La Bete Humaine (The Beast in Man) by Émile Zola, translated by Roger Pearson

La Bete HumaineOh, this is the best Zola yet!

La Bête Humaine is No 15 in the recommended reading order for the Rougon-Macquart cycle, (and I’ve already read Germinal which is No 16, see my review) so I think I’m in a good position to judge.  This novel has a narrative drive which will have your pulse racing – and the ending, oh! the ending is so powerfully dramatic!

According to the excellent introduction by Roger Pearson, the novel received a fierce critical reaction, including the complaint that there were ‘too many trains and too many crimes’.  That should serve as a salutary reminder for book reviewers that we can be so horribly wrong because now La Bête Humaine is in the 1001 Books canon, and rightly so.

The central idea in the novel is the struggle between man’s primordial instincts and the civilising veneer.  Jules Lemaitre, writing in Le Figaro, was one of those who appreciated Zola’s genius, describing him as ‘the poet of man’s darker side’ whose whole work could be described by the title of this particular novel.  Pearson credits Lemaitre with being the best of the early reviewers of La Bête Humaine because he understood its point:

‘In his latest novel M. Zola examines the most frightening and most mysterious of all primordial instincts: the instinct for destruction and slaughter, and the obscure connection between this instinct and the erotic instinct.’ (p. viii)

The novel is set in the railway community, in 1869-70, along the Paris-Le Havre line.  Rail was well-established by the time Zola wrote this in 1890, and indeed, one crime is averted because of technological safety improvements.  But the tension between the onward rush of progress and the age-old emotions of jealousy and greed plays out into murder and violence no matter how the protagonists struggle against it.

The story begins with a respected train-driver called Roubaud and his wife Séverine, and the murder which propels the novel along was based on a real-life murder of a judge in a first-class compartment.  In those days carriages were self-contained: there were no corridors or connectors and no means of getting between carriages once the train was in motion.  So no one heard a thing, and the culprit was never found.  This notorious murder, and another which highlighted the dangers of travelling alone in a compartment, led to the introduction of footboards which ran along the outside of the carriages, the use of which must have been perilous indeed when the train was hurtling along at 80kph.  Pearson says that Zola was influenced by the celebrated serial killer Jack the Ripper as well.

But La Bête Humaine is not sensationalist tabloid rubbish.  Yes, there are shocking murders, and one of them is triggered by the sexual abuse of a young girl and another, which goes wrong, results in the deaths of many innocent victims.  If you are reading it here in Victoria where there is a Royal Commission into Domestic Violence, you will cringe when you see how neighbours hear and do nothing about the routine beating of women. However La Bête Humaine is also Zola’s  roman judiciare (legal novel) and he uses it to expose the corruption of the judicial system which relied so heavily on patronage.  Monsieur Denizet, the prosecuting magistrate, knows not to rock the boat when an important man gets killed and with his usual forensic dissection of character, Zola shows us how this man manages to justify ignoring inconvenient evidence when it doesn’t match up with his own theories.  Further up the food chain, M. Camy-Lamotte, Secretary General at the Ministry, is too easily swayed by a pretty face and his anxieties about the fluid state of the empire.  (Yes, it was about to fall apart again, in the wake of the disastrous war against Prussia).  My guess is that the authorities would have been none too pleased about what they read about themselves in La Bête Humaine.

But interesting as they are, the insights into the minds of these powerful men are sidelines in a book which offers a masterful psychological analysis of the causes of violent crime.  In all cases Zola invokes the struggle between emotion and reason and the clash of base instincts against knowledge of what is right.  He shows with unnerving clarity how civilised behaviour can so easily be vanquished by inexplicable surges of rage and hatred.  In Jacques, we see the triggers which threaten to overwhelm him when he’s with women.  In Flores, we see the inane logic of jealous impulses.  We see how Mizard justifies his grotesque actions, and we see with Cabouche how easy it is to let an innocent fool take the blame.  We also see how easily crime can be forgotten when its proceeds lead to the desired outcome, how a moral gangrene sets in and leads to further wickedness, but how eventually it haunts the criminal from within.

The metaphor of the train as a symbol of runaway progress is brilliant, and the chapter where Jacques coaxes his locomotive La Lison through the snowstorm is Zola at his absolute stunning best.  This is an heroic struggle of man against nature with technology on his side, but we feel the vulnerability of man when the engine finally fails and the panic-stricken passengers are marooned in the icy-cold desolation of La Croix-de-Maufras.  En route, we are reminded that Jacques at the helm and his drunken fireman Pecqueux are exposed to the elements:

Never before had Jacques experienced such penetrating cold.  Pricked by the myriad needles of the snow, his face felt as though it were bleeding; and he had lost all feeling in his hands, which were stiff and achingly numb, so numb indeed, as he shuddered to realise, that his fingers could no longer feel the little gear-wheel.  When he lifted his elbow to pull the whistle, his arm hung from his shoulder with the dead weight of a corpse.  He could not have said whether his legs were supporting him, amidst the endless jarring and jolting which tore at his entrails.  Immense fatigue had overtaken him in this cold, as its icy grip spread to his skull, and he was afraid of simply ceasing to be, of not knowing any more whether he was driving or not, for already he was merely turning the gear-wheel in mindless, automatic response as he gazed in vacant bewilderment at the falling pressure gauge.  (p.190)

There isn’t a better description of imminent hypothermia in literature until you read the Russians.  (Tolstoy, Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn).  And I am not going to think about the final chapter with the runaway train next time I’m on the TGV!

If you only ever read one Zola, then I recommend this one.  It’s brilliant.

Author: Émile Zola
Title: La Bête Humaine
Translated by Roger Pearson
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics, 1999, reissued 2009
ISBN: 9870199528669
Source: Personal library, purchased from the Book Depository (because I just had to get my hands on a good translation really quickly).

Availability

Fishpond: La Bete Humaine (Oxford World’s Classics)

The Beast in ManPS My first attempt to read this novel was with my copy of the 1956 Elek edition, translated by Alec Brown.  It was unbearable.  The dialogue of the working class characters were like excruciating caricatures.  Within five pages I was checking a French edition to see what had been done with it and I was appalled.  Just don’t.  Don’t.

Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers.

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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.

