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!
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!