Monday, July 31, 2017

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 FAUTE DE L’ABBE MOURET” by Emile Zola (first published in 1875)

            You may or may not recall that I have a number of times on this blog referred to my long-term project of reading, in the original French, all twenty of the Rougon-Macquart series of novels by Emile Zola (1840-1902). I am still far from achieving this goal. So far I have presented you with postings on La Fortune des Rougon and La Curee and Le Ventre de Paris and La Conquete de Plassans and Son Excellence Eugene Rougon. As a proponent of determinist Naturalism and an atheist, Zola was a vigorous anti-clerical who spilt much ink condemning and attacking the Catholic Church. He was free to do this as he was writing early in Third Republic, but his novels cover the years of Napoleon III’s Second Empire (1852-70), when the church had more official protection from the state. The two novels in the Rougon-Macquart series in which Zola directly attacks the church are La Conquete de Plassans, which deals with the church’s political power; and La Faute de l’Abbe Mouret.

La Faute de l’Abbe Mouret is structured into three long parts. Characters from La Conquete de Plassans recur in La Faute de l’Abbe Mouret, but I will not bother you with connections between the two novels as I spin one of my verbose synopses.

In the first part, Serge Mouret is the young (25-year-old) parish priest of the Provencal village of Les Artaud. He lives at the presbytery with his mentally-retarded younger sister Desiree, who is preoccupied with looking after pet animals, and with the bustling old housekeeper La Teuse. The whole of the first part of the novel takes place on one spring day (in May). Serge Mouret says the morning mass and breakfasts and there is chatter with La Teuse who does not like Desiree being allowed to let her pets run about near the church. They are visited by the stern Christian Brother Le Frere Archangias, who has more of the earthy peasant zeal in him than Serge does. Archangias vigorously chastises the boy Vincent who served mass but who skips classes by playing around in the bushes near the cemetery. They discuss the habits of the local peasants – for the village of Les Artaud seems to be made up exclusively of peasant families related to each other. Archangias says the peasant boy Fortune Brichet has got the girl Rosalie pregnant but Rosalie’s father won’t let them get married. Reluctantly Serge, who finds sexual matters repugnant, sets off to persuade the families to save the girl’s honour by letting Fortune and Serge marry. He confronts Fortune’s family first, but Fortune says it’s not his fault that they’re not marrying. It’s the fault of Rosalie’s father the rich peasant Bambousse, who thinks Fortune’s family are beneath him. So Serge goes and confronts Bambousse, but he says he’s not going to send his daughter off to marry such lowly fortune-hunters. Besides, why should he lose a good farm-worker like his daughter? And who said the baby would live anyway?

The priest is walking along disconsolate from these discouraging and immoral replies when a coach draws up. In it is his cousin Dr.Pascal Rougon, who is going to visit the elderly eccentric Jeanbernat. He invites the priest to come with him. So Dr Pascal and Fr Serge Mouret visit Jeanbernat’s estate, which is in effect a run-down stately home where Jeanbernat lives a solitary life. Jeanbernat, having read all the work of the philosophes in the library, is a convinced atheist, is amused by the presence of the priest, and loudly declares the non-existence of God. Fr Serge would dispute this with him, but at this juncture in bursts Jeanbernat’s 16-year-old wild child of a daughter Albine, out of the wild overgrowth around the house that is her natural environment. She is sun-bronzed and vigorous and skips and hops like an animal, and when Pascal’s coach is returning to the village she cheerfully chases behind it for some distance….

Back at the presbytery, Serge is castigated by the housekeeper for being late for lunch. Le Frere Archangias  adopts a pragmatic tone towards the non-marriage of the pregnant girl, saying it’s understandable that peasants protect their property, but also seeing the peasants as irredeemably immoral. Fr.Serge is curiously disturbed, and cannot understand why. As the day closes, he prays for hours before the statue of the Virgin, and then he retires to bed as the moonlight blazes. The first part of the novel ends with three long chapters in which we hear of Serge’s lifelong adoration of the Blessed Virgin, who was seen by him first as a mother, then as a playmate and friend and now as some sort of bride. We are told of his seminary training – how, even when compared to other seminarians, he was noted for his purity, and how the only time he was profoundly embarrassed was when he had to read a theological manual on how to deal with the 6th. Commandment in the confessional. Finally, he dimly realizes that he has been sexually stirred [presumably by Albine, but this is not yet made explicit] and so he prays to the Virgin that his virility and sexual potency be taken away and that in effect he will become a eunuch.

