Son Excellence Eugène Rougon | Émile Zola #Zoladdiction

The President of the Chamber remained standing until the faint stir caused by his entry subsided. Then he took his seat, saying rather nonchalantly, in a quiet voice:

‘The sitting is open.’

As always, I am facsinated by translation choices. Above are the opening lines from Brian Nelson’s recent 2018 translation of Son Excellence Eugène Rougon, the first in nearly sixty years. Below are the ones from 1897. It is not only word choices that change, but punctuation and how the paragraphs are presented on the page.

I’d love to read examples of Mary Neal Sherwood’s 1880 translation (titled Clorinda), Kenneth Philp’s 1884 one (titled The Mysteries of Louis Napoleon’s Court) and Alec Brown’s 1958 version.

For a moment the President remained standing amidst the slight commotion which his entrance had caused. Then he took his seat, saying carelessly and in an undertone: ‘The sitting has commenced.’

Translator: Ernest Alfred Vizetelly

As many of you know, I’ve had a bit of a review writing holiday, as well as an actual holiday this month. All of the most recent posts on here were written before we left, except for The Tortoise and the Hare which I managed to finish one lazy, quiet afternoon over Easter. I thought, before we left, that it would be easy to keep up with commenting and reading other blogs throughout our trip. Turns out I was wrong. Spending time with the family and exploring new areas with Mr Books was far more essential to my sense of wellbeing!

As was switcthing off from the news.

We saw the occasional bulletin, or had the occasional news alert come through on our phones, but for most of the time we were off doing other things. Ignorance is not bliss, but a little news holiday is just as important as the real thing at times.

The trouble with holidays, though, is returning to the real world and wondering how on earth will I fit in everything I ‘have’ to do AND go back to work! Slowly the news is seeping back in – the political palavar that is our latest federal election, the wars and conflicts in Ukraine, Syria, Africa, Myanmar, a certain virus that is still having an impact and the ongoing, underlying constant worry I have about climate change.

However, as so often happens, books are my saviour.

Son Excellence Eugène Rougon reminded me that the greed and manipulation and conflict that arises from political and social upheaval have existed in every age throughout history. And somehow we survive them and continue on.

Before starting Son Excellence I had been warned by several people that this was their least favourite Zola, mostly due to its political nature. Perhaps I went in with low expectations, or maybe Brian Nelson’s superb translation has brought this story to life in a way that previous translations did not, but I loved every minute with Eugène Rougon.

In his Translator’s Note, Nelson responds to this by saying that Son Excellence is not only a valuable tool for any historian of the Second Empire, but it is also a,

surprisingly modern satire of all forms of authoritarian government and of the malevolence, duplicity, and language games of which those in power are capable.

If anything, it feels even more pertinent and consequential in 2022. Furthermore, Nelson reminds us of George Orwell’s 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ (I love how everything seems to be coming back to Orwell for me at the moment). Political speak and the language of power ‘is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.’

Everything about Rougon is a performance. Zola makes this very clear by talking about the theatre of parliament and power play throughout the novel. Rougon is happy to abandon one position for another, purely to keep the stage. He will be whatever or whoever, the Emporer needs him to be – the authoritarian stalwart, the fall guy or the champion of liberal freedoms.

For Rougon, is it not about what is just, or right, or ethical. It is all about the power. He has no position, except the one that allows him to come out on top. His two major speeches to parliament are a master class of manipulation, word play and skulduggery. However, it is not just the politicians that work the system to their own advantage; their supporters and followers are shown by Zola to be just as corrupt and corruptible.

It is interesting to note, that his main supporter/adversary was a woman, Clorinde. In some ways they act as each others muses as well as opponents. In Rougon’s final grab for power at the end of the book, it is Clorinde’s admiration and respect that sweetens the deal. She was probably the only person in the room who truly appreciated what he did and how he did it.

Every performer needs an appreciative audience after all.

As an aside, this is the sixth book in the Rougon-Macquart series, but the second book in Zola’s preferred order. My understanding is that Zola’s order follows the family tree. Those novels featuring members of the legitimate branch, the Rougon’s come first, followed by the illegitimate Mouret’s and the Macquart’s.

Eugène Rougon is the eldest son of Pierre and Felicité Rougon and the grandson of Adélaïde Fouque, the mad matriarch of the family. Zola wanted to show how each branch of the family was affected by Adélaïde’s genetic inheritance. The Rougon’s, as the upper class, legitmate branch, generally lived well, but their deficiences included power, money, greed and excess.

The Mouret’s married into the Macquart line and tended to be middle class and the most balanced of the three branches, although they still had to overcome various overpowering desires, pride or physical disabilities.

The Macquart’s were the drunks, prostitutes and murderers at the bottom of the tree. Their poor, working class environments brought out the worst possible parts of Adélaïde’s hereditary madness.

Title: Son Excellence Eugène Rougon (His Excellency Eugene Rougon)
Author: Émile Zola
Translator: Brian Nelson
ISBN: 9780198748250
Imprint: Oxford University Press
Published: 2018 (originally published 1876)
Format: Paperback
Pages: 343

My Zola Bibliofile:

  • This post was written in the area we now call the Blue Mountains within the Ngurra [country] of the Dharug and Gundungurra peoples.

6 thoughts on “Son Excellence Eugène Rougon | Émile Zola #Zoladdiction

  1. I’ve been reading this one too. Took me a while to get into it because there were so many characters to keep track of – in the end I just went with the flow and picked up on the key people. It won’t class as my favourite Zola but I am still enjoying it


  2. Pingback: 2022 | The Books

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s