Gervaise

“With almost superhuman strength she seized Virginie by the waist, bent her forward with her face to the brick floor and, notwithstanding her struggles, lifted her skirts and showed the white and naked skin. Then she brought her beater down as she had formerly done at Plassans under the trees on the riverside, where her employer had washed the linen of the garrison.

Each blow of the beater fell on the soft flesh with a dull thud, leaving a scarlet mark.”

Emile Zola, L’Assommoir

 

Yesterday I finished Zola’s L’Assommoir and enjoyed it a lot. In doing some online research about the book I discovered it had been made into a 1956 French film called Gervaise that wasn’t supposed to be too bad. It was directed by René Clément and starred Maria Schell (sister of Maximilian). I was able to find a copy of the film and waited until I finished the book – then sat down to watch it.

L’Assommoir is a big, complicated, 500 page book and I knew they would have to slim it down to get the story into a movie. They did, but remained faithful to the spirit of the Zola novel. The movie concentrates on Gervaise – not surprisingly – and leaves out a lot of the tumult around her. I really liked the film – despite being over sixty years old (a year older than me) it holds up well. Gervaise’s decent into abject poverty, despair, and destruction is rushed as compared to the book – she is still alive at the end of the film and the book conveys the horrors of her descent better. There is a political subplot added to the movie that wasn’t in the book – and I didn’t think it added much. But otherwise, I thought the movie did a good job and illustrated the look of a lot of the story that I had trouble imagining (having never been to Paris of the Second Empire myself).

Like the book, the movie suffered from prudish editing – luckily the version I found seems mostly uncut (it was 116 minutes long). The biggest difference seems to be in the fight in the wash house between Gervaise and her arch-rival Virginie at the beginning of the story – the version I saw had a bloody scene of Gervaise tearing off Virginie’s earring and then beating her bare bottom with a wooden paddle. Tame by modern standards – those scenes were too much for the 1950’s.

The movie is one of the most expensive (in modern currency) foreign films ever made. The sets are extensive, detailed, and realistic.

And the best thing is that many of the memorable set pieces of the book are preserved. The wedding party and its visit to the Louvre, the horrifying fall her husband takes off a roof on the day she is to buy her shop, Gervaise’s Name-Day feast, Coupou’s alcoholic madness (though transferred from an asylum to Gervaise’s shop – probably more dramatic that way), and most of all the famous fight between Gervaise and Virginie in the wash house – all were giving loving care and exciting treatment.

Gervaise and Virginie going at it in the wash house. Gervaise’s man, Lantier, has just run off with Virginie’s prostitute sister, Adèle.

Virginie about to hit Gervaise with the wooden paddle.

Gervaise has reversed the fight and is about to give Virginie a vicious paddling.

This scene was apparently too much for the censors. Virginie is about to get hers.

The wedding party goes to the Louvre, here Gervaise and Goujet are standing in front of Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People.

Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People

Gervaise singing at her Name Day party – the high point of her life.

A ruined and despairing Gervaise at the end of the film.

Compare this scene to:

L’Absinthe (detail) by Edgar Degas

At least Degas’ woman still has her hat (Gervaise has pawned hers).

 

Reviews of Gervaise:

Adapting Emile Zola’s L’Assommoir, René Clément’s Gervaise (1956)

Gervaise: True Grit

GERVAISE – ESSENTIAL ART HOUSE

 

L’Assommoir

“While the storm was erupting, she stayed, staring at it, watching the shafts of lightning, like someone who could see serious things, far away in the future in these sudden flashes of light.”
Emile Zola, L’Assommoir

 I am now a good chunk (have been reading for a year and a half) into Emile Zola’s twenty volume Rougon Macquat series of novels. Attacking this pile of books in the recommended reading order:

