Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Rougon-Macquart Cycle by Émile Zola

Outline of a masterpiece
Émile Zola, painting by Edouard Manet
On this, the date of his birth, April 2nd, Old Books by Dead Guys takes this opportunity to honor the great French author Émile Zola by celebrating his 20-novel magnum opus, the Rougon-Macquart cycle. Published from 1871 to 1893, this series of books comprises one of the most ambitious achievements in the history of literature. J. G. Patterson, in his reference work A Zola Dictionary, states that Les Rougon-Macquart “occupied nearly twenty-five years in writing, consists of twenty volumes containing over twelve hundred characters, and a number of words estimated . . . at two million five hundred thousand.”

The only endeavor in French letters that’s comparable to Les Rougon-Macquart is Balzac’s Comédie Humaine, a collection of over 90 novels, short stories, and essays written from 1799-1850 in which the author attempted to explore every aspect of French society. While Balzac’s stories vary widely in setting from medieval times to the present, Zola’s focus in the Rougon-Macquart books is much narrower and sharper. His 20 novels all take place during the Second French Empire (1851-1870)—the reign of Emperor Napoleon III (the nephew of the more famous Napoleon I). Zola concentrates on the members of one family who lived during this crucial period of modernization in France. Through the lives of these sons, daughters, siblings, and cousins, Zola examines various social, political, and economic phenomena of the era.

The Rougon-Macquart novels are united not only temporally but also stylistically. With a few incongruous exceptions, these 20 novels all exemplify the literary movement known as Naturalism. Though a few writers preceded Zola in the development of Naturalism, his work is acknowledged as the apex of the movement, and he its most ardent proponent. Naturalism sprang out of the scientific advances of the 19th century, most notably Darwin’s theory of evolution. Naturalist writers seek to show how external forces such as heredity, environment, and social conditions mold the characters of individuals. They often employ a very descriptive style of prose based on empirical observation of the real world, even when such observation requires them to unflinchingly depict the uglier, baser sides of life, such as poverty, immorality, and violence.

It was not merely for stylistic or dramatic reasons that Zola chose to connect these 20 books by familial links. The focus on related family members gives Zola the opportunity to illustrate evolutionary concepts. The members of this fictional family are all descended from one woman, Adélaide Fouque, and her two lovers, Monsieurs Rougon and Macquart. From book to book, Zola shows how hereditary characteristics, both physical and behavioral, are passed down from generation to generation. He saw these novels as laboratories, and the cast of characters as test subjects in an experiment. Regardless of the accuracy of that viewpoint, the introduction of scientific themes into fiction resulted in a significant departure from the existing state of literature. Naturalism, as exemplified by Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle, combines the epic drama of old-school Romanticism with the gritty honesty and social consciousness of modern Realism. 

Click on the titles below to read my complete reviews of the individual books. The ratings may seem harsh, but when I give a Zola book one or two stars, that’s relative to the high standards one expects from Zola, not compared to literature in general.

Novels in the series

La Fortune des Rougon (The Fortune of the Rougons) (1871)

In the fictional town of Plassans (a surrogate for the author’s hometown of Aix-en-Provence) Zola plants the roots of the Rougon-Macquart family tree and outlines its first three generations. When the coup d’etat takes place in 1851 that puts Napoleon III on the throne of France, the fates of the various family members rise and fall according to which political side they’ve chosen. (4 stars)

La Curée (The Kill) (1872)

Aristide Saccard (born Aristide Rougon) strikes it rich in Paris through a series of shady real estate deals. He pours his wealth into the building of a magnificent mansion where he throws lavish parties for the wealthiest Parisians. With the extravagant flow of cash comes the loosening of morals. A vivid portrait of the corruption of the Second Empire, but probably the worst book in the series. (1 star)

Le Ventre de Paris (The Belly of Paris; The Fat and the Thin) (1873)

Lisa Quenu, the daughter of Antoine Macquart, operates a butcher shop in the neighborhood of Les Halles, the huge central marketplace of Paris. She finds her comfortable middle-class lifestyle threatened when her husband’s brother Florent, an escaped political prisoner, arrives and takes up residence in her home. (4 stars)

La Conquête de Plassans (The Conquest of Plassans) (1874)

A new priest arrives in Plassans, Abbé Faujas, who rents a room in the home of the Mourets (François Mouret of the Macquart family, and his wife Marthe Rougon). The clergyman soon begins to wield his social and political influence in the affairs of the town, and insinuates himself more and more into the lives of his hosts. (4 stars)

La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret (The Sin of Father Mouret) (1875)

Serge Mouret (son of François) becomes parish priest in the small rural village of Les Artaud. His severe religious fervor is shaken when he falls in love with a local girl. This novel is one of the more Romantic in the series—a departure from Zola’s trademark Naturalism—and thus one of the least successful. (1 star)

Son Excellence Eugène Rougon (His Excellency Eugene Rougon) (1876)

Eugène Rougon is a powerful Minister in the government of Napoleon III. Through his own vanity and ambition, and some political maneuvering on the part of his rivals, he falls into disfavor with the Emperor and with the public, but he won’t go down without a fight. (3 stars)

L’Assomoir (The Dram Shop) (1877)

