A Walk in Winter

A Hatless Young Woman: How Can She Stand the Cold?

A Young Woman Survives a Snowball Hit!

Stomp, stomp, stomp.  Out in my boots for the first time this winter.  I’m bundled up.  I climb over a snowbank and into the street.  I have five seconds to cross.

Some of the sidewalks are shoveled, some are not.  There are slippery patches.

A young man with a snow blower says something. Probably “Good morning.”

I suppose I’m smiling.  Am I smiling?  I’m cold.

I can’t really hear him because I’m listening to Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark.  One of my earbuds keeps falling out.  As I listen to the beautiful insecure lyrics of “Same Situation,” I wonder if I was ever that soft.  “Tethered to a ringing telephone/in a room full of mirrors.”

Oh, Joni.  How I loved this song!  But it’s been the same damned thing since Dorothy Parker’s 1930 story, “A Telephone Call.”

“Why can’t the telephone ring? Why can’t it, why can’t it? … You damned ugly, shiny thing. It wouldn’t hurt you to ring, would it?”

I’m not tethered to a damned phone anymore!  (Many are.) There was joy in young romance, but much unhappiness, so many tears.

I wonder if we are still women after menopause. Do we become a third sex?  When we were young, we were defined by estrogen. We were defined by our reproductive systems.   We worked, but were so often at a disadvantage:  we preferred the liberal arts to business and thus were paid less.  Why were we paid less?  And when our husbands left us for younger women, we lost status and insurance.  If we got through it, we were no longer objects.  We became the subjects of our lives.

Subject, object, who the hell knows?

Here’s the Latin.

femina = subject (nominative case)

feminam = direct object (accusative case)

So here I am, a femina, walking on a day in the middle of climate change, appreciating the snow.  It is flooding in Missouri. It is flooding in the UK.

Is climate change reversible?  asks the post-menopausal woman, wondering, Why pretend?  Enjoy the snow while we have it.

Why Isn’t This Book in Print?

Why isn't this book in print?

“Why isn’t this book in print?”

We used to ask this question about the novels of Angela Thirkell, Rumer Godden, and Dodie Smith. Publishers heard the collective cry of fans and reissued these wonderful writers’ books.

But the following are still among the missing:  H. E. Bates’s Love for Lydia, Gladys Taber’s Mrs. Daffodil, Emily Kimbrough’s Forty Plus and Fancy-Free, Alice Thomas Ellis’s Home Life, & Eleanor Cameron’s A Spell Is Cast.

1 H. E. Bates’ Love for Lydia.  H. E. Bates wrote gorgeous short stories about rural life in England, but my favorite of his books is  Love for Lydia. Set in the 1920s, this beautifully-written novel is the story of a vibrant, sexually rebellious heiress’s effect on four men in a small town. It is narrated by Richardson, a moody, aspiring writer who, at the beginning of the novel, works unhappily on a small-town newspaper. And then he meets Lydia on an assignment. He is supposed to interview her two aristocratic aunts about the death of their brother and the advent of Lydia.  Instead, the aunts, after inquiring about his family and deducing his class, coax him to take Lydia skating.  And the book takes off from there!  Lydia becomes a small-town femme fatale, but she is so full of life we don’t blame her. This book was also adapted for a splendid TV series.

love for lydia h. e. bates old d886fb016e7cad30888a0a3f8db3aa771 Mrs. Daffodil by Gladys Taber

There are many fans of Gladys Taber’s Stillmeadow books:  charming, lyrical collections of  her “Butternut Wisdom” columns for Ladies’ Home Journal, articles, and  essays about living in a beautiful, but run-down, farmhouse in Connecticut.  She and her husband bought Stillmeadow with another couple, because Taber and her ex-college roommate, Jill, desperately wanted a country getaway.   After their husbands died, they moved to Stillmeadow permanently.

Mrs. Daffodil

But the book I’d  dearly love to see back in print is her autobiographical novel,  Mrs. Daffodil.  The kind, witty heroine, Mrs. Daffodil,  is almost Taber’s twin:  she lives in the country with her widowed friend, Kay,  and they  raise children, dogs, cats, a pheasant, and a baby blue jay.  Mrs. Daffodil, a writer, happily churns out a syndicated column called “Butternut Wisdom” and romantic short stories about young love, because readers are not interested in what she knows about,i.e.,  middle-aged widows. Mrs. Daffodil has a weight problem because she loves to try out magazine recipes that call for a pint of sour cream.  When we first meet her she is having trouble zipping up a dress, and about to go on a diet.

