Sunday, October 20, 2013

Emile Zola - 'Abbe Mouret's Transgression'

I took a break, but I'm still committed to my goal of reading all twenty novels in Emile Zola's Rougon-Macquart Cycle. I just finished the ninth book: Abbe Mouret's Transgression. This is likely the last book to deal with the offspring of Francois and Marthe Mouret, this pairing being of especial interest in the Cycle as they merge the Rougon and Macquart lines (Francois in the son of Ursule Macquart and Marthe is a Rougon).

There are three characters from the family in this novel. The main character is Francois and Marthe's younger son, Serge, who is the abbe of the title. He takes after his mother with his dreamy religious zeal that threatens his sanity. The youngest child of the Mourets', Desiree, also figures in the story. She is a mentally retarded young woman who has an affinity for handling and breeding animals. Lastly, Dr. Pascal Rougon has a small role. What Zola tells us about him is a foreshadowing of his interest in hereditary analysis, Zola's subtext for the entire Cycle.

Like an earlier novel in the Cycle, The DreamAbbe Mouret's Transgression centers on religious themes. Also like that book, there is a fairytale quality to the plot. However, that is where the similarities end. While The Dream was certainly not Zola's strongest work, it was far better than this one. In fact, I'd have to say Abbe Mouret's Transgression is easily the weakest book I've yet read in the Cycle and the first one that was anything less than good. The plot is anorexically undeveloped while the descriptive passages, especially those depicting the vast garden called the Paradou, are tedious and repetitive. So overgrown are these passages that I found myself skimming them, even though I'm well aware Zola often uses such passages to comment on the psychology of his characters. In this novel, the psychology of the characters is obvious so such extensive exposition is neither needed nor desirable.

I also found Zola's handling of his theme to be uncharacteristically obvious and one-dimensional. Serge is a chaste priest, even though his worship of the Virgin Mary verges on sexual desire. This weird tension is an amazing construct, but Zola doesn't go anywhere with it. Zola does depict Serge's ascetic life in a run-down church and how he shrinks from the world in favor of mystical religious musings that leave him terribly out of touch with the realities of his poverty-stricken flock. As part of this, he is repelled by the livestock Desiree breeds near the church. It's as if any sense for the vitality of life and/or sexual desire has been beaten out of him. Even the setting and plant life of the area around the church reflects the impotence of religion: a graveyard, a great dead tree, and stony infertile fields.

After Serge drives himself into a kind of amnesia through his zealous adorations of Mary, he is nursed back to health by Albine, the ward of the town atheist. Albine is a young woman who has been allowed to run free without the restraint of social conventions. She does nothing but roam the Paradou, a massive overgrown garden her guardian controls. Walled-in, the garden is cut off from the rest of the world. When Serge recovers - as an amnesiac - he wanders the Paradou with Albine and experiences the full vibrancy of its life and wild fertility. He and Albine also develop a chaste love. If you haven't scented the Garden of Eden symbolism and predicted the upcoming Fall at this point, then maybe the novel will hold more rewards for you than it did for me. I found it far too obvious, and that made the upcoming 'plot thickener' of Serge's transgression all too predictable.

Even worse, while this Fall - the transgression of the title - is the critical event of the story, the moment it happens is described so vaguely that I missed it and had to go back to locate it. Of course, this might be the fault of translator: Ernest Alfred Vizetelly. He is well-known for purging Zola's text of anything that might smack of an 'R' rating. What was interesting is how Zola cast the other man of the cloth in the novel as the 'serpent' in his Garden of Eden metaphor. Serge's reawakening to the outside world leading to expulsion from the garden.

Thematically, Zola seems to be juxtaposing the fecundity of nature and life, represented by the innocence of Desiree, the townspeople, the Paradou, and the freedom of Albine, with Catholicism's repressive and ascetic 'cult of death', represented by the ghoulish art in the church and the self-abnegation of Serge. By telling the doomed story of Serge's and Albine's relationship, Zola's seems to be illustrating the impossibility of reconciling these two worlds. Serge's dreary world of death kills the joy of everything it touches, and Zola gives us scads of autumn imagery in his descriptions of the Paradou in the last section of the novel to dramatize this (which I found rather trite). He also presents the pair's unborn child as indicative of the impossibility of blending ('breeding') the two world views. It's a fine theme, but the novel just doesn't have enough plot, fully drawn characters, or raw material to do anything interesting with it. It certainly has none of Zola's usual acidic satire or horrifying psychological studies. The only thing that comes close to this is Desiree's comment at the end of the novel regarding the birth of a calf. I may be reading too much into it, but it's almost as if Zola is saying that a mentally retarded woman has more potential to engage in the fundamental fruitfulness, joy, and reality of life than someone like Serge, who has been poisoned by religion's cult of death. He can't even make this reality work when paradise and love are handed to him on a silver platter. 

