Monday, June 3, 2013

Death by Emile Zola

Five divergent paths to the grave
Death is a quintet of short stories by Emile Zola, each detailing the death and burial of a different character. The Comte de Verteuil, age 55, is a rich man of noble birth who has enjoyed much success in business and held great political influence. Madam Guérard is a 60-year-old widow who supports her three lazy and profligate sons. Madame Rousseau and her husband, through much hard work and sacrifice, have lifted themselves up from the ranks of the poor to become the middle-class proprietors of a stationery store. Charlot Morisseau, a sickly young child of poor parents, has lived a brief and dismal life of poverty and hunger. Jean-Louis Lacour is a poor old farmer who has worked like a draft horse his entire life, until one day his seemingly limitless stamina finally gives out. The declines and falls of these five individuals are depicted with Zola’s trademark naturalistic veracity. He gives us five unglamorous and unglorified examples of the extraordinary dramas that mark the endings of ordinary lives.

The purpose of this book is not merely to wallow in morbidity by dwelling upon the universal inevitability of mortality, but rather to compare and contrast the lifestyles, demises, and funerary customs of five distinct social strata. Zola begins with the representative of the wealthiest class and works his way down. Not surprisingly for Zola, none of these characters, rich or poor, can be said to lead a particularly happy life. Their five sagas combine to form a sort of mini Les Misérables confined to a scant 90 pages. The brevity of the work is belied by its depth and power. This is vintage Zola storytelling. He provides a grittily detailed perspective into the lives of these five individuals, examining each with intricate complexity and remarkable authenticity.

The American edition of this book was published in 1911, and that’s all I really know about it. Death is absent from every “Complete Works of Emile Zola” collection that I’ve ever seen. Though he wrote most of his short stories in the early part of his career, before achieving success as a novelist, these stories are definitely a step above the melodramatic tales indicative of his early work and are more in keeping with the mature naturalistic style of his Rougon-Macquart novels. The 1911 printed edition contains a fair number of typographical errors, and the English translation, which can be a bit dull and clumsy at times, doesn’t do it any favors. Despite such defects, however, the power of Zola’s vision shines through.

Though I’ve always found Zola’s short stories to be quite inferior to his novels, this book is the exception to that rule. The short stories of Death are like the seeds from which five great Zola novels might have sprung. Though it may be one of the most inconspicuous books in his catalog, it deserves a spot on the shelf among some of his better novels. Any true fan of Zola should read it.

Stories in this collection
I. Comte de Verteuil 
II. Madame Guérard 
III. Madame Rousseau 
IV. Charlot Morisseau 
V. Jean-Louis Lacour 

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