Just like life!

3 Emily Kimbrough’s Forty Plus and Fancy-Free

Emily Kimbrough is best known for Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, a hilarious travel memoir co-written with actress Cornelia Otis Skinner.  But Kimbrough also had a solo writing career.  In Forty Plus and Fancy-Free,  Kimbrough, a fashion editor for The Ladies’ Home Journal , is trying to decide whether to travel to Italy with her friend, Sophy. Her employer agrees  to give her a vacation if she covers the Coronation in England.  I laughed hysterically over their Italian lessons at the Berlitz school, because who hasn’t had linguistic goof-ups?  When a young man follows Sophy through the streets in Italy, she cows him by telling him she is a grandmother. And there are breathtaking descriptions of views and art, though usually with humorous comments.

kimbrough forty plus and fancy-free 51xxZZUMmBL._SX373_BO1,204,203,200_4 Home Life, Home Life Two, & Home Life Three by Alice Thomas Ellis. Ellis, a novelist, mother, editor,and a conservative Catholic, wrote these brilliant domestic columns originally for the Spectator.  Home Life is vaguely like E. M. Delafield’s Provincial Lady, only urban, circa the 1980s. A white Persian cat is in the sink, so Ellis has difficulty brushing her teeth; a man mistakes her for a prostitute when she is in a bar with Beryl Bainbridge; she gets snowed in the country; and the pipes burst and inundate a set of Thackeray.

Home Life by alice thomas ellis5 Eleanor Cameron’s A Spell Is Cast is my favorite children’s book, though it is really an “all-ages” book.  It is the story of Cory Winterslow’s stay with her grandmother and Uncle Dirk in California. Her adoptive mother, Stephanie Van Heusen, an actress, tours constantly and has left Cory with a series of hired helps. But during this tour, she has sent Cory to California, and Cory has looked forward to being part of a family. She is intensely disappointed when Uncle Dirk, who has written charming letters, doesn’t show up at the airport. There are many family secrets: she learns that Stephanie has never legally adopted her.  There is a Dali-esque dream sequence   when Cory has a fever–have I ever read a dream sequence in another children’s book?–andshe finds herself in a music room where there is a chess set with carved unicorns instead of horses. It turns out that this room is real. It is atmospheric moments like this that made this novel such an intense experience when I was young.

a spell is cast eleanor cameron 344580

Emile Zola’s The Conquest of Plassans & My Year of Reading

Zola conquest of plassans 51JjkTn3gtL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_ I have recently devoured the early books in Emile Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series, a racy inter-generational chronicle that focuses on the decadence of the descendants of a hippie-ish 19th-century matriarch, Adelaide Fouque (nicknamed Aunt Dide). She has a complicated family:  one legitimate son, Pierre, by her vegetable-salesman husband, and two illegitimate children, Ursule and Francois, by her drunken lover, Macquart, a smuggler.  Eventually Dide’s son locks her up in a lunatic asylum, while subsequent generations cheat, frolic, fornicate, and brawl.   In these enthralling naturalistic novels, Zola interweaves his theory  of heredity with family history and the history of the France of Napoleon III’s Second Empire with its politics.

A decade ago, I went through a Zola phase, and read most of the books in this fascinating series, some in 19th-century translations. In 2012, Oxford published new translations, among them the early books that were last translated in the 19th century.  Needless to say, the new translations are smoother and more accessible.   (I recently posted about The Fortunes of the Rougons here.)

I was very impressed with The Conquest of the Plassans,  the fourth book in the series, translated by Helen Constantine.  It zestfully explores the dark side of religion.   The church and politics go hand in hand in the novels of Zola and his role model, Balzac.  In The Conquest, Abbe Faujas, who has a shady history of political intrigues, has been exiled to Plassans, a provincial town.  On the advice of Eugene Rougon, a rising Bonapartist politician, Felicite Rougon persuades her son-in-law, Francois Mouret, to rent lodgings to the priest and his quiet mother.  Francois, a retired shopkeeper who still speculates on commodities, gloats  about  earning additional income.  But his wife Marthe, a contented woman who  spends much of her time sewing and looking after her mentally retarded daughter, Desiree, has doubts.  She mildly suggests the family is happy on its own.

