The Example of Zannovich: Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (Guest Post by Nathaniel Leach)

Even if you got your fill of Döblin in my post, I urge you to read Nat’s shorter and smarter post on the same novel.

My excitement about Michael Hoffmann’s new translation of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz can be traced to my very first day of graduate school. In a course on the fundamentals of critical theory, we were shown one of the opening scenes of Fassbinder’s adaptation, in which the protagonist, Franz Biberkopf is lying on the ground, being told a story. It seemed like a strange choice for a course where we would be going on to read Kant, Hegel, Levinas and many other heavyweight philosophers, and I remember being puzzled about how this guy lying on the floor connected with the history of Western philosophy. It took some time for me to get over my bewilderment and realize that my resistances were coming from the excessive rationalism of my undergraduate self. In time, the professor of this course became my supervisor and mentor, and perhaps the most important lesson I learned from her was that the oblique, hidden, and seemingly chance connections between things are often more significant than relationships dictated by rationality and causality.

Not coincidentally, I’m sure, this is one of the lessons of Berlin Alexanderplatz too; although its main plot can be summed up fairly simply—Franz Biberkopf is released from prison, tries to go straight, but suffers a series of increasingly disastrous misfortunes—this narrative is continually interrupted by digressions that detail seemingly insignificant events taking place in Berlin at the same time, or that re-tell versions of biblical stories and other prominent narratives of Western culture. These narrative interpolations demand that we read Franz Biberkopf’s story within a very broad cultural context, but at the same time, the narrative mostly refrains from making any direct connections between the stories; we are never told exactly how we should read these digressions as bearing on Franz’s story, and they are in fact often highly ambiguous. For example, Döblin’s insertion of the story of Job invites us to think of Franz’s sufferings as being like those of Job, but we also can’t avoid reflecting on the fact that he is to some degree deserving of his sufferings, or that he completely lacks Job’s patience and religious perspective.

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All of this is perhaps a long-winded way of explaining why, upon reading the book, I was inclined to attribute a particular significance to the story told to Franz in Chapter 1, even though I was also not surprised to find that it raised more questions than answers. Disoriented after his release from prison, Franz is helped by Eliser, a Jewish man who brings him into his house. Franz lapses into an almost catatonic state, and Eliser tells him the story of Stefan Zannovich, the son of an Albanian peddler, who launches an impressive career of social climbing by brazenly impersonating European nobility. Eliser concludes that “what you can learn from Stefan Zannovich is that he knew himself and he knew people”. This story thus seems to be a fable about autonomy, suggesting to Franz that he can control his own fate, and it is indeed instrumental in getting Franz back on his feet (literally, as he has been lying on the floor throughout).

It is not quite so simple, however; Eliser’s brother-in-law, Nahum, arrives during the telling of the story and insists that Eliser tell the end of the story, which is that Zannovich pushed his fraud too far, was found out, and eventually killed himself. For Nahum, the moral of the story is simply that “sometimes you can’t do everything you’d like to, sometimes things get fouled up”. Franz seems to hear Eliser’s message of hopeful autonomy and ignores Nahum’s warning, demonstrating both the power of stories and the danger of selective reading. But this is a highly ambiguous moment; it is not clear which of the brothers-in-law’s interpretations should be trusted, or indeed, if both are flawed. Nor is it clear whether Franz misreads Eliser’s intentions in telling him the story, or whether the story in fact has the desired effect. Nahum calls Eliser a “bad man” for telling the story, but Eliser’s intentions seem to be benevolent, even though Franz’s revival is somewhat questionable.

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While the meaning of the story of Zannovich is ambiguous, what does seem clear, however, is that Franz has failed to understand it fully, and that if he has learned anything from it, the lesson is painfully incomplete. The narrator continually reminds us that Franz has greater punishments in store for him, suggesting, at the very least, that this story has not fixed what was wrong with Franz. Moreover, while Franz is grateful for the help, he also diminishes its significance: “these Jews helped me, just by telling me stories. They talked to me, they were decent people who didn’t know me from Adam, and they told me about this Polack, and it was just a story, but it was very good just the same, and it was very instructive for me in my position. I thought: a glass of cognac might have set me to rights just as well”. Not only does he call it “just a story”, he judges it by its results, which he deems could have been achieved by other means anyway.

Ultimately, as Eliser’s interpretation suggests, the point of the story seems to be to signal that this book is about the knowledge (or lack thereof) of self and others. But what exactly does it mean to “know oneself and know others”? Are these two different things, or are they connected? Is such knowledge to be understood as a philosophical ideal or is it merely instrumental and pragmatic? Is it significant that “self” is listed first, before “others”? Zannovich “knows others” in the sense that he knows how to manipulate them, while Franz’s understanding of others is almost always superficial and naïve. After being revived, he falls back on an overweening belief in himself that either exploits others, as in his string of relationships with women, or fatally misunderstands them, as in his toxic friendship with the womanizer and petty crook, Reinhold.

This lack of knowledge is apparent in Franz’s decision, immediately after his revival, to sell nationalist newspapers, “not that he’s got anything against the Jews, but he is a supporter of order”. While the book is not highly political, aside from a few pointed sections, I found it hard not to read Franz’s lack of self-knowledge in conjunction with the rise of National Socialism. Döblin, writing in 1928, is diagnosing the ills of a society about to be swallowed up by fascism, and one of these ills is the ugly and violent form of self-reliance embodied by Franz Biberkopf, whose lack of political conviction belies his philosophical kinship to fascism at this point in the book.

This resonance was developed for me by one of those oblique connections I mentioned earlier; while reading this book, I happened also to be reading Victor Klemperer’s The Language of the Third Reich, in which Klemperer poignantly describes the increasing circumscription of his rights as a Jew living in Germany, and his increasing immersion in his academic work to avoid the reality of Nazism: “why should I sour my life still further by reading Nazi publications when it was already being ruined by what was happening around me? If by chance or mistake a Nazi book fell into my hands I would cast it aside after the first paragraph. If the voice of the Fuhrer or his Propaganda Minister was blaring out of a loudspeaker on the street I would give it a wide berth, and when reading the newspaper I desperately tried to fish out the naked facts- forlorn enough in their nakedness- from the repulsive morass of speeches, commentaries and articles”. While I identified strongly with this as a reader in 2018 trying to avoid depressing news without entirely burying my head in the sand, it also made me think of Franz Biberkopf; if Klemperer, one of the most sensitive observers of pre-WWII Germany, can reproach himself with allowing himself to become too self-involved and overwhelmed by the media, how much more does Biberkopf in Döblin’s chaotic world embody this flaw? The polar opposite of Klemperer, Franz does not question himself, and when he does dabble in politics, selling newspapers or, later, agitating with his anarchist friend, Willi, he believes he knows all the answers. He is by no means inherently fascist, but he embodies a lack of understanding or caring about others that is easily manipulated by the much more frightening Reinhold.

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The “example of Zannovich” (as the section heading calls it), then, is a negative one, deceiving Franz into believing that he is at the centre of the world, and enabling him to subordinate otherness to his will with a fascistic autonomy. (This is also pretty much the history of Western philosophy according to Emmanuel Levinas, so maybe that grad course really was on to something). Questions still abound, of course; for one, why does Eliser tell the story? Is he deceitful, or does he (like the narrator) foresee the necessary process that Franz must go through? If the novel diagnoses the ills of its society, it does so in order to suggest a solution of sorts, one that revises Eliser’s formula and makes the understanding of self and others inextricably linked.