A gritty portrait of working class life and an unflinching study of the destructive effects of alcohol, L’Assomoir follows Gervaise Macquart’s decline from a respectable life as a hard-working laundress to a living hell of chemical dependence, abject poverty, and moral depravity. A masterpiece of Naturalism. (5 stars)

Une Page d’Amour (A Love Episode) (1878)

Hélène Mouret, a beautiful young widow, unexpectedly falls in love again but finds herself in a situation in which her virtuous reputation may be compromised. This melodramatic love story doesn’t fit in with this series of novels at all, but it’s not without its charms. (2 stars)

Nana (1880)

Nana Coupeau, the daughter of Gervaise Macquart of L'Assomoir, escapes her humble beginnings by becoming an actress. Despite having little talent, through her sheer natural beauty she proceeds to enslave the wealthiest men of France and suck them dry of their funds and their dignity. A baudy commentary on the decadence and decay of Parisian morals. (4 stars) 

Pot-Bouille (Pot Luck; Piping Hot; Restless House) (1882)

Focusing on a middle-class apartment building, its inhabitants, and its servants, Zola illustrates how individuals of various social strata scheme, strategize, and compromise their personal ethics in order to claw their way up the societal pyramid. A lesser-known work, but one of Zola’s best. (5 stars)

Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Paradise) (1883)

In this sequel of sorts to Pot-Bouille, Zola turns his attention to the world of commerce. Octave Mouret, who stars in both books, inherits a thriving business—one of Paris’s first department stores. He enlarges the shop into the grandest shopping mecca in Paris, swallowing up neighboring real estate and bankrupting his small-time competitors. (4 stars)

La Joie de Vivre (Zest for Life; Love of Life; How Jolly Life Is!) (1884)

It becomes clear early on that the title of this book is meant to be sarcastic. Pauline Quenu is sent to a bleak village on the Normandy coast to live with relatives of her departed father. There she leads a persecuted existence with little joy to speak of. One of Zola’s most depressing books. (2 stars)

Germinal (1885)

Zola’s greatest work, and my favorite novel of all time. Étienne Lantier, another child of Gervaise Macquart, arrives in the northern town of Montsou and finds employment at the local coal mine. When he experiences first-hand the appalling working and living conditions, he becomes a labor organizer and urges the miners to strike for better wages. (5 stars)

L’Oeuvre (The Masterpiece) (1886)

Claude Lantier (brother of Étienne), ekes out a bohemian existence while struggling to make a living as a painter. The academic establishment that controls the annual salon exhibitions repeatedly scorn his modern, innovative style. A tale of artistic obsession and a vivid look at the Parisian art world at the dawn of impressionism.  (4 stars)

La Terre (The Earth) (1887)

When the aged patriarch of a farming family decides to divide up his holdings among his three children, they respond not with gratitude but with mutual animosity and treachery. Jean Macquart, an honest, hard-working farmhand, is caught up in the siblings’ private war. This grittily realistic portrayal of agricultural life is one of Zola’s greatest works. (5 stars)

La Rêve (The Dream) (1888)

Angélique Rougon lives in the shadow of a centuries-old cathedral, where she embroiders tapestries and vestments for the church with her adopted parents. The serenity of her sheltered existence is suddenly interrupted when a young man enters her life. Almost a fairy tale, the novel bears little resemblance at all to Zola’s more Naturalistic works. (2 stars)

La Bête Humaine (The Human Beast) (1890)

Jacques Lantier, an engine driver on the railway line from Paris to Le Havre, feels an uncontrollable urge to kill every woman he’s attracted to. He’s not the only one with murderous intent, however, in this violent thriller that combines film noir suspense with social commentary on the negative societal effects of industrialization. (4 stars)

L’Argent (Money) (1891)

Aristide Saccard, previously featured in La Curée, has since lost his great fortune to some bad investments. He soon comes up with a new plan for a big score, however, and doesn’t shy away from unethical deals or fraudulent tactics to see his get-rich-quick scheme become reality. A study of greed and the financial opportunism rampant in Paris at the time. (4 stars)

La Débâcle (The Debacle; The Downfall) (1892)

This excellent war novel focuses on two soldiers from contrasting backgrounds—Jean Macquart (from La Terre), and Maurice Levasseur—who fight in the service of France at the devastating Battle of Sedan. Zola brilliantly details the tragic effects of the Franco-Prussian War on all walks of French life. (5 stars)

Le Docteur Pascal (Doctor Pascal) (1893)

Pascal Rougon is a retired physician with a scientific interest in evolution. To aid him in his research on the subject, he studies his own family history (as depicted in the previous 19 novels). This book is more than just an epilogue, however, but a novel in its own right. In his old age Pascal falls in love with a younger woman, which forces him to examine his priorities and question whether his has been a life well lived. (4 stars)

After completing the Rougon-Macquart cycle, Zola went on to write two more series: the Three Cities trilogy—consisting of Lourdes, Rome, and Paris—and the Four Gospels—Fruitfulness, Labor, Truth, and Justice (the last unfinished at the time of his death). His Naturalism had a powerful influence on world literature, including the work of American writers like Frank Norris, Jack London, Theodore Dreiser, and John Steinbeck.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this guide. It will come in handy.