Jean Renoir and La Bête humaine

“You see, in this world, there is one awful thing, and that is that everyone has his reasons.”
― Jean Renoir

Big Boy 4018, in Fair Park, more than a few years ago.

So yesterday, I finished La Bête humaine by Emile Zola.

I have written before about my love for the streaming wonderfulness of The Criterion Channel. So tonight I sat down and watched the 1938 film by Jean Renoir, his version of Zola’s La Bête humaine.

It was very good – though very different than the book. The plot was significantly trimmed down – most of the murders were gone (only the two key homicides were left). The big set pieces were cut too, for time and also, probably for budget – the special effects cost for train wrecks and blizzards has to be enormous.

What is left is a more personal story, one of the first examples of film noir – with a femme fatale (Simone Simon – who I recognized from Cat People, filmed a few years later). A love triangle, murder, and Zola’s inherited madness make for a lively time.

Simone Simon, in a publicity still from Cat People

Renoir’s genius is in his ability to make his characters come alive on screen. He also shows a wonderful respect for the working class folks that populate the story. Even at their worst – his characters have their reasons, they are driven by the sins of the past.

It did still have the trains, though. The plot moves along like a hot steam engine on a track. A lot of the film was done on location instead of in studio – which added a gritty realism to the story. The Criterion Channel had an interview with Peter Bogdanovich who said that the original impetus for the film was that the star, Jean Gabin, wanted to make a movie where he got to drive a train.

La Bête humaine

“Don’t go looking at me like that because you’ll wear your eyes out.”
― Emile Zola, La Bête humaine

Three generations. The smoking diesel pulling the steam Big Boy, while the electric DART train zooms by overhead.

It’s been awhile… since September, 2018, to be exact. For two and a half years I have been working my way through the 20 novels of Émile Zola’s Les Rougon-Macquart series. So far:

  • 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) and the movie Gervaise
  • 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)

Looking at this list, I realize I read L’Œuvre (1886) (The Masterpiece) this summer and never wrote a blog entry about it. Sorry. It was good, not the best of the series, but an interesting take on the artistic life and the madness behind it. I’ll write it up in the next few days, once I think about it and take a look at the text again.

I have been neglecting Zola lately, mostly because I’ve been participating in a Zoom group that is reading Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov (which I have been enjoying immensely). We took a bit of a break over the holidays and I used the time to devour La Bête humaine.

I had read a paperback copy of La Bête humaine years and years ago – but I remembered very little about it other than it had trains and murders.

WOW. This is one hell of a book. One surprising thing about the 20 books in the Rougon-Marquart universe is how wildly diverse they are. They range from frilly romance to gritty poverty to hopeless alcoholism to rampant greed. And now, we have this.

La Bête humaine is a book of murder(s). By the end of the story pretty much every major character is a killer, a victim, or both. All these murders sans one stem from the same cause – jealous rage. The one other example is a chilling description of a compulsive killer, consumed by powerful, mysterious violent urges of madness, insanity, and desire. The wheels of justice don’t help much – they turn slowly, then grind to a stop. The only innocent character is eventually blamed and convicted.

It is a novel of the railroad. Specifically, the nineteenth century steam engines that ran between Paris and the coast at Le Havre. Zola’s prodigious powers of description are used to paint portraits of the stations, the line, and especially the powerful engine “La Lison” which becomes practically a living character imbued with almost sexual powers.

Finally, it is a novel of arresting and amazing set pieces. The entire chapter where a wagon containing two huge hunks of rock is pushed into the path of “La Lison” is one of the most sensational and electrifying chunks of text I have ever read. There are horrifying killings, terrifying betrayals, and moments of sexual tension surprising for a classic novel. The final scene, especially, is chilling and horrific, even though it ends before the inevitable apocalypse.

There are free public domain versions of the novel available (from Project Gutenberg and other places) but I am glad I bought the excellent Roger Pearson translation from Oxford World Classics. It is written in a modern style, which fits this story very well.

So this was an enjoyable, if horrific, read. And now, on to Germinal, arguably the best in the series. I’ve already bought a good translation and am ready to go. However, I will wait until the end of January, have to finish The Brothers Karamazov first.

So little time, so many books.

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.