L’Assommoir (The Dram Shop), by Émile Zola, translated by Margaret Mauldon

L'Assommoir L’Assommoir, variously translated as The Dram Shop, The Gin Palace, Drunk and Drunkard is said to be Zola’s masterpiece. Well, I haven’t read all of the Rougon-Macquart cycle, this is no. 13 in the recommended reading order so I have seven left to enjoy, but I can certainly attest to the brilliance of this one…

L’Assommoir is overwhelming. Like the very best of Dickens, it tells the story of an underclass with respect and compassion and it leaves its readers emotionally bereft. Its central character Gervaise begins the novel with such hope, and she rises to make a success of her humble life, only to stumble on a downward trajectory that can have no other resolution than degradation. Oxford Worlds’ Classics have compounded the melancholy with a superb portrait by Edgar Degas on the front cover. This image becomes quite haunting as you read…

The Rougon-Maquart novels are not a family saga, but Gervaise’s place in the family of Antoine Maquart serves to emphasise her tragedy. Her sister Lisa lives barely a mile away, confidently running a charcuterie and living a bourgeois lifestyle. But she might as well be on the other side of the planet: Gervaise’s life is a world away and their paths never cross. Would Lisa have rescued Gervaise if she knew about her circumstances? If you’ve read The Belly of Paris you know the answer to that question.

BEWARE: SPOILERS

The fatal mistakes Gervaise makes begin early: she’s only fourteen when she has her first child by her feckless lover Lantier, and when they run away to Paris together in hope of a better life, he spends his way through a small inheritance and then abandons her and the two young boys. It is typical of his moral cowardice that he leaves it to the older boy, Claude, to bring her the room key that signals his departure, that she is hard at work in the laundry when she finds out in this humiliating way, and that he had insisted that very morning that she pawn her shawl and her chemises, money which he has now used for his new adventure. To compound Gervaise’s misery, he has dumped her for Adèle, sister of Virginie, one of the other washerwomen, and a degrading cat-fight ensues over this worthless man. But as the novel progresses, Zola uses both Virginie and Lantier to show Gervaise’s fatal apathy when she lets them both back into her life later on.

Zola’s characters are all marked by his view that human destiny is formed by heredity, environment and their place in time. Gervaise’s fatal flaw is her easy-going nature: she likes to please others and it’s easier to go along with the milieu that surrounds her.

Her only weakness … was being very soft-hearted, liking everybody, getting desperately fond of people who then put her through endless misery. So, when she loved a man, she wasn’t interested in all that nonsense, what she dreamt of was simply living together happily ever after. (p. 38)

Her dreams are not ambitious; what she wants is

to be able to get on with her work, always have something to eat and a half-decent place to sleep, bring up her children properly, not to be beaten, and die in her own bed. (p.421)

If only. Consigned to the seedy parts of Paris at the time when Haussmanisation was impacting on working-class communities and industrialisation was replacing artisanship, Gervaise supports her boys as a washerwoman and eventually – not without some reluctance – marries Coupeau, a teetotaller with a steady job as a roofer. Despite their good intentions they get into debt with the cost of their marriage because of their desire to put on a good show for their friends, but with hard work, a prudent lifestyle and offloading the older boy to an apprenticeship in Plassans, they recover financially, and begin saving towards Gervaise’s dream of running her own laundry. But destiny steps in when Coupeau has a fall from a roof and can’t work for a very long time. This has two fatal effects: Coupeau gets used to idleness and Gervaise has to use all her savings to support the family (which has now grown to include their daughter Nana).

One of Gervaise’s friends is the gentle giant, Goujet, a blacksmth. He loves Gervaise with a quiet passion, and he and his mother offer a loan that enables Gervaise to fulfil her dream. She moves her family out of their dingy rooms to a place of warmth and light, where she sets up her laundry to general acclaim. Industrious and careful, she is excellent at her work and everybody except her jealous in-laws admires her.

But Zola has structured the novel so that this success is the high point of Gervaise’s life, and portents of her future are already there. Coupeau fills his idle hours by boozing with his layabout friends, and lovely little Nana who might have been a support to her mother later in life, is running wild. The friends who admire and like Gervaise are also only too ready to listen to malicious gossip about her from her sister-in-law Madame Lorilleaux, and they’re also only too ready to encourage a lavish lifestyle that Gervaise can’t really afford because she has a loan to pay back to the Goujets.

It is heartbreaking to read about the downfall of this wonderful character. I suspect that it’s impossible to read L’Assommoir without becoming very fond of Gervaise. But apparently, (according to the introduction by Robert Lethbridge), Zola’s novel didn’t please anybody. Although it was a contemporary bestseller, conservatives didn’t like its dangerous socialist message and thought it proved that the working-class wasn’t fit to vote, and progressives were angry that it showed the underclass as feckless and irresponsible. But when we read it today we can see that Zola has rightly depicted some fundamental truths: that the underclass has the same hopes and dreams for themselves and their children as anyone else, but that their precarious finances make them vulnerable to life events which can plunge them into disaster from which there can be no return. Zola could not have written this novel the way he did, had there been a safety net to tide the family over Coupeau’s injury, and workers’ compensation for his inability to get back to work.

But there was no safety net, and Gervaise (like everyone else) likes the Good Life, and it’s just too easy to let loan payments slide and to spend more than she’s got on a splendid celebration of her name day. And it’s on that fateful day, depicted in a magnificent set piece by Zola, that Lantier slithers back into her life. Coupeau, who’s a bit pickled, goes outside to tell Lantier to stop hanging about and upsetting Gervaise, but he ends up bringing him inside to join the feast. This is partly because Coupeau is a terrible judge of character at the best of times, and partly because Lantier is a master salesman of his tawdry product, that is, himself. It doesn’t take long for him to ingratiate himself so thoroughly that he moves in, starts interfering in the laundry and bossing about the family, and takes turns with Coupeau to beat Gervaise whenever the mood takes them. Not only that, but Lantier also sabotages Coupeau’s unenthusiastic efforts to get back to work …

Needless to say, you can’t go on sprees and work as well. So, after Lantier joined the household, Coupeau, who already hardly raised a finger, got so that he didn’t so much as touch his tools. When, fed up with not earning, he did find himself a job, his mate would track him down at work and tease him mercilessly on seeing him hanging from a knotted rope like a ham that was being smoked; he’d shout to him to come down and have a quick one. That settled it, the roofer would walk off the job and start a binge that went on for days, for weeks. First rate, those binges were a general inspection of all the bars in the neighbourhood, the morning’s boozing slept off at lunchtime and resurrected in the evening; round after round of rotgut stretching into the night like Chinese lanterns at a party, until the last candle and the last glass were consumed. (p. 257)

Squalor descends and at first Gervaise does little but shrug her shoulders in resignation. She didn’t run after her man; indeed if she caught sight of him in a bar she’d go the long way round so as not to make him angry. (p.266) But the time comes when she thinks she may as well join the men in a drink, and then – despite her kind heart and good intentions – it’s all downhill from there. Lantier is after her, and after her business, and everything he does conspires to bring Gervaise down so that he and Virginie can have their revenge.

