19 February 2008

Émile Zola and ‘La Terre’

Zola, the Natural

For the past few years, I have been immersed in the work of Émile Zola, the French novelist who promoted a movement in fiction called naturalism, influence of which can be seen clearly in the works of writers as diverse as Mark Twain and Theodore Dreiser, and, more recently, Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe. The idea was to treat stories as “natural histories” or scientific case studies, minutely researched, in order to expose the impulses that govern human behavior. In Zola’s own time, this idea was reduced to “He writes about the groin.”

Which isn’t entirely incorrect. Every volume of Zola contains at least one scene of rape, incest, adultery, prostitution, masturbation, or some kind of kink. Renée, the heroine of La Curée, carries on a torrid affair with her stepson, in a “warm, moist, pink-and-grey” boudoir the mere mention of which is lurid. La Joie de vivre features a scandal-provoking depiction of a young woman’s first menstrual period. In Pot-Bouille, a young man cheerfully sleeps with at least one married woman on every floor of the bourgeois apartment building where he lives; while in the servants’ quarters, a housemaid singlehandedly delivers her illegitimate stillborn child, then disposes of the remains and goes back to work. (Nobody notices.) The bisexual heroine of Nana salvages a hilariously inauspicious theatrical debut by shaking her breasts at the audience; the result is a brilliant career as a courtesan, the toast of Paris, leading her to ride one titled sugar daddy like a pony around her bedroom and ending in a fatal case of venereal disease. None of this is presented purely for shock value, but a lot of it is pretty shocking.

And to think that Zola was writing at the same time as the prudish Victorians! An American or British reader must spend a great deal of time gawping, as I do, wondering how the hell the man got away with this stuff.

He didn’t, always, but he paved the way for the next generation, who would be heavily influenced by Sigmund Freud (who wrote about sex, too, as you doubtless know). Zola himself was influenced by Honoré de Balzac, whose work depicts money as the root of all evil, an idea he picked up working in a law office. For Zola, money was evil, sure, but it wasn’t the root. Humans were having sex long before they invented money.

Deeply disillusioned by the politics of the Second Empire, Zola writes with scorn and fury about the rich. About the poor, he writes with somewhat greater sympathy as he exposes their living conditions. But they’re not very nice, either, as seen in the novel I most recently read, La Terre, about farmers in the region of Beauce, around Chartres. In this “natural history,” the characters don’t behave like animals — they behave much worse, something Zola underscores by setting his scene with plenty of cows, horses, dogs, chickens, a flock of geese, and one memorably dissipated donkey. Rutting, selfish, entirely lacking in morals, the inhabitants of the village of Rognes are fascinating, monstrous, and entirely human.

The most noteworthy of them is Buteau, a farmer who (spoiler alert*) swindles, steals, and lies; cheats his brother and sister; abuses, beats, and kills both his parents to get their land and their money; sleeps with his cousin and fathers her child but marries her only when she inherits property; sexually harasses her sister, who lives with them; prevents her marriage to a man who actually loves her by claiming that she’s his mistress, too; then rapes her while his wife holds her down, and looks on as his wife murders her (and her unborn child), so that they can inherit her property. Oh, and he drinks, too. I’m not sure a more outrageous character exists in fiction; I hope none exists in life.

Buteau’s exploits make other scenes in the book — such as that in which a man (nicknamed “Jésus-Christ”) farts for an entire chapter; or that in which an old lady uses her own excrement to fertilize her vegetable garden; or that in which the donkey drinks a vat of wine and vomits all over the barnyard; or that in which a halfwit boy rapes his octogenarian grandmother, who promptly brains him with an axe; or that in which the village curate, unable to cope with these people, has a nervous breakdown and is carted away — seem almost mild. Zola suggests that none of this matters, really, because the earth (la terre) that Buteau so covets takes little notice of him, or of anyone. It will go on with or without us, whether we behave ourselves or not.

The book provoked a scandal, as so many of Zola’s books did, and it was banned in the United States for a long time. (Probably there are libraries still that refuse to carry it.) Not long ago, I found a book review by Mark Twain himself, in which he defended La Terre by answering the question “Are there really people like this?” with feigned resignation and a clear-cut “Yes.” I must say, I haven’t looked at my neighbors in the farming village of Beynes the same way since.

