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The Fortunes of the Rougons by Émile Zola

RougonsWith The Fortunes of the Rougons, Émile Zola embarked on an ambitious project to write a comprehensive fictional history of the social, sexual and moral landscape of his era. By examining in minute detail the “natural and social history” of two branches of the same family, he intended to demonstrate his theory that character was inescapably determined by the twin forces of heredity and the environment.

In his preface to The Fortunes of the Rougons, Zola commented that the book could just as appropriately have been entitled Origins. It’s a reflection  of the fact that as the first of his 20-book Rougon-Macquart cycle, much of this novel is concerned with introducing the members of the respective family branches.  The Rougons are the legitimate side, loyal supporters of the Royalist cause who rise to occupy commanding positions in government and finance. On the opposite side of the political fence are the illegitimate disreputable Republican Macquarts. Both branches are descended from the strange and “quite mad”Adelaide Fouques who twice shocked the fictitious Provençal town of Plassans: first when chose as her husband a peasant by the name of Rougon and then, on his death, when she shacked up with an unsavoury poacher called Macquart

The fortunes and misfortunes of these families are set against the background of Louis-Napoleon’s coup d’état in 1851 which resulted in the Second Empire under Napoleon III. As the novel begins, Republican opposition to the coup is gathering pace in Provencal. Idealism sweeps through the Var region. The region’s woodcutters and peasants begin to march towards Plassans, intent on seizing control of the town. In their midst are Silvère and Miette, two young lovers who get caught up in the patriotic fervour and join the march, a decision which ends in tragedy.

The novel isn’t really about these ill-fated lovers although it’s their moonlight assignation in a deserted cemetery with which the book opens. What Zola is really focused on is depicting how the imminent crisis exacerbates the tendencies in the Rougon and Macquart family to greed, treachery and murder.

The insurgents’ march provides Pierre Rougon and his wife Félicité, with the perfect opportunity to achieve their ambition of power and influence. They calculate the fortune that will be showered upon them by a grateful Emperor if they can rally the loyalists and hold the town for his cause. They set about ingratiating themselves into the bourgeoisie of Plassans, using their “yellow drawing room” as a meeting place for the conservatives who support Louis-Napoleon. But their manoeuvring is threatened by the activities of Antoine Macquart, the illegitimate son of Adelaide, who sees the Republic as a way “to fill his pockets from his neighbour’s cashbox and even strangle his neighbour if he objected in any way…”

Zola’s portrayal of the clash between these characters, none of whom can be considered remotely sympathetic, is superb. Zola exposes them as manipulative, avaricious individuals whose desire for fortune becomes tainted with blood. In one key passage as Pierre and Félicité lie in bed and she explains her plans for the conquest of Plassans bring together themes of blood, greed and money.

They kissed each other again and fell asleep. The patch of light on the ceiling now seemed to be assuming the shape of a terrified eye, staring unblinkingly at the pale, slumbering couple, who now reeked of crime under their sheets, and were dreaming that they could see blood raining down in big drops and turning into gold coins as they landed on the floor.

As that passage shows, there is nothing very subtle about this novel. Each member of the Rougon family has blood on their hands by the end of the novel, laying the foundations for the family’s future as “a pack of wild, satiated appetites in the midst of a blaze of gold and blood.”

It is a thrilling story. Fast-paced with some glorious set pieces in which Zola satirises and parodies, the extreme provincialism of Plassans, and the lack of principle in its inhabitants. Although the political dimension is central to the plot, it doesn’t require an exhaustive knowledge of the period (my Oxford World Classic edition contained a very useful summary plus family tree) to understand the issues which divide the Rougon-Macquart family and the citizens of Plassans. Zola’s writing, if not as powerful in The Fortune of the Rougons as in the later novels (particularly Germinal and La Bete Humaine), is still completely engrossing.

End Notes

The Fortune of the Rougons was published in 1871, serialised in the newspaper Le Siècle. Émile Zola went on to publish a further 19 novels in the Rougon-Macquart series under the sub title of Histoire natural et social dune famille sous le Second Empire. 

The sympathetic portrait of the insurgents seen in The Fortune of the Rougons stems from Zola’s own opposition to the Empire he once referred to Louis-Napoleon’s coup as a bloodstain that could never be washed away — although he abhorred violence and did not believe in violent action.

Home again

Rain and grey clouds were not quite the welcome home I was hoping for yesterday. After three weeks of blue sky and warmth, it was a shock to the system to arrive in Southampton in drizzle and winds. Tomorrow will be an even greater shock though when I have to go back to work. Goodbye lazy breakfasts and even lazier days reading in the sunshine; hello household chores, emails and teleconferences.

helicopterStill, we have some wonderful memories of our week in Zambia, walking through the falls, seeing the sun set over the Zambezi river and taking an old steam train across to Zimbabwe. Pride of place however goes to an exhilarating helicopter ride right over Victoria Falls and then swooping over the rim and down into a gorge to follow the twists of the river. Since I was the smallest passenger I got the premium seat right up front next to the pilot. Simply breathtaking!

