Friday, February 21, 2014

Contes à Ninon by Emile Zola

Zola’s stylistic adolescence
Emile Zola’s first book, Contes à Ninon (or Stories for Ninon, in English), was originally published in 1864. In the introduction, the narrator, ostensibly Zola himself, dedicates the book to his childhood love, Ninon. When the two were young friends and lovers he used to whisper stories to her amidst the fields of their native Provence. Now he sets these tales down in print. The result of this unnecessary convention is that most of the stories are bookended by direct addresses to Ninon, though they would have been better off without them. There’s nothing else that ties the stories together, and this fictional muse merely encourages Zola to wax poetic in excess.

At this early stage in Zola’s career, he had yet to develop his mature naturalistic style and was trying to find his authorial voice. This is evident in the broad variety of styles he employs. A few of the stories are a far cry from any sort of realism and give a good idea of the state of literature before Zola arrived to shake things up. If you happen to like romantic tales of nymphs, sylphs, and fairies, then you’ll be right at home with stories like “Simplice,” “The Ball-Program,” and “The Love-Fairy.” Probably the closest resemblance these idylls bear to any of Zola’s later, greater works is the Garden of Eden imagery in The Sin of Father Mouret or the fairy-tale romance of The Dream.

The most successful stories in the book are the more naturalistic ones that give an inkling of the socially conscious novels for which Zola would later become famous. Probably the best story in the book is “She Who Loves Me,” in which the narrator, lonely and depressed, enters a sideshow tent at a fair and peeps through a hole in the wall, hoping to find the elusive love of his life. Though it’s a very good story, Zola incorporated it almost verbatim into his first novel, Claude’s Confession, so if you’ve already read that then you’ve seen this scene before. In another story entitled “Blood,” four soldiers spend the night on a battlefield littered with dead and experience nightmarish visions. Though beyond that, there’s not much of a plot, one begins to see the power of Zola’s unflinching, even brutal prose. “Sister-of-the-Poor” is a Balzac-esque fantasy story about a poverty-stricken yet generous young girl that is granted the power of unlimited charity. Though it’s hardly an example of realism, it does showcase Zola’s sympathy for the lower classes and his ability to vividly and movingly depict their plight.

The entire second half of the book is taken up by a twelve-chapter novella entitled “The Adventures of Big Sidoine and Little Médéric.” This is an absurd satire along the lines of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels or Voltaire’s Micromégas. The two title characters grow up together as brothers, yet one is a giant while the other is of miniscule stature. Together they represent the dichotomy of brawn and brains, respectively. Sidoine is big enough to move mountains with his meaty paws, while Médéric is small enough to sit inside his ear. Together they leave their comfortable homeland to venture off in search of the Kingdom of the Happy. It’s all very delightful for about twenty pages; unfortunately, it’s a hundred pages long.

Contes à Ninon is not a necessary read for Zola fans, but it’s not a waste of time either. Stylistically, Zola throws everything into this collection but the kitchen sink, and it’s fun to watch him try his hand in some unexpected genres. Ultimately, however, the only reason anyone would dig up these old stories is out of appreciation for Zola’s masterful novels, so you’d be better off spending your time on those great novels and pushing this collection off to the side.

Stories in this collection
To Ninon 
The Ball-Program 
She Who Loves Me 
The Love-Fairy 
The Thieves and the Ass 
The Adventures of Big Sidoine and Little Médéric

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