Emile Zola, The Fortune of the Rougons

RougonBegin at the beginning I always say when you read books in a series, but I haven’t done that at all with Zola’s great Rougon-Macquart novels, set in the time of Louis Napoleon’s Second Empire in France. I drifted in sideways when my book group took up Nana (courtesans and the high life of conspicuous consumption) and then went on to The Belly of Paris (Les Halles market), and finally Money (L’Argent, dastardly doings in the stock market). I find that I love the way Zola tells a complex story, rich in character and detail. After I also read The Masterpiece (L’Oeuvre, crazy modern artist rejected by the establishment) and The Debacle (Franco-Prussian War ends badly) and Germinal (strike in the coal mines), I recognized that I was well and truly hooked and had best go back to the beginning.

So here I am, with The Fortune of the Rougons, in a new translation by Brian Nelson (2012). The story begins with Adelaide Fouque, inheritor of a modest property in Plassans, the fictional Aix-en-Provence. Adelaide marries and, after her husband dies, she has a continuing affair with a smuggler, and thus children by two different men. The legitimate Pierre is the founder of the Rougon line, while the illegitimate Antoine and Ursule are the origins of the Marquarts. Both lines inherit the nervous temperament and potential insanity of Adelaide and both lines live out the greed and decadence of the years of the Second Empire in a number of venues. All the novels I read before this one, which gives us Adelaide’s story and the beginnings of the Rougons and Macquarts, featured one or more members of these families. Previous explanations of the connections were much less clear than in this novel, where Zola is careful to spell out his intentions.

One of Adelaide’s grandsons, a doctor, sums it up.

 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-Marquart family, a pack of wild, satiated appetites in the midst of a blaze of gold and blood.

Showing the members of the family and how their development varies with their backgrounds and associations is only part of Zola’s purpose. He uses his characters to show the corruption of the Second Empire. Even before the 1851 coup which brought Louis Napoleon to power, Zola’s description of provincial life is not flattering. Of Plassans (Aix) he says,

 The locking of the gates every evening summed up the spirit of the town, which was a combination of cowardice, egotism, routine, parochialism, and devout longing for a cloistered life. Plassans, when it had locked itself up, would say to itself ‘Now I’m safe,’ with the satisfaction of a pious bourgeois who, confident that his cashbox is secure, and certain that no noise will disturb him, duly says his prayers and retires happily to bed.

Brian Nelson, the translator says of the series in his Introduction,

 Through his family Zola examined systematically the social, sexual, and moral landscape of the late nineteenth century along with its political, financial and artistic contexts. Zola began work on the series in 1869 and devoted himself to it for the next quarter of a century.

Eighteen-sixty-nine, the year he started the series with The Fortune of the Rougons, is a significant date because just as the book was published the empire of Napoleon III was coming to an end with the Franco Prussian War. Zola could look back over the 20-year period very much as a naturalist viewing his characters in their many settings. Yet, reading Zola is not a detached, scientific experience. In his novels I find I experience the people and times up close and personal. His gifts as a story teller far exceed the value of any conclusions he can impart about the relationship of heredity and environment. For a sample, Lisa at ANZ LitLovers has just published an extended excerpt from the next book in the series.

After my first couple of Zolas I have relied on J. G. Patterson’s A Zola Dictionary; the Characters of the Rougon-Macquart Novels of Emile Zola. I have a  paperback copy but it is also free in various formats at Project Gutenberg. Patterson provides a summary of each novel, in chronological order and an index of characters. It is a great help in sorting out the many Rougons and Macquarts.

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6 Responses to Emile Zola, The Fortune of the Rougons

  1. ” His gifts as a story teller far exceed the value of any conclusions he can impart and the relationship of heredity and environment. ”

    Absolutely! Zola made a number of statements about a novelist being more a scientist than an artist; that the job of the novelist is but to depict with an objective eye that which has already been determined by environment, heredity, etc. All I can say is that it’s a good job that Zola did not practise what he preached!

    I have been reading these novels over the years, but not in any systematic way: I’ve read 8 of them at the last count. It is Zola’s immense skill as a storyteller I enjoy; and also his big set-pieces, and the delight he takes in shocking the reader. (It is “La Terre” I still find particularly shocking: that finale still gives me nightmares!)

    I ought to get round to reading a few more of this series. I haven’t read this one yet.

  2. Lisa Hill says:

    Wonderful review, Nancy, and you have others too! Can we persuade you to join the Zola collaborative blog? http://readingzola.wordpress.com/

  3. So glad you are joining the readingzola blog, Nancy!

    I also came sideways to Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series. With me it was largely a matter of which one I could find. I am just now reading at the Goodreads group which Lisa mentioned, the last one that was unread for me. I have also enjoyed his Three Cities trilogy.

    • SilverSeason says:

      I select both for availability and subject matter. For example, I spent several very pleasant days in Aix (Plassans) so I like that setting and also read The Masterpiece because of having seen the various Cezanne sites in Aix. After learning more about Zola’s connection with the Dreyfus case I read The Debacle because it relates to his disgust with the military establishment. It’s all connected up together, fortunately.

  4. Kat says:

    Nancy, I love Zola! I’ve read those that are available in Penguins and Oxfords and a few in 19th-century translations. I love them all. It would be so nice to read them in order, but I haven’t done that. I look forward to reading your collaborative blog on Zola.

  5. […] Zola, The Fortune of the Rougons. This novel is the starting point for Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series dramatizing the years of […]

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