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“We Know What We Know, We Had to Pay Dearly Enough for It”: Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz

A few weeks ago, during some pleasant days vacationing in Maine, I read Michael Hofmann’s new translation of Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz. It was good to have time to devote to it, because the book is fairly demanding. Yet I wouldn’t say I was immersed in it—it’s not the kind of book to love, fall into, think about even when you’re not reading it. At least it wasn’t for me. But I doubt Döblin wouldn’t have wanted any of that. After all, he was a doctor, a specialist in neurology and psychiatry, and there is something of our conventional idea of medicine in his prose—it is detached, even Olympian, concerned with individuals but convinced that their functioning is a result of physiological and mental processes that exceed or evade individual consciousness or willpower.

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The novel’s plot is fairly simple. Franz Biberkopf is a pimp and small-time crook. He is sentimental, sometimes kind, shrewd yet naïve, always thuggish. The book begins as he is released from prison after serving a sentence for beating his former girlfriend to death. Frightened by his re-entry into the world, he is helped back on his feet by a man he happens to run into in the street, an Orthodox Jew who impresses Franz with his wisdom. Soon an old friend gets him a job selling shoelaces door-to-door. One of his customers, a wealthy widow, takes pity on him—he reminds her of her dead husband—and intimates she will take care of him but Franz can’t help but boast about his conquest to the friend, who proceeds to rob the woman. It is one of many betrayals in the novel. In response, Franz goes on a bender; eventually he rights himself enough to find work selling newspapers, but he’s barely making ends meet. His quest to go straight is further threatened when he comes into the orbit of a small-time but seductive mobster named Reinhold. Reinhold is a magnificent, despicable character, a man who hates women as much as he is drawn to them: he loses interest in each new girl after a week or two and arranges to pass them on to Franz. But Franz tires of the scheme—in his lumpish way, he likes the women, feels bad for them, doesn’t want to do Reinhold’s dirty work for him.

Reinhold is furious and takes revenge. He allows Franz into his band of crooks, and when a heist goes wrong takes the opportunity to push Franz out of the getaway car. Franz is run over and badly hurt: he survives, but loses an arm. After his lengthy recovery, he is brought back to life yet again by the crooks he’d been involved with before going to jail. They introduce him to Mitzi, a young girl newly arrived from the provinces, who goes onto the streets for him. So Franz is back where he started, once again a small-time pimp, though he’s chastened and knows he’s lucky to have the saintly Mitzi.

But fate won’t leave Franz alone, or he can’t leave well enough alone (for Döblin it’s the same thing): Franz won’t give up Reinhold (the novel doesn’t make much of this, but Rainer Werner Fassbinder emphasized the homoeroticism of this intense relationship in his gargantuan and compelling fifteen-hour television adaptation). Reinhold’s jealousy—which the novel figures as purely evil: unmotivated and unexplained—leads to a terrible denouement resulting (SPOILERS!) in Mitzi’s death and Franz’s psychological breakdown. (Reinhold murders her when she rejects his advances.) Eventually, though, Reinhold gets his comeuppance. This is cleverly handled: Reinhold gets himself arrested by pretending to be someone else, because he figures he is safest in jail, but once there he finally falls in love for real, with a boy in fact, to whom he tells everything, and when the kid is released he can’t help but talk about the mastermind he met inside and before long one of the little crook’s associates goes to the police to collect the reward and so Reinhold is arrested again, from within prison this time, and sentenced to ten years, not least on the strength of Franz’s testimony at trial.

Franz recovers from his breakdown—it’s at least his fourth time starting over—but the book is done with him: “Straight after the trial Biberkopf is offered a job as assistant porter in a medium-sized factory. He accepts. Beyond that there is nothing to report on his life.” Among its last lines we find this conclusion: “Biberkopf is a little worker. We know what we know, we had to pay dearly enough for it.”

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As Hofmann says in his excellent afterword, the novel has “good bones.” The repetitions, the peaks and valleys, the overall narrative arc are all satisfying. And there’s plenty of lurid excitement, B-movie type stuff. But it’s not an exciting book. (It’s nothing like Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin, for example.) Events matter less than their telling. Think about that enigmatic last line: “We know what we know, we had to pay dearly enough for it.” Who is “we”? The narrator? The narrator and the reader? Franz himself, thinking of himself in the plural? (That would be weird, but the narration routinely moves from omniscience into subjectivity within a single sentence. An example, chosen at random, describing Franz’s testimony at Reinhold’s trial: “That’s all they can get out of Biberkopf on the subject of Reinhold. Nothing about his arm, nothing about their falling out, their fight, I shouldn’t have done it, I should never have tangled with him.”)

Let’s assume the “we” refers to readers. How have we paid for what we’ve learned? Maybe by mistakenly thinking the plot is what matters, that this really is the story of a guy named Franz Biberkopf, a scoundrel who wants to go straight and eventually does. In fact, that story is just a way for the novel to indulge its more urgent fascination with life in Berlin. As Fassbinder put it, the language of the novel is a way to imitate the rhythm of the S-Bahn (commuter rail), which Döblin heard coming through his window.

For an example of what that might mean, look at this passage:

It was the second week of April in Berlin, the weather could be balmy at times, and, as the press unanimously proclaimed, the gorgeous Easter weather was bringing people out of doors. In Berlin at that time a Russian student, Alex Fränkel, shot his fiancée, the twenty-two-year-old arts and craft worker Vera Kaminskaya, in her digs. The same-aged au pair, Tatiana Sanftleben, who had been in on the suicide pact, got scared at the very last moment, and slipped off as her friend was already lying lifelessly on the floor. She ran into a police foot patrol, told them the terrible details of the past few months, and led the officials to the place where Vera and Alex lay dying. The serious crime squad was alerted, and murder detectives despatched to the site. Alex and Vera had wanted to marry, but their economic circumstances would not allow it.

In other news, the investigations over responsibility for the tram accident on Heerstrasse are still unconcluded. Eyewitnesses and the driver, one Redlich, are being questioned. Technical reports are not yet completed. Only when they have come in will it be possible to decide whether the catastrophe was due to human error (driver slow to apply the brakes) or a tragic combination of circumstances.

The stock exchange was largely quiet: in the open market, prices were a little firmer, in view of a recently published Reichsbank report that took a positive view of the disposal of 400 million in obligations and another 350 million in credit notes. In individual shares, as of 11 a.m. on 18 April, I. G. Farben traded over a narrow range from260.5 to 267, Siemens & Halske 297.5 to 299; Dessau Gas 202 to 203, Waldhof Cellulose 295. German Petroleum steady at 134.5.

To return to the tram accident on Heerstrasse, all the inured passengers were said to be improving in hospital.

There’s plenty of this roving-eye stuff in the novel (all fascinating to me, and lovely in its mimicry of the language of newspapers), but it’s never just “local colour.” Here, for example, the idea of “human error” or “tragic combination of circumstances” brings up the ideas of willpower and fate that the Franz story is also wrestling with. And the story of the murder-suicide pact—a little novel in itself—is a commentary on the difficulty of life for so many in Weimar-era Berlin.