  • La Fortune des Rougon (1871) (The Fortune of the Rougons)
  • Son Excellence Eugène Rougon (1876) (His Excellency Eugene Rougon/ His Excellency)
  • La Curée (1871-2) (The Kill)
  • L’Argent (1891) (Money)
  • Le Rêve (1888) (The Dream)
  • La Conquête de Plassans (1874) (The Conquest of Plassans/A Priest in the House)
  • Pot-Bouille (1882) (Pot Luck/Restless House/Piping Hot)
  • Au Bonheur des Dames (1883) (The Ladies’ Paradise/Shop Girls of Paris/Ladies’ Delight)
  • La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret (1875) (The Sin of Father Mouret/Abbe Mouret’s Transgression)
  • Une Page d’amour (1878) (A Lesson in Love/A Love Episode/A Page of Love/A Love Affair)
  • Le Ventre de Paris (1873) (The Belly of Paris/The Fat and the Thin/Savage Paris/The Markets of Paris)
  • La Joie de Vivre (1884) (The Joys of Living/Joy of Life/How Jolly Life Is/Zest for Life)
  • L’Assommoir (1877) (The Dram Shop/The Gin Palace/Drink/Drunkard)
  • L’Œuvre (1886) (The Masterpiece/A Masterpiece/His Masterpiece)
  • La Bête Humaine (1890) (The Beast in the Man/The Human Beast/The Monomaniac)
  • Germinal (1885)
  • Nana (1880)
  • La Terre (1887) (The Earth/The Soil)
  • La Débâcle (1892) (The Downfall/The Smash-up/The Debacle)
  • Le Docteur Pascal (1893) (Doctor Pascal)

The next one up (the thirteenth) was L’Assommoir – I picked up an excellent Penguin Classics translation by Robin Buss entitled The Drinking Den (there is no good English translation for the French word L’Assommoir).

L’Absinthe (detail) by Edgar Degas

From the article 10 Intoxicating Facts About Edgar Degas’s L’Absinthe

9. IT INSPIRED A LITERARY MASTERPIECE.

L’Assommoir by celebrated French novelist Émile Zola was an exploration of alcoholism among the poor of Paris. Zola must have seen the painting during its disastrous 1876 debut, as his book was published the following year. The author credited Degas for some of L’Assommoir ‘s imagery, telling him, “I quite plainly described some of your pictures in more than one place in my pages.”

It took me five months to finish  L’Assommoir – well, actually I read it in a week – I spent five months reading other stuff. I guess that’s all right.

After reading La Joie de Vivre  I had to decide –  I had already read L’Assommoir – along with four of the next five. Years ago, before the internet, I was able to get my hands on L’Assommoir, Germinal, La Bête Humaine, and Nana – but none of the others in the Rougon-Macquart Cycle. So, do I re-read L’Assommoir? Or skip ahead to L’Œuvre (which looks really interesting).

I decided to re-read the ones I had poured through already. At least with L’Assommoir I’m glad I did.

First of all it’s arguably (along with Germinal) the best book in the series. It’s a terribly sad story but an arresting one, full of fascinating full-blooded characters filling a complete world. We can’t live (thank God) in the world of the underbelly of Paris in the Second French Empire – but the book takes us there and we can feel the moments of passionate fun along with the grinding poverty and ultimate doom of a group of people we come to know well and care deeply about.

The story follows Gervaise Macquart, who we met briefly in the first novel in the series,La Fortune des Rougon, where she ran away from her country town of Plassans to Paris with her lover, Lantier. She works as a washerwoman and has two children with Lantier until he leaves her for another woman. Then she marries a non-drinking roofer, Coupeau and her life takes a turn for the better. She is able to put together the funds to open her own laundry, hire employees, and her daughter is born (Nana – who will have her own book later on, as will Gervaise’s other two children) – everything is going great. This is Zola, however, and he accounts for the madness in the Rougon-Macquart family and after Coupeau is severely injured in an accident they go on a long, heartbreaking, alcohol-fueled fall into abject poverty, disaster, and madness.

The second reason I was glad I re-read the book is that I was able to get a good great translation. As I’ve written before all Zola’s books are available for free in ebook form from Project Gutenberg. However, these translations done by  the Vizetelly family are not the best. Henry Vizetelly was imprisoned over the publication of his translation of La Terre, which was considered offensive. Subsequent editions of all of Zola’s novels were heavily edited by his son Ernest in order to avoid further prosecutions.

