Exceptional Excerpts: ‘Doctor Pascal’

Zola_Doctor-Pascal-fcXC-700pxDoctor Pascal is the last novel in the twenty-novel Rougon-Macquart series and although it’s not one of the best of the series it is still a good read, especially if you’ve read the other nineteen.

Although the main subject of the novel is the love affair between Pascal and his niece Clotilde, this excerpt is from Chapter Nine and describes a scene where Pascal’s manipulative mother, Felicité, goes to visit her alcoholic brother-in-law, Antoine Macquart, who lives close to the asylum in which Tante Dide is living. The excerpt is rather long, consisting of two pages of the original novel, but I think that any attempt to shorten it will just diminish its effect. It is quite a famous scene from the novel as it describes a case of spontaneous human combustion. Anyway, it opens with Felicité going to visit Macquart:

It was a magnificent summer’s day, hot and clear. To the right and to the left of the narrow path, she gazed, with mounting resentment, at the fields she had been stupid enough to buy for him; all that fertile ground, the price she had paid, in an attempt to ensure his discretion and good conduct. In the sunshine, the house, with its pink tiles, its walls distempered a bright yellow, looked wonderfully gay and attractive. Under the ancient mulberry trees on the terrace she revelled in their delightful coolness and admired the view. What a worthy and perfect retreat, what a blissful spot for an old man to finish a long, good and dutiful life in peace!

She could neither see nor hear him. Nothing but profound silence! Only the faint buzzing of bees around the giant mallows. There was a little yellow dog on the terrace, the kind called loubet in Provence, stretched out on the bare earth, in the shade. He had raised his head and started growling, but he knew her, put his head down again and made no further movement.

There was something eerie about this solitude, in spite of the blazing sun she shivered and called: “Macquart!.. Macquart!.. ”

The door of the house, under the mulberry trees, was wide open. But she felt too frightened to go in, the entrance was like a gaping maw. And she called out in a louder voice: “Macquart!.. Macquart! ..”

Not a sound, not a breath. There was still that heavy brooding silence, only the bees seemed alive, buzzing around the giant mallows.

In the end, Felicité began to feel ashamed of her fears and boldly went indoors. In the hall, the door on the left opened into the kitchen, where Macquart usually sat. It was shut. She opened it. At first she could distinguish nothing, he must have closed the shutters to keep out the heat. Her first impression was merely one of being almost suffocated by the smell of spirits which filled the room; even the furniture seemed to be oozing with it, the whole house was impregnated with it. Then, as her eyes became accustomed to the dim light, she finally saw Macquart. He was sitting near the table, on which stood a glass and a bottle of double-strength brandy, completely empty. Hunched up in his chair he was soundly asleep, helplessly drunk. This sight aroused her to a fury of contempt:

“Come, Macquart, it is unreasonable and shameful to get yourself in such a state!.. Wake up, it’s disgraceful!”

He was sleeping so deeply that she could not even hear him breathing. She raised her voice, shouted, started beating him with her fists, all to no avail: “Macquart! Macquart! Macquart!.. You are disgusting!”

She gave up trying to rouse him, but she was no longer apprehensive, she walked about and bumped against the furniture. Her walk along the dusty road from the asylum had made her very thirsty. She took off her gloves and put them down on a corner of the table. Then, she had the luck to find a water jug, washed a glass and filled it to the brim. She was about to drink when an extraordinary sight filled her with such amazement that she put the glass down near the gloves without drinking.

She could now see everything clearly, thanks to a few narrow shafts of sunlight which filtered through the cracks of the old shutters. There was her brother, wearing, as always, his neat blue suit and his eternal fur cap. He had grown much stouter in the last five or six years, he looked monstrously bulky with his folds of fat. She had just noticed that he must have been smoking before lapsing into unconsciousness, because his pipe, a short black pipe, had fallen on his knees. Then she stood transfixed with astonishment; the cloth of his trousers had caught fire from the smouldering tobacco; and through a hole in the material, already as large as a crown piece, his naked thigh could be seen, a red thigh and it was burning with a blue flame.

At first Felicité thought that it was his linen, his underpants or his vest, which was burning. But, there was no doubt about it, it was his flesh, burning with a flickering blue flame, light, dancing, like a flame spreading over the surface of a bowl of alcohol. It was still no higher than the flame of a night-light, so feeble, so unstable that the slightest breath of air made it waver. But it was growing,
spreading rapidly and the skin was splitting, and the fat was beginning to melt.

