Monday, July 4, 2016

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "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 four or more years ago.

 “LA FORTUNE DES ROUGON” by Emile Zola (first published 1871)

Four times before on this blog I have ear-bashed you about novels in Emile Zola’s 20-volume Rougon-Macquart series by giving you postings on La Curee, Le Ventre de Paris, La Conquete de Plassans and Son Excellence Eugene Rougon. But it occurs to me that I have never dealt with the novel that sets up the whole series and that announces very clearly both Zola’s naturalistic creed and the political and social views from which he never wavered. This is La Fortune des Rougon which, understandably, first appeared in 1871, one year after France’s defeat by the Prussians, the fall of Napoleon III, the crushing of the Paris commune and the establishment of the Third Republic. Free from imperial censorship, Zola was now able to launch on the project that would reveal his perspective on what life had really been like under the Second Empire.
            La Fortune des Rougon opens twenty years before Zola was writing, in December 1851. Silvere, a lower-class youth, and Miette, an orphan, meet by moonlight in the timberyard of the Provencal town of Plassans (based closely on Zola’s hometown of Aix-en-Provence). They are rushing off together to join the people’s militias, which are forming in the countryside to defend the Second Republic against the immanent coup d’etat engineered by Louis Napoleon. This long first chapter gives Zola the chance to describe in detail the social nature of the town – mainly middle-class with only a minority of working people. Some of the middle-classes claim to be republican, but in fact all of them jockey for favour and are often led in their opinions by conspiratorial clergy or members of what remains of the old nobility. While these latter don’t necessarily like Louis Napoleon, they prefer him to the republic. The chapter ends with Miette and Silvere being welcomed into the republican militias.
            In the subsequent chapters, Zola goes back a couple of generations to explain the origins of the Rougon and Macquart branches of the same family, and how they achieved their social positions. Adelaide Fouque (sometimes known later in the novel as “Tante Dide”), an emotionally unstable young woman and apparently descended from the lower nobility, married the labourer Jean Rougon. They had one son, Pierre Rougon. Then Jean Rougon died of sunstroke. Adelaide rather scandalously took up with the poacher and smuggler Macquart, whom she never married, but by whom she had two children, Antoine and Ursule Macquart. Macquart lived a wild life and was eventually shot by the gendarmerie while carrying out his illegal exploits.
            Pierre Rougon detested his half-brother Antoine Macquart, and when Antoine was away as a conscript in Napoleon’s armies, Pierre managed to cheat him out of his inheritance from their mother Adelaide. Meanwhile Ursule moved away to Marseilles, and had three children – Helene, Francois and Silvere [the young man in the first chapter], by her respectable working-man husband Mouret, who died.
            So we are essentially set up with two competing branches of the family: the grasping, social-climbing middle class Rougons and the disorderly, drunken lower class Macquarts.
            Pierre Rougon marries Felicite Puech, who is even more ambitious in her social climbing than he. They have five children. One of them, Eugene, moves to Paris and schemes and intrigues on behalf of Louis Napoleon. (He will be the protagonist of a later novel in the series, Son Excellence Eugene Rougon). By letter, he urges his parents to do become Bonapartists in Plassans if they want to pick up the spoils of the coup. By contrast, Aristide (who marries Angele) professes to be an ardent republican and writes fiery republican articles in the local republican paper. Pascal becomes a very thoughtful doctor, coolly observing human nature and taking no part in political intrigue. (In the 20th and final novel in the series, Le Docteur Pascal, he will survey ironically the wreckage left behind after Napoleon III’s fall.) The Rougons also have two daughters, Sidonie and Marthe. Marthe marries her respectable working cousin Francois Mouret.
            Meanwhile, Antoine Macquart, the former Napoleonic soldier, returns to Plassans to become a layabout, drunkard and sponger. In taverns he loudly proclaims his republican principles and contempt for the bourgeoisie, but this is because he wants to live a life of ease and have some of the money and position his brother enjoys. Purely because he wants somebody to support him and cook for him, he marries the ferocious muscular working-class woman Josephine Gavaudan (sometimes known as “Fine”). Before “Fine” dies, they have three children, Lisa, Gervaise (who marries a man called Lantier) and Jean.
            This whole family history then, recounted in considerable detail with much incident, takes us up to the state of things in Plassans in 1851. Pushed on by his wife Felicite, Pierre Rougon hosts soirees in his “salon jaune” for the town’s right-wingers and reactionaries – bourgeois mainly, with some clergy and a few nobles – who detest the republic and would welcome its demise. He is embarrassed by his son Aristide’s republicanism, and the enmity of his half-brother Antoine Macquart.
            Zola then indulges in a very long chapter describing in detail the sensual and yet chaste love of Silvere, who is about nineteen, and Miette, who is only thirteen or fourteen. Miette and he talked to each other in their reflections in the communal well. They sometimes met through the overgrown door in the wall where Silvere’s grandmother Adelaide had scandalously made her rendezvous with her lover Macquart. Miette is innocent and yet determined. She is the daughter of a man (Chantegreil) who spent time in jail and she is often teased as a thief’s daughter. She is idealistic. So is Silvere, who has elevated hopes for the republic, which have more to do with his reading than with any objective and observable reality. Silvere has taken with him, to the republican militia, his grandfather’s rifle, which had hung on the wall of “Tante Dide”, the slightly deranged matriarch who is still alive.
            This idyllic chapter of Silvere and Miette goes on so long that I began to wonder why Zola was indulging in it. The answer comes in the chapter’s payoff. Miette, marching ahead and carrying the red flag of revolution, rapidly becomes a symbol of republican hopes. Silvere is filled with dreams of their future together when she is old enough to marry. This is all a set-up for the fact that Miette is shot dead when the militia is fired upon by soldiers supporting the new Bonapartist order.
