When I was growing up, you could pick up Penguins of Zola’s novels in the superb Rougon-Macquart series at every bookstore. Mind you, not all 20 were in print; not all are in print today. Still, I was spellbound by L’Assoimoir (The Drinking Den), Nana, Germinal, The Earth, and La Bête humaine (The Beast Within).
Today you can buy all of Zola’s books at Amazon and Abebooks. There are modern paperback translations, and there are 19th-century translations in e-book editions. Zola is very like Balzac, but grittier and more explicit. His urgently entertaining, sometimes shocking Rougon-Macquart series explores the effects of heredity and environment and the decline of two branches of a family in the late 19th century.
I still love the Penguins best, but in recent years Oxford has published new translations of Zola novels not available before in modern translations. The latest is A Love Story, translated by Helen Constantine. This brilliant novel about motherhood, adultery, and a child’s jealousy is more like The Awakening or The Forstye Saga than Zola. Here Zola gives us a break from the grotesque realities of alcoholism, murder, prostitution, mining strikes, starvation, and madness. In the introduction to the Oxford edition, Brian Nelson writes, “Its muted tone and style reflect the writer’s aim to produce a relatively inoffensive work after the provocative hyperrrealism of L’Assommoir.” (Even I was shocked by that one: I wrote about it here.)
A Love Story is short, fast, and unpredictable. The heroine, Helene Grandjean, a widow, lives a quiet life with her 11-year-old daughter Jeanne in Paris. Bewildered when her husband died, she was helped by Abbe Jouve and his half-brother, Rambaud, to find an apartment in a nice neighborhood. She and Jeanne seldom go out, but have a nice view from their window. Their maid, Rosalie, and her comical boyfriend, Zephyrin, are their main contacts in Paris aside from the priest and his brother. But when Jeanne, a sickly child, has a seizure, the next-door neighbor, Dr.Deberle, saves her life. For a long time she refuses to let Dr. Deberle attend her. The doctor’s wife invites Helene and Jeanne to sit in their garden. And soon Dr. Deberle falls in love with Helene. Helene is determined not to act on her feelings. And Jeanne becomes very jealous and ill.
Zola suggests that Jeanne is psychologically ill as well as physically ill. Jeanne brings the doctor and her mother together, but then drives them apart. IThen Jeanne refuses to let Dr. Deberle attend her. Helene suffers horribly, but she survives, unlike Anna Karenina.
C. C. Starkweather writes in the introduction of his 1905 translation: “The idea of destiny or heredity permeates all the works of this portentously ambitious series. Details may be repellent. One should not ‘smell’ a picture, as the artists say. If one does, he gets an impression of merely a blot of paint. The vast canvas should be studied as a whole.”
A Love Story doesn’t “smell.” It is very disturbing, but finely-written. If you don’t want to commit to Zola, it’s a place to start. Very different from his others, though.