Felicité uttered an involuntary exclamation: “Macquart!.. Macquart!”

Not the slightest movement from him. He was completely unconscious, he was in a drunken stupor, more like a coma, all sensation paralysed; but he was definitely still alive, she could see his chest heaving in a slow and regular rhythm.

“Macquart!..Macquart!”

Now the liquid fat was dribbling through the cracks in his skin, feeding the flame which was spreading to his belly. And Felicité realized that he was burning up, like a sponge soaked in alcohol. He had been saturating himself for years in the strongest, most inflammable of spirits. Soon, doubtless, he would be flaming from head to foot.

Then she stopped making any effort to arouse him, he was too deeply unconscious. During the next few minutes she nerved herself to watch him, terrified, but gradually coming to a decision. Her hands were trembling with a light but uncontrollable tremor. She was choking, she seized the glass with both hands and emptied the water down her throat in a single gulp. She was about to creep out of the kitchen, on tiptoe, when she remembered her gloves. She turned back, thought that she had picked them both up, groping cautiously over the table for them. Then she went out, closed the door carefully and quietly, as if afraid of disturbing someone.

I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s powerful stuff! It almost put me off drinking as well!

By the way, Felicité has only picked up one glove. Pascal and Clotilde meet her on the train returning home from this incident and they notice that she only has one glove with her. Later on Pascal visits Macquart’s house and witnesses the astonishing sight; everything in the room is in its proper place but on the charred chair is a mess of ash and fat and everything is covered with grease. Clotilde notices Felicité’s other green glove under the table.

Excerpt taken from the Elek Book translation, Doctor Pascal from 1957, translated by Vladimir Kean, pp173-5.

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Exceptional Excerpts: A Priest in the House (aka Conquest of Plassans)

I think it’s fair to say that Zola wasn’t a particularly humorous writer but there are the occasional sections in his books that show that he could be funny when he wanted to be. So A Priest in the House (a.k.a. The Conquest of Plassans), a tale of political machinations, madness and murder, set in Zola’s fictional town of Plassans doesn’t seem likely to have any comic moments. There is at least one, and it’s totally unexpected; I couldn’t stop laughing when I originally read it as it made me think of some old 1920s comedy.

I won’t need to reveal too much of the plot as it’s almost a stand-alone piece. All you need to know is that Mouret has become a bit of a recluse and rumours are spreading about the town that he has been beating his wife, Marthe, and that he’s mad. Mouret, meanwhile, is oblivious to these rumours.

This comedic episode opens chapter eighteen and is approximately five pages in its entirety. It starts with Mouret going for a Sunday walk:

One Sunday, as he was setting out from home, he noticed Rose on the side-walk in Balande Street, talking eagerly with Madame Rastoil’s servant. The two cooks stopped talking as soon as they saw him. They stared at him in such a peculiar way that he looked down to see if a handkerchief was trailing out of one of his back pockets. When he reached Government Square he looked back, and saw them still standing at the same place. Rose was imitating the swaying walk of a drunken man, and the judge’s servant was in fits of laughter.

“I’m walking too fast; they’re laughing at me,” thought Mouret. So he walked still more slowly.

So he carries on with his walk; he meets other townspeople who are amazed that he’s allowed to be walking freely amongst them.

“Did you notice how stiffly he walks?”
“Yes. When he wanted to step over the gutter, he nearly came a cropper.”
“They’re all like that, they say.”
“Maybe, but he gave me such a turn. Why do they let him come out? It ought to be forbidden.”

When he enters the market all the housewives draw back to let him through. He interrupts some in the middle of gossiping about him and his supposedly murderous intentions that he has towards his wife. Mouret keeps checking his clothes, concerned that some urchins might have dirtied them. He’s quizzed by some of the ‘old cronies’ who joke about his clothes and the well-being of his wife. Mouret is visibly confused by their comments and when he leaves them they mutter to each other that he’s obviously mad.

When Mouret was passing the Youth Club at the end of Sauvaire Place, he again heard the smothered laughter which had been dogging him ever since he had set out. At the entrance to the club he saw Séverin Rastoil, and unmistakably he was pointing him out to a group of young fellows. There was no doubt about it: the town was laughing at him. Seized with apprehension, he bent his head, very puzzled by this hostility, and slipped away along the house-fronts. Just as he turned into Cluckett Street, he heard noises behind him; he looked round and saw that three boys were following him; two tall and bold-looking, and a tiny one, very solemn, clutching an orange which he had picked out of a gutter. Now he walked down to the end of the street, cut across Récollets Place and found himself in Banne Street. The boys were still following.

