Falters in the fourth, but still good overall
Although perhaps a little more Romantic than his renowned Rougon-Macquart series of novels, Les Quatre Journées de Jean Gourdon, as it’s titled in French, is nonetheless a brilliant example of Zola’s mature Naturalistic style. He depicts the natural landscape of Gourdon’s homeland and the intricate details of his everyday life with vivid clarity, which allows the reader to intimately inhabit this character’s world. Yet despite the lucid imagery, there is an ambiguous universality to this man’s life that can be applied to the life of any human being. The quadripartite structure of the story allows Zola to write about four of his favorite subjects: love, war, agriculture, and death. Though this is a depiction of ordinary life, ordinary lives are often punctuated by extraordinary events, and Gourdon’s is no exception. Zola draws parallels between the arc of an individual’s life and the eternal life cycle of nature, granting a dignity and gravity to the existence of the common man. The result is incredibly life-affirming and poignant. At least, this is true of the first three chapters.
On the fourth day, some stumbling blocks arise. The problem with the book’s final section is that it’s almost identical to another novella Zola published in 1880, which I had previously read. Finding the same narrative here again in only slightly altered form was somewhat disappointing. I’m not going to give the name of this other work of short fiction because the title of the piece would reveal a plot spoiler. The occurrence that takes place in both works is handled much better in the exceptional work of 1880. In the life of Jean Gourdon, it just feels out of place, an unfortunate departure from the tone of the overall story. Even if I had not read that other work, and had not been aware of the redundancy, I still think the effect of the final chapter would have been jarring. This incongruity prevents Jean Gourdon’s Four Days from rising to the level of masterpiece, but nevertheless, this is still a great piece of literature. It’s not one of Zola’s absolute best, but certainly a successful effort, and one that any true fan of Zola should read.
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