In such passages the narration is the definition of omniscience. At others, however, it closely attaches itself to Franz’s perspective, even his stream of consciousness. But it regularly abandons that perspective, in the most abrupt manner, as in this passage:

In the night Franz wakes up and doesn’t get off to sleep again. It’s freezing. Cilly [another girlfriend] beside him is asleep and snoring. Why can he not sleep? The vegetable carts are trundling on their way to the market hall. I wouldn’t want to be a horse, not in this weather, at this hour. Stables is warm, I’ll be bound. My God, this woman can seep. Can she ever sleep. Not me. My toes are frozen, I can feel the itch and tickle. There’s something inside of him, his heart, his lungs, his inner self, it’s there and it’s being buffeted and bent, who by? It doesn’t know, the mystery thing, doesn’t, who by. All it can say for sure is that it’s not asleep.

Those last three sentences are so odd. I don’t think they are free indirect discourse; I don’t think they’re offering Franz’s perceptions in third person. Why would that be necessary? We just had them in first. I think this is third-person omniscience, but a different omniscience than in the tram accident and stock market passage.

The newsreel passages tell us everything. These other passages—typically centered on Franz—hint that they know everything but without letting us in on the secret. “There’s something inside of him”—this is at once certain and vague. What is the something? Is it analogous to willpower? What makes Franz do what he does? Are we supposed to learn anything from his fate?

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In this regard, it’s no surprise that the text regularly references stories from the Torah, especially Job and Abraham. They have the same kind of gnomic assurance. And they too are famously hard to interpret. Are these references meant to be analogies to or parables of Franz’s experience? Is he suffering for no reason? Has he been selected to perform a great sacrifice? Impossible to say. Unlike the stories from Torah, which are made to be interpreted (rabbinic Judaism is in some sense nothing but the history of those interpretations), the story of Franz Biberkopf doesn’t seem to want to be interpreted.

More than anything this detachment from the conventions of interpretation is what makes Berlin Alexanderplatz easy to admire but hard to love. Thinking about its author in relation to his contemporaries, Döblin is warmer than Musil, less intellectual, his ironies less bitter. But he’s nothing like Mann, whose 1929 Nobel Prize victory quickly eclipsed the publication of Berlin Alexanderplatz. I wonder how this book compares to Mann’s Joseph and his Brothers, another German epic based on biblical stories. I bet they’re pretty different.

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Inasmuch as there is warmth or passion here, it’s in the novel’s depiction of the city. Berlin Alexanderplatz is one of the great city novels. Maybe the greatest. (More interesting in its depiction than either Ulysses or Mrs. Dalloway.) But it is not a love letter to Berlin. Nothing as kitschy as that. I don’t think it’s right to say that the city is a voracious machine, churning up all who enter into it (though the novel is fascinated by the construction of the subway, with lots of chewy descriptions of digging and earth-moving), unless of course we think of life itself—both animal and human—as a kind of machine, better, a kind of immense system. People aren’t simply pawns of that system—Döblin isn’t entirely determinist—but they aren’t in charge of themselves and the universe, either.

The best attitude to take to what Freud in another context called “narcissistic blows” to our anthropocentrism is the one incarnated in the famous Berliner Schnauze, literally, the Berlin snout, figuratively, the defiant, coarse, and clever slang of Berlin. That’s the language Franz and the others use all the time—heck, so does the narrator—and that’s what’s made the novel for so long seem untranslatable.

Hofmann’s solutions to this dilemma are admirable. He writes about this in his afterword, where he rightly notes “Döblin often has it in him to speak like his characters” (he’s not looking down on them, not offering their non-standard speech in distinction to his). Instead, the use of dialect “seems to be a function of intensity, but generally within reach of all.” Hofmann uses what he calls “the regional unspecific” to good effect, though the book does seem a little British sometimes. My favourite part of his comments concerns dropped letters: “I don’t like dropping letters and misspelling words in speech the way Dickens does, until I found the effect is entirely different if you just do it, without the rather self-congratulatory apostrophe, which is the perfect mark of bad faith.” (Ouch! I’ve been guilty of that!)

As Hofmann explains it, the book’s use of dialect is generous, and I appreciate the way that sentiment cleaves to some of the novel’s other expansive qualities. One of the ways the book is different for us than it was for Döblin and his first readers is that its invocation of the modern metropolis is now historical. In its suggestion that leftist movements are on the rise and National Socialism just a bad joke, we can glimpse how things might have been.

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The part of the book that moved me the most is an unwitting performance of this idea of the road not taken. At one point, the novel describes the movement of the # 4 tram as it leaves Rosenthalerplatz. At Lothringer Strasse, four people get on, “two elderly women, a worried-looking working man and a boy with a cap and ear-flaps.” The women are going to buy a girdle; the man needs to return a defective second-hand electric iron he bought for his boss. And the boy?

The lad, Max Rüst, will one day become a plumber, the father of seven little Rüsts, will work for Hallis & Co., installers and roofers, Grünau, at the age of fifty-two he will win a quarter-share of the Prussian State Lottery jackpot and retire, and then, in the midst of a case he is bringing against Hallis & Co., he will die at the age of fifty-five. His obituary will read: On 25 September, suddenly, from heart disease, my dearly beloved husband, our dear father, son, brother, brother-in-law and uncle Max Rüst, in his fifty-sixth year. This announcement is placed by the grieving widow, Marie Rüst, on behalf of all with deep grief. The rendering of thanks will go as follows: Being unable to acknowledge individually the many tokens of sympathy we have received, we extend thanks to all our relatives, friends, and fellow-tenants in Kleiststrasse 4 and our wider acquaintances. Especial thanks to Pastor Deinen for his words of comfort. – At present this Max Rüst is fourteen and on his way home from school, via the advice center for those hard of hearing, with impaired vision, experiencing difficulties of speech, dyspraxia and problems with concentration, where he has been a few times already, about his stammer, which seems to be getting better.

Exuent Max Rüst. His ordinary and yet, to me, pathos-laden life (that stammer! that ill-fated and perhaps ill-advised lawsuit!) might have been the focus of a different book, though it is unclear whether we are to take the same sense of fate countering an individual’s striving. Still, fate certainly has its way with Max, as of course it does with us all. This burst of narrative omniscience—reminiscent of similar moments in Woolf’s near-contemporaneous Jacob’s Room, another great city novel—suggests the triumph of determinism. But how much more moving it is for us to read this passage in light of what we know of German history. It is possible that Max Rüst might indeed have left all of his little Rüst descendents and died peaceably enough in the increasingly prosperous Federal Republic in 1968 (Kleiststrasse would have been in West Berlin). (Would Rüst have looked askance at the student demonstrations? I’m guessing yes.) But there would have been so many possibiilities in which he wouldn’t have made it to that end (deployed to the front, killed in an air raid, lost to the hatred and violence of the SS, either as victim or perpetrator).

“We know what we know, we had to pay dearly enough for it.” I suggested earlier how we readers might have paid for it. But I didn’t say what we know. The terrible rise and legacy of fascism is something we know that the all-knowing narrator can’t. Maybe we wish we didn’t know it. Maybe the cost of reading Berlin Alexanderplatz today is to know the extraordinary viciousness that overwhelmed the garden-variety, even petty viciousness of the world it depicts.

