Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Mysteries of Marseille by Emile Zola



A catalog of corruption and misery
This early novel by Emile Zola was originally serialized in the French newspaper Le Messager de Provence in 1967. It could be properly classified as a feuilleton—a 19th century French term denoting a popular serial potboiler. Readers of Zola’s day would await the latest installments of such serials in much the same way many 20th century television viewers faithfully tune into their favorite soap operas, and expecting much the same brand of tawdry thrills. Even Zola would likely admit that this is the most commercially pandering work he ever published. It was written at a time when he was still struggling to make a name for himself as a writer. He hadn’t quite developed the mature naturalistic style that he would employ in his Rougon-Macquart novels. Nevertheless, bits of his trademark naturalism still shine through in this sensationalistic tale.

Philippe Cayol is a happy-go-lucky working class ladies’ man who falls in love with Blanche de Cazalis, an orphaned daughter of nobility. In the heat of passion, these two young star-crossed lovers decide to elope. Nowadays to elope means to run off and get married without permission, but in those days elopement had the more serious connotation of taking the woman’s virginity. Usually after the deed was committed, her family would acquiesce and approve a hasty marriage, in order to preserve the family honor. No such luck for Philippe in this case. Blanche’s uncle and guardian Monsieur de Cazalis has no intention of welcoming such riffraff into the family. Despite the shame and stress it may cause his niece, he goes public and denounces Philippe as a kidnapper and rapist. The shocking scandal rocks Marseille and the surrounding countryside, inciting unrest and violence between the upper and lower classes. Philippe’s brother Marius, more serious and hard-working than his ne’er-do-well kinsman, resolves to free his brother from the clutches of his persecutor and restore his good name.

In the hands of a more lighthearted writer like Alexander Dumas this might have been a delightful piece of frivolous trash, but here very little fun flows from Zola’s pen. The book is comprised of 63 chapters, none of them short, and most of them far too long. Zola uses the narrative of Philippe and Blanche as an opportunity to catalog every variety of corruption and vice that southern France has to offer. For example, in trying to raise money to bribe a jailer, Marius goes to see a usurer about a loan. This chapter is followed by another chapter in which Marius and friends just sit around talking about other usurers they have known and the dastardly deeds they have done. The same exhaustive treatment is given to shady real estate deals, investment fraud, forgery, government kickbacks, and a host of other white collar crimes. When Zola’s not listing off the sins of the upper classes, he’s wallowing in the squalor of the lower.

The Mysteries of Marseille is obviously influenced by Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, but whereas Hugo romanticizes the class struggle with the intention of inspiring reform, Zola merely sensationalizes it for the purpose of selling copies. There’s no doubt that Zola was a socially conscious author, as evidenced in his later, greater works, but in this early effort he comes across as heavy handed and shallow. Audiences of his day might have been titillated by such sordid fare, but today’s readers are likely to find it tedious and hackneyed. Diehard fans of Zola may feel compelled to read it out of simple curiosity, but will come away with the realization that he’s got at least 20 novels that are better than this one.

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