Money: Emile Zola (new translation comparison with spoilers)

Time, we are told, brings round its revenges, and the books burned by the common hangman in one age come to be honoured in the next.” Henry Vizetelly

]Zola’s magnificent 20-volume Rougon-Macquart series examines the history of two branches of a family founded by matriarch Adelaide Fouques–the last of the line of a wealthy landowning family whose “name died out a few years before the Revolution.” First Adelaide shocks her neighbours in the rural town of Plassans by marrying a peasant named Rougon. Their son, Pierre begins the Rougon line, but when, after the death of her husband,  Adelaide shacks up with a drunken poacher, she later produces two illegitimate children: Antoine and Ursule Macquart. The Rougons claw their way up into French society while the Macquarts remain the poorer side of the family. While there’s the occasional character with just a tinge of derangement, mostly these are a motley bunch: “a pack of unbridled, insatiate appetites amidst a blaze of gold and blood” which include scoundrels, adulterers, drunks, swindlers, a religious maniac turned arsonist and of course, one of the most infamous prostitutes of her time: Nana. If you’ve read the novels–the complete series or just a few of the more famous titles, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. Zola’s intent was to trace the hereditary influences of alcoholism and insanity through the two branches of the family set against the backdrop of the Second Empire of Napoleon III (1852-1870) in the years from the coup d’etat (1851) which overthrew the Republic to the aftermath of the Franco Prussian war of 1870-71.

Henry Vizetelly’s publishing house released translated versions of Zola’s novels and met a witchhunt led by The National Vigilant Association--a group of people I know I couldn’t stand just from the name of this whacko group. Henry Vizetelly was dragged into court, convicted twice of “obscene libel,” and went to prison for 3 months. Henry’s son Ernest reworked the translations and these are considered “bowdlerized.”  Given the subject matter of Zola’s novels, it only makes sense that the more salacious bits disappeared thanks to censorship. Many of the Rougon-Macquart novels have been freshly translated but oddly Money was not until 2014 by Oxford World Classics and Valerie Minogue. This is the first new translation in over a hundred years and the first unabridged translation in English. Unbelievable really. And here’s a quote from Ernest Vizetelly which appears in the Translator’s Note in the new version of Money. How fitting that a new translation should give credit where it’s due: to the Vizetellys for having the courage to try and defy small-minded petty hypocrisy and censorship. The characters in Zola’s novels are flawed human beings, but who among us cannot recognize human nature here? The message, according to the censors, is people may act like this, but let’s not read about it…

Nobody can regret these changes more than I do myself, but before reviewers proceed to censure me… If they desire to have verbatim translations of M. Zola’s works, let them help to establish literary freedom. (Ernest Vizetelly)

So let’s see what those 19th century prudes didn’t want us to read:

MoneyHere’s a clip from the new translation of Money from Valerie Minogue: 

‘Terrible things happened yesterday,” the Princess went on, “a crime, in fact, that nothing can repair.”

And in her ice-cold manner she related an awful happening. For the last three days, Victor had got himself placed in the infirmary, claiming to have unbearable pains in his head. The doctor had certainly suspected that this might be merely the pretence of an idler, but the child really had suffered from frequent attacks of neuralgia. Now that afternoon, Alice de Beauvilliers was at the Foundation without her mother; she had gone to help the sister on duty with the quarterly inventory of the medicine cupboard. This cupboard was in the room that separated the two dormitories, the girls’ dormitory from the boys’, in which, at that time, Victor was the only occupant; and the sister, who had gone out for a few minutes, had been very surprised on her return not to find Alice; indeed, after waiting a few minutes, she had started to look for her. Her astonishment had increased on observing that the door of the boys’ dormitory had been locked on the inside. What could be happening? She had had to go right round by the corridor, and had stood gaping in terror at the spectacle that presented itself: the young girl lay half-strangled, a towel tied over her face to stifle her screams, her skirts pulled up roughly, displaying the pitiful nakedness of an anaemic virgin, raped and defiled with appalling brutality. On the floor lay an empty purse. Victor had disappeared. The scene could be reconstructed: Alice, perhaps answering a call, going in to give a cup of milk to that fifteen-year-old boy, already as hairy as a man, and then the monster’s sudden hunger for that frail flesh, that overlong neck, and the leap of the nightshirted male, the girl, suffocating, thrown on to the bed like a rag, raped and robbed, and then a hasty pulling on of clothes, and flight. But so many points remained obscure, so many baffling and insoluble questions! How was it no one heard anything, no sound of a struggle, no cry? How could such frightful things have happened so quickly, in barely ten minutes? and above all, how had Victor been able to escape, to vanish, as it were, leaving no trace?

