A Good Read: Zola’s A Love Story

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.

Three Review-ettes: Zola’s The Drinking Den, George Moore’s Esther Waters, & Susan Cheever’s American Bloomsbury

Merry Christmas (two days late)!   We ate Laurie Colwin’s roast chicken, watched a Grade-B movie, Christmas with the Cranks, and skipped our walk because it was very cold.   And now it is almost the New Year, and my journal tells me I have neglected to write about three of my favorite books of the year.   So here are three review-ettes.

 1 L’Assomoir, or The Drinking Den,  by Emile Zola.  Influenced by Balzac’s La Comédie humaine, Zola wrote the Rougon-Macquart series of 20 connected novels to explore the effects of heredity and environment on a family inclined to dissipation and madness.  The plots of these brilliant naturalistic novels are sometimes over-the-top,  but that makes them all the more entertaining. In The Drinking Den, Zola charts the descent of a hard-working family into alcoholism and poverty.

Gervaise Macquart, the engaging heroine, is a cheerful, industrious woman who works as a laundress to support her children after her alcoholic lover deserts them.  She is my one of Zola’s most likable characters, and in fact the original title of this novel was Gervaise.  Her neighbor, the decent, hard-working roofer, Coupeau, wants to marry her, and eventually she gives in.   They do not drink hard liquor, and they are happy and respectable in a neighborhood where others are crushed by poverty and alcohol. Gervaise saves money to open her own laundry, but after Coupeau has an accident, he becomes an alcoholic and she must support him.  Gervaise is indulgent:  she opens the laundry, and the business is successful.  Things do decline, but Zola’s detailed descriptions of the work, gossip, and smells at the steaming, hot laundry are utterly engrossing. How can Gervaise and Coupeau resist the degradation of their poor neighborhood? This is one of the grimmest of Zola’s  novels, but it paints a very accurate picture of alcoholism.

Esther Waters by George Moore.  Influenced by Zola, George Moore is best remembered for  his naturalistic novel, Esther Waters, praised by Gladstone when it was published in 1894.  Esther, a religious, illiterate kitchen maid, witnesses the appalling consequences of betting and horse-racing when the owner of the estate, who raises and races horses, goes broke.   The cook’s son, William, had seduced Esther before running off with another woman, and now pregnant Esther must leave and fend for herself in poverty.   Moore unflinchingly details her struggles to stay out of the workhouse, find a job, and raise her illegitimate son. Esther survives, but the racetrack comes back to haunt her when she falls in love again.

American Bloomsbury:  Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work.  This compelling, readable history of the 19th-century writers who inhabited  Concord, Mass., is aptly named. Concord really was the American Bloomsbury.   Cheever’s study of Concord’s group of liberal, intellectual,  bohemian writers, most of whom  the generous Emerson supported, illuminates the development of their work, novels, and philosphy.   The relationships in this community were intricate, almost incestuous.  Margaret Fuller was not only a feminist journalist, but a vamp.  Who knew?   I did hastily tour Louisa May Alcott’s house many, many years ago, but now want to go back and walk all over Concord.

Books That Aren’t for Me: Zola’s His Excellency Eugene Rougon & John Braine’s Room at the Top

This translation is dreadful.

This translation is dreadful.

I recently tracked down Zola’s His Excellency Eugene Rougon, the sixth novel in his Rougon-Macquart series, and a copy of John Braine’s 1957  novel, Room at the Top.

Both books are minor classics, but, alas, I didn’t much care for either. Perhaps they’re the right books for you, though.

1. Readers of this blog will know that I recently enjoyed the new Oxford translations  of Zola’s Rougon-Moucquart series, a racy inter-generational chronicle of five generations of a family prone to alcoholism, addiction, madness, and promiscuity in Napoleon III’s Second Empire.  The 2012 editions are superb:  I wrote about Helen Constantine’s  translation of The Conquest of Plassans here, and Brian Nelson’s translation of The Fortune of the Rougons  here.

His Excellency Eugene Rougon may well be a great political novel about the Second French Empire, but who can tell in Ernest Alfred Vizetelly’s archaic 1897 revision of an earlier nineteenth-century translation?  Could we have a new translation, please?

In the preface, Vizetelly praises this realistic political novel.  He writes, “In my opinion, with all due allowance for its somewhat limited range of subject, [it] is the one existing French novel which gives the reader a fair general idea of what occurred in political spheres at an important period of the Empire.”

This brilliantly-structured but turgid translation of Zola’s complicated novel about a corrupt politician is compelling once underway.  The hero,  Eugene Rougon,  is a savvy lawyer who supported  Napoleon III’s coup d’etat and clawed his way up to a high position in the government. In the opening chapter, he resigns after a disagreement with the Emperor,  expecting soon to be recalled to office.  His allies and friends turn on him when he is out of power:  there are no enemies greater than friends.  The most dangerous is Clorinde, the beautiful, intelligent daughter of an Italian countess who obtains information through flirtations but seldom gives anything away.

After a few years out of the government, Eugene is desperate for power.  He suppresses information he gleans from a criminal friend about a terrorist plot.  Deaths and woundings of innocent men result, but his rival is discredited, and that’s all that matters to Eugene.  Ten days later Eugene is the Minister of the Interior.

This is the kind of reading that makes you NOT want to participate in the caucuses or vote in the primaries.

Okay, it’s a bold book.  But try reading prose like this:

For a moment the President remained standing amidst the slight commotion which his entrance had caused. Then he took his seat, saying carelessly and in an undertone:  “The sitting has commenced.”

A little of that goes a long way.

And that’s why we need a new translation.

Room_at_the_Top_(novel)_1st_ed_coverart2. I was curious about John Braine’s Room at the Top, published in 1957 and recently reissued by Valancourt.  It is  one of the “Angry Young Men” novels, and I love the  writers in this movement:  Kingsley Amis, Alan Silitoe,  and William Cooper.

But I cannot bear Braine, though he is witty, acerbic, and articulate.  The other Angry Young Men are misogynists, but this is perhaps THE most misogynistic of their novels.

The novel begins with the narrator Joe Lampton’s looking back regretfully on his eruthless rise to “the top” in his twenties.  Joe, a World War II vet and former prisoner of war, left the ugly working-class town where he was raised when he found a job in Warley as an accountant for the City Council.  He was brash and on the make:  he joined a community theater group to get to know women. Soon he hits on pretty Susan, the daughter of a wealthy man, because he sees her as a means to money and power.

He has an affair with Alice,  a bright, witty married woman  in her thirties who is the best actress in the company. He has double standards and double dealings but is in love with her. Joe’s friend tells him he cannot possibly marry an older woman without losing his reputation.

We women cannot help but hate Joe, and Joe hates himself, too.  I don’t want to give too much away, but at  one point, he  derealizes and reports his dialogue in the third person.  then he comments in the first person on this other Joe (the real Joe?).

“I expected it,” Joe said soberly…  I didn’t like Joe Lampton.  He was a sensible young accountant with a neatly-pressed suit and a stiff white collar.  He always said and did the correct thing and never embarrassed anyone with an unseemly display of emotion.  Why, he even made a roll in the hay with a pretty teenager pay dividends.  I hated Joe Lampton, but he looked and sounded very sure of himself sitting at my desk in my skin; he’d come to stay, this was no flying visit.

This uneven, well-written novel has its points, and, thank God, is short!

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!

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!