Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Paris by Emile Zola

By far the best of the Three Cities trilogy
Paris is the final volume in Emile Zola’s trilogy Les Trois Villes, or The Three Cities. The trilogy follows Abbé Pierre Froment as he struggles to reconcile his rational, skeptical mind with his spiritual duties as a priest. In the two preceding volumes, Lourdes and Rome, Pierre suffered serious blows to his deepest held beliefs and has all but lost his faith entirely. Nevertheless, he continues to go through the motions of a saintly clergyman, practicing his profession by saying mass and tending to his flock. One aspect of his vocation keeps him going and gives meaning to his life: the exercise of charity. Through caring for the poor he feels that he can truly make a difference in the world. The more he interacts with the destitute citizens who inhabit the underbelly of Paris, however, the more he begins to wonder if charity is enough. How long will the hungry, down-trodden masses continue to swallow the Christian doctrine that they will be rewarded for their miserable lives with an afterlife spent in paradise? In the city of Paris, where income disparity is relentlessly increasing, how long will it be before the poor rise up against their oppressors and demand justice?

Though the primary focus of the Three Cities trilogy is religious matters, Paris differs from the previous two volumes in that it delves more deeply into political and social issues. Zola depicts the city of Paris as a rational, atheistic alternative to religious centers like Lourdes and Rome. Paris is the global center of science and reason, a city destined to become the capital of the modern world, while archaic holy cities like Rome are fated to decline and decay into dust. Yet the Church still hopes to conquer this pagan metropolis. On a hill overlooking the great city, the Basilica of Sacré-Coeur is being erected, a temple of superstition and a declaration of war against this scientific stronghold. Though Zola sees Paris as the future salvation of rational mankind, the city has yet to complete its inevitable evolution, and in its present state it hardly qualifies as a Utopia. Zola vividly illuminates all the city’s social ills: corrupt politicians, an impotent and ineffective government, unethical businessmen, a biased and mercenary press, an immoral bourgeoisie, and a starving labor class that must resort to drastic measures to survive. In addition, anarchism is rising in Paris, and gives rise to acts of terrorism. Though this novel was originally published in 1898, the spectre of World War I looms over the story like an imminent, foregone conclusion. Despite all the gloom and doom, the overall message of the book is ultimately a positive one. That is, of course, for those who sympathize with Zola’s antireligious views.

Paris features a large ensemble cast of characters and numerous intertwining story lines. Like the literary maestro that he is, Zola deftly conducts the various plots, punctuating them with moments of suspense and uniting them all in the end for a climactic, dramatic crescendo. The first two books in the Three Cities trilogy are fine, but nothing awe-inspiring. Paris, on the other hand, represents a return to form on the part of Zola to the glory days of the Rougon-Macquart cycle. Though it may not be equal to such masterpieces as Germinal or La Terre, Paris certainly deserves its slot on the shelf next to Zola’s greatest novels. The biggest drawback to the book, and the trilogy in general, is length. These are giant books packed with big ideas, and they in no way can be considered light reading. When all is said and done, however, it is worth the investment of time and energy in reading Lourdes and Rome just to experience how the trilogy culminates in this excellent finale. Fans of Zola will find their efforts handsomely rewarded.

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