Wednesday, February 5, 2020

For a Night of Love by Emile Zola

Deceptively romantic short story
“For a Night of Love,” a short story by French author Emile Zola, was originally published in 1876 in the Russian literary journal European Messenger (Vestnik Evropy). For whatever reason, it never made it into one of Zola’s canonical short story collections, such as Contes à Ninon or Parisian Sketches, so this story is little-known and often absent from “complete works” collections of Zola’s writings, at least those published in the English language. In 1911, however, the Warren Press published a series of thin volumes of Zola works in English that includes For a Night of Love as a stand-alone 64-page book. Unlike the earlier stories of Contes à Ninon, which dabbled in popular romanticism, “For a Night of Love” was published in the midst of Zola’s work on his extraordinary Rougon-Macquart cycle and thus displays his mature naturalistic style. In subject and tone it most closely resembles Zola’s novel Thérèse Raquin, which in 1867 was a flagship publication for the school of naturalism and his first overt declaration of independence from the conventions of romanticism.

Though the title is deliberately misleading, the story begins as love stories often do. A shy, awkward young man who lives alone spies his beautiful neighbor enjoying the moonlight on her balcony. He worships her from afar but considers her out of his league. To liven up his solitary existence, he plays simple tunes on his flute, until one night he discovers his lovely neighbor is actually listening to his musical efforts and apparently finding enjoyment in them. From that moment on, he plays only for her, secretly hoping that by pleasing her ear he might somehow win his way into her heart.

Just when you think you know what you’re in for, Zola, as he is often wont to do, takes the story in a dark direction. From that moment on, the narrative firmly falls within the bleak, harsh realism of Zola’s powerful naturalist novels. More than a mere romance, For a Night of Love is a profound study in human psychology. True to the literary tenets of naturalism, Zola documents the relationship between Julien and Therese with the observational precision of a scientist. Through his depiction of the love that binds the couple together and the differences of class and culture that separate them, Zola illustrates how nature and nurture develop human character and influence the course of life and death.

In my opinion, Zola is history’s greatest craftsman of prose fiction, and For a Night of Love is a very fine example of his work. Its biggest flaw is its brevity, which hinders it from competing with the sheer impressiveness of Zola’s more monumental novels. Along with this obscure little book, the Warren Press also published the hard-to-find stories Love’s Chase and Shell-Fish, as well as a little-known collection of five stories entitled Death. Scanned copies of these books are available for reading and download at the HathiTrust website.
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