La Teuse came in and popped her broom and her feather duster against the alter.
Confession one: this story ended up being a chore to read. After six engaging, enthralling Zola’s I have hit my first dud with the seventh.
Confession two: for the past week I have been trying to read three books that were a chore to read. Why, I hear you ask?
Confession three: I made myself finish one, but I have decided to abandon the other two (see previous two posts).
Sometimes a book does not work. It could be bad timing or mood or tiredness or other stuff going on in one’s life. Or sometimes a book is just not for you. No matter what other people say about it, or love about it or admire about it, it could be that, for you, none of those things matter.
This was the one I made myself finish by skimming huge chunks of it. Why I hear you ask?
April is Zoladdiction month with Fanda @ClassicLit! I love Zoladdiction month for being the prompt I need to read my next Zola. Sadly, I need a prompt to read more Zola because my day job requires me to stay-up-to-date with new releases. Reading classics is a bit of an indulgence atm (although it is always a good thing for a book seller to have a decent classics backlist up their sleeve as well).
This year I was up to book five in the Rougon-Macquart series – La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret (1875) The Sin of Father Mouret. My edition was the Oxford University Press one translated by Valerie Minogue, the President of the Émile Zola Society in London.
The Sin of Father Mouret is a novel of extremes – from Serge’s over-the-top devotion to the Virgin in the first act, to the abundance of nature going wild in and around his church. From the austere, highly engineered religious ceremonies to the child-like nature of his animal loving sister Désirée. From the tough-love mothering of the housekeeper, La Teuse to the cruel-hearted, misogynistic Brother Archangias. From the free-thinking, agnostic Jeanbernat, to his wild, untaught, gipsy-like niece Albine roaming around Paradou – the lover’s paradise, or garden of Eden.
This was the first time I felt like Zola’s detailed research got in the way. It was the same kind of research you also see in Germinal, The Kill and The Belly of Paris, but in those three, I felt he wove his knowledge into the story more naturally. Here I found myself talking out loud to Zola, saying ‘yeah, yeah, I know you know a lot about this stuff. Stop telling me about it and get on with the story!’
For a writer who claimed to be embedded in the world of natural realism, everything about this story was way over the top. The second act garden of Eden storyline was particularly extravagant and totally unrealistic, rather like a Disney-esque fairy tale full of doe-eyed childlike innocence. Although no happy ending. This is still Zola after all!
I was constantly waiting for some reference to Serge and Désirée’s parents and what happened to them by the end of The Conquest of Plassans. How did those events not have an impact that haunted them every day? Surely, the experience of having two parents go crazy in different ways followed by your childhood home becoming a fiery furnace, are the kind of things most people would spend years in therapy to work through. Perhaps his persistent childlike nature does reflect Serge’s unusual upbringing and it could be said that Serge’s early
devotion obsession to the Virgin was an attempt to find maternal love. Certainly his attachment to the Church is portrayed as a way for him to escape from the drama and chaos and untidiness of the real world. Embracing reality is not his strong point as Zola goes on to show in the second act. And when reality finally does intrude by the third act, Serge is completely unable to cope in any way that is dignified or graceful or humane. Not only does Serge suffer for his supposed sins, but others must also suffer.
This is a richly textured novel, multi-layered, with embedded stories, dreams and hallucinations. With so rich and complex a novel on so fundamental a subject, questions are bound to arise about Zola’s own rather troubled and complex view of sex, and his view of women.Church and Nature: sex and sin | Valerie Minogue | OUP Blog
One the reason I was unable to finish The Disappearance of Émile Zola: Love, Literature and the Dreyfus Affair by Michael Rosen (see below) was the realisation that I did not like the Zola portrayed by Rosen. He may have been a man of his time, having a wife and a mistress at his beck and call, he may have even loved both of them in his own way, but it was so obvious that this was a completely unsatisfactory and unhappy arrangement for both women, that I struggled to read any more about his life and hold on to my enjoyment of reading his books. This book is brimful of problematic relationships with sex, love and women, but it will take a Zola scholar far more embedded in his life story than I, to unravel it all.
There is no doubt that Zola’s writing is rich, exuberant and a delight to immerse oneself in. I found the first few books I tried to read after finishing this one to be dull, flat and prosaic. Zola gets under your skin, even with a skim read.
Facts (gleaned from Émile Zola: A Very Short Introduction by Brian Nelson (2020):
- Myth stories
- origin myth (The Fortunes of the Rougons)
- hell and universal flood (Germinal)
- Garden of Eden and tree of knowledge (The Sin of Father Mouret)
- Man’s lost majesty (The Sin of Father Mouret & L’Assommoir)
- Eternal return (Earth)
- Catastrophe and renewal (Nana and all the books after that)
- Zola was very ill with typhoid fever, delirious and remained unwell for several weeks. He ‘drew on this experience when he described the illness and delirium of Serge.’
- ‘anti-clericalism and anti-Catholicism embodied in priests throughout Les Rougon-Macquart‘.
- the priest who counsels Lisa (The Belly of Paris)
- the ruthless Faujas, agent of the Bonapartist regime (The Conquest of Plassans)
- the hysterical Serge Mouret (The Sin of Father Mouret)
- the ineffectual Abbé Mauduit (Pot Luck)
- the insensitive Abbé Ranvier (Germinal)
- the brutal bishop Monseigneur Hautecoeur (The Dream)
- as well as the Three Cities trilogy in general
- Opera – Paradou (1981/1985) Composed by Gerhard Wimberger
- Film – The Demise of Father Mouret (1970) Directed by Georges Franju
- Painting –The Death of Albine (1895) by John Collier
- Painting – Le Paradou (1883) by Joseph Edouard Dantan (image below)
- Valerie Minogue’s is the sixth English translation of La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret
My Zola Reading List so far:
- La Fortune des Rougon (1871) The Fortune of the Rougons
- La Curée (1871–2) The Kill
- Le Ventre de Paris (1873) The Belly of Paris
- La Conquête de Plassans (1874) The Conquest of Plassans
- Nana (1880)
- Germinal (1885)
- The Disappearance of Émile Zola: Love, Literature and the Dreyfus Affair | Michael Rosen (2017) – sadly a DNF.
Book: La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret - The Sin of Father Mouret | Émile Zola Translator: Valerie Minogue Published: 2017 (originally published 1875) Publisher: Oxford University Press ISBN: 9780198736639 Format: Paperback
After finishing this post, I stumbled upon the LibraryThing page for this book. It has been a revelation to find many, like me, who only finished the book because it was Zola to those who adored everything about it.