Now the Vizetelly version:

“A terrible thing happened yesterday,” continued the Princess–” a crime which nothing can repair.”

And thereupon, in her frigid way, she began to relate a frightful story. There days previously, it seemed, Victor had obtained admission into the infirmary by complaining of insupportable headaches. The doctor of the Institute had suspected this to be the feigned illness of an idler, but in point of fact the lad was prey to frequent neuralgic attacks. Now on the afternoon in question it appeared that Alice de Beauvilliers had come to the Institute without her mother, in order to help the sister on duty with the quarterly inventory of the medicine closet. Victor happened to be alone in the adjoining infirmary, and the sister, having been obliged to absent herself for a short time, was amazed on her return to find Alice missing. She had begun to search for her, and at last, to her horror and amazement, had found her lying in the infirmary most severely injured–in fact more dead than alive. Beside her, significantly enough lay her empty purse. She had been attacked by Victor, and, brief as had been the sister’s absence, the young miscreant had already contrived to flee. The astonishing part of the affair was that no sound of struggle, no cry for help, had been heard by anyone. In less than ten minutes the crime had been planned and perpetrated, and its author had taken to flight. How could Victor have thus managed to escape, vanish, as it were, without leaving any trace behind him?

The first translated passage (from Oxford World’s Classics: Valerie Minogue) makes it perfectly clear that Alice de Beauvilliers has been brutally raped. Here’s the revolting image of hairy Victor against ” the pitiful nakedness of an anaemic virgin, raped and defiled with appalling brutality.  Defective Victor, Saccard’s bastard son feels  a “sudden hunger for that frail flesh, that overlong neck, and the leap of the nightshirted male, the girl, suffocating, thrown on to the bed like a rag, raped and robbed, and then a hasty pulling on of clothes.” She’s even gagged to muffle her screams. This is an important incident in the novel for Saccard raped Victor’s mother in a violent coupling on the stairs, so the repetition of rape across two generations emphasizes Zola’s examination of hereditary behaviour. Plus then there’s the victim herself–Alice de Beauvilliers. Alice and her mother, impoverished aristocrats, the last of an “ancient race,” have invested all they own with Saccard with the goal that they will finally be able to secure a dowry for Alice. The great irony here is that Saccard is ruined; there will be no dowry; there will be no marriage; and instead of a wedding, Alice is violently raped by Victor who seems to have inherited all of his father’s animal appetites but without inheriting his brain and social skills. Alice’s rape will scar the poor woman for life; if there was any hope of a bridegroom before, now those hopes are dashed forever,. So much for the de Beauvilliers line or …. will Alice bear a bastard child?

 The Vizetelly translation makes it sound as though Alice were pushed over during the course of a mugging and that Victor stole the contents of her purse and not her virginity–which sad to say, isn’t much coveted by the males of her class, but after all Alice and her mother have been dreaming of the “long-awaited” bridegroom, scrimping and saving twenty thousand francs for Alice’s dowry–even as Alice ages and her prospects wither. But this goal of a bridegroom for Alice, no matter, how slim the possibility, has kept Alice and her mother directed in sustained hope. Saccard comes along and scoops up their nestegg along with the proceeds from the sale of Les Aublets. Alice de Beauvilliers and her mother are but another couple of victims of  Saccard’s speculations, but the rape of Alice, while vile, violent and guaranteed to shatter the poor timid girl is also symbolic. There is no bridegroom; there never will be any bridegroom and Alice, the last of a long line of aristocrats will die unmarried, utterly ruined and without hope. Saccard loots them of their money and their hope, and his bastard son, Victor delivers the coup de grace, and through the rape, robs them of their pride. Not that their pride could ever feed them, but at least it give the two women some sort of purpose in life.  Saccard’s sins come home to roost, but who pays the price? And after all this is typically what happens with this family; they’re simply bad news.

