Monday, May 13, 2013
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
It is sometimes amusing to see a novelist tripping over his own worst faults. This is the case with Emile Zola’s La Conquete de Plassans, variously translated into English as The Conquest of Plassans and A Priest in the House. It is the fourth of the twenty-volume Rougon-Macquart series and like the first, La Fortune des Rougon, it is set in Plassans, the fictional version of Zola’s hometown Aix-en-Provence. Together with the volume that followed it in the series, the wimpier and even less credible La Faute de l’Abbe Mouret, it is Zola’s most overtly and intentionally anti-clerical work. La Faute de l’Abbe Mouret is about a priest whose natural longings are in conflict with his vows of celibacy. La Conquete de Plassans is an attack on the church’s political power. The polemic you can take of leave, but the style and arc of narrative show Zola so furious that he descends into ripe and ridiculous melodrama. This was always a temptation in his work, and here it really overcomes him.
M.Francois Mouret and his wife Marthe live in Plassans with their mentally-retarded younger daughter Desiree and her two older brothers Octave and Serge. They are persuaded to take as a lodger the priest l’abbe Ovide Faujas, who arrives with his elderly mother, the cunning peasant Mme. Faujas.
The two of them settle into the upper storey of the house and are a continual source of curiosity to Mouret, who all but listens at key-holes to find out about them as they live upstairs silently and frugally.
Mouret is not particularly religious and is not a practising Catholic, but can at least tolerate the clergy. The story that follows, however, is one of the priest gradually taking over the society and opinions of Plassans by skill and intrigue.
There is the circle of sympathetic women Fr.Faujas is able to gather about himself as he becomes their confessor and gets the women to become patronesses of a society to prevent young local women falling into vice. Marthe Mouret rapidly develops into a churchgoer. Later, Fr.Faujas persuades Francois Mouret to let his vulgar relations, his sister Olympe (a loudmouth) and her husband Honore (a drunkard), take up residence as well, and Mouret begins to feel himself being squeezed out of his own home. Faujas enters into civic intrigue. He outmanoeuvres other candidates to become the resident priest of the church of Saint-Saturnin when the incumbent dies. He persuades the bishop, the unworldly Monsignor Rousselot, that he has powerful friends in Paris and it is best not to cross him. All the time, there is the dim suggestion of political intrigue and of Faujas having been involved in something shady in his previous parish, but we are not told what it was.
Faujas gets young people to form a “cercle de la jeunesse” to take them away from more riotous pleasures, but also to bring them more within his orbit. He begins to exert great influence over Mouret’s sickly and weak son Serge, who now declares his intention to study for the priesthood. Mouret is so shocked and staggered by this that he can find no ready response and begins rapidly to age, to be unseated from his usual place at table as Faujas and his mother take over the dining area, and to withdraw into his study, the only place where he is now master.
At the same time, Marthe becomes more and more religious, a sentiment which Zola describes as a neurosis connected with her erotic longing for l’abbe. As Holy Week approaches, Marthe’s religious feelings develop into full-blown mania. She now begins to scream at night and rave and mortify her own flesh, leaving bleeding wounds – but all the other members of the household believe it is her evil husband Mouret who is beating her, despite her disavowals, which they interpret merely as a saintly wife protecting her husband. This leads to Mouret’s being declared criminally insane as the priest enters into a scheme with jealous neighbours to deprive him of his property. When his wife has her next attack, Mouret is carted off to a madhouse.
Things now become frantic as the priest’s secret manoeuvres get his preferred political candidate elected and the town’s anti-clerical republicans trounced. Marthe’s mania reaches a higher pitch. As it does so, Fr.Faujas’s relatives take the opportunity to plunder the house. Finally comes the moment in church when the demented Marthe approaches Faujas and declares how obsessed with him she is, how it has cost her her children and her husband, how totally innocent her husband is and [at last she says it] how she loves him. The priest rejects her brutally, saying she is all the impurity and filth against which priests have to fight.
Shattered and at once miraculously cured of her mania as she leaves the church, Marthe tells herself that she must rescue her husband and regain control of her house. She travels to the madhouse and is able to get permission to see her husband in his cell. At first he is rational consideration itself, expressing tender regard for her and their family. But then he starts crawling around on all fours howling like a beast. Marthe is shocked and horrified and taken ill, especially when she now learns how fully and calculatedly the priest’s relatives have taken possession of her home.
In the novel’s overwrought and melodramatic denouement, Francois Mouret escapes from the madhouse and walks through the rain back to Plassans, arriving late at night. He manages to get into his house, discovers the kitchen in horrible smashed disorder, creeps up the stairs, conveniently overhears the priest’s relatives, now settling into the master-bedroom, explicitly say how they will legally get the house from Marthe and how, if necessary, they will spread rumours saying she has slept with the abbe. Mouret also sees Fr.Faujas at work in his room. Methodically, and in improbably complete and undetected silence, Mouret goes about the house piling up outside all the doors and windows bundles of dry wood, which he has found in his greenhouse. Then he sets fire to them, burning to death the abbe, his mother, his relatives and himself.
This conflagration is offset by irony in the final chapter. In a serio-comic scene, neighbours watch the blaze being put out and calculate that the five people are dead. Most react with relief that l’abbe Faujas is now gone while one or two regret that their schemes, which he promoted, will not now prosper. On the last page, Marthe opens her eyes before dying, to see her son Serge, summoned from the seminary, dressed in a soutane. The malignant power of the church has apparently triumphed.
