Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A Zola Dictionary: The Characters of the Rougon-Macquart Novels of Emile Zola by J. G. Patterson

A valuable reference for Zola aficionados
Emile Zola
Emile Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle is one of the greatest literary achievements of all time. According to J. G. Patterson, author of A Zola Dictionary, “It occupied nearly twenty-five years in writing, consists of twenty volumes containing over twelve hundred characters, and a number of words estimated . . . at two million five hundred thousand.” Small wonder then, that some readers might feel the need to seek out a guide to help them get their bearings amid this epic series of novels.

The bulk of A Zola Dictionary consists of an alphabetical listing of characters explaining who each individual is and what roles they play in each novel. Even the most insignificant members of the supporting cast—horses, dogs, and cows included—are given brief listings, while the main characters get detailed mini-biographies that often span the plots of more than one novel. Patterson pays particular attention to each family member’s place in Zola’s overall evolutionary vision of the series and the specific personality traits handed down from generation to generation. He also provides helpful context for how the plots relate to the actual events of French history. At the back of the book there is also an alphabetical list of places where the novels are set, but this section is tiny in comparison to the much deeper study of the myriad characters.

In addition to the book’s encyclopedic content, the introduction provides a brief biography of Zola, along with an overview of his works and the critical reception they received. Because A Zola Dictionary was published in 1912, Patterson’s take on Zola’s writing is a bit antiquated and prudish. While he praises Zola for his development of Naturalism, he nevertheless heralds the author’s most Romantic works, like The Sin of Father Mouret and The Dream, as his best, while the far more Naturalistic novel The Earth, one of Zola’s true masterpieces, he regards as offensive. While 21st century readers probably won’t see eye-to-eye with Patterson’s critical views, the introduction is valuable nonetheless as a biographical overview. Patterson also includes a Rougon-Macquart genealogical tree, in which brief descriptions of the family members are arranged in generational order. In addition, Patterson provides short synopses of all twenty novels. These are not arranged in order of publication, but rather in the order in which Zola revisits them in the final novel, Doctor Pascal, which corresponds more closely to the order of the family tree.

If you’re new to Zola, it’s probably best if you stay away from this dictionary, because it will spoil the endings of all the novels for you. The best audience for this book are avid readers of Zola with some degree of familiarity with at least his major novels. For such readers this work will not only serve as a helpful field guide for keeping everyone straight but also as an awesome tribute to the genius of Zola and the impressive scale and depth of his monumental undertaking.

The only magnum opus that really compares to Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle is Honoré de Balzac’s Comédie Humaine. Fans of the latter author will enjoy Repertory of the Comédie Humaine by Anatole Cerfberr and Jules François Christophe, a reference work very similar in style and structure to A Zola Dictionary. My guess is that Patterson patterned his encyclopedic volume after this earlier book.

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