Francois underestimates the power of religion.  He is an atheist, and since Marthe rarely sets foot in a church, it never occurs to him that religion will disrupt his family.   Soon Abbe Faujas, who stinks because he doesn’t bathe and has only one threadbare cassock,  captivates Marthe and the women of the town.  Soon Marthe is in charge of raising money for  a religious center for village girls.   She spends all her time at the center and church and neglects her home.  Lovesick and now fanatically religious, Marthe throws herself at Abbe Faujas. And Francois gradually withdraws into eccentricity while the Abbe and his family take over the garden and then the house.   Want to see the inside of a madhouse?  You’ll never guess who ends up there.

Loved this book!  It is great fun to read, and Zola is always outrageous!

Woman reading clip art vintageMY YEAR IN READING.

I posted my list of Best Books of 2015 here.

And now I’m posting my stats.

  • Fifty-seven percent of the books I read were by women and 43 percent by men.
  • Twenty-seven percent were e-books.
  • Six percent of them were galleys from publishers.


  • I am narrowing the gender gap.  I read more books by women, but am consciously reading more books by men now.
  • Next year I plan to  accept fewer galleys from publishers. I am grateful for the chance to read new books, but they deflected me from books I wanted to read.  Honestly? I don’t want to become one of those bloggers who are so swayed by freebies that they become slaves of  publicists.  I have seen flattered bloggers  ruin their blogs in pursuit of mediocre free books. When they look back, will they be saddened ?  If not for the grace of God there go I…

Peace in the New Year and Happy Reading!

A Best Books of the Year List in a Month of Best Books of the Year Lists

Pile-of-BooksDon’t you love Best Books of the Year lists? Every book page publishes a fascinating list.  One of our holiday traditions is betting on when the New York Times daily critics will post their lists:  these cool critics wait till after the Black Friday rush. (It was Dec. 10 this year.)

Dwight Garner of the NYT made a traditional list, but also wrote  a good alternative-to-lists article, “Reading Is About the Lines That Leap Off the Pages.”

He writes,

When I think about the outstanding things I read this year, however, what comes to mind isn’t a stack of “best books.” Instead, I recall a flickering series of moments I’ve been unable to shake: killing jokes and stolen kisses and fleeting glimpses; scenes and ideas and sleights of hand.

I also admired an unconventional “Best of” article at The Guardian, “Winners and losers: publishers pick the 2015 books they loved, missed and envied.”

And now I’ve made my list and left out many favorites,  but at least I’ve arranged it by categories!

Best New Novel:

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant caused controversy last summer:  was it literary fiction or fantasy?  Was Ishiguro writing genre fiction? (No.)  Set in a post-Arthurian mythic post-war England, this gorgeous novel is the story of  Britons and Saxons living in a mist of forgetfulness.  The two protagonists, Axl and Beatrice, an elderly married couple, cannot remember what happened yesterdays, let alone during the wars in King Arthur’s time. On a journey to find their son, they discover the causes of their amnesiac culture.

The Buried Giant Ishiguro.BG.jacketBest Overlooked New Novel:

Holly LeCraw’s The Half Brother. The hero of this brilliant, lyrical novel is Charlie, a dedicated private-school teacher who inspires his students to love English literature. Raised in the South, where all dark deeds happen, he ends his relationship with the headmaster’s daughter after he learns a family secret. When  his charismatic half-brother, a veteran of the Afghanistan war, arrives to teach at the school, all is truly fucked-up!

the half brother by Holly LeCraw 51TRuQcPgjL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_


Best Novels in Translation:

1 Angelica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial, translated by Ursula K. Le Guin.  First published in 1983 in Argentina and in 2003 by Small Beer Press in the U.S., it is a stunning mix of realism and the surreal.  Her work has been compared to Borges and Calvino. This strange little novel about “an empire that never was” is a collection of legends, geography, and (invented) stories of emperors and common people. It also borrows from Homer, and at one point mischievously satirizes the Iliad and the Odyssey.  Each story begins with a storyteller who knows, or at least shapes, the story. The storyteller will say, “I’m the one who can tell you what really happened, because it’s the storyteller’s job to speak the truth even when the truth lacks the brilliance of invention…”  You can read my post here.

