Begin 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.