            In the last two chapters, Zola then returns to his account of Plassans under the impact of the coup d’etat. There are conflicting rumours arriving of whether the coup has succeeded in Paris or not. At first the bourgeoisie is able to take over the town hall. Then three thousand of the rag-tag republican militia pass through. They are fed, they briefly take charge and they leave a few republicans behind at the town hall before marching off. Among those left in charge at the town hall is Antoine Macquart, who searches for his half-brother Pierre Rougon to exact some revenge on him, but can’t find him, as Pierre has wisely gone into hiding, along with other reactionaries. But after the republican militia has marched away, and urged on by Felicite [who knows from secret letters from Eugene that the coup has triumphed in Paris], Pierre is able to scrape together some supporters, and play the hero by taking over the town hall (which he knows is hardly defended) and having Antoine imprisoned. Some sceptics doubt that this action was as heroic as some of Pierre’s followers said it was. So to confirm his hero status, Pierre is able to bribe Antoine into attacking the town hall with some gullible republican followers, who are easily beaten off, leaving the impression that Pierre has won a real battle and is a real hero. Just as Antoine Macquart’s republicanism is shown to be skin-deep and easily bought-off, so too is the republicanism of Aristide, who judiciously writes nothing one way or the other when the coup is in doubt, and then produces a Bonapartist editorial once he sees which way the wind is blowing.
            The novel ends with the anti-republican forces in control and the Bonapartist regime established as the regular troops arrive and the rewards are handed out. Zola presents the victorious bourgeoisie and their allies as grasping, vulgar, pretentious, hypocritical (the bookseller Vuillet – who wants to get a contract providing religious books to the local Catholic college – sells pornography on the side) and totally self-interested. Pierre Rougon is promised the Legion d’Honneur and there is a celebration of the reactionaries. Meanwhile, Silvere, who had blacked the eye of a policemen in the fighting, is taken out and shot by the troops for his part in the republican uprising. With both Silvere and Miette dead, implies Zola, idealism has been crushed.
There is no doubt that Zola is a brilliant storyteller. Reading this in French, and hence missing about one word in thirty, I nevertheless followed the story easily. It presents great blocks of action, strong contrasts etc. What it has to say, however, is very much on the surface, and cannot be accused of subtlety. Zola hates the church, the nobility and the enemies of the republic. He believes biology is destiny (the essence of “naturalism” really), and hence is clearly setting us up for a world in which characters will be predetermined by the fact that they are descended from a mentally-unstable woman (Adelaide), a criminal rogue (her lover Macquart) and various brutalised alcoholics. What is interesting, however, is that Zola’s depiction of the lower orders is as unsympathetic and condemnatory as his depiction of the social climbers. The professed republicans Antoine Macquart and Aristide are as self-interested and easily bought-off as their antagonists. Silvere and Miette are idealised, but they are also so innocent that they clearly don’t know how the world really works. It is almost as if Zola is saying that real republicanism requires a middle-class intellectual like him to make it work properly, while the lower orders are mere canaille. This isn’t exactly the democratic principle.
            Given the simplified and often melodramatic characterisation, together with the vigorous action, this novel reminded me very much of the likes of And Quiet Flows the Don – big-action literature with broad-stroke social commentary. I felt I had read its denouement (the obvious irony of cutting between the smug feasting of the victors and the brutal execution of Silvere) many times before. But that may be because Zola’s technique has been copied so often in similar novels and films. What I did not doubt, however, was that Zola was a man who had already made up his mind on just about everything. In this novel we get the whole inflexible determinist view of human beings that would inform every novel in the series. While his narrative powers remained strong and intact, did he ever grow or develop as a novelist? I recall that Balzac didn’t plan out his Comedie Humaine until he was halfway through writing the novels that would eventually compose that cycle. Balzac’s views changed and developed as his writing career progressed.  Zola, by contrast, knew exactly what he had to say in his twenty novels when he planned the first one. That he did not modify his views in over twenty years of writing comes close to suggesting a closed mind.
Some quotations from my notebooks to conclude with:
Here is a description of Pascal from Chapter Two, setting up the theme of heredity:
Depuis deux ou trois ans, il s’occupait du grand probleme de l’heredite, comparant les races animals a la race humaine, et il s’absorbait dans les curieux resultants qu’il obtenait. Les observations qu’il avait fait sur lui et sur sa famille avaient ete comme le point de depart de ses etudes. Le peuple comprenait si bien, avec son intuition inconsciente, a quel point il differait de Rougon, qu’il le nommait M.Pascal, sans jamais ajouter le nom de famille.”
Here, from Chapter Four, is a description of Antoine Macquart, suggesting the really base motives of some people who supported the republic:
Chaque parti a ses infames et ses grotesques. Antoine Macquart, ronge d’envie et de haine, revant des vengeances contre la société entiere, accueillit la republique comme une ere bienheureuse ou il lui serait permis d’emplir ses poches dans la caisse du voisin, et meme d’etrangler le voisin s’il temoignait le moindre mecontentement…..”
And here, from Chapter Seven is what Dr.Pascal makes of his family as he observes them:
Il etudiait cette mere et ses fils, avec l’attention d’un naturaliste surprenant les metamorphoses d’un insecte…. Il crut entrevoir un instant, comme au milieu d’un éclair, l’avenir des Rougon-Macquart, une meute d’appetits laches et assouvis, dans un flamboiement d’or et de sang.”
Not only does this last quotation set out the whole course of the twenty novels, but it also shows the place which Zola believed human beings inhabited in the order of nature.

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