I have learned to bite the bullet and buy a modern translation if one is available. This is especially true of L’Assommoir. It is filled with street slang and risque scenes which are omitted from the Vizetelly versions. The Penguin edition I had was translated by Robin Buss and was very well done. I’m going to look for his translations of any French novels in the future.

The arc of the story of L’Assommoir is heartbreaking but I loved the structure of the novel. It is built around a series (pretty much one per chapter) of set pieces. In keeping with Zola’s style of literary naturalism these scenes are finely detailed, rollicking, and the reader feels in the heart of the action. The wedding  (with a tumultuous visit to the Louvre), Gervaise’s triumphant feast (the zenith of her life which also contains the seeds of her downfall), and the final battle with alcoholic madness of her husband Coupeau, are some of the most famous – but there are more.

So, if you want an introduction to the seedier side of Paris, an introduction to Zola and naturalist literature, with a great (although heartbreaking) story – you can’t do better than L’Assommoir.

 

 

The Joy of Life

“Did not one spend the first half of one’s days in dreams of happiness and the second half in regrets and terrors?”
Émile Zola, The Joy of Life

 I am now a good chunk (have been reading for over a year) into Emile Zola’s twenty volume Rougon Macquat series of novels. Attacking this pile of books in the recommended reading order:

  • La Fortune des Rougon (1871) (The Fortune of the Rougons)
  • Son Excellence Eugène Rougon (1876) (His Excellency Eugene Rougon/ His Excellency)
  • La Curée (1871-2) (The Kill)
  • L’Argent (1891) (Money)
  • Le Rêve (1888) (The Dream)
  • La Conquête de Plassans (1874) (The Conquest of Plassans/A Priest in the House)
  • Pot-Bouille (1882) (Pot Luck/Restless House/Piping Hot)
  • Au Bonheur des Dames (1883) (The Ladies’ Paradise/Shop Girls of Paris/Ladies’ Delight)
  • La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret (1875) (The Sin of Father Mouret/Abbe Mouret’s Transgression)
  • Une Page d’amour (1878) (A Lesson in Love/A Love Episode/A Page of Love/A Love Affair)
  • Le Ventre de Paris (1873) (The Belly of Paris/The Fat and the Thin/Savage Paris/The Markets of Paris)
  • La Joie de Vivre (1884) (The Joys of Living/Joy of Life/How Jolly Life Is/Zest for Life)
  • L’Assommoir (1877) (The Dram Shop/The Gin Palace/Drink/Drunkard)
  • L’Œuvre (1886) (The Masterpiece/A Masterpiece/His Masterpiece)
  • La Bête Humaine (1890) (The Beast in the Man/The Human Beast/The Monomaniac)
  • Germinal (1885)
  • Nana (1880)
  • La Terre (1887) (The Earth/The Soil)
  • La Débâcle (1892) (The Downfall/The Smash-up/The Debacle)
  • Le Docteur Pascal (1893) (Doctor Pascal)

The next one up was The Joy of Life (La Joie de Vivre/The Joys of Living/Joy of Life/How Jolly Life Is/Zest for Life).

It is a sort-of sequel to The Belly of Paris. The protagonist is Pauline Quenu – the daughter of the owners of the successful Paris charcuterie in that novel. Between the two novels she is orphaned, and sent at nine years of age, along with her substantial fortune inherited from the business, to live with distant relatives in a dismal seaside fishing village. She moves in with an older couple, the Chanteaus, and their 19 year old son, Lazare.

The title, The Joy of Life, is an ironic one – there is little joy in the Chanteau household. The old man is crippled with gout and his wife crippled by regret. The son is a dilettante and flits from one grandiose scheme to another – each one a greater disaster than the last. Pauline is a generous, good person – and is taken advantage of over and over by everyone else in the story. Her fortune is slowly wasted away, spent on wild ideas and hopeless charity until everyone is left in abject poverty. As she comes of age she inevitably falls in love with Lazare, which is the worst thing that could possibly happen to her.