“The Life We Knew Here Is Gone”: Philip Marsden’s The Bronski House

In the years after the fall of communism, Zofia Illinska, an elegant, erudite Polish woman, an émigré who at that point had lived in England for fifty years, returned to the estate she and her mother fled in 1939 when the Soviets and the Germans divided Poland. Zofia was accompanied by an Englishman half her age, the author of this remarkable book; having befriended him when, as a boy he stayed with his family in her hotel in Cornwall, the two stayed in contact ever since. The Bronski House A Return to the Borderlands (1995) is a story about home and exile amid the violence of the 20th century. It is a meditation on the idea of return. And it is a portrait of a sweet and moving friendship that crosses generations, sexes, and cultures.

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Few of the places that mattered in Zofia’s life exist anymore. She was born in 1921 in Polish Wilno, today Vilnius in Lithuania, and grew up at a house called Mantuski, in modern-day Belarus. Her story, like that of so many people in the past century (and in our own), is one of enforced change, driven by the violent dreams of others. The results of those dreams, more often than not, are sickness, death, and misery. As Marsden puts it, describing Minsk in the fall of 1917:

Stooped figures shuffled about, collecting water from puddles. Illness hung over that place like the thunder-clouds. Everyone was ill—ill from dysentery, ill from typhus, ill and widowed from other people’s war, other people’s ideas, other people’s revolutions.

Although the words are Marsden’s, it’s unclear whose sentiments these are. I’ve been speaking of Zofia, but the book is not only or even primarily hers; it’s at least as much the story of her mother, Helena. Helena is the one who experienced Minsk at the end of the First World War; Zofia, undreamed of by her mother, wasn’t yet born. The bulk of the book is based on diaries, letters, and notebooks Helena kept over the years, but for the most part Marsden is telling the story. (We are given excerpts from the diaries, allowing us to see that Helena was a gifted, if somewhat exuberant writer; little surprise that her daughter became a poet.) Marsden hews closely to Helena’s viewpoint—he tells us what she experienced and what she felt—but at times we sense his perspective.

In the Minsk passage, for example, the terrible, indelible image of the stooped figures and the puddles must come from Helena. The simile of illness hanging over the city like thunder-clouds is likely hers as well. (It fits with the language we find in her diaries.) But the final sentence, with its anaphora and its ringing condemnation of the harm done to blameless victims by ideologies and governments, feels like Marsden’s.

Indeed, if Marsden has a philosophy, a take on the material he is describing, this is probably it. There is nothing as damaging as an idea: ideologies are experienced by those who live under them primarily as violence and deprivation. To be sure, the 20th century gave us more than enough evidence to support this idea. I’m reminded of Primo Levi, who, describing Hans Biebow, the Nazi in control of the Lodz ghetto—“a small jackal too cynical to take seriously the demonizing of the race”—concluded that a pragmatist is always preferable to a theorist.

Marsden’s humanism has a lot to recommend it, though it skirts sententiousness. As I read the book—utter catnip to me; I swallowed it in a single day, and loved every minute of it—I wondered a little uneasily what is at stake when we read about vanished worlds, and about the suffering of others. It’s easy to romanticize lost worlds. They have a pathos and a dignity that our own seems to lack. (Here’s hoping someone eventually says that about us—though God only knows what that will mean for the present they are feeling bludgeoned and degraded by.) But we oughtn’t to forget that these lost worlds weren’t just the victims of history. They contained, even perpetrated, suffering too. (Zofia’s parents’ families were landowners on both sides, not tremendously wealthy, but privileged. On her mother’s side, she was an O’Breifne, descended from an Irish Catholic who came to fight for the Czars in the 17th century.) The Bronski House gives us a few indications of that inequality. One such moment is a brief standoff in 1926, when the local peasants refuse to allow the Bronskis’ timber carts to pass through the village, claiming that the wood belongs to them. The situation almost turns violent, before Zofia’s father exerts his landowning privilege and the villagers back down, for the moment anyway. In general, though, the book hews to the landowners’ perspective, which doesn’t so much disdain or disparage the peasantry as ignore them.

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Marsden, however, is too smart a writer not to have thought about these questions. Early on, he describes two photographs of Helena, one a studio portrait from 1919, taken in Warsaw, showing an almost twenty-year-old young woman in “a white high-collared dress,” and the other a candid from 1936, taken on the estate of Mantuski. (Curiously, there are no photos or other images in this book, other than a helpful map on the endpapers. Unlikely that would be true in a book released today. I’m puzzled by the omission; likely Zofia wanted them kept out. Whatever the reason, the absence of images increases the mystery of the lives retold here.)

Marsden wonders why these photos cast such a hold on him:

It was the way this woman, Helena O’Breifne, had crossed the steepest contours of our age; that for me, living in flatter decades, in a quieter corner of Europe, her world represented everything that had been lost, a place of slow villages, muddy livestock and unfenced fields, of time passing with only the backdrop of the seasons, of lives exaggerated—exaggerated in wealth, in poverty, in suffering—lives buffeted by a history no one seemed to control: Helena’s was a bigger world, a crueler world, a world of half-mad nobles living on borrowed time, of noble peasants living outside time, another Europe, an older Europe.

This is beautifully—but also slyly—put: as the sentence amasses its clauses it veers into cliché (the half-mad nobles, the noble peasants), and knowingly so. For as Marsden goes on to admit, the truth is simpler: Helena is beautiful and he has fallen a little in love with her, as so many men will do in this book. (Helena’s lack of interest in men, until she wanders haphazardly into a marriage that to her own surprise brings her much joy, is interesting, and more might have been made of Helena as a desiring (or, often, non-desiring) being, though that would have meant speculating in a way Marsden typically refrains from. This is no psycho-biography.)

Marsden’s love for Helena is of course connected to his love for Zofia. It is refreshing to see how much respect he has for this much older woman. Zofia can occasionally be eccentric—she loves to sail, though she doesn’t know how, and often needs to be rescued—but primarily she is characterized by intelligence, mildness, and remarkable good sense. The trip she and Marsden undertake is quite fraught, especially given what she finds in a newly-independent and terribly impoverished Belarus: Mantuski, her childhood home is gone, burned to ground in the early days of the war; Klepawicze, her husband’s childhood home, has become a communal farm, complete with an alarming Geiger counter that continually tests the air for radiation (Chernobyl happened not long before and not far away); worst of all, the Bronski chapel, containing her father’s grave (Adam died of complications of scarlet fever in 1936), has been ransacked and looted.

But Zofia is never bitter; she never displays rancor to those who chased her family away. (Yes, the past is past, but some of the people she meets were alive at that time, making her forbearance all the more impressive.) After returning to England, Zofia begins raising money to repair and reconsecrate the chapel. Two years later she and Philip return to dedicate it. At the ceremony, Zofia makes a speech extolling her father’s love of the land he spent working and fighting for. Then she adds:

‘But there is one thing you must understand. For more than half a century now, no Bronski has lived here. Once this was our home, but not any more. The family is scattered around the world and the life we knew here is gone. The restoration of the chapel is not for us; it is not for my family, but for you, for all of you—Belorussian and Pole, Orthodox and Catholic. You must look after it as your own home. You must use it. Come here and pray whenever you want, whenever you can—even if there is no priest to officiate; you must say the rosary and in the spring cut back the forest around the building.

‘And be warned,’ she smiled, ‘that if the chapel again falls into disrepair, it will be my ghost that comes back to haunt you.’

It’s a generous gesture, a superb acknowledgement of the inevitability of change and all that is lost. It doesn’t dig up old grudges or wounds. Yet it also ends with a sting—a gentle one, but a sting nonetheless. The past never does fully go away; it always threatens to haunt us.

