them real – just stone representations without any softness at all.

hotel-emile-menier-344126

Hotel Menier, Paris

Zola used as his model for the mansion he calls a “fireworks display” the Hotel Menier, which still stands today in its favored position by the park. After finding the beautiful Hotel Ephrussi, the home of the Parisian branch of his family, Edmund de Waal visits the nearly Hotel Menier.

But nothing compares to the mansion built by the chocolate magnate Émile-Justin Menier. It was a building so splendidly excessive, so eclectic in its garnished decorations, glimpsed above its high walls, that Zola’s description of it as ‘an opulent bastard of every style’ still seems about right. In his dark novel of 1872, La curée, Saccard – a rapacious Jewish property magnate – lives here on the rue de Monceau. You feel this street as the family move in: it is a street of Jews, a street full of people on display in their lavish golden houses. Monceau is slang in Paris for nouveau riche, newly arrived.

That’s an interesting error, calling Saccard a rapacious Jewish property magnate. Rapacious yes, Jewish no. Saccard was a Rougon and nowhere does Zola hint that any of them were Jewish. If, as de Waal suggests, some wealthy Jews were sharp-dealing scoundrels, it does not follow that Saccard was Jew. Many 19th century authors would at least hint at the probability. In Zola’s Money. this same Saccard must deal with the Jewish banker Gunderman. Saccard’s feelings about Gunderman may be those of the character or his author; we cannot be sure. We can be sure, however, to find casual anti-semitic jibes in well-regarded authors right up to the time of World War II.

On Reading the Rougon-Macquart Series

Reading Zola

My first Zola book was the Penguin edition of Nana which I read in the early ’90s; I then read L’Assommoir. The subject matters of prostitution and alcohol abuse must have been what attracted me to the books but I’m intrigued as to where I first heard of Zola; it certainly wasn’t at school. I was reading a lot of Henry Miller at the time, and although he was a source of a lot of interesting books, I don’t think it was from reading him. Anyway, after reading these two books, I declared myself an Émile Zola fan and promptly read nothing else by him for about ten years until I read La Bête humaine.

I think I like a reasonable variety of novels and non-fiction but every now and then I fancy reading a good ol’ 19th Century novel laden with characters and plot developments to keep me interested. In 2011 I must have been in one of these moods when I picked up another Zola book, The Ladies’ Paradise, which really impressed me and it seemed to be quite different than the others that I’d read years before. I read a couple more, including a re-read of L’Assommoir and I think it was then that I started to seriously consider reading the whole series.

I’m still a bit surprised that I read the whole series as I’m usually put off by long series of novels, films or television programmes as I get the feeling that the best material is at the beginning and the later work is just substandard material that was probably rejected from the earlier work. But, this isn’t the case with Zola and the Rougon-Macquart series: it was conceived as a whole and it works as a whole.

The Rougon-Macquart Series

The full title of the series is The Rougon-Macquart: the Natural and Social History of a Family under the Second Empire. The Second Empire existed from 1852 to 1870 with Napoleon III (a.k.a. Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew) as Emperor. Zola originally planned the ten-novel cycle depicting life in the Second Empire in 1869; the series of course, subsequently grew to twenty novels and took Zola over twenty years to complete. The last novel in the series, Doctor Pascal was published in 1893.

Zola made claims that the Rougon-Macquart series was a scientific study into genealogy or heredity. It all seems a bit silly these days and people sometimes rubbish the series because the ‘scientific’ aspect was incorrect. I just ignored his claims and read the books as he still has a lot of interesting insights into human nature.

The Reading Order

Madame Vauquer has already covered the topic of the Reading Order, which I totally agree with, but I would just like to make a few points regarding the reading order:

  • Each novel is completely self-contained and can be read on its own with no knowledge of the other novels in the series.
  • Many people who decide to read the series either read it in publication order or some-sort of chronological order such as Zola’s recommended reading order.
  • If you are not sure if you want to read the whole series but just want to try Zola then it’s best to read a few of the ‘biggies’ first, e.g. Nana, Germinal, L’Assommoir, Pot Luck, La Bête Humaine. Of course, if you’re still interested after some of those then continue with the others.