All the characters, one way or another, symbolise the values in conflict: industriousness, diligence, cleanliness and self-control versus idleness, laziness, filth and self-indulgence. But the one who prefigures Gervaise’s own sordid downfall is an innocent. Lalie Bijard, the child who becomes mother to the other small children after her alcoholic father beats his wife to death, does not – unlike Gervaise – have any choices at all. Her final moments are classic 19th century sentimentality, but no less powerful for that:

Gervaise, meanwhile, was trying her best not to burst into tears. She reached out with her hands, wanting to comfort Lalie, and as the ragged sheet was slipping off she pulled it right down, intending to remake the bed. The poor little body of the dying child was thus exposed. Lord Jesus, what a heart-rending, pitiable sight! The stones themselves would have wept. Lalie was quite naked, with only the remnants of a bodice round her shoulders to serve as a nightgown; yes, quite naked, the nakedness of a martyr, bleeding and tortured. There was no longer any flesh on her, her bones poked through her skin. From her ribs to her thighs thin purple weals reached down, where the whip’s bite had left its vivid imprint. A blue-black bruise circled her left arm, as if the jaws of a vice had crushed this delicate limb, no thicker than a matchstick. On her right leg, there was a gash that hadn’t healed, some nasty wound that must have reopened each morning as she hurried round doing her chores. She was nothing but a bruise from head to toe. Oh what butchery of childhood – that dear little chick crushed under a man’s heavy foot; what infamy – that feeblest of creatures dying under the burden of such a cross! People in churches venerate martyred virgins whose naked flesh is not so pure. Gervaise had crouched down again, forgetting to pull up the sheet, overcome by the sight of this pitiful nothing, lying there sunk into the bed, as with trembling lips, she tried to say a prayer.

‘Please, Madame Coupeau…’ whispered the child.

In her great modesty, and full of shame for her father’s sake, she was trying to pull up the sheet with her short little arms. Bijard stood there stupidly, staring at the corpse he was responsible for, and rolling his head about slowly like an animal that’s bothered by something. (p. 401)

It’s not possible to read this without thinking of today’s little children brutalised by their own parents: Chloe Valentine, Daniel Valerio and the anonymous ones still suffering unchecked abuse. Alcohol used to excess, and now the use of illicit drugs too, still combine with community indifference to allow these things to happen. Gervaise, notwithstanding her tears and prayers, leaves the surviving small children to their fate. Zola shocked his readers with L’Assommoir and it seems tragic that in the 21st century we still rely on shocking media stories to force action in this area of need. (If you have time, do read ‘Child abuse and the media’ by Chris Goddard and Bernadette J. Saunders (2001) on the Australian Institute of Family Studies website – it makes it clear that it is media coverage prompting public outrage that gets action on family violence).

Given its sordid subject-matter, why is L’Assommoir the favourite Zola novel of so many? I think it’s because of the brilliant way this novel is structured to make the reader care about the central, lovable character of Gervaise. The novel’s realism captures the environment in which this humble woman rises to success and then stumbles into tragedy. Instead of judgemental moralising, Zola depicts the pathos of her fall with careful observations that show her helplessness to save herself or anybody else.

Well, what next, to surpass this masterpiece of Zola’s? It’s L’Œuvre (1886) (The Masterpiece), the story of Gervaise’s son Claude, the struggling artist in Paris. I’m going to love that one, I’m sure, because I always enjoys novels about artists.

Author: Émile Zola
Title: L’Assommoir (The Dram Shop)
Translated from the French by Margaret Mauldon
Publisher: OUP (Oxford University Press) (Oxford World’s Classics series), 2009
ISBN: 9780199538683
Review copy courtesy of OUP.

Availability

Do yourself a favour: do not read the freebie editions that you can download: Zola used 19th century vulgar colloquial slang for much of the dialogue, which will either be sanitised or excised from the freebies, or incomprehensible if you try to read the original in French. This title is notorious for being very difficult to translate for contemporary readers. I recommend this translation by Margaret Mauldon (which also has a comprehensive introduction about all kinds of aspects that I haven’t covered here i.e. the politics of the era and the symbolism), but the OUP edition is (of course) the only one I’ve read. However, whatever you choose, make sure that it is a recent translation, uncensored and with annotations that explain the geography of the novel; the significance of the ribald songs and slang; and the cunning way that Zola made allusions to politics in ways that evaded trouble at a time when there was savage repression of any political critique.

Fishpond: L’Assommoir (Oxford World’s Classics)

Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers

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.

Pot Luck by Emile Zola, translated by Brian Nelson

6251723Well, here we are at No 7 in the recommended reading order for those wanting to read Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle of novels. It’s Pot-Bouille, written in 1882 and translated variously as Pot Luck, Restless House, and Piping Hot though none of these really capture the metaphorical meaning of the original title, according to Brian Nelson, the translator of this Oxford World Classics edition. There isn’t really an English word which manages to convey the ‘melting-pot of sexual promiscuity’ which pervades the building, and the stewpot of swill as a metaphor for the moral and physical corruption of bourgeois Paris in the 19th century. But if you can’t read the novel in the original French, this translation is a most enjoyable version instead, even if the translator himself isn’t happy with his title!

In this novel, a smart new building is Zola’s metaphor for the hypocrisy of the bourgeois. Octave Mouret, known to me as a man with his eye on the main chance from my previous (out-of-order) reading of The Ladies’ Paradise (see my review), comes to Paris from Plassans to make his fortune. Through his connections with relations of M. Campardon, Octave rents a room on the fourth floor of a new apartment building. The building is distinguished by elegant surface features of fake marble and mahogany which mask shoddy workmanship, peeling paint and sleazy servants’ quarters.

BEWARE: SPOILERS

The concierge M. Gourd spruiks the building’s other tenants as he escorts Octave upstairs (where, alas, the posh red carpet fizzles out as they reach the cheaper rooms). Gourd is at pains to emphasise the respectability of the house, but these tenants are anything but respectable!