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Before I end, a few scattered observations:

Marsden makes himself scarce in the book, and it’s all the better for his restraint. He is a translator, a Sherpa, sometimes a dogsbody; he is not the main attraction. There’s a lovely scene in which he and Zofia visit an old woman, Pani Wala Dobralowicz, Zofia and her mother’s former dressmaker, who lives with her chickens in a small cabin near the place where the great house once stood. The three have lunch—there are plates of potatoes and kielbasa and herring, and a bottle of vodka. Afterwards, the three sleep off the lunch “in the close heat of the afternoon—the two widows on beds behind a screen, me on an old sofa next to the stove.” Later he “hears the two women talking behind their screen long into the night.” A sweet moment, from which we, like Marsden, are quite properly barred. Their conversation is private.

So sweetness and gentleness, yes, but that isn’t the whole tone of the book. I’m not sure I’ve made it clear how dramatic, even exciting it is. The family’s escape from Poland at the beginning of the war, across the border into Lithuania and eventually to England, is the stuff of a spy novel. And the book is shrewd enough to admit that traumatic upheaval can be the making of a person. Here is Marsden’s description of Helena’s escape eastwards to Minsk and eventually Saint Petersburg with her mother and their servants and livestock during the First World War:

The forest banished all thoughts of war. Helena felt happy, exhilarated. Each day was different. Her mother withdrew the barbed constraints that normally surrounded her. She relaxed; the progress of the convoy imposed its own loose authority and, in years to come, Helena looked back on those weeks in the forest, seeing the horses’ twitching ears, the arc of the wooden hames, hearing the creak of carts, and knew that this was the closest she ever came to any sort of freedom.

It’s a melancholy conclusion (which is belied by the contentment she finds later in life at Mantuski—though of course contentment isn’t the same as freedom), which captures just how confined life could be for a gifted young woman in that time and place.

I noted earlier that Marsden helps us consider the risks of romanticizing the past. His point well taken, but I am a sucker for this particular past, and The Bronski House is filled with swoony period details, like this one that seems super Slavic and wintry and almost nineteenth century novelistic: in defiance of everything that has just happened, Helena’s aunt holds a ball on a December evening in Wilno at the end of the war. There are no horses in the city; they have all died in the war. So there are no sledges, no carriages; the guests arrive on foot. Marsden gives us this grace note: “In the portico of Aunt Marynia’s home, a great puddle spread out around the rows of felt boots.” (It’s the kind of detail you’d find in a Penelope Fitzgerald novel. No accident that hers is the only blurb on my edition.)

One last thing—and quite a different note: I found it extraordinary to read a book about this time & place that has almost nothing to say about Jews. (They are referred to once or twice, but only in passing, it’s really minimal.) I’m not sure how I feel about this. On one hand, it’s a relief to have a break from those particular terrors, especially given my academic work on the Holocaust. On the other hand, it feels like a huge effacement. Notice that Zofia doesn’t mention Jews in her speech at the chapel. Even she wanted to, she couldn’t. Not because they couldn’t pray there, but because there aren’t any of them around to address. Even in a story filled with loss, then, there are even further layers of despair, even more ghosts who don’t get their due. In the end, I prefer to think of this as a sign of the book’s modesty on the part of the book (Jews simply didn’t factor much into Zofia’s daily life—but could this be true?—and of course the worst atrocities against Jews happened after she and her family fled) rather than a sign of its values.

Too bad The Bronski House is out of print. Some enterprising publisher should reissue it. It would pair terrifically well with the NYRB Classics edition of Eleanor Perenyi’s More Was Lost (hint, hint). I’ll even volunteer to write the introduction. In the meantime, search your library or AbeBooks. This one’s a keeper.

A Risky Game: Émile Zola’s The Fortune of the Rougons (Guest Post, Keith Bresnahan)

Keith & I are making our way through Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle. My take on the first book is here. Keith’s follows below:

Beginnings. They’re difficult. On the one hand, total freedom to establish characters, contexts, motivations; on the other — and particularly in the first of a projected series of works building on the same characters (or family) — there’s the burden of having to establish all these things, loading the origin with the necessary elements for everything yet to come. So, first installments can often feel weighed down by the historical heavy-lifting they have to do, establishing not just a particular context but a legacy framing the importance of the origin for future developments (if you don’t believe me, watch any of the recent spate of superhero films and see if you don’t agree).

For a project like Zola’s, which seeks “to discover and trace the thread that leads mathematically from one person to another,” to show the ‘laws’ of heredity that bind members of a family together through generations, this origin is especially important. Physiologically, Zola tells us in his famous Preface, the Rougon-Macquarts:

illustrate the gradual sequence of nervous and sanguine accidents that befall a race after a first organic lesion and, according to environment, determine in each individual member of the race those feeling, desires, and passions — in sum, all the natural and instinctive manifestations of humanity – whose outcomes are conventionally described in terms of ‘virtue’ or ‘vice’.

Moreover, these accidents will, over a series of 20 novels, tell the story of the Second Empire — that “strange period of human folly and shame,” in which the “ravenous appetites” of this family matches “the great upsurge of our age as it rushes to satisfy those appetites.”

In the Fortune of the Rougons (1871), the first novel in this monumental social and family saga, Zola takes on not one but two ‘tainted’ origins — that of the Rougon-Macquart family, and that of the Second Empire itself, in the coup d’état of Louis-Napoléon on 2 December 1851. Both the family and the historical era they embody are marked by this origin, and by the taint that follows them through decades. The action of the novel concerns the brief period following the coup, as it plays out among the members of this family in the fictional southern town of Plassans and its environs.

Pierre Rougon and his wife Félicité, frustrated and envious, take the opportunity provided by the coup to improve their social and economic standing in the town, while Pierre’s half-brother Antoine Macquart means to use the coup to get back at Pierre and Félicité for past slights against him. The matriarch Adélaïde Fouque, crippled and isolated by a nervous disorder, and pained by confused memories of the past, dies during these same few days, distraught at the fate of her grandson Silvère, who’s taken up arms (specifically, the gun owned by Adélaïde’s former lover Macquart) against the coup.

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Like Dorian, I didn’t love this book, and found it difficult to write about, especially at a distance of a couple months. As Dorian notes, it’s got a convoluted plot, and is surprisingly staid for Zola — one really misses those intense descriptive passages that, in Dorian’s great phrase, “wriggle free” of authorial intent. I’d agree that if you’re thinking of getting into Zola, you should definitely not start with this one. The good news, is that things do get almost immediately better: The Kill, also next on our list, is an absorbing (if imperfect) book, and in just the next book in the series Zola gives it its first bona fide masterpiece: Belly of Paris, which we wrote about here and here.

Fortune would seem to have it all: family drama, insanity, young love, revolution, death. But I found it all a little too airless, insubstantial even. It never really felt dangerous, or surprising, as everything moved to its inexorable conclusions. The weird trajectories I look for in Zola, where the narrative escapes its bounds and gets twisted in its own descriptive convolutions, or characters are consumed by their inner compulsions, were never as weird or sustained as I wanted. They’re not totally absent – Dorian’s already noted Vuillet’s perverse diddling of the mail-bags, and the Rougons’ bloody dream. I just wanted more of them.