The detailed portrait of Lazare and his wasted life is a fascinating chronicle of mental illness written before our modern understanding. Lazare suffers not only from depression, anxiety and ennui – but from what we would now call OCD:

With all this were mingled certain ideas of symmetry. He would take three steps to the right and then as many to the left, and touch the different articles of furniture on either side of a window or door the same number of times. And beneath this there lurked the superstitious fancy that a certain number of touchings, some five or seven, for instance, distributed in a particular fashion, would prevent the farewell from being a final one.

I guess it’s not surprising, given the detailed and heartbreaking description of mental illness and its disastrous consequences – The Joy of Life was the favorite book of  Vincent van Gogh and is included in two of his paintings: Still Life with Bible and Vase with Oleanders and Books.

Still Life with Bible, Vincent van Gogh (1885) including a copy of The Joy of Life, by Zola

Vase with Oleanders and Books, van Gogh (1888) with The Joy of Life, by Zola

 

The book was interesting for its characters and dire setting, but isn’t one of the better books in the series. It’s relentless pessimism becomes predictable and repetitive – it makes its point about human weakness and disaster over and over – hammering it home with no subtlety or relief.

Another problem is that I only had access to the contemporary Vizettely translation and the most dramatic part of the book – a nine page section of chapter ten outlining a terribly difficult birth scene – was cut out and replaced with one short paragraph:

There came a cruel and affecting scene. It was one of those dread hours when life and death wrestle together, when human science and skill battle to overcome and correct the errors of Nature. More than once did the Doctor pause, fearing a fatal issue. The patient’s agony was terrible, but at last science triumphed, and a child was born. It was a boy.

It seems that a depiction of childbirth was too much for the delicate English-speakers of the time.

At any rate – I did enjoy the book and found it very interesting even though it became a bit of a depressing slog.

But now I have a decision to make – the next book in the series, L’Assommoir – along with four of the next five – I have already read. Years ago, before the internet, I was able to get my hands on L’Assommoir, Germinal, La Bête Humaine, and Nana – but none of the others in the Rougon-Macquart Cycle. So, do I re-read L’Assommoir? Or skip ahead to L’Œuvre (which looks really interesting).

The thing is, I have other reading to do – a lot of reading. So I should take a break and by skipping the three I have already read I’m only four books from the end.

But the other thing is… L’Assommoir is a great book – one of the best books I’ve ever read – better than the others in the cycle (so far). I’m sure I would get a lot out of it reading it as an old man and having read all the novels leading up to it. Likewise, Germinal is a classic, La Bête Humaine a heart-stopping thrill ride and Nana a guilty pleasure. So I’ll probably take a break – read my Dostoevsky – and then take up Zola’s cycle in full.

Wish me luck.

 

The Belly of Paris

“Respectable people… What bastards!”
Émile Zola, The Belly of Paris

Cover of The Belly of Paris, by Emile Zola, translated by Mark Kurlansky

I am now a good chunk (have been reading for about a year) into Emile Zola’s twenty volume Rougon Macquat series of novels. Attacking this pile of books in the recommended reading order:

  • La Fortune des Rougon (1871) (The Fortune of the Rougons)
  • Son Excellence Eugène Rougon (1876) (His Excellency Eugene Rougon/ His Excellency)
  • La Curée (1871-2) (The Kill)
  • L’Argent (1891) (Money)
  • Le Rêve (1888) (The Dream)
  • La Conquête de Plassans (1874) (The Conquest of Plassans/A Priest in the House)
  • Pot-Bouille (1882) (Pot Luck/Restless House/Piping Hot)
  • Au Bonheur des Dames (1883) (The Ladies’ Paradise/Shop Girls of Paris/Ladies’ Delight)
  • La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret (1875) (The Sin of Father Mouret/Abbe Mouret’s Transgression)
  • Une Page d’amour (1878) (A Lesson in Love/A Love Episode/A Page of Love/A Love Affair)
  • Le Ventre de Paris (1873) (The Belly of Paris/The Fat and the Thin/Savage Paris/The Markets of Paris)
  • La Joie de Vivre (1884) (The Joys of Living/Joy of Life/How Jolly Life Is/Zest for Life)
  • L’Assommoir (1877) (The Dram Shop/The Gin Palace/Drink/Drunkard)
  • L’Œuvre (1886) (The Masterpiece/A Masterpiece/His Masterpiece)
  • La Bête Humaine (1890) (The Beast in the Man/The Human Beast/The Monomaniac)
  • Germinal (1885)
  • Nana (1880)
  • La Terre (1887) (The Earth/The Soil)
  • La Débâcle (1892) (The Downfall/The Smash-up/The Debacle)
  • Le Docteur Pascal (1893) (Doctor Pascal)

The next one up was The Belly of Paris.

