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

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)