Friday, November 13, 2015
The Death of Olivier Becaille by Emile Zola
Cadaver’s eye view
Emile Zola’s novella The Death of Olivier Becaille was originally published in 1884. This short work consisting of five chapters can be read in its entirety in under an hour. The very first sentence tells you that the story is narrated by a dead man. The title character, always somewhat sickly and frail, has finally succumbed to illness. Nevertheless, he still maintains some awareness from within his immobilized corpse. He can hear what’s going on around him, and for a while can even see out of one eye. He listens to the cries of his grieving wife and her discussions with the neighbors as to his funeral arrangements, all the while wishing he could reach out and comfort her, but being unable to do so. Though the experience of death that Zola presents is certainly unconventional, who’s to say that he’s wrong? In this engaging work, dead men do tell tales.
The grotesque subject matter is reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe, and Zola proves he can find entertainment in the macabre just as skillfully as the American master of horror. Zola was often labeled a literary bad boy for concentrating on the repulsive or loathsome aspects of life, and here he clearly revels in that role. Frequently accused of wallowing in the gutter, here he wallows in the grave. Zola probably wasn’t the first writer to approach a story from this angle, and he certainly wouldn’t be the last, but in his day this tale would likely have been shocking to all and offensive to many. Beyond the chills and the shock value, however, Zola applies his naturalistic sensibility to the proceedings. Much like he did in his collection of short stories entitled Death, he uses the funerary subject matter as an opportunity to depict the living conditions of the lower class. At the time of his demise, Mr. and Mrs. Becaille are new arrivals at a shabby boardinghouse in Paris. Down on his luck, Becaille has come to assume an unspecified “petty appointment.” Through the first-person narration, the reader is privy to Becaille’s memories and dreams. As he recounts the events of his life, his joys and disappointments are revealed. Zola’s social consciousness adds an extra dimension to the narrative that elevates what could have been merely a sensationalistic penny dreadful to a moving work of realist literature. Like Zola’s novel Thérèse Raquin, it combines gruesome thrills with pathos and poignancy.
This brief work is not in the same league with Zola’s masterpiece novels of the Rougon-Macquart series, like Germinal or La Terre. It deserves five stars nonetheless because for what it is, it’s quite successful. Though not an incredibly profound work of literature, it is a fun read with hints of deeper meaning and a thoughtful moral lesson. The Death of Olivier Becaille is a must-read for Zola fans, and Poe fans just might like it too.
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