Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Emile Zola - The Fortune of the Rougons

In the first novel from Zola's Rougon-Macquart cycle, the foibles, schemes, and depravity of the Rougon-Macquart family and their illegitimate children plays out like something you would expect to see on some nasty episode of The Jerry Springer Show. The Fortune of the Rougons lays out the entire family tree that Zola will dissect over the course of the remaining nineteen novels, exploring how the flawed character traits of one generation emerge in the next two in all sorts of hideous combinations. This is the kick-off to a kind of realism that makes the most exploitative reality TV show of today look classy.

There's Pierre Rougon, who bamboozles his mother and shafts his siblings of their inheritance so he can just manage to get a toehold in a middle class existence. His wife Felicite spends her whole life bitter about her shabby furniture and home and, rather than working hard or being sensible, plots how to get-rich-quick so she can live in a nice part of town and look down on others. There's Aristide Rougon, who writes revolutionary editorials so he can realize a windfall when the rebels take over - and who switches sides as soon as he realizes they won't.  There's lazy, wife-beater Antoine Macquart who sends his children and wife out to work and takes all their money to buy himself nice clothes. His daughter Gervaise has two children out of wedlock (one at age 14) and spends most nights getting drunk with her mother. It goes on and on and on.

"Why read this?" you might ask.  The reason I am fascinated with Zola's bleak and hideous novels is that they reflect so much truth about real human beings. It's amazing how some of his novels still work as reflections of current culture even today, over a hundred years after they were written. His novel The Kill deals with wealthy speculators who make millions but can't seem to stay solvent (or moral).  Sound like Enron? Then there's Nana, the novel about a prostitute who becomes the toast of Paris, despite the fact that she has no talent, and how - almost without meaning to - destroys the lives of everyone around her with her depravity.  Anna Nicole Smith or Paris Hilton?  On top of the brilliant social criticism, his novels are art because of their exploration of heredity and determinism.

Anyway, in The Fortune of the Rougons, we quickly see that almost the entire family is corrupted by the desire for wealth without having to develop any talent or ability in order to get it. Interestingly, the novel also suggests that this family springs from a line plagued by insanity. There are almost no characters with redeeming traits, and one walks away feeling that in this world there is little hope for those who are upright and honest, either in business, love, or achieving happiness. It's the anti-American Dream.

The only two heroic characters are Marie and Silvere. Their romance and sacrifice are especially poignant in the face of the people who actually come out on top. Tracing the rise of the Rougons, it is apparent Zola wishes to illustrate that in human society ideals are wonderful but ultimately it's connections and timing that propel you to the top. Whether he believed this in general or just in terms of the corrupt Second Empire period he is skewering in his novels, I am not sure. What is especially sad is that none of these characters have any especial plans for utilizing their prosperity. They simply want it so they can sit and do nothing. They are as intellectually empty and they are morally bankrupt.

There is no recent translation of this novel that I can find other than the Ernest Alfred Vizetelly translation.  It sounds as though his efforts are somewhat bowdlerized. Further, the editions that are in print nowadays often get slammed on amazon.com for having typos on every page.  My version didn't have this latter issue, but since there isn't any other version available there's little point in complaining.  I actually found Vizetelly's translation clear and easy to read.

My only criticism of The Fortune of the Rougons is that Zola sometimes relies too heavily on exposition as opposed to characterization and action. However, he's covering a lot of ground here and the scope of the family he outlines is pretty vast for such a relatively short book. So I had no trouble overlooking this small issue.  Bottom line, I 'enjoyed' reading it. It was a good story, and there was definitely some dramatic tension in whether pathetic mediocrities such as Pierre and Felicite will actually achieve their ends.  For people who enjoy literature, this is a thinking man's tawdry soap opera, but it is also very bleak and even somewhat depressing in terms of its view of mankind.

While there is really no set order for the twenty novels in the cycle, and they can all be read independently (at least the ones I have tackled so far), The Fortune of the Rougons is the place to start if you want to read any number of these books. I also believe that The Debacle and then Doctor Pascal should be read last as they outline the downfall of the Second Empire and then provide a thematic wrap-up to Zola's purpose in writing the novels.

That said, Zola did provide an order that he preferred. I'll be working my way through the novels in that order and will review each one as I go.

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