Monday, September 1, 2014

The Attack on the Mill by Emile Zola

Beware of the altered ending
“The Attack on the Mill” is a short story by Emile Zola. It was originally published as “L’Attaque du moulin” in an 1880 collection entitled Les Soirées de Médan, which featured stories by six writers including Guy de Maupassant, Joris-Karl Huysmans, and Paul Alexis. Zola owned a house at Médan, outside Paris, where he would gather with his writer friends to discuss literature. From these evenings arose the literary school of Naturalism. Les Soirées de Médan was meant to serve as a sort of manifesto for this new literary philosophy. All the stories were set in the recent Franco-Prussian War. The aim of the authors was to depict the events of war in a more realistic light than the romantic and patriotic battle narratives which were prevalent at the time. Zola’s unglamorous style was quite ground-breaking and controversial for his day, but today’s readers can see how his Naturalism was a giant leap forward for world literature, the influence of which is still felt today. I have yet to find an English translation of Les Soirées de Médan in its entirety, but “The Attack on the Mill” is available as an individual ebook file and is included in many omnibus collections of Zola’s work. It is sometimes also found under the English title of “The Miller’s Daughter.”

Zola opens the story by describing the picturesque scene of the mill, nestled amid the foliage along the river Moselle in a village in Lorraine. Here lives the old miller and his daughter Françoise. She has found love in the form of Dominique, a youth from across the river, and the two have just announced their betrothal. A month later, however, their peaceful happiness is interrupted by the war, and their wedding day is postponed by the arrival of a troop of French soldiers. The old mill has all the advantages of a makeshift fortress, so the soldiers establish their camp there and hunker down in wait for the Germans. The miller and his family are forced to resign themselves to this unwelcome tide of events. The war shall go on, regardless of their love, hopes, or dreams.

Compared to some of Zola’s later works, like the Rougon-Macquart novels, “The Attack on the Mill” doesn’t quite exemplify Naturalism in its purest form. There’s still a fair amount of Romanticism and melodrama in the story, particularly in the earlier chapters, but it’s nevertheless a drastic departure from the literary tradition that came before. Zola’s war lacks the ideological bombast of a Victor Hugo battle. Here not everything happens for a reason, people are killed by stray bullets, and sometimes death is just pointless. Honoré de Balzac at times displayed the same bitter cynicism toward war, but where he might express such feelings with a rakish wit, Zola manifests his with a brutal realism. The story is riveting, and the reader never knows who’s going to live or die until the final shot is fired.

Unfortunately, matters are complicated by which edition you happen to find. The original version from Les Soirées de Médan has a bleak and abrupt ending. However, in later editions, a happy ending was added! I’m not sure if Zola himself crafted this new ending to make the story more palatable to a wider audience, or if some editor took it upon himself to tack on this blissful abomination, but either way it’s a betrayal of the original intention of the work. Your experience of the story will differ drastically depending on which incarnation you read. If you’re unclear which version you have, just stop reading when you get to the word “Victoire!”

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