Kalpa Imperial Angelica Gorodischer 41ltT36E3JL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

2 Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel, translated by Juliet Winter Carpenter, is a brilliant modern Japanese retelling of Wuthering Heights, and won the Yomiuri Prize For Literature in 2002. The author, Minae Mizumura, reflects in the long prologue (one third of the first volume) on “how to take ‘a story just like a novel’ and turn it into a novel in Japanese.”  She ponders the difficulty of transferring an English novel to Japanese culture. The novel is based on an oral tale of doomed romance related to her by a young Japanese man, Yusuke Kato, who heard it from Fumiko, a maid at the summer cottage of Taro, a Japanese billionaire.  The frame story reflects the structure of Emily Bronte’s masterpiece.


Best Classic Novel:

Charlotte Bronte’s Villette is Jane Eyre for adults, and is Bronte’s most autobiographical novel.   Lucy Snowe, the narrator, finds a job teaching English at a girls’ school in Belgium, excels in the classroom but is depressed by the drudgery, doesn’t attract the doctor she loves, is pursued by a rather ridiculous misogynistic male teacher (her only real friend after a while),  sees ghosts, and is high on laudanum at a summer night’s festival!  Charlotte taught in Brussels, fell in love with the married headmaster, but did she see ghosts?  I’m not sure.

villette-charlotte-bronte-paperback-cover-artBest Reissued Novel: 

Brian Kiteley’s Still Life With Insects.  Reissued by Pharos Editions, this masterly, stunning, layered novel is written in the form of an amateur entomologist’s journal.  Elwyn Farmer, a “cereal chemist” for a flour company, makes spare, detailed notes about insects on his travels, but also describes scenes at work and home. Each brief entry is headed by a note with the date and place of the insect finding.


Still Life With Insects Brian Kiteley 51nH+eMjhNL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Best Rediscovered Novel:

Conrad Richter’s The Waters of Kronos.   This little gem of a novel won the National Book Award in 1961. The  hero’s trip to his hometown turns into a mythic, revelatory descent to the past.  John Dalton, a famous novelist, travels to the site of his hometown, which no longer exists because the government built a dam and buried the town under  a lake. He describes the terror of loss of place when he first views the dam and the lake. A classic katabasis (descent) in the tradition of Dante’s Inferno and Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid, it describes his drive down a road that should end in water but eerily  takes him back to the town he knew as a child.  Perhaps Richter had been reading the Beats!  This is one of the most stunning novels I’ve read this year.

waters of kronos richter 41bnktvHo0L._SL256_

Best Narrative Poem: 

Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, translated by Stanley Mitchell.   In this brilliant novel in verse, Pushkin tells the story of Eugene Onegin, a rakish Byronic hero who, bored by carousing, wine, women, song, writing, and even books, moves from St. Petersburg to the country after inheriting an estate. He befriends a young poet, Lensky, to whom he is very devoted, but thoughtlessly wrecks their friendship by flirting at a dance with Olga, Lensky’s fiancée. The fiasco results in a duel with Lensky. (Eugene doesn’t want it, and yet somehow he doesn’t say no.) And the whole thing is complicated by Eugene”s rejection of Olga’s sister, Tataina, who writes a love letter to him.

Eugene Onegin Pushkin 56077-largeBest Mysteries: 

Women Crime Writers: Four Suspense Novels of the 1940s, edited by Sarah Weinman (Library of America).  Did you know women in the ’40s wrote noir fiction? This volume includes Vera Caspary’s masterpiece, Laura, Helen Eustin’s The Horizontal Man, Dorothy B. Hughes’s In a Lonely Place, and Elizabeth Sanxay Holding’s The Blank Wall.  All four are fabulous, but I especially loved Laura, a psychological suspense novel revolving around the murder of an advertising executive.