The short version then, is that the reading order does not really matter that much and the potential reader should not get too obsessed with it. However, there are some extra points that I would like to make that may help people who are planning to read the series – these are for guidance only. I realise that, having set out three clear points above, that I’m now about to confuse the issue with loads of exceptions, so I’ll apologise, but continue anyway:

  • Whatever order you read them in, personally I wouldn’t read The Fortune of the Rougons first. It’s much better read after you’ve read some of the others and after you’ve got to know some of the characters. If you read it first it may just seem confusing. It was my eighth book of the series.
  • It’s probably best, however, to read The Fortune of the Rougons before reading His Excellency, Eugène Rougon, The Conquest of Plassans, The Kill and Abbé Mouret’s Sin.
  • It’s best to read Doctor Pascal last as it’s essentially an epilogue to the whole series.
  • The Debacle portrays the end of the Second Empire and the subsequent Paris Commune, so it’s best to read this near the end, preferably as the penultimate novel.
  • For those readers that like a bit of chronology: Nana appears as a child in L’Assommoir and as an adult in Nana; The Ladies’ Paradise should be read after Pot Luck as Octave Mouret is older in The Ladies’ Paradise; at the end of The Earth Jean Macquart leaves to join the army which leads into The Debacle. I read all of these the ‘wrong’ way round with no ill effects. The only one I got the ‘correct’ way round was with reading The Kill before Money.

Translations

The other main question that crops up if you’re reading them in English is ‘which translation to read?’ The answer is reasonably simple: if there is a modern (say post 1970) translation available then read it, especially if it’s a Penguin or Oxford University Press book (Brian Nelson rules!). If you have no alternative then you may have to fall back on older translations, the most common ones will be the Vizetelly translations. In fact, nearly all of the free digital versions and cheap (and sometimes not-so-cheap) printed versions are versions of the Vizetelly translations, which were originally published in the late Victorian period. The quality, however, varies wildly; some were heavily bowdlerised, especially those novels with a sexual content.

If you’re prepared to wait for all of the Rougon-Macquart novels to get a modern translation then you may have to wait a while. Though things are looking good as modern translations of Money and The Conquest of Plassans are due in 2014. This still leaves five novels that have not received a modern translation yet. Fortunately, when I was reading the series I discovered that many of the novels of the series were translated in the 1950s by various translators and published by Elek Books. Although these translations are now also dated themselves, they are, in my opinion, preferable to the Vizetelly versions. I managed to order some copies from my local library and I bought other copies at reasonable prices from eBay and other sites. Translation information, including Elek Book versions, can be found on the Translations page.

The other option is just to learn French and read them in the original.

Hopefully some of the information above will be of use to people who are thinking of reading any books in the series.

Exceptional Excerpts: The Kill by Émile Zola

The Kill was originally published as La Curée in 1872. It was the second volume in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series of books. The whole novel revolves around Saccard’s (a.k.a. Aristide Rougon) lust for money and Maxime and Renée’s lust for each other – Maxime is Saccard’s son from his first wife and Renée is Saccard’s second wife.

This excerpt is from the first chapter. A banquet has been held at Saccard’s luxurious house and the guests are leaving. Maxime and Louise, his betrothed, have sneaked off to the hothouse which is filled with exotic plants; Renée has followed them at a distance and spies on them.

Endless love and voluptuous appetite pervaded this stifling nave in which settled the ardent sap of the tropics. Renée was wrapped in the powerful bridals of the earth that gave birth to these dark growths, these colossal stamina; and the acrid birth-throes of this hotbed, of this forest growth, of this mass of vegetation aglow with the entrails that nourished it, surrounded her with disturbing odours. At her feet was the steaming tank, its tepid water thickened by the sap from the floating roots, enveloping her shoulders with a mantle of heavy vapours, forming a mist that warmed her skin like the touch of a hand moist with desire. Overhead she could smell the palm trees, whose tall leaves shook down their aroma. And more than the stifling heat, more than the brilliant light, more than the great dazzling flowers, like faces laughing or grimacing between the leaves, it was the odours that overwhelmed her. An indescribable perfume, potent, exciting, composed of a thousand different perfumes, hung about her; human exudation, the breath of women, the scent of hair; and breezes sweet and swooningly faint were blended with breezes coarse and pestilential, laden with poison. But amid this strange music of odours, the dominant melody that constantly returned, stifling the sweetness of the vanilla and the orchids’ pungency, was the penetrating, sensual smell of flesh, the smell of lovemaking escaping in the early morning from the bedroom of newlyweds.

