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.
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.
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.
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.