The true meaning of this significant incident is lost in the censored Vizetelly version. Once again–no Vizetelly bashing here, but which version would you rather read?

Guy Savage

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Prudes on the Prowl – Zola and Censorship

Prudes on the Prowl (OUP)

Prudes on the Prowl (OUP)

I was carrying out a bit of a random internet search for information on the Lutetian Society who were responsible for privately publishing several of Zola’s books in the late nineteenth century. I didn’t find much, partly because I got distracted (as I usually do when searching for something online) by this book, Prudes on the Prowl: Fiction and Obscenity in England, 1850 to the Present Day, published by Oxford University Press in 2013 and edited by David Bradshaw and Rachel Potter. It consists of nine essays and although the whole book looks like a good read, the second essay is especially interesting to Zola enthusiasts – its full title is Pernicious Literature: Vigilance in the Age of Zola (1886-1899) and it’s by Katherine Mullin. It covers the emergence of literacy amongst the working class from 1870 and the perceived threat of ‘pernicious literature’, the rise and fall of the National Vigilance Association (NVA), the Vizetelly trials and the effects the Vizetelly trials had on English writers such as Thomas Hardy, George Gissing and George Moore. Oh, it also had a little bit on the Lutetian Society as well.

As it’s an academic book it’s very expensive – £50.00 for the hardback; but the Zola chapter is available on Google Books if anyone’s interested.

Elek Book Translations

Elek Books

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

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

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

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

Elek Book Editions

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

Translation Comparisons

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

‘Garden of Zola’ by Graham King

Garden of Zola

Garden of Zola

Whilst I was reading the Rougon-Macquart series of books I came across this book, Garden of Zola, by Graham King.  At the time I was having trouble trying to determine which books were unique and which were just different translations or whether they were part of the Rougon-Macquart series at all. For example, when I looked on my library’s catalogue it came up with all sorts of titles; some were obviously variations of those I already knew but others didn’t seem to refer to any of the titles that I was aware of and trying to match some of these up with those available on eBay, Amazon or Project Gutenberg seemed an impossible task. So I was immediately attracted to this book when I noticed that the subtitle was Emile Zola and his Novels for English Readers.

In the introduction, King sets out his aim for writing the book: he wanted to write an accurate, readable book for the general reader, who will be reading the works in English. He declares early on that for such a reader ‘what ought to be a delightful ramble through his novels becomes an obstacle course over treacherous, although occasionally rewarding, terrain.’ Part of the aim of the book, and also this post, is to offer some help over this terrain.

King further remarks that his intention is that the book will be ‘part biography, part criticism, part commentary, and with a number of side journeys into areas I considered to be of special interest.’ And this is basically what we get; the large bulk of the book covers Zola’s life from his childhood in Aix-en-Provence, his move to Paris, his early career in journalism and writing, his breakthrough and fame, right through to his involvement in the Dreyfus Affair and his death by carbon monoxide poisoning. King’s style is certainly readable and at no point does he flag. I initially intended to read the biographical sections after I’d finished the whole series but I started reading parts of it as I was reading the novels and at one point I just decided to carry on and finish it. Apart from a few spoilers I was glad that I did as I found it helped my understanding of the novels, Zola and his times. Though I would like to make it clear that it is not essential to do any preliminary reading before tackling any of Zola’s books.