Like The Dream, this novel lacks Zola's typically dark realism. However, The Dream replaced that element with a mystical tone well-suited to the novel's theme. In Abbe Mouret's Transgression, Zola gives us nothing to replace his usual style. This leaves the novel feeling a bit empty and more like an exercise in descriptive writing.

As religious commentary, The Conquest of Plassans is a much better effort from Zola than this novel. More broadly, no one should start with Abbe Mouret's Transgression as an introduction to the Cycle or Zola and - unless you are planning to read the entire Cycle - I wouldn't suggest bothering with this novel at all.


Anonymous said...

No idea if you're still reading comments on this, but it's fascinating to read your observations - in France, Zola's original is considered his most "literary" work in terms of the complexity of language and the lyrical qualities of his descriptions.

The Vizetelly translations - there are two, the one you've probably got (Ernest's) is actually a revision of his father's original clumsy bowdlerisation, carried out as a result of a court case for obscenity - are rated by Zola scholars as some of the worst translation work of all time (Graham King calls it a "dire effort").

Pete said...

I absolutely do read comments that come through. As I mention in many of the Rougon-Macquart posts, Vizetelly translations are all that's available in English for many editions of Zola's Cycle but they are not to be trusted.

I did not know was there were two Vizetellys! I probably never bothered about the first name, as I simply looked for the surname and avoided whenever possible.

Whatever the backstory, Vizetelly translations are not good because they are edited and 'cleaned up'. I only read them when there is no alternative. At least I can get a certain amount out of them to 'fill in blanks'.

Positively, eatery year or so finds another novel being given a fresh translation in English. One can only hope that English readers will someday have access to the whole of Zola's monumental literary achievement.

Anonymous said...

Fear not, Vizetelly is never your only option - decent (unabridged) English texts exist for all 20 Rougon-Macquart novels.

Thanks to OUP/Penguin/Hesperus the gaps are closing all the time, as you say - in the last ten years we've had excellent modern English paperback editions of Pot-Bouille, The Kill (x2, even though the Victorian version by Texeira de Mattos was fine), The Belly of Paris, The Fortune of the Rougons, and now Money and The Conquest of Plassans are just around the corner - and it hopefully won't be too long before the entire series is covered like this, but in the meantime you still have options.

Of the "missing" Zolas (not counting Money/Conquest), a company named Elek Books undertook fresh, unexpurgated, modern-for-the-time translations of the entire series in the 1950s and second-hand reading copies of those versions are still widely available on online auction sites; the Elek texts are still the best English way to read volumes:

4 (La conquete de Plassans - "A Priest in the House")*
6 (Son excellence Eugene Rougon - "His Excellency")
12 (La joie de vivre - "Zest for Life")
20 (Doctor Pascal)

(* The Vizetelly version of this, The Conquest of Plassans, is actually not at all bad compared to his other heavily-censored hack-jobs - Vizetelly was a staunch atheist and critic of the church and took risks to bring some of Zola's fervent anti-clericalism through in this one, so the one you read is by no means a terrible representation.)

There are also two very good mid 20th-Century English translations of volume 5, La faute de l'abbé Mouret, as either "The Abbé Mouret's Sin" or "The Sin of Father Mouret" (generally avoid the ones titled "Sinful Priest", these are usually expurgated). They put back the sex and sleaze that Vizetelly took out, as well as restoring some of Zola's poetic language (though it's a VERY hard book to translate).

That only leaves volume 8, Une page d'amour, which I don't think has ever been re-translated into English since the one you read, the original Edwardian version by CC Starkweather, long out of print but available freely online. It's one of Zola's "gentler" books and needed no censorship, so while the prose style of Starkweather's translation is rather stilted and old-timey, nothing's actually been left out or bowdlerized as such.

Burble burble burble. I'll stop talking now. I'm just excited to find someone else online talking about Zola!

Anonymous said...

(...Incidentally, while I'm hard on Ernest Vizetelly as a translator, he was a good and loyal friend and steadfast supporter of Zola during his lifetime - he even let Zola stay with him in England when the novelist went on the run in the aftermath of his J'accuse letter, resulting in the French police issuing arrest warrants for the pair of them. He might have been awful at translating, but he was willing to put his neck on the line for Zola's sake, so I'm loath to criticise him too much.)

Pete said...

No burble burble burble at all! I'm very happy to learn of these options, and a lot of what you say follows my experience with the Cycle. I was surprised how acceptable I found Vizetelly's translation of The Conquest of Plassans. Meanwhile His Excellency Eugene Rougon and Le Joie de Vivre clearly have something missing.

It's especially good to know there is a better translation already available for Doctor Pascal. As the final novel in the series (per Zola's order) and one where I expect he lays out his themes overtly, a sanitized translation is just unacceptable.

I've bought each Oxford edition as it comes out (especially happy to hear Money will be translated soon given how topical the theme is for today's world).

Very good news indeed!