Sunday, March 9, 2014

Emile Zola - 'La Joie de Vivre'

Again, I'm using the French title of one of Zola's novels. While I once thought this was pretentious, the fact is that sometimes the full meaning of a phrase doesn't carry over into English (see this discussion in the post for Pot-Bouille). For example, everyone knows what joie de vivre means but, because the French phrase is so often used, the direct English translation ('joy of life') doesn't really have the same meaning. As such, it's best to use the French title because Zola clearly meant this title with some irony.

La Joie de Vivre is the twelfth novel in Zola's Rougon-Macquart Cycle and, as I read it, I found it surprisingly simple. It tells the story of the Chanteau family's slow motion decay, a familiar device in Zola's novels about the Macquart family. However, in this book, the decay never reaches the utter depths of vice and wretchedness Zola sketches in other Macquart novels. Further, no particular sector of society is embodied or depicted (something Zola does masterfully in Money, The Ladies' Paradise, or The Masterpiece). Finally, the scope of the novel and the cast of characters are small. As a result, my first reaction was that La Joie de Vivre is 'Zola-lite'.

My opinion quickly changed as I began writing this post. I began to see all of the meaning woven into each of the characters and how the comparison and contrast of various characters produces new avenues of thought. La Joie de Vivre emerges as an exceedingly well-constructed book and one in which Zola has an especially firm grasp of his characters and material. At the center of La Joie de Vivre is Pauline Quenu, the now orphaned daughter of Lisa Macquart (see the prior novel in the Cycle: The Belly of Paris). In contrast to the well-fed, pampered child we met there, Pauline is now a model of self-sacrifice and altruism who never appears to attain happiness for herself. Or does she? I went back and forth as I was reading the novel, and I believe ascertaining Zola's intention in regard to Pauline's state of mind at the end of the novel is probably the linchpin to understanding the whole correctly.

Ernest Alfred Vizetelly
In this regard, I disagree emphatically with translator Ernest Vizetelly who, in his introduction (included in the Mondial edition I read), seems to believe Zola is presenting Pauline as an ideal type, a self-sacrificing ray of altruistic sunlight in Zola's otherwise bleak, dysfunctional world. However, this is unlikely to be true as Zola - despite his often critical view of materialism and capitalism - never seems especially sympathetic to self-effacing altruists. He usually views such characters as lambs at the slaughter more than icons of morality for us to admire or emulate. I've just never had the impression Zola accepts the 'meek shall inherit/turn the other cheek' morality of Christianity. He seems too aware of human nature and the way human society works for that.

However, I believe Vizetelly knew Zola, so I might be on pretty thin ice to say he seems off the mark in his introduction. For example, he notes  that "Zola is not usually a pessimist". I have a hard time understanding how he can take this position. Perhaps it is a true assessment of the man himself, but I have found the Cycle to be a rather black view of human nature and human society. To call Zola a 'pessimist' however would presume too far, given the content of the Cycle and my limited knowledge of the man himself. More correctly, I'd lean on his loyalty to realism (which can seem very much like a pessimism depending on the subject). But I digress...

So, since I believe Zola's characterization of Pauline is the linchpin of the novel, what is he up to? Pauline is presented as sacrificing for everyone around her, denying her own happiness to secure that of her foster family and the man she loves (who doesn't earn her devotion), and even allowing herself to be bled dry of her fortune. At the end of the novel, she literally breathes life into the weak half-dead baby of Lazare and Louise, the woman he ends up marrying. Pauline loses quite a bit and is nearly ruined financially. However, despite this slow slide from security to misfortune, it's important to note that Zola doesn't end the novel with Pauline in utter destitution or dead or anything as dire as that. Instead the novel ends with the household restored to some semblance of family life, and Pauline is at the epicenter. She runs the household and everyone is dependent upon her in some way. Despite the dysfunction around her, I think this is ultimately what Pauline wants.

