Monday, November 8, 2010

Emile Zola - 'The Dream'

I just finished the fifth book in Zola's Rougon-Macquart cycle: The Dream. This book was different from any of the others I've yet read in the cycle. There was none of the overt social commentary or slimy depravity that I would have said before was typical of Zola's work. In fact, the main character (Angelique) is a young girl who largely lives a decent life. Her moral dilemma, though, is played off against what Zola terms her 'hereditary evil' (her connection to the Rougon-Macquart family is that she is the abandoned, illegitimate daughter of Sidonie Rougon). Sidonie is the only other member of the family to make an appearance in The Dream. She appears briefly at the beginning, but only to repel Angelique's potential guardians and convince them it's better if Angelique thinks her mother is dead. We don't get any better idea of what Sidonie's deal is, but she is nevertheless portrayed as an extremely shady character with a lot of skeletons in her closet.

The tone of The Dream, while providing Zola's usual naturalistic details, is also at odds with the other books in that it is set in a rather idyllic peaceful little town. Angelique is an embroiderer and provides her works for the Catholic Church, a far cry from the graft and corruption that typifies the occupations of the rest of the family. There is a lot of Catholic symbolism and mysticism in the book as a result. In fact, 'mystical' would be a good word to describe the tone of the book. It has an almost fairy tale kind of feel to it that diametrically opposed to the gritty realism of Zola's other books, and there are scenes that are downright romanticist and/or smack of the sentimentalism usually found in Charles Dickens' version of realism.

However, underneath the dreamy, mystic aura, Zola is up to his usual tricks. I think what's going on here really is a kind of social commentary: an attack on religion (and Catholicism specifically). As the (admittedly thin) plot progresses one gets the feeling that Angelique has given herself up completely to a sort of religious renunciation of reality. There is an implication in the last several chapters that prayer and faith in the supernatural is a dead end, and also - in Angelique's ultimate fate - the suggestion that triumphing over the evil in our hereditary nature - while possible - can only truly come about with the destruction of our humanity. Essentially, the only pure human is a fictitious human, like the dead saints Angelique adorates, a 'dream' if you will. This dark truth lives underneath the peaceful setting, the supposedly decent characters, and the mountains of religious symbols, like the piece of dirt at the center of a beautiful pearl.

While well-written, I did not enjoy The Dream as much as I have many of the other books in the cycle. Perhaps because it is so (melo)dramatic, and I found that jarring coming from Zola. Part of it must also be that the plot is rather thin and the descriptive passages can become rather tedious after a while. Definitely not the best book in the series, and I wonder if there will be others with a similar tone or if this one is an oddball of some sort.

Micheal Glencross' translation is recent and very readable. I'm always happy to get a volume of the cycle translated by anyone other than Vizetelly - as he freely admits to bowdlerizing Zola's novels as he translated them.

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