Friday, August 1, 2014

Nouveaux Contes à Ninon by Emile Zola

Zola’s sketchbook
Emile Zola’s first book, published in 1864, was Contes à Ninon, a collection of short fiction of various styles, tones and subject matter. The stories are ostensibly narrated by a writer who has just left Provence to try his fortune in Paris. He dedicates the stories to Ninon, the love that he left behind. Ten years later, Zola published a second collection of short writings, Nouveaux Contes à Ninon. In this volume’s address to Ninon, Zola speaks as a writer who has experienced some success in his field, but also some persecution for his unconventional style. While the first volume of Contes was a hodgepodge produced by a writer finding his way, in Nouveaux Contes it is evident that Zola has come far in the development of his mature Naturalistic style.

The last two pieces in the book are novella-length works, but the other thirteen entries are all very brief. One hesitates to call these very short works stories, because in many cases they are merely sketches and feel like disembodied scenes lifted from a novel. The most successful of these brief pieces, surprisingly, is “The Paradise of Cats” (and I am not a cat lover), primarily because it is one of the few that has the structure of a complete story: a beginning, a middle, and an end. As for the rest of these brief sketches, many of them are attempts to be cute and clever, and the humor falls flat. The best offerings in this category are the ones in which the social consciousness Zola is famous for shines through, such as “My Neighbour Jacques” and “The Blacksmith,” both studies of working men, or “The Slack Season,” a tragic depiction of mass unemployment.

The piece entitled “Souvenirs” (“Memories,” in French) is a hundred pages of rambling thoughts divided into fourteen sections. These are neither fiction nor essays, but rather subjective reflections. Zola starts out with rather frivolous and tiresome pieces on birds, flowers, hunting, or public bathing. In these vignettes he seems merely to be flexing his descriptive muscles for the sake of literary exercise, and it’s all quite modernist in its pointlessness. The last three pieces, however, in which Zola discusses his personal memories of war, are quite moving and do much to redeem this disparate assortment as a whole.

The final piece, “Jean Gourdon’s Four Days,” is a novella of about 80 pages that’s divided into four chapters, each of which describes a day in the life of the title character, a Provençal farmer. Each day takes place in a different season of the year, and each represents a different stage in a man’s life. Though the days are spaced decades apart, the reader gets a sense of the full arc of Gourdon’s life. Though the fourth day is weaker than the rest of the book, overall it’s a very powerful and moving piece that celebrates the life cycle of the natural world and dignifies man’s place within it.

As a collection overall, Nouveaux Contes à Ninon is a mixture of the good and the bad. The one must-read piece here is "Jean Gourdon’s Four Days." As for the rest, there’s not much here that’s indispensable. Only the most avid Zola fans need read this collection in its entirety.

Stories in this collection:
To Ninon
A Bath
The Strawberries
Big Michu
The Fast
The Shoulders of the Marchioness
My Neighbour Jacques
The Paradise of Cats
The Legend of Cupid’s Little Blue Mantle
The Blacksmith
The Slack Season
The Little Village
Jean Gourdon’s Four Days

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