I want to try to address some of the very interesting points Dorian made in his post, about realism vs. naturalism. On the one hand, I think it’s true that the determinism Zola wants to assert here, i.e. the ways in which characters are conditioned by these dual forces of heredity and environment, doesn’t really work – those moments where he inserts observations about this inheritance feel pretty strained (he works this out in the later novels). As Dorian notes, Pierre and Félicité scheme, manipulate, and act, in ways that don’t seem particularly determined by either hereditary or environmental factors.

In some ways, it’s their self-directed activities that bring out most clearly where conditioning and determinism do and don’t reside in this book. At bottom, Zola asserts, “all the members of the family had the same brutish appetites” (all, perhaps, save ­ Pascal Rougon, an oddity seemingly free of any genetic inheritance from either his mother or his father). The Rougons are greedy, frustrated, and envious, scheming to capitalize on opportunity; Macquart is indolent, alcoholic, envious, and greedy, with a self-serving sense of social injustice (It’s his descendants, via the fearsome Josephine ‘Fine’ Gavaudan – of whom we see all-too little here – who furnish the series with its best-known novels: Belly, Germinal, L’Assommoir, Nana, La bête humaine)

Ok, so if this is true, if these appetites are inherited and handed-out through all parts of this ‘wolf-litter’ of a family (the description is Adélaïde’s), then what’s surely important are the differences in how these appetites are worked out, the objects they take, and so on. And here, I would suggest, it’s class, not heredity, that makes the difference. Antoine, every bit the lumpenproletariat, seeks immediate satisfaction of his desires; Pierre, who is just as greedy, and more callous, wants to feel his appetites satisfied within a framework of cultivated taste and social respectability—which is to say, he is bourgeois. And even the objects of his desire are different: not wine, or sex, or even money as such, but a provincial government post: receiver of taxes. I guess my argument would be that these characters, and the narrative as a whole, are still naturalist, in that ways-in-which-people-are-conditioned-to-experience-things way, but that the powerful determinants of character and action here, rather than heredity and environment, are history and class.

Which brings us, I suppose, to Marx. After I first read Fortune a couple months ago, it occurred to me to go back to Marx’s well-known 1852 essay on the coup, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis-Napoléon (I granted Dorian a reprieve from this particular reading assignment!). I hadn’t looked at it since my grad-school days, and was hoping that it might give me a better purchase on the context of the coup as background to the novel; but I was surprised to see how much of it resonated with the rest of Fortune, as well.

(I don’t know whether Zola knew this text first-hand, or any Marx for that matter, despite an apparent acquaintance with his ideas – which this article from the Guardian gives some sense of.)

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The title of Marx’s pamphlet already throws considerable shade on Louis-Napoléon; as every French schoolchild would know, the Eighteenth Brumaire was the date of the coup that brought the first Napoléon to power in November 1799— an event whose conjunction here with the name of his nephew’s less-than-heroic coup sets the slightly mocking tone. And introduces Marx’s great theme here: the 1851 coup d’état, and the Empire it ushers in, are so many reiterations of earlier historical events, which become farce in the replaying. Both Marx and Zola share a sense, I think, not only of the farcical aspect of this political power-play-cum-historical theatre, but also of the way that this moment is overdetermined by a particular relationship to history. As Marx writes at the outset of this text,

Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.

Louis-Napoléon is clearly no Napoléon I, but it’s his more famous uncle, and the dream of restoring the Empire, that conditions the fantasies and actions of the characters here — even as they also rehearse other by now well-established revolutionary roles. As Marx sees it, the old names, the old figures, the old dates, the old chronology, all the tropes of a ‘defunct epoch’ rise up again in the midst of revolutions, and it makes for bad theatre.

 Fortune is similarly rife with images of history coming to haunt the present moment: there’s the old cemetery, where the young lovers Silvère and Miette meet, where bodies used to feed twisted and monstrous pear-trees, and today, though the skeletal remains have long-since been exhumed, the ‘warm breath’ of the dead continues to fuel their incipient passions (creepy!). “Nowadays, nobody thinks of the bodies that once lay there,” Zola says, but by the novel’s end there will be at least one more body stretched out on these stones: Silvère, executed for his part in the failed rebellion against the far-away coup.

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Or consider the Napoleonic prints adorning the Rougon’s yellow drawing-room, center of the town’s Bonapartist reaction; it is the old dream of empire, of Napoléon I, which feeds its impoverished repetition in 1851. And when Pierre and his ramshackle troops spend a panicked night in a nobleman’s garden, on the lookout for rebel armies and their campfires across the landscape, we might hear echoes of the ‘Grande Peur’ of 1789, when rumor and panic of noble plots swept across France. But the most pointed similarities between Zola’s and Marx’s accounts come in the farcical repetitions of historical drama enacted by the figures of Louis-Napoléon and Pierre, his Plassans counterpart.

Marx’s concern, he explained, was to present the “circumstances and relationships that made it possible for a grotesque mediocrity [i.e., Louis-Napoléon] to play a hero’s part.” And here’s Zola, on the middle-aged olive-oil salesman Pierre Rougon: “this grotesque individual, this pale, portly bourgeois, [who] became, in one night, a fearsome gentleman whom nobody dared to ridicule anymore.” Pierre’s new status rests on his having saved the town of Plassans twice in as many days: first, during a minor skirmish with the peasant rebels crossing through the Var, during which he places his half-brother Macquart under house arrest, and then (to cement his reputation amid doubts about this first act of heroism) during a second attack on the town hall orchestrated and directed by Félicité and starring Macquart, whom she has freed and promised payment.

Pierre is no great leader, his ‘troops’ a “band of reactionaries” in whom “cowardice and brutality were mingled with stupidity.” His sought-after prize? A coveted small-town sinecure. Such are the origins of the family’s fortune – and they are also, as Marx and Zola both show us, the origins of the Second Empire. The coup, Zola tells us, “laid the foundations of the Rougons’ fortune. After being mixed up with various phases of the crisis, they rose to eminence on the ruins of liberty. Like bandits, they lay in wait to rob the Republic; as soon as its throat was cut, they helped to plunder it.” With a few modifications, this could be Marx, writing of Louis-Napoléon, and the clergy, nobility, and haute-bourgeois citizens who invest little hope in this Bonaparte — but whom, once the coup takes place, heartily accept him as the hero they’ve got, if not the one they wanted.

In the same vein, Zola gives us their counterparts in Plassans, gathered in the Rougons’ yellow drawing-room, happy to let the uninspiring Pierre suffer potential repercussions for being the face of opposition to the Republic:

The game was too risky. There was no one among the bourgeoisie of Plassans who would play it except the Rougons, whose unsatisfied appetites drove them to extreme measures.

When the game comes off, Zola makes sure we don’t miss the connection between this farcical small-town figure and that of his doppelgänger in Paris: alone in the mayor’s office the morning after the first skirmish, “leaning back in the mayor’s armchair, steeped in the atmosphere of officialdom that pervaded the room, he bowed to right and left, like a pretender to the throne whom a coup d’état is about to transform into an emperor.”

