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.
But 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!