“Would you like your ears pulled?” he shouted, suddenly advancing upon them.

They dodged away, laughing, bawling, and scrambled out of range on all fours. Mouret turned red; he was a laughing stock. Doing his best to calm down, he continued his stroll.

He’s still being followed by the urchins and he panics.

So then he couldn’t help it: Mouret took to his heels. Hands stretched out and utterly bewildered, he dashed into Balande Street followed by the crowd of urchins to the number of eleven or twelve. It seemed as though all the shopmen from Banne Street, all the market women, the strollers from Sauvaire Place, the young fellows from the club, the Rougons, the Condamins – every soul in Plassans, were rushing along after him, down the steeply-sloping street. The boys were stamping with their feet, sliding over the pointed cobbles, raising the clamour of a hunting pack in this quiet part of the town.

“Catch him!” they yelled.
“Hoo! hoo! Ain’t he funny, him and his old coat!”
“Hi! you chaps! Run round by Taravelle Street; you’ll nab him.”
“Faster, look sharp!”

Panic-stricken, Mouret made a desperate dash for his gate; but his foot slipped and over he went, rolling down the path, then lay there a few seconds, helpless. The urchins, fearing kicks, danced round him uttering triumphant yells, while the tiny one, stepping forward solemnly, threw the rotten orange; it squashed over his left eye. Mouret rose heavily to his feet and, without wiping his face, got in through the door. Rose had to take a broom to drive the young devils off.

Hmmm, bullying and a near lynching; it seems more sinister now, but I’m sure that Zola meant it to be comical – didn’t he?

(A Priest in the House, by Émile Zola, Elek Books, translated by Brian Rhys, 1957)

Exceptional Excerpts: The Abbé Mouret’s Sin by Émile Zola

The following quote occurs near the beginning of the novel and describes the village in which the young Serge Mouret is the parish priest.

Gradually, lassitude overcame the Reverend Mouret. The rising sun bathed him in such warmth that he relaxed completely against the church door. Tranquil contentment took possession of him. He mused on this village of his, which had sprung up in this place, amid the stones, like the gnarled undergrowth of the valley. All Artaud’s inhabitants were inter-related, all bearing the same surname to such an extent that they used double-barrelled names from the cradle up, to distinguish one from another. At some antecedent date an ancestral Artaud had come like an outcast, to establish himself in this waste land. His family had grown with the savage vitality of the vegetation, drawing nourishment from this stone till it had become a tribe, then the tribe turned to a community, till they could not sort out their cousinage, going back for generations. They inter-married with unblushing promiscuity. It was unknown for an Artaud to bring in a wife from any neighbouring village. There were merely occasional cases of girls going elsewhere to find husbands. These people came into the world and left it bound to their soil, proliferating on their own dung-hills with slow deliberation like the uncomplicated soul of trees which scatter their seed about their feet, with little conception of any larger world beyond the dun rocks among which they vegetated. Even so, there were still poor and rich among them. When hens vanished, hen-houses acquired heavy padlocks at night. An Artaud had once not long since killed another, one evening, behind the mill. Deep in this grim belt of hills they were a people apart, a breed sprung from the soil, a mankind of three hundred heads in whom time began all anew.

(The Abbé Mouret’s Sin, by Émile Zola, Elek Books, translated by Alec Brown, 1957, p.30)

Elek Book Translations

Elek Books

Elek Book covers – The original 1950s editions often had garish pictures on their covers as with ‘His Excellency’. The more plain covers are from the 1970s reprints.

When I was reading the Rougon-Macquart series I came across Graham King’s book Garden of Zola, in which I discovered that a large portion of Zola’s books were translated in the 1950s and 1960s. As I had realised by this time that not all the R.M. books were available in newer, more readily available translations and that the older Vizetelly translations were not necessarily the best versions to read, I decided to search for some of the Elek books. I found some in my County Library’s store and some I bought on eBay. Admittedly, these are probably not as easy to get outside the U.K. but many were published separately in the U.S. and may be available by different publishers. I have tried to give some information about U.S. publications below.

