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.