18 May 2008

Zola® Brand Fiction: Freshness Guaranteed!

What a great idea for a book!

My continuing traversal of Emile Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle, the 20-volume “natural history of a family under the Second Empire,” was briefly derailed, not long ago, by the 15th novel in the series, Le Rêve. For weeks, I dawdled over the book’s opening scene, in which an angelic, blonde orphan girl seeks shelter in the doorway of a church, in the middle of a fierce snowstorm; a kindly, childless couple take her in.

To put it bluntly, this is not what we come to Zola for. If we want sentimental crap like that, we will turn to the Victorian English novelists (and not a few Americans). We come to Zola for un- blinking depictions of the human condition. His coolly detached analyses are not lurid but scientific; it’s not for nothing that he calls the series a “natural history,” and Zola is especially drawn to sex as a motivation for his characters, much as Balzac blamed money as the root of all evil. Although in their own time they were considered scandalous, nowadays, with armies of Marxists and Freudians to back them up, Zola and Balzac seem like our contemporaries.

I couldn’t get into Le Rêve. Not quite three weeks ago, I resolved to skip it, for now, and to dive into the 16th Rougon-Macquart novel, La Bête Humaine. Fie on pitiful orphans! True to his old form, Zola begins La Bête Humaine with a confession of sexual abuse greeted by one of the most harrowing scenes of wife-beating ever written, culminating in a murder plot. “Ah,” I said, “it feels good to be home.”

I’m pleased to announce that I’ve finished the book, breaking my speed record for a French novel this length, and wholly appropriate for a novel that’s set in railyards and locomotives. By weird coincidence, I was riding from Beynes to Paris when I read the terrifying train-wreck scene; I can tell you that it requires a good deal of fortitude not to jump off the train after a scene like that.

Yet as I read, I was troubled by questions. How could Zola understand his own work so poorly, that he’d throw in a cheesy heart-warmer in the middle of the rutting passions of the Rougons and the Macquarts? How could he be persuaded that angelic orphans are what we want from him? How could he fail to recognize that he had become a brand name?

Lurking in the heart of each of these men is a cold-blooded killer.

The answer turns out to be that the critical reaction to his previous novel wounded Zola. La Terre (The Earth) is, even by his standards, extreme, perhaps best summed up in the scene in which an 80-year-old woman kills her mentally deficient grandson with an axe when he rapes her in a barn. As I noted in an earlier posting, the common complaint is that Zola’s characters behave like animals, but in La Terre, the animals are better-behaved than the people. With Le Rêve, Zola set out to prove that he was capable of writing a story in which people are motivated by altruistic love.

Well, good for him. That even he wasn’t entirely persuaded by the demonstration may be seen in the title: The Dream. As in, “You think people aren’t motivated by lust and greed? Dream on.” I’m sure I’ll get to it, one of these days.

La Bête Humaine, on the other hand, is a passionate defense of the things Zola really believed in, as well as a monument to modernity. Choo-choo trains may be old-fashioned to us, but to Zola, they were the latest word in technology. When I visited his country house, in Médan, I was surprised to see a train track running along the bottom of his garden. “That must have cut into property values,” I said, but the guide told me that Zola loved to watch the trains passing.

Jean Renoir, son of the Impressionist painter,
La Bête Humaine for the cinema.

The Impressionist painters, working at the same time, were controversial because they elevated trains (and other mundane and working-class subjects) by making art of them; Zola was doing the same thing. As a sometime art critic, he was a champion of the Impressionists (and a schoolmate of Cézanne), and in his fiction he strove to promote the same ideals and to achieve many of the same goals.

In each Rougon-Macquart novel, he is liable to describe sunlight precisely the same way, at least a few times: as “une poussière d’or,” a dusting of gold. The description makes little sense until one recalls the lighting effects in the paintings of his contemporaries. La Bête Humaine is crammed with painterly wordplay, describing the play of light, breaking down colors, detailing the shifting skies.

And there’s plenty of base behavior, too, rough sex and rougher politics: one has no difficulty identifying this novel as Zola Brand Fiction.

As a writer, I may find this more intriguing than you do. But as I chug away at my career, questions of through-line emerge already in conversations with my agent: will a projected book make sense in the context of other things I’ve written? So far, the answer apparently is yes. Whether this is the result of an accident or of an obsessive temperament, I can’t say, but I can assure you it wasn’t intentional.

In general, I don’t turn to classic literature for career advice, though I do seek other kinds of wisdom among the pages. In La Bête Humaine, I got all that, plus a thrilling story — that reads like a runaway train.