In the end I read thirteen of the novels as new translations, six were the Elek Book versions and only one was the Vizetelly translation. Until all the books are available in new translations English readers will have to fall back on older translations such as the Elek Book translations, especially if you’re trying to avoid Vizetelly. I have included as much information as possible on the Elek Book translations below – this information is largely taken from Garden of Zola and from personal copies.

I have also included some information, again mostly from Garden of Zola, highlighting the differences between the Elek Book versions and the Vizetelly version. I have limited this to the novels that are, as yet, unavailable in a modern translation. Graham King compares large sections from the books, however, I will limit myself to quoting his summaries and conclusions which are very often amusing and illuminating.

Elek Book Editions

  • Madeleine Ferat (1957) – Madeleine Ferat (1868) translated by Alec Brown. Published in U.S. by Citadel Press, 1957.
  • The Kill (1958) – La Curée (1871/2) translated by A. Texeira de Mattos. Originally published by Lutetian Society in 1895. Includes an introduction by Angus Wilson. Published in U.S. by Citadel Press, 1957.
  • Savage Paris (1955) – Le Ventre de Paris (1873) translated by David Hughes & Marie-Jacqueline Mason. Published in U.S. by Citadel Press, 1955
  • A Priest in the House (1957) – La Conquête de Plassans (1874) translated by Brian Rhys, ISBN 0236309641. Published in U.S. by Citadel Press, 1957.
  • The Abbé Mouret’s Sin (1957) – La Faute de l’abbé Mouret (1875) translated by Alec Brown, ISBN 0236308084, reprinted 1970. Also published as ‘The Sinful Priest’ in 1960.
  • His Excellency (1958) – Son Excellence Eugène Rougon (1876) translated by Alec Brown. Published in U.S. by Dufour Editions, 1958.
  • The Drunkard (1958) – L’Assommoir (1877) translated by Arthur Symons. Originally published by Lutetian Society in 1895 as L’Assommoir.
  • A Love Affair (1957) – Une Page d’amour (1878) translated by Jean Stewart. Reprinted 1972, ISBN 0236309056. Published in U.S. by Citadel Press, 1957.
  • Nana (1957) – Nana (1880) translated by Victor Plarr. Originally published by Lutetian Society in 1895.
  • Restless House (1957) – Pot-Bouille (1882) translated by Percy Pinkerton. Originally published by Lutetian Society in 1895.
  • Ladies’ Delight (1960) – Au Bonheur des dames (1883) translated by April Fitzlyon. Originally published in 1957 by John Calder. Published in U.S. by Abelard-Schuman, 1958.
  • Zest for Life (1955) – La Joie de vivre (1884) translated by Jean Stewart with a preface by Angus Wilson. Reprinted in 1968, ISBN 0236310135. Published in U.S. by Indiana Uni. Press, 1956.
  • GerminalGerminal (1885) translated by Havelock Ellis. Originally published by Lutetian Society in 1894.
  • The Masterpiece (1950) – L’Œuvre (1886) translated by Thomas Walton. The O.U.P. version published in 1993 is a revision by Roger Pearson of the Walton translation.
  • Earth (1954) – La Terre (1887) translated by Ann Lindsay. This was reprinted by Arrow Books in 1967.
  • The Beast in Man (1958) – La Bête humaine (1890) translated by Alec Brown.
  • The Debacle (1968) – La Débâcle (1892) translated by John Hands with an introduction by Robert Baldick.
  • Doctor Pascal (1957) – Le Docteur Pascal (1893) translated by Vladimir Kean with an introduction by Hugh Shelley. ISBN 0236308602. Published in U.S. by Dufour Editions, 1957.