The landlord is M. Vabre, whose offspring all live in the building. They are:

  • Clotilde Duveyrier (Vabre’s daughter) likes to hold court in her artistic salon, waylaying every eligible male to sing in her chorus, and subjecting both her piano and her listeners to muscular renditions of Chopin. Her husband Alphonse (a judge) spends most of his time with his mistress Clarisse, who (unbeknown to him) makes many a man welcome in the rooms he has furnished for her.
  • Théophile, (M. Vabre’s second son) is married in name only to Valérie. She married expecting to inherit wealth. But it’s common knowledge that she gave up on Théophile because he’s impotent. She used a local stud to have a child so that they would get their share of the Vabre inheritance when the old man dies, and she’s been having meaningless affairs ever since.
  • Auguste (M. Vabre’s eldest son) is a silk merchant who makes a disastrous marriage to Berthe. She is the daughter of the impecunious Josserands who (like Octave) live on the less salubrious fourth floor. He makes the mistake of making regular business trips away from home…

The other tenants are

  • The Josserand Family: Madame Josserand is a termagant. Determined to marry off her daughters Hortense and Berthe but handicapped by not having enough money for the requisite dowries, she harangues her honest, hard-working husband into fraud and an early grave, and bullies the younger daughter into an unedifying pursuit of Auguste Vabre. The Josserands also have an older son who avoids them as much as possible, and a boy ominously called Saturnin, who suffers bouts of insanity and attacks anyone who upsets Berthe.
  • The Campardon Family: Madame Rose Campardon is a pseudo-invalid, much given to languid loafing about and managing to look quite sexy although her ‘malady’ has made her ‘unavailable’ since the birth of their only child Angèle. Mildly fond of her husband Achille, Rose initially turns a blind eye to his long-standing affair with Gasparine, a distant cousin, but when she gets tired of his too frequent absences, she moves Gasparine in to live with them.
  • The Pichon Family: This strange, completely passionless young couple are under the thumb of Madame Pichon’s interfering parents who have laid down the law about how many children it is respectable to have on their income. They come round for dinner once a week to make sure that proprieties are being observed. Things go badly wrong when Marie borrows a novel…
  • Madame Juzeur: Inexplicably abandoned by her husband after ten days of marriage, she likes to flirt with young men and then refuse them. Today, she would be labelled a ‘tease’.
  • There’s also an anonymous author, who keeps himself to himself!

Into this curious collection of sexually mismatched couples comes Octave, young, virile, and ambitious in more ways than one. He gets himself a job as a salesman at ‘The Ladies’ Paradise’ (just a drapery then, not then the spectacular department store it is to become in the later novel of the same name) and sets out to seduce his employer’s wife, Madame Hédouin. When she’s not interested he turns his attentions elsewhere, and elsewhere, and elsewhere! But he’s not interested in the servants, because he needs his conquests to lead to advancement in other ways.

The hypocrisy and sleaze spread outwards and upwards as well. The Josserands have a dissolute old uncle Bachelard who hangs around with Duveyrier and Trublot, a cynical young man who sleeps with almost all the servants. These hapless young women are caught between Gourd’s insistence on respectability (so much so that he evicts a young woman from the house on the eve of her confinement) and the expectation that they will submit to any man who wants a bit of fun upstairs. They are vulgar and dirty, and they have filthy mouths, but these servants are the only honest characters in the novel. In the most moving scene in the book, one of the servants gives birth alone and in silence, terrified of being caught and losing her job. The fate of her infant is heart-breaking, but was probably not uncommon. (It still happens today, though changes in social attitudes and the status of women make it rare, at least in the West).

Pot Luck is a biting satire, one of Zola’s best.

Next up in my Zola Project will be No 9 in the recommended reading order because I’ve already read No 8, The Ladies’ Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames). There isn’t a nice modern OUP World’s Classic translation of La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret so I shall have to make do with one of these, listed on the Translations page at The Books of Emile Zola by the indefatigable Jonathan who has contributed so much to our collaborative blog there:)

  • Abbé Mouret’s Transgression (1886, Tr: unknown, for H. Vizetelly, Vizetelly & Co.)
  • Abbé Mouret’s Transgression (1900, edited by E. Vizetelly, Chatto & Windus)
  • The Sin of the Abbé Mouret (1904, Tr: M. Smyth, McLaren & Co.)
  • The Abbé Mouret’s Sin (1957, Tr: Alec Brown, Elek Books)
  • The Sin of Father Mouret (1969, Tr: Sandy Petrey, Prentice-Hall)

Author: Emile Zola
Title: Pot Luck (Pot-Bouille)
Publisher: Oxford World Classics, reissued 2009
ISBN: 9780199538706
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Fishpond. (OUP have very generously sent me most of their Zola editions for review, but not this one, because I already had it).

Availability

Fishpond: Pot Luck (Pot-Bouille) (Oxford World’s Classics)

Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers

Lisa Hill, August 2014

 

Money (L’Argent), by Emile Zola, translated by Valerie Minogue

Money I was justifiably excited by this new translation of Emile Zola’s novel Money: there are scenes that were excised completely from the prudently self-censored Vizetelly translation which make the characterisation more complex and much more interesting…

Money (L’Argent) was first published in 1891, the eighteenth of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle, but fourth in the recommended reading order because it follows logically on from The Kill (La Curée) published almost twenty years before in 1871-2. It follows the extraordinary career of Aristide Saccard, the youngest son of Pierre and Félicité Rougon, a financial wheeler-and-dealer to rival any of the rogues who engineered the recent Global Financial Crisis or the financial scandals of the 1980s. But this is no simplistic morality tale excoriating the greed of financiers: Saccard is a much more complicated character in Money than he was in The Kill, and speculation with money for all its drawbacks is shown to be essential to the growth and development of nations.

Most interesting of all in this novel is the characterisation of Caroline Hamelin, and this is the character to whom Vizetelly’s prunings do a disservice, because in Minogue’s translation Caroline’s knowledge of Saccard’s flaws is complete. It’s not just that he has drawn countless innocent vulnerable people into his web of shady dealings, it’s also that he is sexually depraved (by 19th century Parisian standards, that is) and yet she still finds it hard to condemn him. The man has a magnetism that is irresistible even to the woman who is the moral compass of the novel. She knows about his lack of restraint, and is compromised by it.

One thing I do like in the Vizetelly version in The Complete Works of Emile Zola on my Kindle is the illustrations. There is a beaut B&W drawing of the Bourse, the Parisian stock exchange in 1867, showing the room packed with investors shoulder to shoulder and the brokers frantically responding to the calls to buy or sell. There’s also a plan of the Bourse drawn by Zola as part of his research and a raunchy publicity poster for the novel. On the other hand, there aren’t any pictures in this new Oxford World Classics edition, but there is a very useful introduction by the translator, who is Emeritus Professor of French at the University of Wales and President of the London Emile Zola Society. (BTW I was very pleased to see the warning that there were spoilers in this introduction. That gives the reader the choice to risk them or not). It is the illustrations in the Vizetelly version, however, which convey the excitement of this novel much better.

