24 May 2009


Paul Alexis Reads to Emile Zola:
As seen by Zola’s schoolmate, Paul Cézanne

It’s easy to call Emile Zola’s Rougon–Macquart Cycle “monumental”: stack its 20 volumes, and you’ve got a monument, right there. Examine it more closely, and it remains impressive, “A Natural History of One Family under the Second Empire” told in a series of (mostly) absorbing novels. Among these are a handful of the keystones of 19th-century French literature, and as good as anything anyone has ever written, in any language: L'Assommoir, Nana, Germinal, La Terre, and La Bête Humaine. This week, I concluded my reading — with Le Rêve — bringing to an end an adventure that has lasted six or seven years (no one is really sure) and spanned two continents. The process has surely been transformative, though it may be some little while yet before I fully understand the transformation. Nevertheless, now is the time to begin to record my experience, and the realization that, for the first time in years, I don’t quite know what to read next.

As the subtitle of his cycle suggests, Zola made proud claims for the scientific validity of his fiction, constructing elaborate hereditary medical backgrounds for his characters. Alas for him, science has since disproved many of his theories. We’re able to appreciate the books’ value nevertheless, because two strains that dominate modern reading — psychology and politics — are given their full due by Zola, whether or not he realized or intended it. (Usually, he did.) In the debate over “nature versus nurture,” Zola tends to side with “nature,” where we now believe “nurture” responsible, yet his powers of observation are so keen that his stories are no less true. Can any novelist strive to achieve anything better?

Several of Zola’s characters will walk beside me forevermore:
  • Gervaise Macquart, whose aspirations to the middle-class are drowned by liquor;

  • her daughter, Nana Coupeau, hoisted by her beauty to become the toast of Paris;

  • Gervaise’s son, Claude Lantier, a painter driven mad by his inability to realize his grandiose vision;

  • their cousin, Eugène Rougon, the government minister, who lusts after power instead of women;

  • his brother, Aristide Saccard, whose pursuit of wealth is a sport;

  • their mother, Félicité, who blithely sacrifices the lives of several members of her family in the interest of her own (and, okay, her husband and children’s) social advancement;

  • Félicité’s direct opposite, Pauline Quenu, who willingly surrenders all she has, for those she loves;

  • Octave Mouret, who sleeps his way through the apartment building where he lives, a scale model of French society, as he invents the department store;

  • and Buteau, no kin to the principal families in the story, who cheats, rapes, and murders his relatives without qualm in order to assert his dominance.

That’s just for starters. And while the events in which these characters figure may not always be memorable, Zola takes meticulous pains to research and describe occupations and backgrounds: he takes us to coal mines and the stock exchange; ministerial and doctor’s offices; salons and studios; churches and markets. We learn how to organize a labor union, how to embroider a chasuble, and how to survive the Franco-Prussian War.

Family Tree: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly,
the Rougons, and the Macquarts

For the most part, Zola resists easy judgments on any of his many subjects. His sympathies are with artists and social visionaries, yet he depicts their ideals as impractical and their efforts as mostly futile; meanwhile, he finds amused sympathy for the worst sinners (even Napoléon III, who shows up in La Débâcle). Already I have begun to see that France, a century later, demands such flexible perspectives — and detailed study. And for all that they span 20 volumes, Zola’s books are only the beginning of the necessary research.

The Life of Emile Zola:
I may need to see the Paul Muni movie now.


Anonymous said...

It's refreshing to encounter a French author who does not, as you say, pass judgment on his characters, does not come down firmly on either one side or the other. If you are in search of a modern French author for your next read, I would suggest Georges Duhamel, whose attitude about his fellow French emerges in quite unexpected ways. As you may know, Duhamel was a military surgeon in the Great War. In Vie Des Martyrs, he provides as harrowing a chronicle of the ravages of war as you'll ever read -- and then reaches the opposite conclusion of someone with the sensibilities of an Oliver Stone, when he declares that all he has seen affirms his belief in the greatness of the French race, which weathered such horrors and continued to fight. A fascinating bit of cultural history -- and Duhamel also writes exceptionally well.

I'm also a great fan of Maupassant. Sur L'Eau offers avenues of interpretation that are all the more relevant today. At the beginning of the novel, he describes the ruins of an ancient seaside fort that was built to protect Europe from the Saracens. By contrast, the final pages of the book are a description of modern-day Monaco, where corpulent Europeans go to drink, gamble, and screw. Perhaps there's a message here about the direction of Europe and its preparedness to deal with certain international tensions and problems.


Anonymous said...

Out of the cycle, which one of the novels was your favorite, and why?

Mikebench said...

I, too, cannot recommend Maupassant enough... He says so much in so little space! I suggest starting with the "Contes de la bécasse", which is an amazing collection of short stories... I always feel wiser after I've read something by him.

William V. Madison said...

I've read a bit of Maupassant, notably Bel Ami, Mont-Oriol, and several short stories, including Le Horla. I'm looking forward to more — and perhaps that's the right next author for me to tackle.

As for my favorite of the Rougon-Macquart cycle, that's got to be Nana.