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His Excellency Eugène Rougon by Émile Zola — dark underbelly of political life

Cover of His Excellency Eugène Rougon by Emile Zola, an expose of the corrupt world of politics and government.

The political world depicted in His Excellency Eugène Rougon has a remarkable contemporary resonance. Nepotism, favouritism, lobbying and corruption in the highest circles of power — all part of the dynamics of politics we’ve born witness to ourselves in recent decades.

Émile Zola’s politicos manoeuvre and scheme; often pushing aside questions of ethics and morals in their pursuit of power and eminence. They love power for the sake of power; their egos bolstered by a multitude of allies and cronies whose loyalties can be bought with personal favours. And, just as we’ve seen multiple times in different countries around the world, their careers can come crashing down with one error of judgement.

He loved power for its own sake, without any hankering for riches and honours. Very ignorant, and of little skill in things which were not connected with the management of men, it was only his keen craving for power that elevated him to a position of responsibility. 

The novel follows the career of one politician in particular: Eugène Rougon, an ambitious man who has risen to high office because of his role in a coup d’etat which established Napoleon III as Emperor. As the novel opens, Rougon has fallen out with the Emperor and has resigned from his position as president of the Council of State (the legislative arm of the government).

His circle of supporters, what he calls his “little court” is astounded; because they count on Rougon’s influence for their own futures and plans. They’ve benefited from him in the past: a government position for one, a job for the dullard son of another and many instances of a word in the right ear. The last thing they want is for this stream of benefits to dry up.

Fair Weather Allies

And so they’re mightily relieved when Rougon wangles his way back into power, this time as Minister of the Interior with wide sweeping powers to maintain peace and protect national security. But when his star falls once more, one by one these hangers-on desert him. Despite the honours, commissions, and political appointments they’ve gained by association with Rougon, they’re not satisfied — he hasn’t done nearly enough for them as they expect.  They swap their allegiance in favour of Clorinde Balbi, a woman whose star is on the rise who can deliver what Rougon has failed to deliver.

Much of the dramatic interest of His Excellency Eugéne Rougon comes via the dynamics between Rougon and Clorinde an Italian of dubious origins and morals.. Rougon is both attracted and repelled by the woman’s eccentric outfits and slovenly personal habits. She amuses him but he doesn’t doesn’t consider her to be a suitable partner, so he declines an opportunity to marry her.

It proves to be a fatal error, one he compounds by failing to recognise that Clorinde is more than his equal in ambition and fully capable of achieving just as much influence as he has.  Stealthily she wreaks her revenge, building her own powerful base of supporters that reach right up to the Empress and Emperor.

Spotlight on Political Ambition

His Excellency Eugéne Rougon essentially chronicles one man’s career and his battle with a forceful woman. It’s also an examination of the political world itself and the individuals for whom political power and influence is everything. 

Zola goes deep into the heart of this world, showing the machinery of government and some of its institutions at work. So we witness meetings where legislators discuss new regulations and sit with the Emperor and his ministers as they wrestle with thorny issues like public spending and social unrest. 

But it’s the unofficial aspect of government that is put under the greatest scrutiny. In the Second Empire, politicians like Rougon play each other like figures in a puppet show; conniving and competing for recognition, influence and material gain.

Almost everyone in this novel seems to be out for what they can get, a fact Rougon comes to recognise when his fall from office looks certain. He’s been accustomed to daily visits from supporters, allies and those seeking favours. But now, alone and disconsolate, he sees these people for what they really are.

He began to think back on his gang with their sharp teeth taking fresh bites out of him every day. They were all around him. They clambered on his lap, they reached up to his chest, to his throat, till they were strangling him. They had taken possession of every part of him, using his feet to climb, his hands to steal, his jaws to tear and devour. They lived on his flesh, deriving all their pleasure and health from it , feasting on it without thought of the future.

His Excellency Eugéne Rougon is not an easy book to read. There are many characters to keep track of and considerable detail about the different branches of government to navigate. Brian Nelson’s introduction helpfully explains the historical context and how some of the characters, events and settings are modelled on real people and events. But I still found myself lost at times.

Just as in every other book I’ve read by Zola we get the grand set-piece scenes that give an insight into French society in this period. Here we’re treated to a lavish procession that marks the christening of the Emperor’s son with all its attendant pomp and ceremony. There’s also a comic scene at a charity bazaar where various members of the government elite show off in front of the women by bidding hundreds of francs for a toothpick The message is clear: everything and everyone in this world has a price.

His Excellency Eugéne Rougon by Emile Zola: Footnotes

His Excellency Eugéne Rougon (1876) is the sixth novel to be published in the Rougon-Macquart series of twenty novels about two families; the legitimate middle class Rougons and the illegitimate lowly class Macquart branch. It’s the second one to read if you follow the suggested reading order

The character of Eugene appears first in The Fortune of The Rougons as the eldest son of Pierre and Félicité Rougon, a scheming opportunistic couple from the fictional town of Plassans in Provence. Apparently there are brief mentions of him in three later books in the series — The Conquest of Plassans; Money and Doctor Pascal.

My Oxford World Classics edition (translated by Brian Nelson) is the first modern translation for more than fifty years. Take a look at Lisa’s commentary on why this is a marked improvement on the only previously available version.

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