One reason I am reading this long series is that the books are available in ebook form for free from project Gutenberg. This is a good thing… a fantastic thing actually, but there is only one catch. The free, public-domain English Zola texts from Gutenberg are all contemporaneous translations by Henry Vizetelly (and his son Ernest Alfred Vizetelly). Now Vizetelly was a hero – he believed in the Zola books and paid a huge price for translating them and publishing them in England, however, the translations aren’t really all that good. They are written in an anachronistic language, hard on the modern eye, and, worst of all, are censored. The original French stories can be pretty racy and he had to cut the best parts out to get the books published in England. Still, he was prosecuted twice and imprisoned  for obscene libel because of his translations of Zola’s work.

Before reading The Belly of Paris (also know as Une Page d’amour, The Fat and the Thin, Savage Paris, The Markets of Paris) I discovered that there was a modern translation by Mark Kurlansky. I have read two of his non-fiction books, Salt and Cod and really liked them. Salt in particular was very interesting to me, my first job out of college was working as a chemist at a salt mine and evaporation plant in Hutchinson, Kansas (the plant is gone now – but the mine is still working and you can take a tour).

So, I bought a copy of the Kurlansky translation and it was very good.

There is a plot arc to The Belly of Paris – Florent escapes from Devil’s Island (similar to the more famous modern story of Papillon)  and returns to Paris. He spends the book trying to reestablish his life and struggling with his radical political leanings. This story is really a framing device to enable Zola to immerse the reader in the eponymous Belly of Paris. The Belly of Paris is the immense food market at Les Halles.

The vast food market at Les Halles in Paris, the setting of The Belly of Paris

Design of Les Halles in 1863, By Victor Baltard – Image from Wikimedia

Constructed in the 1850’s, Les Halles was a series of gigantic sheds full of stalls where every kind of food was sold – and Zola uses every excuse to tour every nook and cranny of the market – from vegetables to poultry, meat to fish, bread to spices, candy to charcuterie, the movement, preparation, and sale of every imaginable foodstuff is set down in detail. The people involved are hard working and full of human foibles – gossipy, jealous, and headstrong. These complex relationships form the real heart of the story and the conflict of the novel.

Imagine a huge city, a Paris of millions of (French, and food-obsessed) inhabitants that have to be fed, every day, in a world without gasoline, trucks, electricity or refrigeration. It starts in the dead of night with horse-drawn carts drawn to the city in caravans carrying the bounty of the countryside. The vegetables are prepared, the animals are slaughtered, the fish are cleaned, the salted meat is salted, the charcuterie is cured, the bread is baked – then everything is set out for sale as the population of Paris descends to buy their daily meals. Zola lays it all out in a fantastic kaleidoscope of food – sights, sounds, smells, and taste – and the characters that handle it.

The book is full of contrasts – the Fat and the Thin, Beautiful Lisa and The Beautiful Norman, political radical Florent and his comfortable brother. The Belly of Paris isn’t known as one of the series’ best – but I found it fascinating. Like The Ladies Paradise and modern retail I can’t help but compare the market at Les Halles with a modern Whole Foods or other mega grocery store.

Interesting stuff. And now on to La Joie de Vivre.

 

The Conquest of Plassans

Félicité kissed Marthe on the forehead as if the latter were still sixteen. She then extended her hand to Mouret. Their usual mode of conversation had a sharp edge of irony.

‘Well,’ she asked with a smile, ‘have the police not been to arrest you yet, you old revolutionary?’