The Rougons are opportunists, taking any chance to move up in the world; this is not about political commitment, but about playing the game well, making the right moves, capitalizing on situations, even if a little fraud or subterfuge is required, and a few bodies pile up along the way. This is the story, for both Marx and Zola, of the Second Empire: it is a revolution made for capital and speculation, for bourgeois striving, for those who can take advantage, to do so. Félicité upbraids her son Pascal for his naïveté, his failure to capitalize on his opportunities, as a particular moral failing. It’s a lesson not needed for Aristide Rougon, who in The Kill embodies precisely the kind of ruthless opportunism encouraged by the Second Empire (when being cuckolded by one’s own son is just one more chance to make a deal). When a noble friend tells Félicité that ‘blood makes good manure’ for a family fortune, or an Empire, she shudders. But does not reject it. And, in her dreams, fueled by petty resentment and a desire to bring the entire town under her heel, blood becomes gold.

One of the things the novel does really well, I think, is depict the inertia of life in a small city, and the smallness of political ambition among its residents. Plassans may sleep while Paris fights, as Zola writes; but its intrigues take place in the drawing-rooms rather than the streets, and the point of all the revolt and counter-reaction here, which parallel the larger events playing out in the capital, ultimately only serve to secure the petty bourgeois ambitions of Pierre and Félicité for themselves and their sons. This doesn’t seem to make the Parisian events or their subsequent legacy grand history, though: for Zola, as for Marx, it’s farce—and tragedy—all the way down.

 

 

 

 

Reeking of Crime: Émile Zola’s The Fortune of the Rougons

Several weeks ago now, flush from the success of reading Belly of Paris, Keith and I read the first volume in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series, The Fortune of the Rougons (1871), in Brian Nelson’s recent translation. I promised Keith I would write something about the novel, which he could respond to if he wanted. And ever since I’ve been avoiding doing it.

I didn’t dislike Fortune, but I didn’t love it either. Books that leave me ambivalent are the hardest to write about. In fact, the only thing I loved unreservedly about the first novel of Zola’s vast cycle was the family tree at the beginning of the excellent Oxford World’s Classics edition. I appreciated it as a practical feature (an invaluable guide to the novel’s many characters). But I loved it as a spur to daydreaming about future reading. All of those names had at least one, sometimes more novels attached to them! How amazing was that?

Dreaming of the future was, as it so often is, easier than responding to the present. Fortune left me stymied. No part of it grabbed hold of me the way those incredible descriptions of Les Halles did in Belly (or of the department store in Au Bonheur des Dames, which I read many years ago, but still think about regularly, and look forward to revisiting). Worse, the more I procrastinated, the less I remembered about the book. (Its plot is complicated, requiring readers to know something about the origins of the Second Empire with the coup of Louis-Napoléon in 1851. This is an excellent plot summary.) To write this post came to seem ever more daunting.

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Then I read one of those interesting pieces at Five Books, this one about the political novel, as chosen by the novelist Joshua Cohen. (His selections are interesting and unexpected.) Cohen makes a helpful distinction:

What I am interested in, when it comes to the politics of the novel, is the revival of that old debate, realism v. naturalism, which I always took to mean the distinction between writing about the-ways-in-which-a-character-experiences-something and writing about the-ways-in-which-a-character-has-been-conditioned-to-experience-something. I find the tension between those two approaches enlivening.

That certainly spoke to the way that I’d been taught to think about naturalism (though I’d never seen its difference from realism explained so clearly before). More to the point, it made me wonder about Fortune. Is it even naturalist? Crazy question, right? After all, Zola introduces not just the novel but also the entire Rougon-Macquart cycle with these now famous paragraphs:

My aim is the explain how a family, a small group of human beings, behaves in a given society after blossoming forth and giving birth to ten or twenty individuals who, though they may seem at first glance totally dissimilar from each other, are, as analysis shows, linked together in the most profound ways. Heredity, like gravity, has its laws.

By solving the dual problem of temperament and environment, I shall attempt to discover and trace the thread that leads mathematically from one person to another. When I am in possession of every thread, and hold in my hands an entire social group, I shall describe the behaviour of this group as it plays its part in an historical period; I shall show it in action, with all its varied energies; and I shall analyse the aims and ambitions of its individual members along with the general tendency of the whole.

(An aside: the confidence, not to say bald ambition, of late 19th century writers is breathtaking and in its way quite appealing. Zola’s unabashed statement of the writer-thinker as scientist reminds me of certain tendencies in Freud.)

The Rougon-Macquardts descend from a woman named Adélaide Fouque. Eve, not Adam, or perhaps more accurately Sara, not Abraham, is the progenitor of this people. (Unclear that this makes the family a matriarchy, though.) Adélaide married a man named Rougon; they had a son named Pierre. But suddenly Rougon died. And not long after that, to the scandal of everyone in Plassans (a fictional town in the Var department of Provence, but apparently modeled on the Aix-en-Provence of Zola’s own upbringing), Adélaide took a lover, one Macquart, a poacher, smuggler, alcoholic, and general ne’er-do-well. With Macquart, Adélaide had two more children, Ursule and Antoine.

This family history takes up much of the first third of the novel. By the time of its present-day events—that is, the coup of 1851—Ursule has died. One of her sons, Silvère, is taken in by Adélaide. Silvère, an idealistic young man, spurred to Reublicanism by some half-digested readings of Rousseau, plays an important part in the novel, but in the end he is less important than his uncles, who are engaged in a power struggle between legitimate and illegitimate sons. Pierre Rougon, incensed at the idea of having to share his patrimony with his half-sibling, schemes to deny Antoine not just his share of the inheritance but also any material success from the societal upheaval brought about by the coup.

This scheming is rather convoluted and pretty ironic, inasmuch as much of it works out only by accident, and the parts that come about by design are the brainchild of Pierre’s formidable wife, Félicité. (It’s fascinating to see how this character, introduced as petty and grasping, develops into a formidable and ruthless figure. I wanted more of her.) But regardless of where it comes from and how effective it is, the scheming is still scheming. That is, it’s the result of characters conspiring to do things. And in that sense, it seems contrary to the conditioning vaunted by naturalism.

Because Plassans is so far from Paris, it takes a long time for people to know what’s happening to the government, and to shape their responses accordingly. History, if only in the farcical version proposed by Marx in his famous depiction of Louis-Napoléon’s coup, might be the ultimate driver of events, but Zola never shows us those events directly. We only get rumours and reports, especially from the Rougon’s eldest son, Eugène, who, having trained as a lawyer, lit out for the capital years before and, long having seemed to his family almost totally unaccomplished, now reveals himself as a key mover and shaker in the plot to bring Bonaparte to power. Although we don’t ever see any of that orchestration directly, his reports to his parents about when and how they should act in order to get on the Bonapartist bandwagon early enough to set themselves up for the plum political appointment that is all they want out of life present Eugène as a shadowy mastermind, and his parents, especially his mother, as the initially suspicious but ultimately shocked and grateful beneficiaries of that knowledge.

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Why am I going on about this? Because even if Eugène is telling them what to do, Pierre and Félicité still make a lot of decisions, admittedly often in response to events beyond their control. This sort of political action doesn’t seem like the “heredity is destiny” stuff Zola is on about in his preface. To be sure, the novel has its share of such material. The girl Miette, who together with her lover Silvère dies for the failed Republican cause, feels herself to be “living under a curse” because of the actions of her father, a murderer. Similarly, the original Macquart is described as the product of his lifestyle: he has “the furtive, melancholic look of a man of tramp-like instincts, gone to the bad because of wine and the life of an outcast.” Eugène, the Parisian politician, is said to look just like his father but to have the temperament of his mother: “By one of those alleged quirks of nature, of which science is now beginning to discover the laws, if Eugène’s physical resemblance to Pierre was total, Félicité seemed to have provided him with his brains.” But such moments are asserted by the narrator rather than expressed through the text. Most of the novel is instead made up of what Cohen calls realism: ways in which the characters experience something.