There are time-specific political elements in all this, which needn’t detain us long. All the Rougon-Macquart novels were written during the Third Republic, but are set in Napoleon III’s Second Empire. In La Conquete de Plassans Zola delineates the town’s cliques of Bonapartists, legitimists (old-style royalists) and republicans at one another’s throats. The novel sees the more intriguing members of the clergy as having helped Napoleon III to power. In this case, Faujas has been sent to Plassans specifically to “conquer” it. Mouret was a possible leader of republicanism. Hence having him incarcerated is a political manoeuvre, just as taking over his house is a symbolic taking over of the town. There is further symbolism in the fact that the garden of the Mouret’s house adjoins the gardens of the legitimist family and the imperialist functionary.
The propagandist intent of this novel doesn’t require much explication, so clearly is it intended as an anti-clerical work. Zola’s aim is to present the clergy as shifty, self-interested and implicated in political and financial intrigue. In so doing, he turns all their charitable enterprises into suspect and dubious works, which are merely for their own benefit and power. Youth clubs are merely to snare young men into the church’s control. Societies to rescue fallen women are merely to gain control of gullible bourgeoises who are impressed by such things. So is confession. Like Iago, Zola “turns virtue to pitch”. The only alternative view offered of clergy is of ineffectual and therefore rather useless scholarly types (like the bishop) who are unworldly to the point of having no real impact.
The church, as Zola sees it, is really run by its nasty careerists.
So often in the novel, Faujas is described as smelling of wax and incense – Zola is literally saying that he has an odour of sanctity – and as appearing as a black [soutaned] shape. That is, as something sweet-smelling but evil. “Creeping Jesus”. One can see how all this would have played in its newspaper serialisations, with the illustrations of the time. The evil priest garbed in black manipulating the honest bourgeoises. Dare one make the obvious point that in tone it is only a whisker away from the anti-Semitic fictions of the age? Jew or priest – the same propaganda techniques apply.
Stylistically, the novel is very different from the three novels that precede it in the series. It is divided into shorter chapters (23 of them in all) as opposed to the few much longer chapters that seemed to be Zola’s preferred structure. Unlike its immediate predecessor Le Ventre de Paris [look it up on the index at right] it does not have any long elaborate descriptions. Plot is carried by dialogue and action in a series of small incidents leading to its climax.
The intrigues of the priest, and the wife’s erotic attraction to him, are credible enough. In fact, the mingling of the erotic with the spiritual is probably the novel’s best insight. In any congregation there are, after all, women who imagine that their strong attraction to a priest is a gift from God rather than the stirring of their loins. This point has been made by more than one writer. (Look up the “fruit of the forbidden priest” section in James Joyce’s Ulysses – pg.373 of the Penguin edition). But Zola’s novel loses whatever insightfulness it has, and topples over into melodrama, with Francois’s descent into madness, his incarceration, and the final arson and death by fire, which seem like the conclusion to a 1940s Hollywood movie. The madness of Marthe has a certain credibility, given that her religious (and erotic) obsessions are charted; but her sudden snapping back into sanity, when the abbe finally spurns her, is ridiculous. As for Francois Mouret’s madness, I suppose the best Zola could plead would be his favourite theory of hereditary insanity, which seems to cover a multitude of sins when it comes to his one-dimensional characterisation.
In terms of Zola’s inspiration, I am reminded of one commentator’s view that Zola’s critique of speculators in La Curee is in fact a love-hate thing. While apparently condemning roundly the opportunistic redesign of Paris, he in fact half-admired it as a feat of modern engineering, just as he admired the enterprise of speculating capitalists whom he affected to criticise. In a way, I think the same is true of his view of the church. He detests it and all its works, but somehow he recognises its powerful psychological and aesthetic appeal, and therefore becomes furious and somewhat irrational as he deals with it. He shouts and screams hysterically against the church in the way a puritan shouts and screams hysterically against sex.
Consider Mouret’s admiration, in Chapter Four, of the way the priest is able to get information out of him without revealing anything of himself: “Ce diable d’homme! Il ne demande rien et on lui dit tout”.
Consider Marthe’s huge relief, in Chapter Fifteen, on first becoming a religious worshipper. Zola is basically adopting the “heart of a heartless world” position of Marx: “Ce grand repos qu’elle avait d’abord goute dans l’eglise, cet oubli du dehors et d’elle-meme, se changeait en une jouissance active, en un bonheur qu’elle evoquait, qu’elle touchait. C’etait le bonheur dont elle avait vaguement senti le desir depuis sa jeunesse, et qu’elle trouvait enfin a quarante ans; un bonheur qui lui suffisait, qui l’emplissait de ses belles annees mortes, qui la faisait vivre en egoiste, occupee a toutes les sensations nouvelles s’eveillant en elle comme des caresses.”
And then consider the last paragraph of the second-to-last chapter, showing how Zola so easily goes melodramatically over-the-top. Here, the mad arsonist Mouret grapples with Faujas’s sturdy peasant mother in the fire: “Et il roula avec le corps le long des marches embrasees; pendant que Mme Faujas, qui lui avait enfonce les dents en pleine gorge, buvait son sang. Les Trouche [Faujas’s relatives] fambaient dans leur ivresse, sans un soupir. La maison, devastee et minee, s’abbatait au milieu d’une poussiere d’entincelles.”
Poor Zola. He got so carried away that he literally lost the plot.