‘Rome’ (Part 2) by Émile Zola

Zola_Rome_fcX-700pxEarlier in the year I read the first half of Rome by Émile Zola and in my post I described how boring it was and I wasn’t sure whether to abandon it or not. Well, I decided to continue with it and finished it on New Year’s Eve. I thought that I owed it to Zola to continue and also because I do actually intend to read Paris, which is the last in the series. I read it in smaller, more palatable, chunks but it didn’t really improve; the main story was just as boring and the subplot with Benedetta and Dario was just as ludicrous.

The only saving grace was that Pierre did get to meet the Pope to discuss his book on ‘Socialistic Catholicicm’ only to find that the Pope was not exactly impressed with his ideas. Not only did we, the readers, know that the Pope wouldn’t ever support the book but all the other characters in the novel knew that he was doomed to failure as well. Surprisingly Pierre capitulates and agrees to withdraw his book rather than defend it, and then later when he’s alone he has a petulant fit where he denounces Catholicism and declares that only science has the answers. At no point does it cross his mind to publish his book without the Pope’s blessing or to ditch the Catholicism in his ‘Socialistic Catholicism’, especially as he admits way back at the beginning of Lourdes that he no longer believes in God and Catholicism. By the end of the novel I no longer cared what he did or thought.

The silly subplot with Benedetta and Dario, that even Zola says in the text ‘had no place save in the fifth acts of melodramas’ comes to an even more bizarre conclusion. Benedetta has got her divorce from her husband and now she and Dario are free to marry but some poisoned figs are delivered which are intended for Benedetta’s uncle but end up being eaten by Dario. Whilst on his death-bed Benedetta, stripped naked, goes to him:

   “My Dario, here I am!”
   For a second, which seemed an eternity, they clasped one another, she neither repelled nor terrified by the disorder which made him so unrecognisable, but displaying a delirious passion, a holy frenzy as if to pass beyond life, to penetrate with him into the black Unknown. And beneath the shock of the felicity at last offered to him he expired, with his arms yet convulsively wound around her as though indeed to carry her off. Then, whether from grief or from bliss amidst that embrace of death, there came such a rush of blood to her heart that the organ burst: she died on her lover’s neck, both tightly and for ever clasped in one another’s arms.
   There was a faint sigh. Victorine understood and drew near, while Pierre, also erect, remained quivering with the tearful admiration of one who has beheld the sublime.
   “Look, look!” whispered the servant, “she no longer moves, she no longer breathes. Ah! my poor child, my poor child, she is dead!”
   Then the priest murmured: “Oh! God, how beautiful they are.”

Yes, not only does her heart stop just at the same time as she kisses Dario but they are also buried together locked in this embrace. Graham King has noted in Garden of Zola that this ‘death-kiss syndrome’ had appeared in previous novels by Zola, such as Le Rêve and La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret but this whole subplot just seems totally out of place in this novel. It’s strange how nothing happens for most of the novel, then Zola wraps up both stories in a chapter or two and then limps on with another couple of chapters where Pierre says goodbye to everyone.

It’s fair to say that I didn’t like this book so you may be interested in other blogger’s reviews of Rome such as Behold the Stars’ review which contains much background information that I found interesting when I was trudging through the book and the review on Old Books by Dead Guys blog. Both blogs have many other reviews of Zola’s books.

This post was also posted on my blog Intermittencies of the Mind.

‘Rome’ (Part 1) by Émile Zola

Zola_Rome_fcX-700pxI’m halfway through Rome, the second volume of the Three Cities trilogy by Zola, and I have to admit it’s a slow slog. After Lourdes I thought I knew what to expect, I knew it wasn’t going to be top-class Zola but I thought it would be readable in its way, but Rome may defeat me yet. I’m taking a break and I may continue at a slower pace, maybe a chapter or two every week or so, or I may just pack it in.