Library on Queen Mary 2

The library on Queen Mary 2 – more than 9,000 titles available

After that excitement we got a chance to catch our breath with the two weeks it took us to cruise up the coast of Africa back to the UK. We’d never been on a cruise before but everyone told us the Queen Mary 2 is one of the best afloat. I loved the art deco theme throughout all the public rooms and the formal nights where tuxedos and cocktail gowns were required.

 

View from library of Queen Mary 2

View from the library of Queen Mary 2

In between listening to classic recitals and lectures I found plenty of time to just laze on the deck, watch the ocean go by and catch up on some reading. I tried to synchronise the books with some of the countries we visited or sailed past:

  • Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton (South Africa)
  • We Need New Names by No Violet Bulawayo (Zimbabwe)
  • Fiela’s Child by Dalene Matthee (South Africa)
  • The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain (France)
  • The Fortune of the Rougons by Emile Zola (France)
  • Read all About It by Paul Cudahy (England)
  • The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer (England)

I also finished Life of Pi by Yan Martel that I was half way through when we left for our trip and am part way through Mansfield Park (not one of my favourite Austens but I decided to give it another go).

Pretty impressive eh?

The cost of internet access meant I couldn’t post very often – I did manage to do a review of The Old Curiousity Shop and posted a few general pieces:

 

Kafka’s views on reading

Oliver Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield

Choosing an author to represent England

Books from Indonesia

I’ll get around to posting my reviews eventually and will also do my best to catch up on all the blog sites I follow.

 

Writers on reading: Frank Kafka

frank kafkaI think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.

Source: Translated from a letter to the art historian Oskar Pollak January 27, 1904.

What Kafka is advocating I think is a reading experience in which the words provoke a reaction in you the reader. Texts which slip effortlessly in and out of  your consciousness have little value in his estimation, the true test of a good book is one which forces you to engage with it; to take hold of your emotions and move them in some way. That’s a tall order but if you find a book that does it, the experience can be breathtaking.

Have I read anything that wounded or stabbed me? Very few in fact but maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

From my teenage days Albert Camus’ L’Estranger comes to mind as a book that affected me not just as I read it but for a long time afterwards even though I wasn’t absolutely sure I understood it fully.  My thirties were my fallow years when though I enjoyed many books, I can barely remember them. It wasn’t until my forties when I decided to start a formal course in literature again that I began reading more deeply and found some novels which were remarkable. Of them, Emile Zola’s L’Assommoir with its bleak portrayal of life in an impoverished French community,  could definitely be considered as giving me a ‘blow to the head’. And then, more recently my adventures in reading authors from far flung corners of the world led me to a discovery of a book equally painful to read – Petals of Blood by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.

 

L’Assommoir by Émile Zola

L'Assommoir

L’Assommoir is a stark, emotional story of one woman’s struggle to find happiness in working-class Paris. The seventh title in Émile Zola’s 20-novel cycle about the Rougon-Macquart families, it ultimately cemented Zola’s position as a leading European author although at the time of its publication in 1877 it was hugely controversial.

French conservatives, sensitive to the political implications of the novel, accused Zola of grossly exaggerating the fetid, crowded, unsanitary conditions inhabited by his characters.  Zola insisted that his depiction was authentic. It was, he said ‘the first novel about the common people that does not lie’, because it was based not only on his own detailed observations of the lives of the working class but on extensive research of medical texts on the effects of alcoholism.

Zola said his purpose in writing the novel was to show how the fate of the individual is governed by hereditary and environmental forces outside his control. No matter how hard they try, they cannot escape the moral flaws passed down through the generations and the dehumanising effects of the slum conditions that were the product of rapid industrialisation.

His main focus in L’Assommoir is Gervaise Macquart, a laundry worker treated brutally by her lover Lantier and then deserted by him, leaving her and her two children destitute. Eventually she finds a new life with the roofer Coupeau, gives birth to a daughter Nana and begins to dream of owning her own laundry. A loan from a neighbour who is secretly in love with her enables to achieve her ambition. Through determination and hard graft, she makes it a success.  Fate of course has something other than happiness in store for her. Copeau lets his attention slip one day and falls from the roof. Though he survives, he is disabled.  No longer able to resume physical work he spends his days drinking rot gut at L’Assommoir bar. Gervaise’s desire for the good things in life lead her to overspend and from there into a cycle of debt, squalor and despair from which there seems no way out.

The power of this novel comes from the way Zola commands our sympathy for this woman, showing the gulf between her modest dreams and the reality of her life.  Towards the end of the book she reflects what had been her ideal:

To be able to get on with her work, always have something to eat and a half-decent place to sleep, bring up her children properly, not be beaten, and die in her own bed.

Instead she ends up sleeping in filth in a courtyard that feels like a cemetery,  starving battered by her husband and alone, her daughter having become a prostitute.

Although we as readers keep hoping against hope that she will gain happiness, there is a sense of inevitability that this will never be the case given Zola’s view of the world.  His main characters have, like the great tragic heroes, a fatal flaw. A tainted inheritance is repeatedly invoked as a factor that loads the dice against he characters  efforts to avoid a  virtually preordained degeneration. Copeau becomes an alcoholic just as his father did, and also like him, suffers a similar accident. Gervaise, abused by her partners just as her mother was, has a physical defect also in the form of a limp.  Weakened by their inherited flaws, these figures are powerless against the forces of the poisonous atmosphere of their slum neighbourhood.