As promised in the book’s introduction, King also supplies commentary and criticism of the novels as he progresses through Zola’s life. His criticism is approached in a very personable way, mixing critique with personal recollection and providing historical information when required. The only criticism that I had with this part of the book was that at times he just uses great slabs of quotations. For example when discussing L’Assommoir, there is a seven page section that is predominantly filled with quotations.

I haven’t read any other biographies of Zola so far, but I’m sure they will all have to cover the Dreyfus Affair to some extent, as Zola became heavily involved in it. The chapter in this book was an easy, concise overview of the whole affair and I found it fascinating to read and I intend to read more books covering this subject. Zola’s involvement resulted in him fleeing France to England (see also Ernest Vizetelly’s With Zola in England) and possibly his murder, as the circumstances of his death remains suspicious.

The main reason that I bought this book, rather than any other, was that I hoped it would contain information on English translations. Although it’s now dated (published in 1978) it surpassed my expectations on this account. First of all, there is a chapter that covers censorship in Victorian Britain from Thomas Bowdler up to Henry Vizetelly’s court cases in 1888/9. Henry Vizetelly started to publish unabridged versions of Nana and L’Assommoir in 1884 and soon gained the rights to all of Zola’s work in English. But criticism of the ‘obscenities’ in Zola’s books soon forced Vizetelly to abridge the novels to avoid trouble. Problems really began when translators refused to translate sections of La Terre. When it was finally published in an abridged version as The Soil, he incurred the wrath of the National Vigilance Association, who described the book as ‘filth’ – anyone who has read the book can just imagine the impact it must have had on these Victorian prudes. I like to imagine them reading the bit about the donkey puking up all the booze that it’s drank in front of the visiting vicar. Anyway, Henry was tried at the Old Bailey on 31st October 1888. King quotes from the court case and it’s fascinating to read; the argument that the prosecution lawyer uses is that it’s alright for obscene parts to exist in literature by established authors but The Soil is filth from beginning to end and Zola is not a reputable author. Henry ended by pleading guilty and received a £100 fine much to the satisfaction of the press. However, there was confusion over what Vizetelly could now publish; he continued to publish the other Zola novels and was taken to court again on 30th May 1889. Henry was ill and he had a terrible lawyer who advised him to plead guilty – he was then sent to prison for three months. On his release, he retired and he died on 1st January 1894. Chatto & Windus bought the English translation rights and Henry’s son, Ernest, edited the novels so that they could be legally published. King then gives examples of the differences between the two Vizetelly versions. When criticising the Vizetelly translations it’s always worth remembering what conditions the Vizetellys had to work under and that despite everything, they continued to publish Zola in one form or other.

For me, the most useful chapter was titled The Perils of an English Reader, which contains loads of information on English translations of Zola’s works – much of the information relating to the pre-1970 translations on the Translations page was culled from this chapter.  Although the Vizetellys had to publish heavily abridged copies of Zola’s works it is interesting to know that unabridged translations of six of Zola’s novels were produced by The Lutetian Society in 1894/5. These were sold to subscribers in a limited edition and therefore the publishers escaped prosecution. King notes that ‘these texts are uniformly excellent’ and that the translation of La Terre is ‘outstanding’. When interest in Zola resurfaced in the 1950s these translations were used as a basis for new editions.

Until I read this chapter I was unaware that many of the Rougon-Macquart novels were translated in the late 1950s and published by Elek Books. Where a modern (post 1970) version was unavailable I was then able to track down, either from the library or eBay, some of these 1950s translations. King gives examples of some of the differences between these translations and gives a personal view of their merit. In the end I read six Elek translations and the only Vizetelly translation I read was Money (n.b. a new translation of Money is due in March 2014) . I intend to add a separate post with information on these Elek Book versions, but for anyone who is interested there is an example of the difference on the post titled Exceptional Excerpts: Zest for Life by Émile Zola.

There are about forty illustrations included in this book, consisting of photographs of Zola and his family, reproductions of early and pulp editions of his books, political cartoons & caricatures and more.

BTW I’m not sure what to make of the cover…hey it was the ’70s.

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.