‘Not yet,’ he replied, also with a laugh. ‘They are waiting until your husband gives them the order.’

‘Oh, very funny, ‘ Félicité replied, her eyes blazing.

Marthe appealed to Mouret with a pleading look; he had certainly gone too far. But he was off and there was no stopping him.

—- Emile Zola, The Conquest of Plassans

The Conquest of Plassans, by Emile Zola

Looking back, I started in September of last year – started an ambitious reading project – I set out to read the whole Les Rougon-Macquart cycle by Émile Zola   – all twenty books.

I started out cranking through them with some regularity

 

But then, as I walked out of The Wild Detectives (bookstore, coffee, beer) near the end of December, I saw this sign:

Sign at The Wild Detectives bookstore, Dallas, Texas

And that was all she wrote for Zola for three months. I fell into a group that met weekly and read Gravity’s Rainbow. That took up all my reading energies until the last week of March, when we finished and gave out trophies.

Then, after that was finished, I suffered from some allergy-related conjunctivitis and discovered that the inability to see puts a serious crimp in ones reading schedule. But now, my eyes are full of acceptable levels of goo and I turn back into the Zola books. I didn’t really like the last one, The Dream, and am happy to report that this one, The Conquest of Plassans is back in line with most of the other books in the series.

It feels like a return to a comfortable home. Plus, while a twenty volume French series from about a century and a half ago doesn’t sound like light reading – compared to Gravity’s Rainbow... it’s like reading the Sunday Comics. Will be done with this one in a couple days.

 

 

The Dream (Le Reve) by Zola

Le Reve, by Emile Zola

“The vision that had emerged from the invisible was returning to the invisible. It was no more an appearance that was fading away, having created an illusion. All is but a dream. And, at the peak of happiness, Angélique had vanished, in the faint breath of a kiss.”
― Émile Zola, The Dream

Ok, for awhile now I’ve been working my way through Zola’s Rougon-Marquat 20 novel series of French life in the Second Empire – Reading them not in the order that they were written, but in the recommended reading order.

Next is Le Rêve (The Dream). It is a complete departure from the other books in the Rougon-Marquat series. Instead of complex, realistic stories – it is the simple, yet fantastic, romantic tale of an orphan girl Angélique, that falls in love with a wealthy nobleman. She is a descendant of the Rougon family – providing the tenuous connection with the rest of the books. Angélique does suffer from the mental instability of her kin, which provides a window into her obsession with the saints and the idea of a perfect romance.

I have to admit, though, I didn’t like the book very much. It starts out with a lot of promise, the young girl abandoned in the snow near a great cathedral in rural France – it’s a powerful image. But the story spends too many words in cataloging a parade of saints and the stories of The Golden Legend. It become tedious and not very interesting to a modern reader.

In doing research about the book, I did find something I really liked. There are a series of amazing illustrations for the novel by Carlos Schwabe. I was not familiar with the artist and looking around the web there are some really interesting stuff he’s done. I especially like the drawings he did for Baudelaire’s book of poetry, Les Fleurs du mal. Have to look into these some more.

Illustration for Zola’s Le Reve, by Carlos Schwabe

 

 

Carlos Schwabe, Spleen et Idéal (1896)
from Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal

Carlos Schwabe, from Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal

 

Money (L’Argent) by Zola

Money (L’Argent) by Emile Zola

“In love as as in speculation there is much filth; in love also, people think only of their own gratification; yet without love there would be no life, and the world would come to an end.”
― Émile Zola, L’Argent

 

Ok, for awhile now I’ve been working my way through Zola’s Rougon-Marquat 20 novel series of French life in the Second Empire – Reading them not in the order that they were written, but in the recommended reading order.

Money (L’Argent) is the eighteenth book written, but it is a sequel to La Curée, the 3rd book in the recommended order, so I read Money as the fourth. It has the same cast of characters – a little older but definitely no wiser.

I really enjoyed the book. It is a tale of rivers of money, oceans of gold, all stolen, gambled, speculated on. It is, of course, more relevant today than it was when it was written. I couldn’t help but do some re-research into the latest financial crisis and how similar the disaster was to the greed and insanity described in the novel.

