182 years ago today, Émile Édouard Charles Antoine Zola was born in Paris and for the past nine years, Fanda @Classiclit has hosted Zoladdiction throughout April.
I joined in the first two with the only Zola’s on my TBR pile – Germinal (1885) and Nana (1880). At that point I didn’t really understand how the whole Rougon-Macquart thing worked. But I quickly caught on…and realised that I wanted to read the entire series in chronological order (and if I live long enough I would like to then reread them in Zola’s preferred order)!
This year I am up to book six in the series, Son Excellence Eugène Rougon (1876) His Excellency Eugene Rougon. My edition is the 2018 Oxford University Press one, translated by Brian Nelson. I believe this one is going to be very political.
Here’s a quick update on what I’ve learnt so far.
- La Fortune des Rougon (1871) The Fortune of the Rougons is the origin story of this series and the Rougon-Macquart family. The novel begins with the coup d’état that created the Second Empire under Napoleon III, before Zola takes us back in time to pre-Revolutionary France.
Zola’s aim was to show one family and it’s extended family members throughout the time of the Second Empire (14th January 1852 to 27th October 1870). The fictional town of Plassans was loosely based on Aix-en-Provence, where Zola himself grew up. As an adult he came to believe that we are all driven by our heredity. All his novels are designed to show or prove this belief.
The series was written after the Second Empire had ended, during the French Third Republic (4th September 1870 until 10th July 1940).
The middle chapters of the book detail the family history of the Rougon’s – starting with the mad matriarch – the sensual, scandalous Adélaïde. Zola eventually weaves his way through the various branches of the Rougon’s and Macquart’s, back to modern times and the role each member played in the birth of the Second Empire.
Apart from the family history, the main plot is about the coup d’état of Louis-Napoleon in December 1851 and how it affects the small town of Plassans. 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 locations.
- La Curée (1871–2) The Kill
One of the main things I remember from reading The Kill, or The Quarry, or The Game is Over is the Haussmannisation of Paris. The Paris most of us know and love grew out of the major works begun by Georges-Eugène Haussmann.
He opened up avenues and boulevards to create light and space. Beautiful spaces, trees, parks and new buildings were designed to being communities together…at the expense of ripping apart old neighbourhoods. The addition of sewers, fountains and aquaducts made huge improvements for all Parisians but at the time the demolition and construction works were controversial and traumatic.
Zola captures all of this and more.
I concluded by saying, “La Curée had all the glitz, big hair and large shoulder pads of Dynasty (are you old enough to remember the 80’s TV show)? Combine the Ewing families obscene wealth with the self-conscious, OTT spectacle that the Kardashian clan make of themselves and you’ll get some idea of the fake, shallow world inhabited by Zola’s characters.”
- Le Ventre de Paris (1873) The Belly of Paris or The Fat and the Thin was all about the food. The look, the smell, the taste.
The political and social injustices of the times are symbolised by Zola in the Les Halles markets and reinforced by the various natures of the people who live and work there.
Many of Zola’s standard themes are explored – moral ambiguity, excess, waste, realism, gluttony, materialism, decadence, the haves and the have-nots. Consumerism, in particular, is placed under the Zola microscope in The Belly of Paris, as is the whole idea of spying, voyeurism, surveillance and gossip. Everyone watches everyone else and everyone discusses it with anyone who will listen.
The love/hate relationship that Parisians had towards the renovation of Paris by Haussmann are contined in this novel. On the one hand there is a real sense of loss and nostalgia for ‘Old Paris’, yet there’s also an appreciation of the improved sanitation and open spaces that the clean up achieved.
La Belle Lisa ‘a steady, sensible Macquart, reasonable and logical in her craving for well-being‘ was one of the most memorable characters to date. Quietly ambitious, determined, hard-working, and voluptuous. Lisa embodied the bourgeoisie sensibility of looking out for oneself and turning a blind eye to the larger problems within society as being none of her business and beyond her control to do anything about anyway.
- La Conquête de Plassans (1874) The Conquest of Plassans is set between 1858 and 1864, straight after the events in the very first book, The Fortune of the Rougons.
This is the post I attempted to get my head around all the French Empires and Republics (click on title link for more).
Abbé Faujas, is the new man in town (and is surely the epitome of literary stranger danger). He has his own self-interests at heart from the start. As does Félicité Rougon, the matriarch of the family and the unofficial ruler of Plassans. She may appear to be helping him, but Bonapartist or not, if he gets in her way, she will do everything in her power to come out on top. Félicité is clearly in this for the long game.
Faujas has been enlisted, by a shadowy group of Bonapartists in Paris, to bring Plassans to heel. Le Petit Napoleon was not popular in the countryside after the violent 1851 coup d état although every effort was made to turn this opinion around. The Catholic Church and it’s priests are shown here, to be as political, ambitious and lusting for power as the next man. Zola shines a light on religious hypocrisy and power plays and reveals the toxic mix of small town gossip and self-serving intrigues.
It’s a heady mix of dastardly deeds, hysteria and madness.
Much of the story centres around Marthe and Mouret, husband and wife, but also cousins. She is a descendant of the legitimate Rougon line, while Mouret is part of the less than salubrious Macquart branch of the family.
- La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret (1875) The Sin of Father Mouret is my least favourote Zola to date. Thankfully it was a slim volume. Serge and Désirée are the children of Marthe & Mouret from the previous novel. All the way through, I kept waiting to hear how their upbringing and the fate of their parents impacted on their development. But they never, ever spoke about it. I guess, for Zola, it is their genes that have the most impact, so their upbringing and environment didn’t count.
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 over the top and completely unnatural. 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’m looking forward to my next Zola. What about you?
- This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.