Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Conquest of Plassans by Emile Zola

A hidden treasure
This is the fourth novel in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series about life during the Second Empire in France. Unfortunately, it is a lesser-known work, long out-of-print (though one can find it in ebook form now). While this book is not one of Zola’s masterworks, it certainly doesn’t deserve the level of obscurity into which it has fallen. The story takes place in the fictional town of Plassans, in Provence. A new priest comes to town, Abbé Faujas, and he and his mother rent a room in the home of the Mourets (François Mouret of the Macquart family, and his wife Marthe Rougon). At first stand-offish and shy, Abbé Faujas soon learns the amount of social and political influence that a clergyman can wield in a small town, and he starts to get more and more involved in the affairs of Plassans. He also starts to insinuate himself more and more into the lives of his landlords, much to the chagrin of François Mouret. It’s an election year, and as various politicians and church officials play a kind of chess game for the votes of Plassans, the once meek and mild Abbé becomes more power-hungry. Is it possible his previous mild-mannered behavior was just an act to conceal a hidden political agenda? This book has a light-hearted satirical tone overall; it’s not one of Zola’s deep, philosophical works. Those who have read The Fortune of the Rougons will enjoy the depiction of Plassans and the further development of some of the characters that appeared in that first book. The characters are engaging and the plot has some surprises in it. Zola seems to have had fun writing it, and it is a fun ride for the reader.
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