Plassans Then, Aix Now


A residential street in Aix. Cezanne lived in this house at one time.

Emile Zola was born in Aix-en-Provence, the town in Provence where he lived as a boy and to which he gives the name of Plassans in his series of Rougon-Macquart novels. Aix is an old town, founded by the Romans with houses built of the local stone.


The now-abandoned quarry from which the stone came. Zola and Cezanne undoubtedly played here as boys.


Cezanne’s paining of the quarry.

In Zola’s time Aix was still surrounded by walls with gates that could be locked at night, as described in The Fortune of the Rougons.

 Until 1853 these opening were fitted out with huge wooden two-leaved gates, arched at the top and reinforced with iron bars. These gates were double-locked at eleven o’clock in summer and ten o’clock in winter. The town having thus shots its bolts like a timid girl, went quietly to sleep.

AixMapThe walls were gone when I visited Aix less than 10 years ago, but the present encircling boulevards follow the lines they once established.


AixFountainThe former gate, the  Porte des Augustins, has been replaced by La Ronde, a traffic circle in the center of which is a handsome fountain. You also find the Tourist Office there, a very appropriate location since one of Aix’s principal occupations now is tourism.

The Cours Mirabeau, identified as Cours Sauvaire in Zola’s Plassans, begins at La Ronde and has not moved from Zola’s time. The street itself is wide and shaded, and you can still find a café where Cezanne and Zola once enjoyed the local scene. The Cours divides two sections of the town, a community where each group knew and accepted its place.

 It is only once a week, and when the weather is good, that the three districts of Plassans come face to face. The whole town repairs to the Cours Sauvaire on Sunday after vespers; even the nobility venture there.


Cours Mirabeau today. Note restricted automobile traffic — plenty of room for strollers then and now.


This cafe on the Cours Mirabeau was also popular in Zola’s day.

The contemporary map shown above is one that is given to tourists for a self-guided walking tour of sites associated with Paul Cezanne, currently Aix’s favorite son. Zola is rarely mentioned at the tourist office, except in connection with Cezanne. The two were boyhood friends in Aix, both left it for Paris. Zola stayed in Paris, but Cezanne returned to Aix. They remained in touch but had a falling out when Cezanne saw himself portrayed unflatteringly in Zola’s novel L’Oeuvre.


Zola Dam, 100 years ago.

 The citizens of Plassans from Zola’s day and the citizens of Aix today have, however, good reason to honor the Zola family. Zola’s father, Francois  Zola, designed and built an important dam to assure a supply of water to the town.


Zola Dam today. It is still in use.

In Provence today, the countryside relies on a complex system of dams, canals and irrigation ditches to provide water in a semi-arid climate. When Francois Zola died prematurely his family felt cheated of the rewards to which they felt entitled for his work. This bitterness affects Zola’s descriptions of Plassans as a small-minded, conservative place.


Irrigation ditch in the Provence countryside.


Cezanne’s Studio, 1902

Within Aix, walking in the narrow street of the old parts of town – the area which was once within the medieval walls – one has little sense of the surrounding countryside. Both Zola and Cezanne knew it well however, and one finds it in the night wanderings of Silvere and Miette in The Fortunes of the Rougons. Walk out of central Aix and climb the hill to Paul Cezanne’s old studio, and you can see something of what they knew. The studio itself, built in Cezanne’s mature years of somewhat greater prosperity was once isolated on a hillside.

It is lonely no more, as tourist line up to see where the artist once worked.


Cezanne’s Studio on a rainy afternoon.

Best of all, look out from the location.


View from the street outside Cezanne’s Studio.

The view reminds me of the anxious night Rougon spent on the terrace looking for signs of the insurrectionists.

 At the end of the garden there was a terrace that overlooked the plain; a large section of the ramparts had collapsed at that point, giving an unimpeded view…. In the distance, in the valley of the Viorne, across the vast hollow that stretched westwards between the chain of the Garrigues and the mountains of the Scille, the moonlight was streaming down like a river of pale light. The clumps of trees and the dark rocks looked, here and there, like islets and tongues of land emerging from a luminous sea. And corresponding to the bends of the Viorne, it was possible to see patches and slithers of the river….