In La Curée Aristide Saccard (he changed his last name from Rougon to avoid embarrassment to his powerful politician brother) rose and fell on naked ambition and audacious financial manipulations. In the sequel he finds himself broke, but with the same greed, reckless daring, and collection of equally devious connections. He sets out to turn the world on its head. The story of speculation and deceit is fascinating and engrossing and worth the careful reading it takes.

The whole adventure comes down to a final cataclysmic battle between Saccard’s bulls and the bears that oppose him. I still don’t completely understand how the bears make money – other than the destruction of Saccard and his allies – I didn’t read much about how they went about short selling for example – but I’m sure it’s in there somewhere.

So now it’s on the the next, The Dream (Le Rêve). I have already taken a look, started it, and it seems to be completely different in style and theme from the rest of the series. We’ll see.

 

La Curée

“This was the time when the rush for the spoils filled a corner of the forest with the yelping of hounds, the cracking of whips, the flaring of torches. The appetites let loose were satisfied at last, shamelessly, amid the sound of crumbling neighbourhoods and fortunes made in six months. The city had become an orgy of gold and women.”
― Émile Zola, La Curée

La Curée (The Kill), Emile Zola

La Curée (The Kill), Emile Zola

A couple days ago I finished the next book in Zola’s Rougon Macquart series,  La Curée – or The Kill in English. It was the 2nd book written but the 3rd in the suggested reading order, which I am following.

The Kill in the title refers to the way the hunting dogs fall upon the remains after a hunt. It’s a good description of a book that describes the corrosive damage of unbridled and unprincipled greed, lust, and decadence set free in a city like Paris. During this time of France’s Second Empire Paris is being torn up and rebuilt with an unlimited opportunity for corruption and graft.

The story concerns the “career” of Aristide Saccard, the brother of Eugene Rougon who was the protagonist of the book before this, Son Excellence Eugène RougonSaccard changed his name from Rougon to avoid dragging his powerful brother down into his own scandals and to disguise the relationship between the two ambitious kinsmen.

It is a story of a certain sort of wealth – wealth born of speculation and borrowing, where the appearance of decadent affluence is more important than actual prosperity. The people in this story live in incredible luxury while having to scramble constantly to maintain the illusion, never sure where the next sous is coming from or when their creditors are going to call their debts in and ruin them.

It is also a story of promiscuity and sex – of debauchery and incest. Surprisingly racy for something written a century and a half ago. It is not pornographic in the modern sense – the actually moment is never described exactly, but there is no doubt about what is going on. It contains pages of description that skirt a little bit around… and that makes it even more effective.

“Endless love and voluptuous appetite pervaded this stifling nave in which settled the ardent sap of the tropics. Renée was wrapped in the powerful bridals of the earth that gave birth to these dark growths, these colossal stamina; and the acrid birth-throes of this hotbed, of this forest growth, of this mass of vegetation aglow with the entrails that nourished it, surrounded her with disturbing odours. At her feet was the steaming tank, its tepid water thickened by the sap from the floating roots, enveloping her shoulders with a mantle of heavy vapours, forming a mist that warmed her skin like the touch of a hand moist with desire. Overhead she could smell the palm trees, whose tall leaves shook down their aroma. And more than the stifling heat, more than the brilliant light, more than the great dazzling flowers, like faces laughing or grimacing between the leaves, it was the odours that overwhelmed her. An indescribable perfume, potent, exciting, composed of a thousand different perfumes, hung about her; human exudation, the breath of women, the scent of hair; and breezes sweet and swooningly faint were blended with breezes coarse and pestilential, laden with poison. But amid this strange music of odours, the dominant melody that constantly returned, stifling the sweetness of the vanilla and the orchids’ pungency, was the penetrating, sensual smell of flesh, the smell of lovemaking escaping in the early morning from the bedroom of newlyweds.”
― Émile Zola, La Curée

Strong stuff. A portrait of a time not unlike our own. Despite the fact there is no character in the book that could be described as sympathetic and the downfall of poor Renée is obvious from the start (though she does have a lot of wicked fun along the way) the book is still worth the read.

