Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Emile Zola - 'Doctor Pascal'

translated by Mary J. Serrano
After just over five years, I have come to the end of my project of reading the entire Rougon-Macquart Cycle by Emile Zola!

The Rougon-Macquart is a series of twenty novels set in Second Empire France which purport, by way of demonstrating the effects of heredity on individuals, to provide a complete history of a single family over five generations and the society in which they lived. They are often bleak novels, but it's been a worthwhile effort. After reading all twenty novels, I'm convinced Zola's Cycle is one of the greatest achievements in post-industrial literature. Any serious reader of literature should have at least two or three of these novels under their belt, especially if they are interested in late 19th Century fiction, social justice, or realism.

For those who wish to go further and tackle the entire Cycle, there are two ways to do so: in the order Zola published the novels or in the order in which he preferred them to be read. I would strongly recommend the latter as it provides much better insight into Zola's overall structure. Whichever way you choose to go, however, no one should read Doctor Pascal first. It should always be read last, whether you take on the whole Cycle or just a few of the best entries.

There are two reasons for this. First, Doctor Pascal doesn't work all that well as a stand-alone novel. The characters are well-drawn, but the plot is not as engaging or hard-hitting compared to many of Zola's other works. Second, Doctor Pascal's true purpose is to function as a thematic capstone. As a result, a good deal of exposition is dedicated towards Zola's themes of heredity and the engines of society. This material is only loosely integrated into the plot by way of being presented as the life's work of Doctor Pascal in maintaining a well-researched Rougon-Macquart family tree. This means that long stretches of several chapters will, frankly, be of little interest to anyone who doesn't have a high level of familiarity with the Rougon-Macquart family.

The plot primarily concerns the titular character and his niece Clotilde Rougon, who form a romantic relationship (with surprisingly minor repercussions). Sub-plots involve a relatively large number of other family members, much like the Cycle's introductory novel The Fortune of the Rougons (which also should be read only if you plan to get a deeper feeling for Zola's overall accomplishment). The sub-plots update us on the lives of Felicite Rougon (as shrewdly obsessed with appearances as ever), Adelaide 'Dide' Foques, Maxime Rougon, his illegitimate son Charles, and the reliably white-trashy Antoine Macquart. I won't spend much of my post discussing the specific plot and sub-plots because my interest in Doctor Pascal was entirely wrapped up in its role as a thematic capstone.

Zola's Rougon-Macquart family tree
While The Fortune of the Rougons provided the initial stories and background of most members of the family, Doctor Pascal ties up loose ends. Of course, many Rougon-Macquart family members died or had their fates clearly resolved within their specific novels. For those who did not, Doctor Pascal contains a series of 'epilogues'. Again, much of this material has little or nothing to do with the plot of this novel, so it's hard to imagine anyone without a lot of background in the Cycle being interested in these epilogues.

From my standpoint, however, I loved it! The epilogues relate the ultimate fates of Eugene Rougon, Sidonie Rougon, Octave Mouret and his wife Denise, Helene Mouret Grandjean, Jean Macquart, and Etienne Lantier. Some of the characters have died, while others are still making their way in life and having children. Elsewhere we receive updates: Aristide Saccard is still a greedy slime preying on the weak, Victor Saccard has vanished into the shadowy underworld of Paris, Serge and Desiree Mouret still enjoy their marginal existence, and Pauline Quenu is thriving at the heart of the dysfunctional Chanteau family.