Bridge over the “Viorne.” Zola painted a picture of this bridge so it must have been there in Zola’s day.

The stony ridge in the distance is, of course, Mt. Ste. Victoire, the subject of many of Cezanne’s landscapes.


We took a van tour which circled the mountain and found it fascinating. The ridge is so placed that one can never see the entire thing at once. It is long, very steep in places, and presents a different shape when seen from each side and angle. Like the grand canyon, the play of light on the rocks brings the mountain forms nearer during some parts of the day and softens and distances them at other times. When Cezanne returned to Aix from Paris, he found a subject worthy of his skill and could spend the rest of his life interpreting the local scene.


Mt. Ste. Victoire by Cezanne — one of many versions of the mountain and the surrounding plain. It looks much the same today, including the stone viaduct.

Zola, on the other hand, could not find in his Plassans a wide enough  canvas for his artistic dream. In L’Oeuvre, the writer lays out a comprehensive program of work and systematically applies himself to bringing it forth. It is not always appreciated but he has confidence in its value. This is very much what Zola did when he wrote his Rougon-Macquart novels. He made a plan and worked at it, book after book, year after year.

Zola’s fictional artist is not appreciated either. He stays in Paris, where he creates and destroys, creates and destroys in an attempt to make something so perfect that it must be acknowledged. This is the characterization which so disturbed Cezanne that he never spoke to Zola again. Since visiting Aix I think the two men were more alike that Zola acknowledged. Both worked in accordance with how they saw the world. Zola could not create as he wanted to within Plassans. He needed a wider scene and found it in Paris. Cezanne did not hang himself like the artist in L’Oeuvre. Instead, he left Paris to live and exercise his imagination in Aix, where his landscapes look out from the town, not back towards it.

Today Plassans/Aix is a short bus ride from the Marseilles airport. Aix in the 21st century is a modern city with a well-preserved older center. I was a tourist there a few years ago, walking in the town and enjoying the landscapes. The experience gave me a strong sense of the physical environment in which Zola lived during his formative years. The spirit of the place seems quite different from the Plassans of Zola. Aix is open, hospitable to tourists, and has a large population of foreign students, adding to a cosmopolitan atmosphere you do not find in the Rougon-Macquart novels.

Emile Zola, The Fortune of the Rougons


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fortune of the Rougons, by Emile Zola, translated by Brian Nelson

The Fortune of the RougonsAfter I read Germinal a couple of years ago (see my review), Émile Zola became one of those authors that I really wanted to read more of, but it was not until I saw the BBC series based on The Ladies’ Paradise and read the novel (see my review) that I decided to begin a long-term project to read them all. I’ve enjoyed reading this one, The Fortune of the Rougons, which puts the whole sequence into perspective.

With Les Rougon-Macquart, Zola apparently set out to emulate Balzac’s La Comedie Humaine but his 20-volume cycle differs in two significant ways: it consists of novels rather than short stories and novellas, and it focusses on a single family rather than a whole society. Zola believed in the fatalistic effects of heredity and environment, and so the novels trace three branches of the Rougon-Macquart family: the aspirational Rougons, always on the hunt for wealth and position; the Mourets, who are bourgeois tradesmen and provincials; and the low-born Macquarts who are industrial workers. (Or worse).

The Fortune of the Rougons charts the lives of the first generation. (There’s a helpful family tree at Wikipedia). Adélaïde Fouque (Aunt Dide) – who is a bit loopy, has three children: Pierre Rougon, the legitimate son of her long deceased labourer husband, and Antoine and Ursule who are the children of her liaison with the smuggler Macquart. By the end of the novel Pierre and his ambitious wife Felicité Puech have with a mixture of good luck and cunning overcome their disadvantages and achieved their destiny as influential leaders in the town. Ursule (who marries Mouret) and the drunken layabout Antoine have been swindled out of their inheritance, and are relegated to their respective paths in life.

