Five Years Later

I posted my first review here at Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau five years ago last week. A satisfying milestone, especially as more people visited last year than ever before. And surely not all of them are trying to plan a trip to Switzerland…

In preparing these comments, I looked back at last year’s anniversary post. Most of the things I said there remain true. Most of all I still wish I wrote more regularly. But I’m doing better about not beating myself up about it. And overall I’m feeling more optimistic about lit blogs in general. I know there was that recent piece about how book blogs are dead, and I know some smart bloggers wrote rebuttals. I’m grateful to my comrades for doing so, but I confess I didn’t read either the original take or the responses. Maybe some people think blogs are over, but that’s not the way it feels to me. There are still plenty of people out there, ploughing their various fields, and giving me all kinds of new things to think about and titles to hunt down. (I’ve said it before, but I swear to God the first thing I’m going to do this summer is add a blog roll.) Without exception, the people I’ve come to know through the online lit community have been smart, funny, warm, and generous. And best of all, they are real readers. