Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Emile Zola

Emile Zola is a writer I've come to have quite a bit of respect for. His biggest achievement is his series of twenty novels about a family during the Second French Empire period that, as a whole, are referred to as the Rougon-Macquart novels.  The novels detail the decadence and corruption of the period (the mid to late 1800s) and, while intertwined thematically, each novel can be read on its own.

As a Naturalist, Zola was not interested in the romanticist flourishes of Victor Hugo or Alexandre Dumas.  They wrote about the world from an idealized vantage point. Heroes were larger than life and their lives were filled with amazing deeds, high drama, and romance.  Instead, Zola wrote about people and society as he found it. He didn't sugarcoat or idealize anything; his novels are gritty and bleak and were sometimes even considered shocking and indecent by critics and the public of his time.

One thing I like about him is that his naturalist bent sometimes turns his novels into time capsules, allowing us to feel like we are really in Paris during the 1800s.  For example, his novel The Masterpiece details the life of bohemian artists, and there is an extensive section focused on the all-famous Salon.  The Salon was the 'it' show for artists of the time and, as the twentieth century approached, it became a bastion for the status quo and rejected most of the artists we now all consider great: Monet, Cezanne, Manet, etc. In reading this section of The Masterpiece, I really felt as though I was seeing what the Salon was really like!  Other novels of his do the same thing for the street markets of Paris, the theatre, etc.

Every so often I return to him and read a few of the Rougon-Macquart novels. My long term goal is to get the entire twenty novels under my belt.  What an achievement of reading that would be! The only bad thing is that many of his novels do not enjoy recent translations, so I have to settle for a translation by Ernest A. Vizetelly who translated the entire cycle many, many years ago. While his translations seem pretty crisp, he also bowdlerized the text and removed material he found objectionable making for an inaccurate representation of Zola's style and intent. But I guess beggars can't be choosers.

Anyway, Zola is not easy to read in many ways.  His novels are often very bleak and he generally takes a rather depressing view of mankind (no heroics, noble deaths, or wonders of the human spirit appear in his books).  Anyway, as I'm currently about done with The Belly of Paris, perhaps I'll post reviews for his novels as I read them, as well as for the novels I have already read.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ernest Vizetelly didn't "remove material he found objectionable". His father Henry was one of Zola's first translators into English, and Henry tried (ineptly, but tried) to carry as much of the filth and grit of Zola's original French as Victorian England could stand. It wasn't much, he cut an awful lot out, but he still ended up arrested and imprisoned for publishing indecent material, and his editions ordered to be taken off the market.

His son Ernest then took over the family business, and he had the task of revising Henry's already-bowdlerised translations so that they could be legally published. This meant going through each one methodically and cutting out absolutely everything that might upset the censors or the police. Because they were short of money, Ernest also rewrote the endings of pages that had had "obscenities" on them to fill up the page, so that the following pages wouldn't have to be expensively re-set on the press. The results are the ghastly and inaccurate public domain translations reprinted by Mondial, Pocket Classics etc. today.