So it seems Zola presents Pauline, in sacrificing as she does, as achieving some level of happiness with the hand she has been dealt. I don't pick up any indication from Zola's text that he applauds her selflessness nor jeers at her foolishness. Ultimately, there seems to be two levels of analyzing Pauline. First, that she has a kind of joie de vivre within her dysfunctional life due to her willingness to give up to others. Second, Zola clearly shows that her sacrifices rarely help anyone around her. Her alms are wasted, her support of Lazare could be seen an enabling his foolishness, her friendship towards Louise is bent to make Lazare happy. In every case, her 'altruism' has no helpful impact and, in some cases, a very negative effect on those around her. She always seems to have some personal agenda deep down and one might almost be able to make a case that Pauline is a villain, stunting the lives around her with velvet manipulation.

Notably, most of the other characters fail to find peace or happiness of any kind. Madame Chanteau's obsession with raising the family's station is thwarted at every turn. This is most notable in Lazare, the son she pins all her hopes on, who is in reality a failure. Lazare fails in all his various schemes and, in one case, even sees someone else succeed visibly due to standing on the work he began. Nothing he produces, even his child, is untainted by failure. Aside from his big dreams, he can neither find modest success (through gainful occupation/employment) or happiness in marriage. As the story progresses, Lazare is possessed by a paralyzing fear of death. Louise, the frivolous heiress who ultimately hitches her star to Lazare, becomes a petulant (and penitent) wife playing the melodramatic lady in a downtrodden village. The head of the Chanteau family sinks deeper and deeper into deforming gout, and the village itself is slowly being inundated by the sea. Bad news all around.

For Pauline, in comparison, little changes aside from her bank balance. She runs the household and seems happy caring for all its inhabitants. The only servant inexplicably hangs herself, almost as if to vacate the role Pauline is moving into. Chanteau adores her ministrations to his pain-wracked joints. Louise - in personality - becomes a replacement for the now dead Madame Chanteau. Despite his marriage, Lazare remains in the family home and Pauline dotes on his baby. The alms Pauline gives help support the drunks, thieves, and deadbeats of the destitute village ('money down a rathole' was never so perfectly portrayed). In the final analysis, while Pauline's life is harsh - and by implication will become harsher still - she has what she wants and is able to take joy from it.

Still Life With Bible
Vincent Van Gogh
Oil on canvas, 65.7 x 78.5 cm
Even so, this is no 'happy ending' in any traditional sense of the phrase, and it is certainly not touting the ostensibly Christian virtue of altruism. If there is a moral judgement, as I said, it almost seems to be questioning the efficacy of altruism in securing happiness for anyone. My interpretation of La Joie De Vivre along these lines - as a Realist view of altruism - received a boost while I was searching for images to accompany this post. I stumbled on this Van Gogh painting, which depicts a family Bible, along with a worn copy of La Joie de Vivre in the foreground.

I was amazed to see this overt reference to Zola in a Van Gogh and was very interested when I learned that Van Gogh apparently read Zola quite extensively. You can read a post from a site about Van Gogh, which poses some fascinating information about Van Gogh's admiration of Zola that sets up the likely contrast between the Bible and La Joie de Vivre which Van Gogh intended this painting to convey. It sounds much like what I pulled out of Zola's novel on my own.

For me, interpreting La Joie de Vivre might have been easier with a deeper understanding of Zola himself. So it occurred to me that, given the time I'm investing in reading the Rougon-Macquart Cycle, I should get this background. This was a good time to think about doing so, because I have previously read the next two novels in the Cycle: L'Assommoir and The Masterpiece. So while I get around to piecing together posts based on my recollections of those novels (they are among the best in the Cycle), I have time to take a break from the Cycle to read a biography of Zola.

After a bit or searching on the web, the biography that seemed the best for my purposes is Frederick Brown's Zola: A Life. It sounds like it not only covers Zola's life but also contain some analysis of his output. Perfect! At 803 pages (not including notes), this should give me everything I could possibly want to know!

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