It is an exciting novel. I wasn’t expecting that, after all, banking and finance has to be one of the most boring aspects of our everyday lives if you’re an ordinary person for whom banking means electronic payment of salary, payment of bills, a mortgage, a credit card and the occasional miserly payment of some interest. But Saccard is an inveterate salesman and when we find him bankrupt and outcast at the beginning of the novel, we can’t help but be lured in by his grand ambitions. He seizes on and fascinates us with the vision of Georges Hamelin to mount a new crusade in the Middle East, a crusade to restore Christianity to its birthplace with majestic transportation systems of roads, rail and steamships. For Georges, the vision is religious – he wants to develop the ‘wasted’ lands of the Middle East so that the Pope (under siege in the Papal States from the unification of Italy under Victor Emmanuel) can move to Jerusalem. Saccard thinks this is absurd, but he is captivated by the idea of French capital developing ‘idle’ land and bringing ‘civilisation’ to the inhabitants. He loves to see money moving around, doing something, and achieving great things…

With nothing more than his powers of persuasion, his few remaining contacts and his ability to do a shady deal when he needs to, Saccard sets up his new bank, the Universal. Along the way he captures the imagination of Paris, attracting investors large and small. By the time of the Universal Exhibition in 1867 when all the world flocked to Paris, Saccard’s bank has moved to lavish new premises and the share price has reached astronomical proportions. The reader knows it is doomed to fail, and as the novel moves towards its climax there are portents which illuminate the lives of those destined to be ruined. There is pathos and schadenfreude in equal measure in Money, and of course there are also those who profit, those who lose but don’t pay their debts, and those who get off scot-free without any apparent sense of guilt as well.

As the rain fell in torrents on Saccard at the beginning of the novel when he was broke and friendless, it falls too in cascades as the denouement at the stock exchange looms. Zola writes this compelling chapter with all the verve of a battle, because that’s what it is, a battle between the bear market and the bull market, with Saccard fighting for financial survival against compelling odds. Among the crowd are the strategists and tacticians, prophets of doom and barrackers, loyal supporters and betrayers, and the tension is maintained as the share price goes up and down. Saccard’s composure almost never falters, and when it does, it is not because of his own fortunes – it is because he sees in the crowd the faces of the humble investors who trusted his word and are depending on him now.

It is this Saccard who challenges the image of the decadent greedy speculator that was dominant in The Kill. This Saccard gives his expertise to help underprivileged children in Princess Orviedo’s foundling homes and hospitals – even though he thinks she’s mad to be deliberately divesting herself of a fortune ill-gotten in speculation by her now dead husband. This Saccard confronts the rapacious Busch to force him to cancel an egregious debt against the hapless author Jordan; this Saccard weeps when he realises the enormity of the wrong he has done to his natural son and the terrible consequences of that. It is this combination of good intentions, wild reckless ambition and addiction to making money grow no matter the risk to others, that troubles Caroline – because she finds herself unable to resist him. Intelligent, sensible, prudent and scrupulously honest, she feels herself complicit in his shady dealings because she can see the benefits too. Zola shows us that it is indeed Saccard’s bank that has realised Georges’ dream of a thriving transport industry in the Middle East, and the beginnings of development such as the Carmel Silver Mine. (Today of course, we interpret this development differently, as part of European colonisation and exploitation, with few benefits filtering through to the locals. But that’s not how anybody looked at it in the 19th century, not even the people in the Middle East who agreed to let them to do it.)

One aspect of this novel will bother modern readers, quite a bit. Saccard’s rival for pre-eminence is the Jewish banker Gundermann, and there are anti-Semitic references to him in some of Saccard’s tirades. This is countered a little by Caroline’s mild remonstrance that Jews are no different to anybody else and of course Zola is famous for risking his career in his defence of the Jewish officer Dreyfus, but still, anti-Semitism is always uncomfortable reading.

The translation is generally very good. I detected a couple of glitches which might have been picked up by an assiduous editor: a tautologous died ingloriously in Rome without any glory (p. 341) and an incongruous ticked all the right boxes p. 102) but these are easy enough to rectify in future editions. Overall the text is fluid and reads as if it were not translation at all. Helpful notes at the back of the book explain references which might otherwise elude readers unfamiliar with events in European history, but as I’ve said above, this translation is the first unabridged edition for more than a century and that is why any reader of Zola in English will be delighted by it.

Perhaps as you find yourself chuckling over the adventures of the Baroness with Sabatini, you too will be tempted to read some parts of Money in both versions to see what else is missing. For as I know from reading The Censor’s Library by Nicole Moore, it wasn’t just salacious material that was censored, though that is bad enough as you can see if you read the Vizetelly version and try to make sense of Victor’s crime. Zola’s compassionate understanding of the impact on the victim is missing too and I am quite sure that if I look it up I’ll find that his rather endearing concern for other exploited women will be obscured or omitted altogether as well.

Next up in my Zola project is The Dream (La Rêve) but alas there is no modern translation of that one. If only my French were good enough to read it in the original! I’m working on it, I’ve translated a short story by Zola but it would take me forever to read a whole novel in French and I’d probably misunderstand parts of it anyway. I’m hoping that there are other translations of the remaining novels on the way!

Author: Emile Zola
Title: Money
Publisher: Oxford World Classics, 2014
ISBN: 9780199608379
Source: Review copy courtesy of Oxford University Press

Cross-posted at Lisa Hill’s blog as part of the Zola Project at ANZ LitLovers.

Plot Summary: ‘Pot Luck’ by Émile Zola

This is a plot summary of Pot Luck by Émile Zola (originally published as Pot-Bouille, 1882) and as such contains full plot details of the novel. As there are many characters in this novel it can get a bit confusing so I have tried to clarify the relationship between the characters in the summary. It’s aimed at people who have already read the novel, maybe a long time ago, who wish to remind themselves of the plot details. It is not intended to be read as a substitute for the novel – Pot Luck is one of the best novels of the Rougon-Macquart series and I’d thoroughly recommend reading it in its entirety.

Chapter I

Octave arrives at a four-storey house on Rue Choiseul, Paris. He meets M. Gourd, the concierge and M. (Achille) Campardon, whom Octave knows through Campardon’s wife. Octave is shown his room and they meet some of the tenants; his neighbours are the Josserands on one side and the Pichons on the other. While Campardon shows Octave his rooms he warns Octave that he must not make a noise or have women visitors. He talks about Gasparine, Octave’s female cousin, who had been involved with Campardon back in Plassans. Octave talks about his immediate past – he’s been in Marseille for three years and has been travelling around for another two. Compardon has found a position for Octave at his workplace, The Ladies’ Paradise, and they go to see his employer, Mme Hédouin. While Octave is shown around the shop he overhears Gasparine and Campardon arranging a meeting. Octave finds Mme Hédouin attractive as well as the fellow employee, Mme Valérie. On returning to his room he encounters the Josserands returning home.

