Wednesday, March 11, 2020
Love’s Chase by Emile Zola
Can I get a mistress?
In my quest to read the complete works of Emile Zola, I am occasionally surprised to turn up an obscure short story that is inexplicably absent from the Complete Works collection I own. Such is the case with “Love’s Chase.” I’m not sure when or where this story was originally published in French, but an English translation was one of several thin volumes of Zola stories that were published in 1911 by the Warren Press. The Love’s Chase book runs about 90 pages. Scanned versions of these Warren Press books can be found at the HathiTrust digital library.
Love’s Chase reads more like a book of Balzac than Zola. The narrator, a young man named George de Vaugelade, has left his provincial home in Lower Normandy to venture into Parisian society. Under the guidance of a former school chum more experienced in worldly ways, Vaugelade clumsily navigates a dinner party at the home of a Comtesse who is a “sort of aunt” of his. The innocent Vaugelade has heard rumors of how married Parisian women take on young lovers for extramarital entertainment. When in Paris, he feels, he should do as Parisians do, so he sets about naively trying to figure out how to start one of these clandestine relationships.
At the Comtesse’s salon he meets two attractive candidates for the position of mistress, both married to politically influential men. At first he can’t decide which one to pursue, and when he does make up his mind, he can’t decide how to make a pass at her. I had trouble simply telling the two ladies apart. One is a blonde, the other a brunette; one is named Berthe, the other Louise; one is Madame Neigeon, the other Madame Gaucheraud. Which woman possesses which three of those characteristics, however, was often quite puzzling to me, and I’m not sure if even Zola got it right every time. Nevertheless, the story is about Vaugelade’s journey from provincial bumpkin to sophisticated paramour. Along the way Zola briefly sketches scenes of Parisian life, such as the annual salon at the Académie des Beaux Arts and the races at Maisons-Laffitte.
As one would expect from Zola, Love’s Chase is a fine piece of writing, but it’s neither satirical enough to be funny nor earnest enough to be meaningful. It amounts to a rather frivolous commentary on the notorious French custom of taking mistresses. The only thing characteristically Zola about this story is its anticlimactic ending, proving that in the name of realism he would rather deliver a let-down than a cliché. Zola is at his best when writing socially conscious works about the lower classes. A comedy of manners is not his forte and is best left to Balzac. Love’s Chase is not one of his better stories, and Zola fans need not consider it a necessary read.
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