            Unlike Part One, Part Two reads like a fantasy or daydream. For the whole of this second part of the novel, the only two characters to appear are Serge and Albine. Without any explanation or transition for the first part, Serge wakes up in a bed on the estate Le Paradou, being looked after by Albine. Apparently he has been delirious and sick for a long time and she has been nursing him. The whole of Part Two is taken up with their idyllic relationship. They ramble through the woods. There are long descriptions and lists of trees. They ramble through the undergrowth. There are long descriptions and lists of flowers and animals. The image of the Garden of Eden is built up and becomes explicit in the final chapters of this part. They are Adam and Eve in complete innocence before the Fall. As Serge and Albine grow closer, Zola repeatedly emphasises that their love is pure and chaste. In the decaying mansion that is Albine’s home there are decaying and flaking murals [perhaps from the 18th century] of Watteau-ish erotic scenes of shepherdesses and fauns and the like. Serge and Albine laugh at such images like innocent children, but later they come to fear them and find them distasteful as their own genuine, natural and non-artificial love grows. Albine says that somewhere in the estate there is a tree and clearing where she has found real peace. On their last ramble, Nature, in the form of friendly caressing trees and animal calls, leads them to the clearing. And here at last they find real peace and oneness and Serge finds manhood in his adoration of Albine and in the consummation of the sexual act… and at once they come to a breach in the wall through which the village of Les Artaud can be seen and Serge is reminded of the life he had forgotten and Albine, tearfully, realizes she is naked and they attempt to hide their nakedness with leaves. But Brother Archangias sees them and calls to Serge to quit this abomination of bodily lust.

            In Part Three of the novel, Serge is once again the village priest and this part opens with him celebrating the nuptial mass of the peasants Fortune and Rosalie, who has had her baby despite her father’s best efforts to get rid of it. Peasant girls snicker at the back of the church in this morning mass when Serge speaks the traditional words of advice to the married couple. After the hole-and-corner wedding is over, Serge is once again talking to Desiree, who says she saw a bull servicing a cow and how natural it was and how that’s how babies are made. Serge is sick and sad at his prayers. La Teuse rebukes him for not letting her look after him when he was sick, and for the first time we learn that it was his cousin Dr Pascal who recommended that he go to Le Paradou for his cure and to get away from the oppressive atmosphere of the presbytery where the religious images were giving him hallucinations. La Teuse hints that she understands he has been looked after by another woman and has had an affair with her; and she tells the story of a fallen priest who was assigned to this village after his disgrace. She advises Serge not to be so proud. We all sin.

But Serge says he will find the strength to cure himself.

Without the help of tradespeople, he throws himself into redecorating the church. Against the wishes of Frere Archangias, Serge goes to bless the bedroom of the peasant couple. On the road Serge and Archangias meet 80-year-old Jeanbernat, who urges Serge to come back to Albine, who is pining for him. Archangias denounces Jeanbernat as the son of the Devil and curses him and the two have a fight on the road. Serge tells Jeanberat to tell Albine to pray for salvation. Jeanbernat walks away. The brother and the priest go to the peasants’ home and perform the perfunctory blessing….

Back at the church, we learn that Serge has now switched his devotion from the Blessed Virgin to the crucified Jesus, and sees himself as a martyred figure wearing a crown of thorns. Dr Pascal comes to see him and likewise urges Serge to go to Albine. He refuses. When Desiree is in the graveyard, collecting food for her pet rabbits, she meets Albine, who has come down to see Serge. Desiree artlessly says she cannot see him while he is taking the catechism class, but she takes him to her pets, who are breathing out their animal sensuality.