Chapter II

Mme Josserand and her daughters, Berthe & Hortense, have left Mme Dambreville’s party and walk home. The daughters grumble as they’re getting muddy. Mme Josserand grumbles about not being able to marry her daughters and her ineffectual husband. They pass Octave on the stairs. M. Josserand is working late to earn a few francs. M. & Mme Josserand argue. The girls are hungry but can’t find much food when they go to the kitchen. The kitchen is in a mess. Back upstairs M. & Mme Josserand argue again. He states that her father never paid her dowry which infuriates her. She claims that her rich brother Bachelard has promised to pay dowry for Berthe, but M. Josserand is not so sure he’ll pay. They continue to argue and Hortense asks them to stop. She says that they are capable of getting husbands for themselves. This infuriates Mme Josserand as Hortense is infatuated with Verdier who has already had a mistress for fifteen years. She then criticises Berthe for letting another marriage slip through her fingers at the party that evening. The women go to bed while M. Josserand carries on working through the night.

Chapter III

Berthe & Hortense sit on either side of Bachelard at a dinner at the Josserands’. They encourage him to drink as they’re trying to get twenty francs out of him. Their simple brother, Saturnin, is making a mess with his food. At one point Berthe & Hortense start to playfully search Bachelard’s pockets for money. Meanwhile, people start to arrive for the soiree. They finish dessert. Berthe takes Saturnin upstairs while the diners join the other guests. Mme Josserand is upset that the Duveyriers haven’t come. Berthe plays the piano for the guests. Dr Juillerat arrives in the middle of the performance. Berthe has to go and see to Saturnin who’s making a racket upstairs. Mme Josserand has Octave in her sights for marriage to Berthe, Mme Juzeur thinks the landlord’s son, Auguste Vabre, would be a better match. Verdier arrives. Octave can’t keep his eyes off Valérie. Mme Josserand overhears Octave and his friend, Trublot, talking disparagingly about Berthe. She encourages Berthe to concentrate on Auguste and Berthe agrees. The guests leave.

Chapter IV

The next day Octave concentrates on his plan to seduce Valérie. Octave, though, is concerned that the Pichons might get in the way. At lunch the Campardons they reveal to Octave that they let their daughter, Angèle, go with Mme (Marie) Pichon to the park and that the Pichons have very strict principles. Octave decides to make the Pichons’ acquaintance. By helping Marie with her pram one day he gets to know her.

Every Sunday Marie’s parents, M. & Mme Vuillaume, come to visit. This Sunday Octave is invited in to meet them. They bore Octave with their prudish talk. They don’t agree with couples having more than one child. Mme Vuillaume explains how they brought up Marie, for example she didn’t read a novel before she was eighteen. When she could read one she became attracted to André by George Sand. Octave has to leave and tries to avoid them each Sunday. One day Octave meets Marie who is in a fluster as she doesn’t know how to dress Lilitte. Octave is astonished but helps her. Octave offers to lend her Campardon’s copy of André, which he brings round the next day. He visits her several times when Pichon is out and is both intrigued and annoyed by her.

One day Octave meets Valérie’s maid on the stairs. She asks Octave to help as Valérie is having a fit. When she comes round Valérie is surprised to see Octave there and apologises to him. She seems at ease being semi-naked in front of him. He catches her round the waist but she rebuffs him; Octave leaves. He goes past the Pichon’s door and sees Marie in there and asks her about the book. Marie seems to try to kiss him. He starts to lead her into the bedroom but she stops him. He forces himself on her on the table. Meanwhile the book has fallen on the floor which damages the corner. Pichon returns home.

Chapter V

Reception at the Duveyrier’s. Octave is embarrased that the only conquest he has had in Paris is Marie. The Josserands plan their moves before going to the Duveyrier’s. It is crowded when they arrive. Mme (Clotilde) Duveyrier plays the piano; M. Duveyrier doesn’t like music. Octave notices that Mme Hédouin is there. Mme Josserand pushes Berthe on Auguste. M. Vabre, the landlord, explains his work cataloguing the paintings at the Salon, though he has no interest in art. Mlle Dambreville & Léon Josserand arrive. The men talk politics in the parlour; the women talk about their servants. Meanwhile, Octave flirts with Mme Hédouin. Clotilde asks Octave about his singing voice; he’s a tenor. Clotilde plays the piano while the male singers accompany her. Auguste and Berthe hide behind the curtains. When the music is over Berthe cries out and attracts everyone’s attention. Mme Josserand lets it be known that Bachelard will pay a fifty thousand franc dowry. The guests talk about morality and religion. Duveyrier says that religion makes marriage moral. Trublot points out to Octave that Duvreyier has a mistress. The guests start to leave. The Josserands are happy with how things have turned out. As for the dowry, Mme Josserand is certain that things can be sorted out with Bachelard.

Chapter VI

It’s Sunday and Octave is in bed; he feels certain that Mme Hédouin will fall for him. He gets the key for the attic from M. Gouard. M. Gouard spots a woman leaving the building and confronts her but she manages to leave. Octave spots Trublot when he’s up in the attic. He’s hiding there until he can leave – he’s been sleeping with the cook, Julie along with more of the servants. They listen to some of the servants’ gossip that’s shouted from the windows that open on the backyard. They discuss their masters’ lives and foibles. Octave notices a well-dressed woman leaving a room on the second floor. Out of curiosity he follows her out of the building. M. Gouard bows to her as she leaves. Octave shows some lace samples to Mme Juzeur. He kisses her fingers but she doesn’t let him go further.
Octave goes to the Pichons’ for dinner in the evening. When the Vuillaumes leave, Pichon takes them to the bus station which takes about two hours. Octave starts kissing Marie but Saturnin arrives and interrupts them. Marie refuses to go to Octave’s room. They open a window and hear M. Gouard accusing the carpenter of carrying on with prostitutes. The carpenter protests that the woman is his wife, but M. Gouard gives him notice to leave. Octave notices Trublot in the hallway – he’s goiong to see Adèle (Josserands’ maid).

Chapter VII

The Josserands have been asking Bachelard to dinner almost every evening. Mme Josserand confronts him one evening about the dowry but he manages to escape without committing himself. The next day M. & Mme Josserand and Berthe go to see him at work. They ask him about the fifty thousand franc dowry. Bachelard gets nervous and pleads poverty but M. Josserand knows better as he does the books for him. Bachelard brings up an insurance that they had on Berthe that came to fifty thousand francs. Mme Josserand states that it’s elapsed. Bachelard says that they should mention this insurance and agree to pay the dowry in installments. M. Josserand isn’t impressed but Mme Josserand can see the advantages of it.