Translation Comparisons

  • Madeleine Férat – According to King, Brown puts over Zola’s physiological explanations well, whereas Vizetelly makes them even more ludicrous than they already are. Brown’s translation is the best of the three available.
  • A Priest in the House (The Conquest of Plassans) – King quite likes the Vizetelly translation as there wasn’t too much in the novel to annoy the censor. However, the Rhys translation is described as ‘excellent’ and it ‘captures the gossipy flavour of the narrative.’ I enjoyed the book and had no problems with the translation, though this one should be redundant soon as a new O.U.P. translation is coming out.
  • The Abbé Mouret’s Sin – King compares the Elek/Brown translation with a newer one by Sandy Petrey. Although he has qualms about both he admits that both are ‘highly recommended versions’. The original Vizetelly version is ‘as stodgy as a plot of turnips’ and the ‘revised’ Vizetelly was even worse. The middle section of the book is incredibly lyrical, King says that ‘Zola’s linguistic skills are revealed at their peak’ and the Vizetellys weren’t up to the task. This is one of my favourite books of the series.
  • His Excellency – King says that the Elek/Brown version is a ‘craftsman-like interpretation of a straightforward narrative’ and the early versions are ‘run-of-the-mill Victorian mannerist’. This was my least favourite book of the series but I would think that Vizetelly would probably be ok.
  • A Love Affair – King declares the Elek/Stewart translation as ‘excellent’ especially in relation to the many descriptive passages in the novel. The ‘revised’ Vizetelly suffered quite a bit as they cut a lot out.
  • Zest for Life – King states that Stewart conveys ‘both the sombre atmosphere and the dramatic incidents with equal skill’ and almost approves of the pre-trial Vizetelly version of 1886. However, even here Vizetelly evades a menstruation scene. Further cuts were made in the 1901 version, especially in relation to a particularly harrowing childbirth that takes place in Chapter Ten.I also made some comparisons between the Vizetelly and Stewart translations and was astonished at the differences. For anyone who’s interested you may like to check out this post on this site and my GoodReads review. The amount of culling involved is highlighted by looking at the word counts for Chapter Ten of each version: the original French version had approx. 11,200 words, the Elek version had approx. 11,600 words and the Vizetelly version had approx. 5,200 words. So, avoid the Vizetelly version at all costs!

Exceptional Excerpts: Zest for Life by Émile Zola

Zest for Life is the Elek Books version of La Joie de vivre (1884)  which was published in 1955. Although not one of the best books of the series I found it an interesting read. The novel clips along at quite a leisurely pace until the reader reaches Chapter Ten – this is an astounding chapter, containing some of Zola’s most powerful, descriptive writing. Please note that I give away part of the plot in what follows.

In this chapter Louise, who is eight month’s pregnant, goes into labour. Her husband, Lazare, fetches the local midwife, Mme Bouland, but she discovers that the baby’s arm is showing and recommends that Dr. Cazenove is called for. Eventually the doctor arrives and suggests that it will be difficult to save both mother and child. He proceeds, however and for eight pages we experience the doctor’s attempt to re-align the baby and deliver it safely. The mother, who has been in constant pain for hours is unconscious at this point. I would have liked to quote the whole eight or so pages as it works so well as a whole, but instead I’ve picked out a small section which should give a flavour of the prose.

‘We’ve waited too long, it’s going to be difficult to get my hand in…You see, the shoulder’s already engaged in the opening.’

Amidst the swollen, straining muscles, between pinkish folds of flesh, the child could be seen. But it had stopped there, unable to get past because of the narrowness of the organ. Meanwhile, however, the abdominal and lumbar muscles were still striving to expel it; even unconscious, the mother was still pushing violently, exhausting herself in labour, in the mechanical urge to be delivered; and the waves of pain still swept downwards, each accompanied by a cry in her stubborn battle against the impossible. The child’s hand was hanging out of the vulva. It was a tiny black hand, its fingers opening and closing intermittently as though it were clutching at life.

‘Let the leg give a little,’ said Madame Bouland to Pauline. ‘No need to wear her out.’

Dr. Cazenove was standing between the two knees, each held by one of the women. He turned round, puzzled at the way the light was flickering; Lazare behind him, was trembling so violently that the candle shook in his hand as though in a great gust of wind.

‘My dear fellow,’ said the doctor, ‘put the candlestick on the bedside table. I shall see better.’

Incapable of watching any longer, the husband retreated to the further end of the room and sank into a chair. But although he had stopped watching, he still kept on seeing the little creature’s pathetic hand, clinging to life, seeming to grope for help in this world into which it had led the way.

Unfortunately, if you decide to read the Vizettely translation then this whole eight or nine page section of the book is covered by the following paragraph:

There came a cruel and affecting scene. It was one of those dread hours when life and death wrestle together, when human science and skill battle to overcome and correct the errors of Nature. More than once did the Doctor pause, fearing a fatal issue. The patient’s agony was terrible, but at last science triumphed, and a child was born. It was a boy.

A graphic description of a difficult childbirth was obviously not considered appropriate material for the late Victorian reading public. They could read it in French though if they wished.

(Zest for Life by Émile Zola, published by Elek Books, 1955, translated by Jean Stewart)