Friday, June 22, 2012

Emile Zola - 'The Conquest of Plassans'

One of my goals is to read all twenty novels in Emile Zola's Rougon-Macquart cycle. I got through the first five books rapidly, but then took a break to read other things. However, I never assumed I was giving up and I'm back! The Conquest of Plassans is the sixth novel in the cycle (I'm reading them in the order Zola preferred them to be read rather than the order in which he wrote them). This book is interesting in that it combines a focus on religion and politics.

The story concerns the Mourets, Francois and Marthe. These characters are especially significant in Zola's overarching theme of heredity because this is the only instance where a member of the Rougon line (Marthe) marries a member of the illegitimate Macquart line (Francois). As a result, their marriage and the resulting children: Octave, Serge, and Desiree have special thematic significance.

In The Fortune of the Rougons, where Zola lays out the entire family as he depicts the coup d'etat which establishes the Second Republic, Ursule Macquart Mouret (Francois' mother) is given minimal attention. She is sickly and probably suffering from mental defects akin to those of Adelaide Rougon (the matriarch of the Rougon-Macquart family). Zola, however, asserts Francois took his character from his father, a hatter. That said, the hatter Mouret hangs himself when Ursule dies. On the other side, the graft of Pierre and Felicite Rougon - Marthe's parents - has been clearly conveyed by Zola. Even so, Zola draws a clear connection between Marthe and her insane grandmother (Adelaide) in both this book and The Fortune of the Rougons. In both texts, he references the similarity of Marthe and Adelaide's appearance and demeanor.

The mental weaknesses of the Mourets make them easy prey to the central character in The Conquest of Plassans, Abbe Faujas, a priest sent to Plassans by the Republic in order to recapture political control of the town. The novel's plot revolves around his efforts, and he is depicted as calculating and grasping from the start.  No spoilers here, but little conclusion is provided to the stories of Octave and Serge, because they figure prominently in the next three novels of the cycle. Not sure Desiree makes any further appearance or not but, since she is retarded, her presence may simply be a device with which Zola may tacitly comment on the union of the two branches of the family. As to other characters from the family: Felicite plays a key role, Pierre makes a brief appearance or two, and Antoine Macquart (apparently set up by Pierre) plays his disreputable part by making sure their mother remains safely tucked away in her insane asylum. Where Antoine ends up at the conclusion is so blackly humorous that you don't even laugh (especially in the context of the larger points Zola is making). The point of his presence is to depict in one person the futility of what the entire town of Plassans is undergoing en masse.

While I would have to dig deeper to prove my point, I believe this novel is making assessments of religion and politics, and uniting these assessments to show the destructive power religion plays in 'earthly matters'. First, the religion. The way Faujas manipulates Plassans society - and Marthe Mouret in particular - may be a metaphor for the way religion manipulates people in general. All of Faujas' actions in terms of sociability and charity are motivated by his venal character and have nothing to do with religion, yet he is entirely effective because of the cloak of virtue the Church provides. He is the epitome of a wolf in sheep's clothing and he actually torments Marthe, the person who admires him most. This observation could be extended (or perhaps stretched) to include the novel's conclusion, which involves several character dying in a fire (hell?).

The other metaphor I found was in the lawn game played by the town leaders as they discuss candidates for election. The game is searching for a handkerchief hidden by one player, who cries 'hot hot' or 'cold cold' depending on whether the seekers are looking in the right direction or not. The repeated certainty of finding the hidden item, only to hear the cry 'cold cold' is paralleled with the ridiculously arbitrary way in which candidates are proposed, step forward, and are then discarded. It reminded me of the recent Republican Presidential primary with its parade of 'here today, gone tomorrow' candidates.  There is an acute sense of absurdity and caprice to the entire process.

However, the process is being controlled - by Abbe Faujas. He works behind the scenes, using the mask of his kindness and charitable works to slowly move everything in the direction his backer wants (that backer being Eugene Rougon, who is mentioned with the same caution as Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter movies). The power of religion to manipulate people and society becomes a dangerous weapon when society - and the people that compose it - lack the scruples and/or intelligence to make responsible decisions. While the citizens of Plassans broke free of the influence of the Second Republic, they end up in an election between two dictatorial influences: the Second Republic and the Church. In a sick marriage of influence (a mirror of the Mouret marriage?), Faujas is a Church man who is working for the Republic. So the choice is no choice at all and, on top of that, no one really has a say since Faujas is in the driver's seat. In fact, as Pierre and Felicite end up back in control, the entire process has a futility to it that is blackly satirical. Not surprisingly, Zola is painting a very bleak picture behind his plot of parlour room machinations and poisonous afternoon parties. The thematic aspects of the novel are definitely rich.

The plot is good too, and the book certainly moves. However, I found several things wanting in the narrative which could be either Zola's fault or the result of this being a Vizetelly translation (Vizetelly edited his translations to remove anything salacious). First, it is unclear exactly how Faujas attains control over Marthe. The religious angle is certainly presented and the way it affects her makes sense given her heritage, but it's not strong enough to drive dramatic tension. Key here is the sexual innuendo, which is never really clarified. Maybe I'm more curious than I need to be or am expecting things to more explicit than possible but...what 'base' did Faujas get to with Marthe? Secondly, the issues of insanity in the novel are not clearly dealt with. Knowing the back story from The Fortune of the Rougons, having a theme about the impact of religion, and with the prior book in the cycle (The Dream) dealing with religious passion so clearly, I get what's likely going on. Still, this novel would need a stronger narrative in this area to truly stand alone. As such some of these devices come off with little dramatic build and/or seem abrupt. That is disappointing from Zola, because we know from other novels in the cycle that he is a master of depicting the 'slow motion train wreck' in chilling clarity.

The Conquest of Plassans was a strong - but not great - book.  I enjoyed reading it. The cast of characters does require a bit of a road map or you miss some of the politics, but otherwise it was crisp and well-paced. I think what it lacks is that extra dramatic power (or unflinching ethical 'ick factor') that elevates novels like L'Assommoir, The Masterpiece, and Nana into the dizzyingly unpalatable works of genius that they are.

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