Pascal's work in researching and maintaining the family tree serves a couple purposes Zola has on his agenda. First, it allows him to put his themes and viewpoints into Pascal's mouth as dialogue. While Zola handles this quite well, that doesn't excuse his usage of such a ham-fisted means of conveying ideas. To someone coming to Doctor Pascal without much background from the Cycle, this material (and there's a lot of it) will seem pedantic, preachy, and boring. As an example of this content, in Chapter 2 Pascal voices Zola's philosophy on life in opposition to the religious views promoted by Clotilde:
"I believe that the future of humanity is in the progress of reason through science. I believe that the pursuit of truth, though science, is the divine ideal which man should propose to himself. I believe that all is an illusion and vanity outside the treasure of truths slowly accumulated, and which will never again be lost. I believe that the sum of these truths, always increasing, will at last confer on man incalculable power and peace, if not happiness. Yes, I believe in the final triumph of life."
Zola could be Doctor Pascal at his desk
As you can tell, this 'dialogue' is really a very thinly disguised manifesto. Pascal - and, thus, Zola - go on to explain that Life is "God, the grand motor, the soul of the universe. And life has no other instrument than heredity." Zola is not a narrow determinist, however, as he later acknowledges that heredity is "an effort towards resemblance thwarted by circumstances and environment." So he allows that we are more than our genes. Whether he believes humans possess any true free will or that we are merely actors driven by a blend of genetic and environmental influences is something that I could not guess at without reading a biography about him. Getting back to the Cycle, one of Zola's objectives in writing it is to use the analysis of the family as a metaphor for Second Empire France. For this reason, Zola goes into great detail about how he believes heredity works via Pascal's character-by-character synopsis of the entire family.

Pascal's family tree project also provides Zola with a platform from which to defend - or perhaps justify - the reason for his magnum opus to even exist. For example, towards the end of Chapter 5, Clotilde finally forms an "understanding of him [Pascal] at last, and confessing to herself that he was attempting in this an immense work. In spite of everything, it was a cry of health, of hope for the future." After reading some of Zola's 'light-hearted romps', it's not surprising the author felt a need to defend his decision to write at length about so many depraved and vice-ridden characters. This need was likely increased by the genuine shock and outrage several of his novels incited upon publication. Even in today's context of cynical post-modern angst, many of Zola's characters are pretty appalling. But Zola claims to "preserve the impersonal and correct attitude of the demonstrator." In other words: I'm showing you reality; don't blame me if you don't like it! Again Zola uses one of his characters - Clotilde - to voice his ideas, in this case to recognize the 'immensity' and honorable motivation behind his work. That Zola also scripts the religious Clotilde yielding to the judgment of the agnostic or atheistic Pascal provides Zola a vicarious means of accomplishing a victory of reason over religion. These are all questionable literary tactics, but one can kind of forgive Zola given that he was writing Doctor Pascal as a thematic capstone rather than a traditional novel.

Despite the often unsavory - or in some cases non-existent - morality of his characters, Zola's view of life is stated as: "One must live for the effort of living, for the stone to be carried to the distant and unknown work, and the only possible peace in the world is in the joy of making this effort." In essence, Zola views individuals as cogs in the wheel of a much larger human action. This is not a view that will sit well with anyone who espouses the ascendancy of the individual, but it's hardly surprising coming from Zola since it's questionable whether he credits any of us with true free will. This position is problematic, however, because one could argue that Zola has merely replaced religious faith in a deity exercising a divine plan (which he rejects) with society propagating itself as a force beyond any one person. I'm not sure the functioning of humans or society would be much different under the two viewpoints. Only the 'window dressing' would be radically altered.

Despite all this, Pascal/Zola have hope related to their work and to mankind overall. At the very end of Chapter 5 after Pascal has revealed everything to Clotilde about his beliefs and his research, he "remained alone, and he asked himself suddenly, seized by infinite discouragement and sadness, if he had done right in speaking, if the truth would germinate in this dear and adored creature, and bear one day a harvest of happiness." The novel seems to suggest that this is indeed possible through the constant hope expressed that one of the newly born progeny of the Rougon-Macquart family - perhaps even the child Pascal and Clotilde have - may represent a new and better direction for the future. In Zola's case, the fact that his works have lasted suggests there is indeed hope that ideas can bear a harvest one day.
Visiting Zola's grave in Montmartre Cemetery