Thursday, March 24, 2016

Naïs Micoulin by Emile Zola

Love between rich and poor
Naïs Micoulin, a novella by Emile Zola, was published in 1884. The title character is a young woman who lives with her mother and father at a remote country estate on the coast of Provence. The family manages the land and maintains the house on behalf of its owner, Monsieur Rostand, a lawyer who resides in the nearby city of Aix. Occasionally Naïs ventures into the city to bestow a tribute of fruit and fish on the landlord, and the Rostands spend periodic vacations in the country with the Micoulins. Under this arrangement, Naïs grew up alongside the lawyer’s son, Frédéric, and the two formed a close childhood friendship. As he grows into manhood, Frédéric begins to take his father’s fortune for granted and becomes more and more indolent and rash. Unbeknownst to his parents, his evenings are often spent on wine, women, and gambling. One day, Naïs comes to Aix for one of her periodic visits, and Frédéric is astonished to find that she has blossomed into a beautiful woman. Naturally, he seizes the opportunity of another family trip to the coast to pursue a romantic relationship with her.

In many ways, this story is Zola’s love letter to Provence. He obviously delights in describing the beautiful countryside of his homeland—the forests, fruits, and flowers—and the rural lifestyle of the families that work the land and sea. Naïs goes about her chores with a naturalness and simplicity, as if she were an extension of the picturesque landscape itself. As one would expect from Zola, however, things aren’t all sunshine and roses at this seaside retreat. The old fisherman Micoulin beats the girl and treats her more like a slave than a daughter. Unwilling to allow Naïs a single ounce of happiness, her newfound romance with Frédéric infuriates him. With the master’s son as her lover, however, what can he do? As the relationship between Naïs and Frédéric progresses, the tension between the three key players escalates, and Zola ramps up the suspense accordingly.

Unfortunately, the ending of the story is a bit of a letdown. It’s almost as if Zola goes out of his way to disappoint the reader. He leads you to expect a climactic, romanticized conclusion, then pulls the rug out from under you. Though it may end with more of a whimper than a bang, the story nonetheless stays true to Zola’s naturalistic philosophy toward literature. Real lives don’t often culminate with bombastic confrontations or passionate romance. Nature is much more random, and we are often prisoners to the fate it deals us. Just as he so frankly portrays the darker, less idyllic side of this Provençal paradise, Zola opts for a bluntly realistic ending that spurns expectations honed by literary conventions. Balzac or Hugo might have given you the operatic climax you crave, but Zola makes you wake up and smell the stark reality. This work adheres closely to the mature naturalistic style in which Zola wrote the Rougon-Macquart series of novels for which he’s famous. Naïs Micoulin may not be perfect, or even one of Zola’s best works, but it’s still a beautiful piece of writing that holds true to the master’s literary convictions.
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