The next day Octave & Trublot meet Bachelard in an inn. He’s drunk and having a row with someone. They join him and his employee, Gueulin and talk about women. Bachelard takes them to his mistress Fifi to show her off to them. He is very attentive to her and kisses her goodbye. They go back to the inn as they have an appointment with M. Josserand. They then go to Clarisse’s and talk to Duvreyier about the mariage with Auguste and the proposed insurance as dowry. Duvreyier accepts and they agree to meet at the notary’s in a few days time. A few days later the marriage contract is signed. Saturnin is taken away to an asylum as he was becoming too dangerous.

Chapter VIII

The civil marriage between Berthe & Auguste is to take place and people are meeting in the Josserands’ drawing-room. The Josserands paid for the wedding out of money that was left to Saturnin. Théophile Vabre (son of the landlord) arrives in a furious state; he’s found an incriminating letter belonging to Valérie and he thinks she’s having an affair with Octave. Auguste Vabre turns up – he has a headache. They all go to the church and Théophile confronts Octave during the service. Even the priest notices something is going on at the back of the church. Octave shows an example of his handwriting to prove that the note is not his. It’s later and everyone is still talking about the note. Théophile confronts Valérie again; she starts to have convulsions and is taken into another room. She eventually recovers but Théophile still wants to know who wrote the note. Josserand tells him that the note was intended for the maid which Théophile eventually believes. Théophile and Valérie eventually join the party and dance together while Octave dances with Mme Hédouin. Bachelard is drunk and disgraces himself by doing an indecent dance. Back at the apartment block Octave and Berthe bump into each other on the landing.

Chapter IX

Octave arrives at the Campardons’ for dinner. Mme (Rose) Campardin and Gasparine get to know each other. It’s revealed that M. Hédouin has fallen ill. Octave is still intent on becoming Mme Hédouin’s lover. Rose suggests that Gasparine should move in with them. One day M. (Achille) Campardon comes home early and finds that Gasparine is in the process of moving in. Octave leaves and goes to the Pichons’ for dinner. They’re arguing with the Vuillaumes who are disgusted that Marie is having another baby. She’s five months pregnant which coincides with her encounter with Octave. Octave takes them all out for an expensive meal.

Octave regularly helps Mme Hédouin with the receipts. One time when they’re alone Octave reveals his ideas about expanding the shop and tries to kiss her. She is disappointed in him as she thought he was more serious than the others. He resigns out of embarrassement but she doesn’t see why he should.
When he visits the Campardons’ he often comes across Achille & Gasparine kissing. Achille doesn’t go out in the evenings now. Octave goes out for a walk and meets Berthe. She’s heard that he’s left the Ladies’ Paradise and offers him a job in her & Auguste’s drapery. He accepts.

Chapter X

Octave now spent more time at the Duveyriers’. Mme Duveyrier pretends that M. Duveyrier is working when he is really seeing his mistress, Clarisse. The Duveyrier’s servant, Clémence, comes in with news that M. Vabre has collapsed. Mme tells Octave to get her husband – she knows where he really is.
M. Duveyrier, Bachelard, Trublot & Gueulin are at a restaurant having an expensive meal. Bachelard intends to show off Fifi to his guests. Duveyrier mentions that Clarisse is waiting for them so Bachelard then decides that they should go to see Clarisse. When they arrive her flat is empty and Duveyrier is distraught. Octave arrives and he tells Duveyrier that he is wanted as his father-in-law is dying. Duveyrier and Octave go off in a cab; when they arrive the doctor is there but he doesn’t think Vabre will last long.

Chapter XI

The next morning everyone knows about Vabre’s illness and they speculate on his will. Octave goes to Berthe’s shop and tells them the news about Vabre; Mme Josserand is furious at Octave for not letting them know sooner as she’s suspicious of the others. Auguste and Berthe go to see Vabre. Clotilde and Théophile are there with their spouses. They argue. It’s revealed that there is no will. M. Vabre dies and his funeral is two days later.

Octave flirts with Marie, then goes to see Mme Juzeur and flirts with her; she claims she can’t relax with the corpse in the house. While the coffin is being taken out of the building a new female tenant, a boot-stitcher, arrives for the carpenter’s old room. After the funeral the family start to argue over the inheritance. They could find no will or money, except for 734 francs. They found notebooks with evidence of his gambling and evidence that he’d re-mortgaged the house. All that remains is the house which is worth three hundred thousand francs and only half of the mortgage has been paid. It is agreed that the house will be sold. After some dubious arrangements Duveyrier gets the house for one hundred and forty thousand francs and the others are furious. He then agrees to charge no rent to Auguste and Théophile for five years.

Chapter XII

Saturnin returns as the home refuses to look after him if he’s sane enough to sign over money to his parents; he goes to live with Berthe. Berthe becomes more like her mother and treats her husband the same way that her mother treated her husband. They take on a new servant girl, Rachel. Auguste resents the money that Berthe spends and they bicker constantly. Octave starts buying things for Berthe while reporting on Berthe to Auguste. Saturnin helps Berthe and Octave to get together. Saturnin often threatens to harm Auguste. One time after an argument Berthe locks herself in her room and Saturnin stands guard. He allows Octave to see her but not Auguste – Octave and Berthe make love.

Chapter XIII

One day Octave comes across M. Gouard spying on the tenants, which makes him nervous. He is afraid that he and Berthe might get caught. One night Berthe comes to visit Octave and she stays the night. She wakes late and is scared about getting back downstairs without being detected. While Octave occupies Marie, Berthe makes her escape down the outside stairs. She manages to get back to her flat but Rachel is in her room; she tips her to keep her quiet. Octave goes out. When he returns he talks to M. Gouard, who points out to Octave the boot-stitcher who is obviously pregnant. M. Gouard has given her notice to quit. Octave flirts with Mme Juzeur in her room. Octave and Berthe meet less frequently as Berthe is frightened of getting caught by Auguste and Octave is frightened of getting caught by M. Gouard. September approaches and Rachel is going to be away for a few days. Octave suggests that he and Berthe should meet in her room. On the planned night Octave gets there first and waits. He bumps into Trublot outside the room; Trublot reveals how Duveyrier has had Adèle and he tells Octave all the other goings on in the house. At four o’clock Berthe still hasn’t arrived. Octave can hear Trublot and Adèle next door. Berthe arrives in the morning and is surprised to see Octave still there. She couldn’t come to him at night because it was all too squalid. They listen to to the servants’ chatter at the back of the house and arrange to meet the following week. Berthe leaves and Octave overhears the servants talking about M. Hédouin’s death. The boot-stitcher is evicted.