Rome continues the story of Abbé Pierre Froment, who first appeared in Lourdes, and who seems to have regained his faith in some sense. I can never quite understand the Froment character as he seems to have lost his faith before Lourdes began only to accept by the end of that novel that, ok, he’s not a believer but he may as well carry on as a Priest as he can’t do anything else. By the beginning of Rome he’s regained a sense of faith in the form of Catholic Socialism and he’s off to Rome to meet the Pope in order to convince him that he and the Catholic hierarchy should renounce all earthly pleasures and return to a purer form of christianity and help the poor. Now, I’m pretty sure that every reader then, and now, would be certain that in no credible version of the Universe would the Pope agree to such a scheme. So Pierre has the impossible task of convincing the Pope of his plans; but before that he has to arrange a meeting with him and to convince him to get his book, New Rome, taken off the Index of banned books. He has to battle his way past the Papal bureaucracy which seems determined to thwart him at every step.

From the short synopsis this seems quite appealing to me; it sounds similar to Kafka’s The Castle, a tale of a fight against a powerful bureaucracy or one of my favourite films, Patrice Leconte’s Ridicule where the main character has to battle his way through Louis XVI’s court to gain access to the king and ultimately to get funds to drain a mosquito-ridden swamp back home. But Rome consists largely of Zola’s travel notes from his visit to Rome in 1894. We get a tourist’s guide to many of Rome’s buildings at the beginning of the novel, a guide of some of Rome’s ruins, the Appian Way, the catacombs, the Sistine chapel together with a comparison between Michelangelo and Botticelli, the view from St Peter’s and we witness a public Papal event called Peter’s Pence Fund, amongst others. In an attempt to add some drama to the book he invents a Shakespearian subplot that involves Benedetta and Dario who are in love with each other; only there’s a slight problem because Benedetta is already married. As the marriage was never consumated she is trying to get divorced, thus introducing her own battle with the Papal authorities. And so, the first half of Rome reads as a pretty dull tourist’s guide to Rome combined with a bit of history and a melodramatic love story. The book only becomes slightly interesting when Pierre is encountering the obstructive Papal bureaucrats or when they all go to visit some of the ‘lower classes’, even if Zola’s description of them portrays them as little better than lazy pigs rolling about in filth.

It’s interesting to see what others thought of Rome. In the introduction to the physical book I have (see image) the author has this to say of Zola’s work after the Rougon-Macquart series:

…the Three Cities and the Four Gospels will subsequently prove to be fairly mechanically assembled, with plot subservient to ideas. Characters now tend to be stereotypes or mouthpieces, and to recur not in the Balzacian sense – from novel to novel – but at regular and predictable intervals within each.

This is a fair point. With Lourdes Zola seems to be just using the form of the novel because that is what he’s familiar with, whereas it would have worked better as a piece of journalism. With Rome all the tourist stuff and the love-story are just add-ons to make the piece look like a novel; he could have expressed his ideas better in an essay if he could no longer be bothered with plot or character. One of the main criticisms I had with the book is that we rarely know what Pierre, or any of the other characters, are thinking so that all we get are third person descriptions of objects and events. Graham King is a bit more sympathetic to Zola and Rome:

Rome is a long, wide-ranging and complex novel with more merits, I think, than deficiencies. The problem for the modern reader is that it suffers from a marked loss of topicality…Its historical background, vital then, is irrelevant now: Pope Leo XIII’s emerging social conscience, which brought about the establishment of Catholic trade unions.

And so, I’m faced with the decision to continue or not. Because I’ve read the introduction to the book and biographies of Zola I know how Rome ends, so I may just take the less painful way out and abandon it. The next decision will be whether to continue with the final volume, Paris.

This was cross-posted on my blog Intermittencies of the Mind.

Lourdes-Rome-Paris

‘Rome’ Cover Images

Rome was first published in 1896 and is the second part of Les Trois Villes. The only known English translation is by Ernest Alfred Vizetelly.

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