I was able to find a modern translation and I wonder how much different the bowdlerized contemporaneous English version was (the English weren’t as open to salacious and shocking prose as the French) – but I still have a lot of books to go in the series.

So next it is on to  L’Argent (Money) – one of the last books in the series written, but the next in the recommended order as it is a direct sequel to La Curée.

 

The Fortune of the Rougons

“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)

AUTHOR’S PREFACE

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
whole.

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.

Because They Are Searching

“When lovers kiss on the cheeks, it is because they are searching, feeling for one another’s lips. Lovers are made by a kiss.”
― Émile Zola, The Fortune of the Rougons

Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People

I have never been a huge fan of book series. I haven’t read The Hunger Games, Twilight, or The Mortal Instruments. I did binge read Harry Potter, but I wish I hadn’t. But now I think I’m going to dive in to a much more ambitious string of tomes.

I think I’m going to read the whole Les Rougon-Macquart cycle by Émile Zola. We were talking about… something… at a writing group the other evening, and I remembered these books (though I have forgotten the subject we were discussing). The twenty books follow the two branches of the Rougon-Macquart family in France during the turbulent years of the Second French Empire.

I have read Zola before. A long time ago, maybe a quarter-century. This was before e-readers and the internet was in its glorious dial-up infancy. Half-Price books arranged their fiction by author and it was easy to find Zola at the very end.

I read four:

  • L’Assommoir
  • La Bête Humaine
  • Germinal
  • Nana

Nana was wicked fun, La Bête Humaine was horrific good, Germinal was heartbreaking, and L’Assommoir was a work of genius.

I knew that they were part of a series – people in each book were related to those in the others. But I wasn’t sure of the overall arc of books. You forget how hard it was to find information in the pre-internet days. For the curious, like myself, finding facts was scrabbling under rocks in a desert… rather than drinking from a fire hose as it is now. We are drowning in information.

I no longer have an excuse. Not only do I know of the series… all of the works are available for free on Project Gutenberg. The only problem is the English versions are old bowdlerized translations by the Vizetelly family – but I can soldier through and pick up a modern book when I can.

I will read the twenty novels in the recommended order:

  1. La Fortune des Rougon (1871) (The Fortune of the Rougons)
  2. Son Excellence Eugène Rougon (1876) (His Excellency Eugene Rougon/ His Excellency)
  3. La Curée (1871-2) (The Kill)
  4. L’Argent (1891) (Money)
  5. Le Rêve (1888) (The Dream)
  6. La Conquête de Plassans (1874) (The Conquest of Plassans/A Priest in the House)
  7. Pot-Bouille (1882) (Pot Luck/Restless House/Piping Hot)
  8. Au Bonheur des Dames (1883) (The Ladies’ Paradise/Shop Girls of Paris/Ladies’ Delight)
  9. La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret (1875) (The Sin of Father Mouret/Abbe Mouret’s Transgression)
  10. Une Page d’amour (1878) (A Lesson in Love/A Love Episode/A Page of Love/A Love Affair)
  11. Le Ventre de Paris (1873) (The Belly of Paris/The Fat and the Thin/Savage Paris/The Markets of Paris)
  12. La Joie de Vivre (1884) (The Joys of Living/Joy of Life/How Jolly Life Is/Zest for Life)
  13. L’Assommoir (1877) (The Dram Shop/The Gin Palace/Drink/Drunkard)
  14. L’Œuvre (1886) (The Masterpiece/A Masterpiece/His Masterpiece)
  15. La Bête Humaine (1890) (The Beast in the Man/The Human Beast/The Monomaniac)
  16. Germinal (1885)
  17. Nana (1880)
  18. La Terre (1887) (The Earth/The Soil)
  19. La Débâcle (1892) (The Downfall/The Smash-up/The Debacle)
  20. Le Docteur Pascal (1893) (Doctor Pascal)

I’m digging into the first one, La Fortune des Rougon on my KIndle, and enjoying it so far.

I have no idea how long this will take – 20 books (or 16 if I skip the ones I’ve already read) is a lot of pages. So little time, so many books.