Women Crime Writers Four Suspense Novels of the 1940s 51KoYBh1+5L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Best But Strangely Neglected SF Novel:

Pat Murphy’s The Falling Woman (1986). It was published as SF and won the Nebula Award, but reads like literary fiction, with a touch of mysticism. The setting is an archaeological dig on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. The chapters alternate between the viewpoints of Elizabeth Butler, an archaeologist and expert on Mayan civilization, and her daughter, Diane, who was raised by her father but after his death shows up unanounced at Elizabeth’s dig.  Elizabeth, who spent time in the mental hospital as a housewife, finds that madness has  helped her make discoveries: she sees Mayan ghosts in temples and villages as she walks around the excavation sites. Her relationships with ghosts, and a casual friendship with her archaeologist colleague, Tony, are sufficient for her.   The ghosts become threatening when her daughter appears.

falling woman pat murphy 91fN01GqVsLBest Memoir/Nature Writing: 

We Took to the Woods by Louise Dickinson Rich. This classic memoir (1942) is a delightful record of the Rich family’s life in the backwoods of Maine in the 1930s and ’40s. After years of living in cities, Louise and her husband, Ralph, both writers, moved to the woods with their son. They bought a property with several buildings, originally built as a fishing camp.  This book records the beauty and the humor of life in the woods.  Louise does not miss civilization: she has time to read all the books she never read (she reads all of Proust and doesn’t think much of him); listens to music on the radio; and gets her news from Time once a week.

we took to the woods rich il_fullxfull.457237985_k3ls

Best Short Story Collections:

1 Jonathan Lethem’s Lucky Alan and Other Stories.  I loved this book!  Lethem’s flamboyant writing is laced with humor, his verbal pyrotechnics are incomparable, and his stories utilize elements of fantasy and magic realism. In the surreal story, “Procedure in Plain Air,” the umemployed hero, Stevick, sees two men in jumpsuit uniforms jump out of a truck, dig a hole, and lower a bound-and-gagged man wearing a jumpsuit into the hole. After Stevick complains it will rain on the prisoner, they hand him an umbrella. Holding the umbrella becomes, in a way, his job. In “Traveler Home,” a dark fairy tale, the hero deals with snow, wolves, and a foundling. But the most dazzling story in the collection is “Lucky Alan”: the narrator, Grahame, an actor, gets acquainted with Blondy Sigmund, the “legendary” theater director, because they both go to the movies every day . When Grahame realizes Blondy has left the neighborhood, he tracks him down to find out why he left his rent-controlled apartment. It all centers on a nerdy neighbor named Alan.

Lucky Alan Jonathan Lethem 41UjiHnZr5L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_2 Karen E. Bender’s Refund, shortlisted for the National Book Award.   The stories are linked by the theme of money. In “Reunion,” a woman with a failing home appliance repair business has an affair with a con man. In “The Third Child,” the financial responsibility of raising the two children is more than enough for a struggling couple: the heroine. a freelance editor, decides to have an abortion. In the title story, two artists dream of sending their child to an expensive pre-school, but 9/11 gets in the way of the easy money of subletting their New York apartment.

Karen E. Bender Refund book-refund-stories

3. Wrote for Luck, by D. J. Taylor, was published in the UK by Galley Beggar Press. Taylor, an English novelist, biographer, and critic, is perhaps best known for his historical novel, Derby Day, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, but his short stories are equally witty and percipient. Some of Taylor’s best stories deal with the workplace. In “The Blow-Ins,” a couple struggles to keep their bookstore afloat when tourist season is over. In “Teeny-Weeny Little World,” an exasperated teacher must justify teaching poetry to a new headmaster. In “Jermyn Street,” a down-and-out employee at an antique shop is exasperated by his boss’s daily fights with his wife. In “To Brooklyn Bridge,” set in Chicago, a young woman escapes her job sewing in a sweatshop in Chicago to go to college; on the beach she recites Hart Crane’s poem “To Brooklyn Bridge”to her boyfriend, a salesman who does not understand.