Albine goes into the church when Serge’s class has gone and we have the big confrontation scene between them. Albine begs him to come back to her, reminding him of the paths they walked and the flowers and plants and delightful nature that they loved. In contrast to this Serge (or rather Zola) sets up the Way of the Cross, taking Albine around the images of Jesus’ suffering and saying that this is more important to him than all of nature and that the world may perish so long as souls are saved. He ushers her out of the church, she saying that she will continue to wait for him where there is a breach in the wall at Paradou. Yet when she has gone, Serge suffers a strange reversal. At first he thinks of the triumph of the church in the late evening sun and of himself at the centre of it; but then he suddenly has the feeling that God really doesn’t exist and he has a vision of the Earth rising up and swallowing Heaven and the church being undermined by the roots of growing plants. His sister Desiree calls him into the presbytery.

Serge broods as La Teuse and Frere Archangias play cards.

Secretly he decides that he will go to Albine after all. For days he puts his resolve off until at last he walks up to the breach in the wall at Paradou (guarded by a sleeping Archangias) and rejoins the waiting Albine. They walk through he places they used to love, with Albine inciting Serge to relive their love. He says he wants to love her, but he feels emotionally dead, and even at the Tree of Life that was their special tree, he is not aroused. And finally she senses that he is dead to her appeals and tells him to go away. He goes.

Back at the church, he gives thanks to God that he has at last overcome the call of the flesh. And Albine gathers flowers from her wild garden and arranges them around her and lies down and dies. [Given this obviously contrived symbolic scene, the novel later makes a half-hearted attempt to explain that the odour of flowers asphyxiated her.]

In a fury, some days later, Dr Pascal comes to the presbytery and explains that Albine was pregnant. The doctor explains to Jeanbernat that he is not allowed to bury her in his garden. The priest must do it. So it is l’Abbe Mouret who conducts Albine’s funeral service, at which Jeanbernat appears and cuts off one of Frere Archangias’ ears as he promised he would when they fought. And as the body is being lowered the animals break out with a braying and Desiree rushes in to explain that the cow has just had a calf.

I hope that in giving you the “plot” of this novel in such exhaustive detail, I have made clear not only what Zola’s intentions were, but how badly the novel falls down in its own dead-obvious symbolism.

The set-up of the novel in the first section is neatly schematic. Zola contrasts bustling, burgeoning nature (on this one spring day) with the virginal and repressed priest. The flowers are blooming. Desiree is playing with her baby animals. The unmarried peasant girl is pregnant. Albine is running around bare-legged in the overgrown estate. And the priest isn’t part of any of it. Zola does suggest (in the seminary flashback) that l’Abbe Mouret is extreme in his virginity, even by the standards of his fellow-priests. The “natural” girl Desiree, with her mental retardation and love of animals is by implication the companion image of Serge, who is mentally backward in another way. This ties in with Zola’s determinist philosophy of the inherited biological weaknesses of families, as we have seen insanity in his depiction of the Mourets in the preceding novel La Conquete de Plassans.

            The wild child Albine is, of course, a fantasy figure.

The second part of the novel is a sustained Garden-of-Eden fantasy, so much so that one could almost interpret it as the priest’s suppressed erotic dreams. But the implication and message are clear. L’Abbe Mouret is virginal and childlike because he is not a real man, and he will only find real manhood in sexual intercourse. His worship of the Virgin Mary is simply sex-gone-bad. What confounds this intended message somewhat is that Zola has had to leap out of what is more-or-less realism into fantasy in order to preach it. Would the novel have been stronger if he had stuck closer to his usual naturalist method and shown the priest having an affair with a credible woman, living and moving in society, rather than with a symbolic woman in an idyllic Eden? After all, Paradou is Eden, complete with angel with flaming sword to expel Adam. Zola’s second criticism of clerical celibacy is the notion, expressed in the church-set confrontation of Serge and Albine in Part Three, that asceticism and denial are in themselves sensuous responses to the world. Finally, even when Serge would go back to Albine, he is in effect impotent. His upbringing has robbed him of his manhood.

            The symbolism is laid on so heavily that it kills the novel stone dead, although there are some moments of real psychological insight. Odd, however, how Zola has to lift himself out of the world of real men and women to make the case for sensuality. If anti-clericalism, and especially a critique of the celibacy of Catholic priests, is your thing, then I think you might find a more compelling novel, with a more credible female lead character, in George Moore’s TheLake.

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