Chapter XIV

Auguste is away in Lyons. At dinner with the Campardons’ Achille reveals to Octave that Duveyrier has found Clarisse. At ten o’clock Octave leaves, Rose goes to bed and Gasparine & Achille sleep together. Octave has a drink with the Pichons and the Vuillaumes and flirts with Marie when they’re alone . He forces himself on her again and then goes to his room to wait for Berthe, who turns up after midnight. They talk and begin to argue then go to bed. As soon as they’re in bed Auguste starts knocking on the door and shouting, he then breaks the door down. Auguste and Octave scuffle. Berthe runs out the room and hides in the Campardons’ flat. Gasparine and Achille comfort her but Gasparine is ashamed of her behaviour. They try to get her to go to her parents’ but in the end Marie takes her in.

Chapter XV

The next day the tenants are talking about the night’s escapades. Auguste reveals that he’s going to challenge Octave to a duel. He wants Duveyrier to be his second but he is with Clarisse. They go off to find her new address. They meet Bachelard who reveals that he’s found Fifi and Gueulin together. They eventually find Clarisse’s house. Clarisse is now very fat. Duveyrier, Trublot, Bachelard & Auguste go to a restaurant. After a large meal Auguste returns home; the duel is forgotten about.
Octave meets Mme Hédouin who offers him a job. He then meets Valérie and they talk. He returns to his flat; Duveyrier and Bachelard arrive and lecture him about his behaviour. Octave mentions that he is leaving the building. Duveyrier goes to see Auguste and interrupts Saturnin, who is having one of his violent fits and is threatening to kill Auguste. Saturnin is taken away again.

Chapter XVI

Marie takes Berthe back to Mme Josserand. Berthe and Hortense talk about the events and Hortense reveals that she’s still intent on marrying Verdier even though his mistress had just had a child. The next morning M. Josserand doesn’t go to work as he is unwell. He does not yet know what has happened though. During breakfast Mme Josserand accuses Adèle of stealing the food and dismisses her. Mme Dambreville arrives and is shown into a waiting room. She’s upset because Léon is now seeing Raymonde, her niece and she asks Mme Josserand to try to influence him. As Léon is expected she decides to waits for him. Meanwhile Auguste arrives and is in a belligerant mood. M. Josserand thinks the disagreement is over the dowry but they start talking about the adultery. Mme Josserand doesn’t defend Berthe’s actions but she says that Auguste is to blame as he doesn’t know how to treat a wife. It soon turns nasty and M. Josserand now understands. Auguste leaves in a temper and the Josserands bicker amongst themselves. Mme Dambreville is still in the house. She says she’ll now agree to the marriage beween Raymonde & Léon as long as they live with her. While the others are busy M. Josserand has fainted and knocked his head.

Chapter XVII

Months pass. Octave is back at the Ladies’ Paradise and people are talking of marriage between him and Mme Hédouin. He, however, remains emotionally distant from her and he concentrates on the expansion of the shop, which includes buying Vabre’s shop. Mme Hédouin raises the subject of marriage between them.

Duvreyier, now the landlord, asks Auguste to make up with Berthe for the sake of propriety. He suggests that Auguste take her back on the condition that the Josserands pay the full fifty thousand dowry. Since he lost Fifi, Bachelard is constantly drunk and rude but will not pay the money which infuriates Mme Josserand as Bachelard paid the same amount to Gueulin to marry Fifi. The doctor and the priest arrive to see M. Josserand who is dying. Bachelard won’t pay the money so the Josserands say that Auguste will have to have Berthe back first. Auguste misses Berthe. Duvreyrier urges Auguste to make it up with his wife.

Duvreyrier’s relationship with Clarisse is getting worse. Clotilde has caught the servants Clémence and Hippolyte together and urges them to marry. Later on Hippolyte reveals that he’s already married.
M. Josserand dies before Mme Josserand can arrange a bedside reconciliation between Auguste and Berthe. After the funeral Auguste and Berthe make up. Meanwhile, Marie gives birth to another child. Duveyrier is driven away by Clarisse and he buys a revolver. He thinks about killing himself at the funeral but tries it later in the toilet but he just blows his jaw off.

Berthe dismisses Rachel who then reveals all their secrets to anyone that will listen. Octave and Mme Hédouin announce their marriage.

Chapter XVIII

Adèle is nine months pregnant though no-one, including herself, was aware of this. She goes into labour in her room and tries not to make too much noise. The birth is relatively straight forward; she wraps the baby up and puts it on the building’s entrance and returns to bed. She has the next few days off work.

The Duveyrier’s hold a dinner. Auguste gets irate at the thought of Octave arriving and threatens to leave if he turns up. Octave arrives late; Auguste fumes but doesn’t leave. Octave joins the choir. Duveyrier’s voice is now more distinguished since his suicide attempt. They discuss the case of a woman who was guilty of infanticide. It turns out that it was the boot-stitcher who couldn’t feed her baby. They’re shocked by the increase in debauchery of the lower classes. The women discuss the servants and they reproach Adèle. Duveyrier meanwhile has a new mistress. Auguste tries to leave but Berthe refuses. He gets a migraine. It all seems as if everything has returned to normal. The novel ends with the servants discussing their employers. Adèle tells the others that she’d had a bad stomach ache.

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)

An Old Edition of Zola’s Works

ZolaFatherFrancois

The Works
OF
Emile Zola

One Volume Edition

 

Published by Black’s Readers Service Company, Roslyn, New York. Copyright, 1928, 1938, by Walter J. Black, Inc. Red hardcover with Emile Zola printed on front in gold letters and The Works of Zola in gold print enclosed in a black box on the spine. Approximately 5 1/4″ x 7 1/2″. Pages are laid out in double columns.

It appears that this One Volume Edition as it is described on the title page was once issued in two separate volumes. This volume has two Sections with separate numbering. There is no extra information and the translator is not credited. Based on information Jonathan found in Garden of Zola by Graham King, the contents were probably taken from works contained in Collected Works of Emile Zola (1928, Walter J. Black Inc, N.Y.) which used Vizetelly texts.

Contents

Section I

Nana

Section II

The Miller’s Daughter
Captain Burle
The Death of Olivier Becaille
Jacques Damour
The Inundation
A Love Episode

 

The same translations of all but two of the individual works are available in numerous formats from Project Gutenberg.

Nana is a novel in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart Cycle. The same translation of Nana can be found in Four Short Stories (even though it is a novel). This work also includes identical translations of The Miller’s Daughter, Captain Burle and The Death of Olivier Becaille. I am unable to find the an English translation of Jacques Damour. A different translation of The Inundation is available as The Flood.

A Love Episode is another novel in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart Cycle. The same translation was used in a beautiful edition of the Comédie d’Amour Series published by the Société des Beaux-Arts in 1905 and illustrated by Dantan.

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.