DJ-Taylor--Wrote-For-Luck-FrontboardBest Literary Criticism: 

Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book So Great won the Locus Award for Best Non-Fiction.  This lively book, subtitled “Re-Reading the Classics of Science Fiction and Fantasy,” is the best book I have ever read on rereading. (Critics, eat your heart out!) In these short essays, originally a series of blog posts written for Tor.com, Walton, an award-winning SF writer,  not only analyzes the greatest SF and fantasy books, but also where Doris Lessing goes wrong (Shikasta) and where Michael Chabon goes right (The Yiddish Policemen’s Union).

What Makes This Book So Great Jo Walton 51nh5hxMgRL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Reflections on the Eve of Christmas Eve

Fred and Carrie Brownstein in Old Navy commercial

Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein in Old Navy commercial suddenly realize they need new clothes!

Christmas is a difficult time.

What have we got? Irony!  What do we need?  Christmas sweaters, the ones drab Fred Armisen and Carrie Browstein want in the deadpan Old Navy commercial.

It’s a jolly holiday if you go to a potluck with friends; less so if you spend it with your dysfunctional family.

Some years I have brightly done my duty, and traveled hither and thither to visit family members. We eat festive dinners of turkey, mashed potatoes, and homemade pie.  I have little to say; my scant social skills dry up. My smile is plastered on. One cousin is dying of cancer, plugged into oxygen, and my father thinks it is AIDS. The old people reminisce about their Mother’s Way with Chickens. When the football game starts, we women are doomed to dishes and gossip. A cousin doles out leftovers to everyone except the hostess, who is almost in tears. I’m usually a woman of action, but I say nothing.  What is wrong with us on the holidays?

This year I am grieving the death of an aunt and a friend.  I was also saddened by a visit to the hospital, shocked by the frailty of a relative I hadn’t seen since my mother’s funeral.  Looking at this paper-thin man, I remember him as a strong freckled man who drove home from the farm for lunch, shedding his dirty overalls at the back door, and on one icy day insisted on driving us to the movies. I have to push aside this sentimentality:  he is on antibiotics and is feeling better, and that is what matters.  Age doesn’t mean much to him and my pity means nothing:  he still has intrigues, still goes to various clubs,  and supports Hillary.  He does karaoke. He has a more active social life than I do.  When he told me the last of my aunts died in November, I was devastated.  Why he didn’t call at the time?  Did he forget? That is probable, I realize now. I am sure he is depressed.  One of the aunts once said,  “How will you feel if he dies and you don’t see him again?”  And now I am really feeling that. We can’t talk.  It’s just the way we are.

Next year's Christmas tree!

Next year’s Christmas tree!

Thank God Christmas distracts us from the sadness. It rained all day, then the rain turned into slanting wet snow, but we closed the drapes,  were warm under blankets,  and were drinking tea and reading.   I was like Sigourney Weaver in Alien, thinking she’s escaped the alien and  is alone, when it’s actually in the spaceship.

My husband dragged our artificial tree, the alien in my life out of the basement!


Oh, lord.  This is one of those holiday traumas.  The plastic tree from a box store was okay for a year.  It was very well-loved by the cats, who bent it up a little.  Now half the branches turn up, then there is a gap, and the rest of the branches point down. I may joke about Roseanne’s “White Trash Christmas,” but I can’t have it in my living room.

So I promise I will find a tree for Christmas if he just takes this one back down downstairs.

I don’t feel like riding the bus in the rain, then walking to a box store, then dragging a tree back to the bus, but I have an idea.  I go to work on the internet.  Are those cute small spruce trees with L.E.D. lights  available for one-day delivery? They are not!

And so I order a big evergreen centerpiece and a Christmas bouquet from a florist.  And my God!  It’s the nicest Christmas decoration we’ve ever had.

So all these years we could have had great decorations if I hadn’t done it myself?

Yes!  We’re finally in the Christmas spirit!

Radio Four’s “Blood, Sex & Money” and Zola’s The Fortune of the Rougons

Zola's "Blood, Sex & Money," starrtng Glenda Jackson

                      Zola’s “Blood, Sex & Money,” starring Glenda Jackson

Radio Four’s “Blood, Sex, and Money,” an adaptation of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series, will send you running for the books:  the acting is superb, with Glenda Jackson starring as Aunt Dide (Adelaide), the matriarch of the family, and the writing is riveting.  Sure, a few liberties are taken with the plot, but the spirit is there.

