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la fortune des rougon

14 june 2014

The wonders of free books for my phone led me to the idea of reading the entire Rougon-Macquart series by Émile Zola in order – I doubt I'll live to complete the attempt, but it's eased by the availability of some fairly obscure books in free, accessible format. The first that Zola wrote, and the first that that lamp unto my feet Wikipedia suggested that I read, is La fortune des Rougon (1871). The series as a whole is a condition-of-France saga tracing the entire history of the Second Empire. Zola began the project as soon as the Second Empire fell, and sets this first novel of his twenty at the moment (1851) when the Second Empire was established.

And then goes backwards to provide voluminous exposition; but here as so often in his work, you don't mind the exposition because Zola treats exposition as a chance to tell stories. He's basically like, before I can explain what's going on in my first chapter, I have to tell you about Pierre Rougon; but before I tell you about Pierre I have to tell you about his parents, and his Macquart half-siblings: and not just names and dates and family trees, but the way the relationships among these ancestral characters are forged from their interlocking and opposing goals in life.

Zola was always interested in heredity, and invested a lot of thought and belief in the inherited traits proper to the stratified classes of French society. Pierre Rougon, for instance, is the son of an stalwart peasant and the half-mad gentlewoman Adélaïde, who has lost her perch in the pecking order. Their qualities complement each other in him, making him grasping if somewhat stolid, and he quarters them further by marrying the daughter of a shopkeeper, so that his sons are further refined, their blood refreshed – or etiolated, as the case may be.

The exposition proceeds in leisurely-enough fashion, so that it's surprisingly easy to keep the three children of Adélaïde in mind, and the three sons of Pierre Rougon, and the various children of his Macquart brother and sister, among whom is the novel's true hero, Silvére. Nephew to both Pierre Rougon and the profligate Antoine Macquart, young Silvére is redeemed by his republican idealism and by his love for the orphaned Miette, an innocent girl too vital, in the world of Émile Zola, to live for very long.

Zola was just 31 when La fortune des Rougon appeared, and though it was his sixth book, it shows signs of apprenticeship. The Silvére-Miette relationship is told and retold and retold again in waves of similar prose that a stronger editor might have conflated into a single pass, resulting in a stronger storyline overall.

But the characters in the novel are strongly drawn, and the central action (the ascent of Rougon to power in the village of Plassans during the political and paramilitary chaos of 1851) is keenly suspenseful. Behind the striving but easily discouraged Rougon is his wife Félicité, who has descended in the social scale to marry him and been disappointed in his lifelong fecklessness. But with the help of her son Eugène, whose finger is on the political pulse of Paris, she orchestrates Pierre's rise to power while barely letting him know she's doing so.

The scenes of civil war in La fortune des Rougon, like the murders in La bête humaine, are befuddled and gory. There's no clear glory to be won in them, and little virtue to be conserved. When people set out to do violence to others, Zola argues, the main result is a bloody mess.

I use the word "argues" advisedly in the previous sentence. I don't think that literary works inevitably make arguments, at least not highly explicit ones, and I don't think that the job of criticism is always to unpack even the implicit ones. But Émile Zola, now, there's an author who tended to combine rhetoric and sheer storytelling in roughly equal doses. La fortune des Rougon is no exception, and is even an interesting case of a rhetorical fiction where the argumentative parts are a bit more trenchant at times than the narratives, especially the slow-moving, recursive love story.

Zola, Émile. La fortune des Rougon. 1871. Bibebook electronic edition. www.bibebook.com, 28 February 2014.