“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.