A decade ago, I went through a mad Zola phase:  I read most of the books in this fascinating series, which chronicles five generations of the Rougons (the offspring and descendants of Dide and her husband, Rougon ) and the Macquarts (the offspring and descendants of Dide and her lover,  Macquart). Several of the novels are in print by Oxford and Penguin, but I had to eke them out with 19th-century translations in print-on-demand editions.  Now they are available as e-books.

It is an understatement to say Dide’s children don’t turn out well: they range from alcoholics to up-and-coming bourgeois speculators to beggars to corrupt priests to politicians to prostitutes.   Balzac was Zola’s inspiration, but I’ve met readers who find Zola excessively ribald and crude.  (I love both writers, but prefer Zola.)

In his naturalistic novels, Zola wanted to explore the link between heredity and history.  Along with the family history, Zola documents the France of Napoleon III’s Second Empire.

My own view is that you s should jump right into Zola’s masterpieces, like The Ladies’ Paradise (the story of the first department store in Paris) or Nana (the story of a prostitute-actress who rises from the gutter to become a mistress of powerful men).  The early books ramble quite a bit and actually work better as background than as novels.

zola the fortune of the rougons rougonBut I recently read and very much enjoyed Brian Nelson’s new translation of The Fortune of the Rougons (Oxford World Classics, 2013), the first translation since the late 19th century.  Nelson vividly manages to bring cohesion to Zola’s racy but chaotic narrative.  It is the first novel in the series.

Set in Plassans, a fictitious town in Provence, it weaves a tangled web of the first generations of the family. The Rougons and Macquarts are politically divided on the eve of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte’s  coup d’état in 1851.   But the initial focus is on a  pastoral romance between Dide’s radical teenage grandson, Silvere, a cart-maker who lives with Dide, and his girlfriend, Miette, the daughter of a convicted murderer.  The two meet every morning on opposite sides of a wall at a well where they can only see each other’s reflections.   (Yes, the wall reminds us of Pyramus and Thisbe.)  Because Dide’s uncle is so strict, they cannot see each other during the day:  they sneak out at night for walks, but are innocents sexually.  When Silvere decides to join the army of working-class insurgents,  Miette insists on accompanying him.  The men make rude remarks about her father, but she stands up to them and ends up carrying the banner.  She and Silvere are wildly excited, and too naive to anticipate the meaning of violence.  (In the radio adapation, they agree it is “awesome.”)

Then Zola changes tack and describes the origins of the family. Dide’s husband, Rougon, dies while weeding a bed of carrots (one of those ironic details Zola loves!)  and she must raise their son Pierre alone. Dide becomes wildly, erotically involved with an alcoholic smuggler, Macquart, who lives in a shack nearby, and she gives birth to two children by him, Ursule and Antoine.  She is considered mad by the neighbors to get involved with this beggar.  She lets the children run wild.  Eventually, there is resentment between Pierre and the two Macquarts.

In a few pages, Zola covers a lot of territory.

For nearly twenty years they all lived there following their fancies, the children like the mother.  absolute freedom reigned.  As she grew older, Adelaide retained the strangeness which had been taken for shyness when she was fifteen; it was not that she was insane, as the people of Faubourg said, but there was an imbalance between her blood and her nerves, a disorder of the brain and heart which made her lead a life out of the ordinary, different from that of everyone else.

And he gives us details of the division of the family through Pierre’s theft of money:  he gets his mother to sign a paper handing it all over to him while she is alive, thus cheating Ursule and Antoine of their share.  Ursule is happily married and doesn’t care, but Antoine, a soldier, returns to Plassans intending to live off the money.  Pierre and Antoine have opposite politics as well as the money quarrel: Pierre is a Bonapartist, while Antoine supports the republican resistance.  Antoine and his brilliant wife, Felicite, darkly scheme to win political favor and money.

The history is complicated, but there are excellent notes in the Oxford edition.  I cannot say this is a really excellent novel:  do read one of the others first!  But I am intrigued by the family history.  And I must say Zola’s theories on heredity have gone in and out of style a couple of times since he wrote it!  I think he is pretty much spot-on in the days of Prozac!