The world of open sewers and overflowing drains, of the stench of unwashed bodies and discharges from slaughterhouses, that is their mileu are guaranteed to crush the human spirit in Zola’s view. In the preface to the novel he declared:

Intoxication and idleness lead to a weakening of family ties, to the filth of promiscuity, toe the progressive neglect of decent feelings and ultimately to degradation and death.

My characters are not bad, they are only ignorant and ruined by the conditions of sweated toil and poverty in which they live.

Pessimistic yes. Grim, assuredly. But it’s in Zola’s ability to force us to confront the reality of life at a particular moment in time as seen through one woman’s experience, that the enduring power of this novel lies.

Crossposted in September 2017 at Reading Zola 

Armchair BEA 2014 kick off: introductions

Tbook heart armchairbeahis year’s Book Expo America kicks off today but since I can’t make it across the Atlantic for the in person event, I’ll have to content myself with joining in the armchair version.  I’ll be in good company since this virtual form of participation is a really popular idea, giving bloggers around the world a chance to connect and talk about the topic we all have in common − books and reading.

This is the third time I’ll have participated in Armchair BEA. As in past years the organisers have come up with some good topics for us to talk about on each day of the event. Hence you’ll see a lot more activity on BookerTalk this week. I’m also going to make a conscious effort to read more of the posts contributed by other participants.

To kick off, here is the post where we introduce ourselves with the aid of some questions from our hosts.

What genre do you read the most? 

My reading falls into three categories right now: novels that have won the Booker Prize; books that loosely can be called classics and novels written by authors from parts of the world outside my own experience. I do occasionally read non fiction but

What was your favorite book read last year?

I don’t use a star rating system otherwise this would be an easy one to answer, I’d just look up the books I awarded five stars. Looking at the list of what I read in 2013 it would be very difficult to choose just one title so I’m going to bend the rules a bit and select one favourite from each of the three categories of books I tend to read.

In my Booker Prize list, my favourite was John Banville’s The Sea. I know it wasn’t a popular choice for the prize but I loved the lyrical style of his writing.

From my classics club list I’m choosing Grahame Greene’s Heart of the Matter. It was actually a re-read which tells you something about how much I love this book.

From my world literature list I’m selecting Petals of Blood by the Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. It was the hardest book I read all year because of its subject but well worth the effort.

What’s your favorite book so far this year?

It has to be Emile Zola’s  L’Assommoir. This is the third book from his RougonMacquart series I’ve read and I was hoping it would be on a par with the other two (Germinal and La Bete Humaine) and it was.  An absolutely gripping novel about poverty and desperation in nineteenth century Paris. 

What is your favorite blogging resource?

Apart from the many, many other bloggers whose sites give me inspiration, some of the websites I make a point of reading will be familiar to most bloggers I suspect — like Book Riot or Publishing Perspectives. I also enjoy The Bookseller though haven’t taken the plunge to get a regular subscription yet; I just buy an edition if I see something that interests me.

Share your favorite book or reading related quote.

This comes from my favourite book of all time, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, a book which if I were in the undesirable situation of being stuck on a desert island would be my must have companion.

“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”

 

Sunday Salon Catch Up

sundaysalonA wonderful surprise awaited me on my return from an intense working week in snow-clad Eastern USA — a signed copy of Christos Tsiolkas’s newest novel Barracuda which I won via National Book Tokens. I never got around to reading his best seller The Slap but this latest novel is apparently equally provocative in the way it questions what it means to be Australian.

But first I have to finish two other novels: Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger which won the 1987 Booker Prize and New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani.   By complete coincidence they both deal with memory and are partly set in World War 2. The first is a brilliantly constructed novel in which a secret love affair is revealed by an old woman as she lies dying in a hospital bed. The second is a novel I started reading on the flight home. It’s a curious story about a man found beaten up at a dockside in Trieste – he can’t remember anything about his life, not even his name. The Finnish doctor who treats him thinks he must be Finnish (purely on the basis of a name found inside his jacket) and sets about trying to teach him that language in the hope it will rekindle his memory.

These two are such a contrast to the novel that sustained me through the long flight out and the wintry nights that followed. Emile Zola’s L’Assommoir has been sitting on my book shelf for at least four years — quite why I delayed reading it for so long, I’m not sure since I’ve loved every other novel I’ve read by him and Germinal is one of my all-time favourites.  Maybe I was afraid L’Assommoir wouldn’t be as good but fortunately it’s turned out to be equally as riveting.

So in all February has been a good month. I’ll keep my fingers and toes crossed that March turns out the same. I’ll be reading E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View which is the book I landed up with after the Classics Club spin and probably something from my World Literature list but I haven’t decided what that will be yet. Abyssinian Chronicles by Moses Isegawa and Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas are both calling for my attention. I suspect it will depend what mood I’m in at the point when I’m ready to begin a new book. 

 

 

 

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