“They again kissed each other and fell asleep. The patch of light on the ceiling now seemed to be assuming the shape of a terrified eye, that stared wildly and fixedly upon the pale, slumbering couple who reeked with crime beneath their very sheets, and dreamt they could see a rain of blood falling in big drops, which turned into golden coins as they plashed upon the floor.”
― Émile Zola, The Fortune of the Rougons
Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People
Let’s see – I started reading La Fortune des Rougon – the first book of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle on September 19. I finished it today – so that’s thirteen days. I had hoped to finish in ten… but that’s close.
So, one down, nineteen to go.
What did I think about it?
Well, it’s the introductory work of a twenty-book cycle. Considering that, it crams in a lot of introductory material. Zola’s 20 Rougon-Macquart novels are a sweeping account of one family during the Second French Empire. There are over 300 characters in the complete series, many of whom are introduced in first book. Also, the social and political aspects of this age are covered in all their complexity.
So there is a lot of information here. A lot of the story is an encyclopedic recitation of facts and relationships as the spotlight moves around different branches of the family tree. This gets a little confusing – I did benefit from some advice I read recently, “Don’t read lying down; always have a pen and some index cards handy, take notes.”
That isn’t really meant as a criticism, merely a statement of fact. This is a huge, rambling story and it takes a bit of effort to get the snowball rolling down the hill. The books are a statement of Zola’s belief in heredity and madness – but there is more than that.
In the final analysis, the judgement of a novel like this is whether or not you give a damn. There aren’t a lot of heroes in this kaleidoscope of selfishness and dysfunction… but there are two. The two young lovers, Silvere and Miette, are quiet innocent saints. They, alone in all the characters deserve something better, and your heart goes out to them. When they are on the page – you give a damn.
Unfortunately, they are doomed.
When I put down the book I had to sit and think for a few minutes – I felt like I had just returned from a long journey and had to digest all that I had seen and learned. And that – I think – is the sign a book had been worth reading.
Now on to the next – Son Excellence Eugène Rougon (1876) (His Excellency Eugene Rougon/ His Excellency)
I wish to explain how a family, a small group of human beings, conducts
itself in a given social system after blossoming forth and giving birth
to ten or twenty members, who, though they may appear, at the first
glance, profoundly dissimilar one from the other, are, as analysis
demonstrates, most closely linked together from the point of view of
affinity. Heredity, like gravity, has its laws.
By resolving the duplex question of temperament and environment, I shall
endeavour to discover and follow the thread of connection which leads
mathematically from one man to another. And when I have possession of
every thread, and hold a complete social group in my hands, I shall
show this group at work, participating in an historical period; I shall
depict it in action, with all its varied energies, and I shall analyse
both the will power of each member, and the general tendency of the
The great characteristic of the Rougon-Macquarts, the group or family
which I propose to study, is their ravenous appetite, the great
outburst of our age which rushes upon enjoyment. Physiologically the
Rougon-Macquarts represent the slow succession of accidents pertaining
to the nerves or the blood, which befall a race after the first organic
lesion, and, according to environment, determine in each individual
member of the race those feelings, desires and passions–briefly, all
the natural and instinctive manifestations peculiar to humanity–whose
outcome assumes the conventional name of virtue or vice. Historically
the Rougon-Macquarts proceed from the masses, radiate throughout the
whole of contemporary society, and ascend to all sorts of positions by
the force of that impulsion of essentially modern origin, which sets the
lower classes marching through the social system. And thus the dramas of
their individual lives recount the story of the Second Empire, from the
ambuscade of the Coup d’Etat to the treachery of Sedan.
For three years I had been collecting the necessary documents for this
long work, and the present volume was even written, when the fall of the
Bonapartes, which I needed artistically, and with, as if by fate, I
ever found at the end of the drama, without daring to hope that it
would prove so near at hand, suddenly occurred and furnished me with
the terrible but necessary denouement for my work. My scheme is, at
this date, completed; the circle in which my characters will revolve
is perfected; and my work becomes a picture of a departed reign, of a
strange period of human madness and shame.
This work, which will comprise several episodes, is therefore, in
my mind, the natural and social history of a family under the Second
Empire. And the first episode, here called “The Fortune of the Rougons,”
should scientifically be entitled “The Origin.”
EMILE ZOLA PARIS, July 1, 1871.