La Terre is the fifteenth in the twenty-volume Rougon-Macquart cycle, “The Natural History of a Family in the Second Empire.” By examining both branches of the family, one prosperous, the other poor, he hoped to arrive at conclusions about heredity and environment, and other scientific factors, but that’s the least convincing aspect of the series now, not least because he keeps tipping the scales. What’s more compelling is the focus each book places on a slice of society: government, military, clergy, high finance, medicine, the arts, urban and rural working classes, even the rise of the department store, all painstakingly researched. To read Le Ventre de Paris (The Belly of Paris) today is to recover the city’s central market, destroyed years ago; Zola convincingly describes it as a monument to rival the great cathedrals.

A left-winger, Zola skewers the fat cats who profited under Napoléon III at the expense of suffering working men and women. But he was ambivalent about possible remedies. The revolutionaries and rabble-rousers in his novels come to bad ends, starting with the first volume, La Fortune des Rougon, in which the teenaged boy Silvère is killed while protesting the coup d’état that finished the Second Republic and transformed the “Prince-Président” into an Emperor. Both La Terre and its predecessor, Germinal, a study of labor unrest among coal miners, feature lengthy political debates in which Zola shoots down arguments on all sides. Meanwhile, the fat cats are shown doing very well for themselves.

So did Zola, as it happens. His books earned him a great deal of money. But just by calling attention to the manifold plights of the poor, and by so carefully documenting every detail, Zola made an important political statement — many of them. His late novels attack the Catholic Church head-on, and he made a ringing defense of Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish army officer falsely accused by his superiors of espionage. By taking on the army, Zola took on the government; he had to flee the country, and when he returned, he was assassinated. (Carbon monoxide poisoning, courtesy of a zealous right-wing heating repairman.) He was buried in the Montmartre Cemetery, just under my window, but his remains were moved almost immediately to the Panthéon.

Zola’s death jolted Twain, among many others. Twain’s writings already were growing more political and more bitter (we’re a long way from “The Celebrated Jumping Frog” when he starts railing against American imperialism in the Philippines), yet they gain intensity in his last years, as he resolves to fill the gap that Zola left. I wonder if I have the guts (to say nothing of the talent) to do the same.

I began to read Zola’s work not long after one of my many Twain kicks, when I was preparing an article for Opera News on Tobias Picker’s opera Thérèse Raquin, based on one of Zola’s early books. Picker would have been better off calling his opera “Mary Smith,” for all the fidelity it shows to the novel. Where Zola depicts savage brutes, Picker writes of nice people who make bad decisions. At the time, I suspected a cynical, though perhaps unconscious, attempt to draw in the Masterpiece Theatre crowd, and thus to profit by high-mindedness and cultural cachet. (Masterpiece Theatre, which presented a dramatization of the novel in 1980, is the only way most Americans would have heard of it.) In an interview with me, Picker said he wasn’t drawn to Thérèse Raquin because of Zola, he was attracted by the story — though, to these ears, he wound up telling a completely different one. He and his collaborators claimed that modern audiences wouldn’t stand for the wife-beating and amorality of Zola’s plot, and maybe they were right.

It’s no skin off my nose, because through a mediocre opera I wound up discovering a very great writer. I am a true disciple now, as you see. I made a pilgrimage to Zola’s home, in Médan, not long ago, finding inspiration in the inscription over the fireplace in his massive, neo-Gothic study: “Never a day without a line.” (And now I have a blog!) Even his photography, amateurish but passionate, inspires me.

I have five volumes to go in the Rougon-Macquart cycle. And then — who knows? I think it’s Victor Hugo’s turn.


* I may as well offer a few plot spoilers, because the damage is done already. It is now a kind of fetish among French editors to share with readers all of an author’s preliminary materials and rough sketches, to the point of restoring phrases emended and chapters cut by the authors themselves, with good reason. I’m not sure what the point of this is. Something about illuminating the creative process, I suppose, yet the editors ignore that this is often a wholesale betrayal of the author’s intentions. Proust died trying to get his work into a particular shape, but the French seem to shrug and sigh a collective “Tant pis.” Modern editions of his books are almost unreadable for their annotations. You are better off getting an old edition, from the 1930s or so, when the French held him in such contempt that they would not stoop to ruin his work.

Because Zola left so much documentation, he’s catnip for French editors. And they’re uncommonly clumsy about presenting the material: instead of putting it all in a foreword or in appendices, and letting us look it up if we choose, they litter the pages with footnotes, many of which give away key plot points and spoil the story for those of us who never read it before and don’t know how it turns out. Thus it wasn’t Zola who told me of the death of Françoise in La Terre (not just that she would die, but how and when), it was some damnable idiot of an editor.