Renée is overcome by the odours in the hothouse, the night’s excess and from watching Maxime and Louise. The chapter ends with this paragraph:

The shrub that half concealed her was a malignant plant, a Madagascan tanghin tree with wide, box-like leaves with whitish stems, whose smallest veins distilled a venomous fluid. At a moment when Louise and Maxime laughed more loudly in the reflected yellow light of the sunset in the little boudoir, Renée, her mind wandering, her mouth dry and parched, took between her lips a sprig of the tanghin tree that was level with her mouth, and sank her teeth into one of its bitter leaves.

( The Kill, by Émile Zola, Oxford University Press, translated by Brian Nelson, 2004, p39-40)

Emile Zola, The Fortune of the Rougons

Rougon

This commentary is cross posted from my Silver Threads blog.
Please note that it contains links to other Zola posts at that blog.

Begin at the beginning I always say when you read books in a series, but I haven’t done that at all with Zola’s great Rougon-Macquart novels, set in the time of Louis Napoleon’s Second Empire in France. I drifted in sideways when my book group took up Nana (courtesans and the high life of conspicuous consumption) and then went on to The Belly of Paris (Les Halles market), and finally Money (L’Argent, dastardly doings in the stock market). I find that I love the way Zola tells a complex story, rich in character and detail. After I also read The Masterpiece (L’Oeuvre, crazy modern artist rejected by the establishment) and The Debacle (Franco-Prussian War ends badly) and Germinal (strike in the coal mines), I recognized that I was well and truly hooked and had best go back to the beginning.

So here I am, with The Fortune of the Rougons, in a new translation by Brian Nelson (2012). The story begins with Adelaide Fouque, inheritor of a modest property in Plassans, the fictional Aix-en-Provence. Adelaide marries and, after her husband dies, she has a continuing affair with a smuggler, and thus children by two different men. The legitimate Pierre is the founder of the Rougon line, while the illegitimate Antoine and Ursule are the origins of the Marquarts. Both lines inherit the nervous temperament and potential insanity of Adelaide and both lines live out the greed and decadence of the years of the Second Empire in a number of venues. All the novels I read before this one, which gives us Adelaide’s story and the beginnings of the Rougons and Macquarts, featured one or more members of these families. Previous explanations of the connections were much less clear than in this novel, where Zola is careful to spell out his intentions.

One of Adelaide’s grandsons, a doctor, sums it up.

 Pascal looked intently at the madwoman, then at his father and uncle; his professional instincts were getting the better of him; he studied the mother and the sons, with the fascination of a naturalist observing the metamorphosis of an insect. He pondered over the growth of the family, with its different branches springing from one parent stock, whose sap carried the same seeds to the furthest twigs, which bent in different directions according to the ambient sunshine or shade. For a moment he thought he could see, in a flash, the future of the Rougon-Marquart family, a pack of wild, satiated appetites in the midst of a blaze of gold and blood.

Showing the members of the family and how their development varies with their backgrounds and associations is only part of Zola’s purpose. He uses his characters to show the corruption of the Second Empire. Even before the 1851 coup which brought Louis Napoleon to power, Zola’s description of provincial life is not flattering. Of Plassans (Aix) he says,

 The locking of the gates every evening summed up the spirit of the town, which was a combination of cowardice, egotism, routine, parochialism, and devout longing for a cloistered life. Plassans, when it had locked itself up, would say to itself ‘Now I’m safe,’ with the satisfaction of a pious bourgeois who, confident that his cashbox is secure, and certain that no noise will disturb him, duly says his prayers and retires happily to bed.

Brian Nelson, the translator says of the series in his Introduction,

 Through his family Zola examined systematically the social, sexual, and moral landscape of the late nineteenth century along with its political, financial and artistic contexts. Zola began work on the series in 1869 and devoted himself to it for the next quarter of a century.

Eighteen-sixty-nine, the year he started the series with The Fortune of the Rougons, is a significant date because just as the book was published the empire of Napoleon III was coming to an end with the Franco Prussian War. Zola could look back over the 20-year period very much as a naturalist viewing his characters in their many settings. Yet, reading Zola is not a detached, scientific experience. In his novels I find I experience the people and times up close and personal. His gifts as a story teller far exceed the value of any conclusions he can impart about the relationship of heredity and environment. For a sample, Lisa at ANZ LitLovers has just published an extended excerpt from the next book in the series.

After my first couple of Zolas I have relied on J. G. Patterson’s A Zola Dictionary; the Characters of the Rougon-Macquart Novels of Emile Zola. I have a  paperback copy but it is also free in various formats at Project Gutenberg. Patterson provides a summary of each novel, in chronological order and an index of characters. It is a great help in sorting out the many Rougons and Macquarts.