There’s nothing wrong with the novel’s surprising realist tendencies, and besides I doubt it’s possible definitely to separate realism from naturalism. But I was a little disappointed by how little the novel emphasized determinism. On reflection, I think that’s not because I think determinism explains the world but because what I like most in Zola is when the naturalist stuff—the ways in which characters are conditioned to experience things—comes out indirectly in the text rather than being baldly asserted by it, as if they were mere instructions for an experiment set by the writer.

Mostly what I missed here in comparison to other Zola novels I’ve read is the weird, fantastical stuff, like those extended descriptions of fruits and vegetables in Belly that seem to wriggle free from their creator’s intentions.

Happily, there are a few such moments here. In his admirable introduction, the translator Nelson gives one: an almost Gothic little scene suggesting Pierre and Félicité will never escape the bloodthirstiness of their actions, no matter how rich it’s made them. Here they are, having consoled each other before bed that their troubles will soon be over and fallen into the sleep of the sanctimonious, watched over only by the reflection of the night lamp:

They kissed each other again and fell asleep. The patch of light on the ceiling now seemed to be assuming the shape of a terrified eye, staring unblinking at the pale slumbering couple, who now reeked of crime under their sheets, and were dreaming that they could see blood raining down in big drops and turning into gold coins as they landed on the floor.

Only the narrator sees the “terrified” eye; the couple sees only the perverse transubstantiation of bloody deeds into filthy lucre. It tells you everything you need to know about them that this vision comes to them in dreams rather than nightmares.

A less sanguinary, more coolly ironic detail is the mirror in the city hall, which is shot to pieces by accident but becomes a synecdoche for the blood-thirstiness of the revolutionaries that the good burghers of Plassans must put down at all costs.

Or how about this description of a creep named Vuillet, a bookseller and newspaper publisher, who for purely pigheaded reasons takes the opposing line to Rougon (but is eventually brought to heel by Félicité). In the tumult of the hour, when it is unclear whether the Republicans will take the town, Vuillet sneaks into the post office and gorges himself on secrets:

Never had Vuillet felt so happy. Since he had been able to slip his little fingers into the mailbag he had tasted the most exquisite pleasures, the pleasures of a prurient priest about to relish the confessions of his penitents. [He’s like someone logging on to Facebook.] All the sly indiscretions, all the vague chatter of sacristies resounded in his ears. He poked his long, pale nose into the letters, gazed amorously at the addresses with his suspicious eyes, felt the envelopes just as young abbes feel the souls of young virgins. He experienced endless enjoyment, he was titillated by endless temptations. The thousand secrets of Plassans lay there. … Vuillet was one of those terribly bitter, cold-blooded gossips who know everything, worm out everything, but never repeat what they know except to deal somebody a mortal blow. He had often longed to plunge his arms into the public letter-box. Since the previous evening the little postmaster’s office had become a big confessional full of shadows and religious mystery, in which he nearly fainted in rapture as he sniffed the letters which exhaled vague longings and trembling confessions.

You can see from the description of Vuillet as molester and the Rougons as murderous profiteers that Zola has no affection for the counter-revolutionaries. But he’s ambivalent about the Republicans, too. Here he is describing their naivety at thinking the rest of the country shares in their ideals:

Intoxicated by their belief in the general insurrection of which they had dreamed, they fancied that France was following their example; they imagined that, on the other side of the Viorne, in that vast ocean of diffuse light, there were endless columns of men rushing like themselves to the defense of the Republic. In their naivety and self-delusion, so characteristic of crowds, their simple minds imagined that victory would be easy.

The only people Zola seems to have any affection for are the young lovers Miette and Silvère; when he makes fun of them it is in a teasing, affectionate, kind-hearted way. Here he is describing their nightly parting in a walled-off patch of waste ground called the Aire Saint-Mittre:

Of all the sounds that reached them only one made them feel uneasy, that of the clocks striking slowly in the darkness. At times, when the hour struck they pretended not to hear, at other moments they stopped short as if in protest. But they could not go on forever giving themselves ten minutes grace, and so the time came when they were at last obliged to say goodnight. They would have played and chattered away until dawn, arm in arm, in order to enjoy that strange feeling of breathless excitement that never failed to surprise them. Then Miette reluctantly climbed up on the wall again. But that was not the end, for they would linger over their leave-taking for a good quarter of an hour. When the girl had climbed up on the wall she remained there with her elbows on the coping and her feet supported by the branches of the mulberry tree which she used as a ladder. Silvère, standing on the tombstone, was able to take her hands again, and continue their whispered conversation. They repeated “See you tomorrow!” a dozen times, and yet still found something more to say.

No matter how sweet this young love, it seems ominous that the site of these assignations—so interestingly described in the first chapter (the best in the book)—is a former graveyard. (There’s a ghoulish description of the way, thirty years before, the bodies were dug up and transported, slowly and in full view of the townspeople, with “fragments of bone and handfuls of black soil” scattered at every jolt of the carts to their resting place in the new cemetery.) At such moments, the novel makes us feel the taint or curse that elsewhere it simply asserts.

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Maybe the reason the novel is ultimately always more critical than affectionate is that to be otherwise would get in the way of the attitude it values most of all: dispassionate diagnosis. Pierre and Félicité’s second son, after Eugène, is Pascal, who becomes a doctor. During the insurrection, Pascal treats the wounded, no matter what side they are on. In the aftermath of the fray he runs into his cousin Silvère, whipped up into revolutionary fever:

Pascal listened with a smile, and watched the youth’s features and vigorous facial expressions with great interest, as if he were studying a patient or analyzing a passion, to ascertain what might lie behind this fever of excitement.

The climax of this dispassionateness comes when Pascal observes his dying and now mad grandmother, the family matriarch/progenitor, though here reduced, in his observations, to something like an insect or plant or tree, something to be studied, at any rate:

Pascal looked intently at the madwoman, then at his father and uncle; his professional instincts were getting the better of him; he studied the mother and the sons, with the fascination of a naturalist observing the metamorphosis of an insect. He pondered over the growth of the family, with its different branches springing from one parent stock, whose sap carried the same seeds to the furthest twigs, which bent in different directions according to the ambient sunshine or shade. For a moment he thought he could see, in a flash, the future of the Rougon-Macquart family, a pack of wild, satiated appetites in the midst of a blaze of gold and blood.

Here character merges with author (this passage could have come from Zola’s preface). Zola is less contemptuous than his near-contemporary Flaubert, but I wouldn’t call him warm. I’m curious to read the book about Pascal, to see whether Zola will eventually deign to admire someone unreservedly, and what such admiration would look like, but I gather that’s the last one of the series, so it looks like I’ll be waiting a while.

In sum: If you’re new to Zola, I wouldn’t recommend starting with this book. Maybe I should have waited even longer to read it, got a few more of the series under my belt, but I can already tell there’s no perfect place to start with the Rougon-Macquart cycle. You just have to plunge into it, with the understanding that you’ll miss some things at first but knowing that you’ll be able to revisit bits of it in the light of the discoveries to come. Next stop: The Kill.