The tent-pole piece in this collection of five stories is Emile Zola’s “The Attack on the Mill.” Originally published in the 1880 French collection Les Soirées de Médan, this story was intended by Zola to be a sort of manifesto for his new literary school of Naturalism. During the Franco-Prussian War, the peaceful lives of a miller, his daughter, and her fiancé are violently interrupted when their picturesque mill in rural Lorraine suddenly becomes a battleground. The version of the story included here is its original incarnation, a decidedly bleak and unromantic picture of war, and thankfully not the later variation which was altered with a happily-ever-after ending.
I’m not familiar with the author François Coppée and have no idea if he had any association with Zola, but his story “The Substitute” reads like it could very well have been written by the father of Naturalism himself. After a life spent in and out of reform schools and prisons, committing petty crimes and paying for them, Jean François Letruc decides to turn his life around. This excellent story is even better than Zola’s entry, and would be perfect were it not for an ill-chosen title which gives too much of the story away.
And now for something completely different. “The Venus of Ille” by Prosper Mérimée is a horror story. An archaeologist on a sketching trip through the region of Roussillon, in southern France, pays a visit to a local resident who recently unearthed an ancient statue of a woman. The most puzzling aspect of this bronze goddess is that she is depicted not only with remarkable beauty but also with a mysterious vengeful quality. This piece is not as dark and chilling as the stories of Edgar Allen Poe, but bears more resemblance to some of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales of the uncanny. The story unfolds slowly, taking its sweet time, but it’s well worth the wait.
In addition to these three great selections, the collection is rounded out by two other solid entries. In “The Sempstress’ Story” by Gustave Droz, the title character recalls how a renowned physician saved the life of her sick child. There’s nothing special or surprising about this one; it’s just a well-told tale. “The Virgin’s God-Child” by Emile Souvestre is set in Douarnanez, a seaside town in Brittany. It resembles the works of Sir Walter Scott, as the author delves into Breton folklore and culture in a manner quite similar to Scott’s treatment of the Scottish highlands. Ultimately the atmosphere becomes more important than the story. Though I’ve had the good fortune to visit Douarnenez and enjoyed Souvestre’s vivid depiction of Brittany, this was my least favorite entry in the book.
Any lover of classic literature, particularly those with an interest in France and its history, will find this collection well worth their time. For those familiar with Zola and other A-list French authors, this book provides a good introduction to four lesser-known French writers who are definitely worthy of attention.
For some reason, neither Amazon nor Project Gutenberg offers ebook files of the French volumes in the Stories by Foreign Authors series, but they can be found for free at Wikisource.
Stories in this collection
The Substitute by François Coppée
The Attack on the Mill by Emile Zola
The Virgin’s God-Child by Emile Souvestre
The Sempstress’ Story by Gustave Droz
The Venus of Ille by Prosper Mérimée
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