Eugène Delacroix - Liberty Leading the People (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Eugène Delacroix – Liberty Leading the People
(Source: Wikipedia Commons)

The novel begins with the naïve idealism of a young couple who have enlisted in the doomed insurgency that led to the December 1851 coup d’état that created the French Second Empire under Napoleon III. (Fortunately, the reader does not need to know much about the interminable revolutions of this period, but if you are keen, you can start at Wikipedia, or try A Traveller’s History of Paris by Robert Cole which has the only explanation I’ve ever enjoyed reading.) Ursule’s son Silvère Mouret and Miette have been sweet on each other since childhood, and they are out canoodling around the periphery of the town when they are swept up into the insurgency. The rude comments of some of the militia reveal that both have grubby forebears, particularly Miette whose father, a poacher, was executed for killing a gendarme. This unpleasantness doesn’t, however, deter Miette from joining the compatriots: in a scene reminiscent of Delacroix’s Liberty Guiding the People she takes up the role of flag bearer so that she can be with Silvère, and off they go. While Zola’s sympathies are obviously with the rebels and against the cynical government in Paris, I wondered whether this allusion was meant to suggest that as things turned out politically in this period, Liberty herself was alas, as naïve as Miette was.

In the next chapter Zola then abruptly abandons these two to tell the story of the Rougons, launching into Adélaïde’s imprudent marriage to Rougon. Adelaide was the daughter of a market gardener, and could have made an advantageous marriage even in Plassans where the options are limited, but no, she fancied Rougon who was a labourer on her father’s land. After his death she formed an eccentric liaison with the alcoholic Macquart and bore him the two children, Antoine and Ursule, before he disappeared and died as well. Pierre resents having to share his inheritance with these two and cunningly arranges affairs so that he doesn’t have to (which isn’t hard because by now Adelaide is well-and-truly unhinged).

Antoine never lets Pierre forget the swindle, much to Pierre and Felicité’s embarrassment. For with money behind him Pierre makes an aspirational marriage and they soon set about ingratiating themselves with their ‘betters’, a tactic which isn’t helped by the drunken Antoine casting accusations at them whenever he gets the opportunity. In this way Zola reinforces the town’s doubts about the legitimacy of Pierre and Felicité’s position throughout the novel, culminating in the closing paragraph with overt symbolism to show that they have blood on their hands, thus making a veiled critique of the legitimacy of Napoleon III’s crown.

As to the next generation, Pierre’s three children are a disappointment. They are educated, thanks to Felicité’s ambition, but without any capital behind them, they get nowhere. Only their middle child, the doctor Pascal turns out to have any integrity, the others are stupid and lazy. It’s just luck that Eugene turns out to have some useful insider information that facilitates Pierre’s elevation to hero and saviour of the town. (He’s awarded the Legion of Honour, no less!)

Zola’s theory was that refinement came through the female line and certainly Felicité is the brains behind Pierre’s triumph. Their shenanigans are portrayed with great comic irony by Zola, setting Pierre up as a small-time Napoleon in a mock-epic drama – with Felicité as his Josephine. As to Silvère and Miette, well, I’m not going to give out spoilers – but some readers may need a hankie…

According to Zola’s recommended reading order (which isn’t the same as the publication order) I’m supposed to read Son Excellence Eugène Rougon next … but I need some advice about which translation to get because Brian Nelson hasn’t done that one.

Commentary by Lisa Hill, 18/11/11 and cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers

Author: Émile Zola
Title: The Fortune of the Rougons
Translated by Brian Nelson
Publisher: Oxford World Classics, Oxford University Press, 2012
ISBN: 9780199560998
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Fishpond $13.64


Fishpond:The Fortune of the Rougons (Oxford World’s Classics)
Book Depository: The Fortunes of the Rougons (Oxford World Classics)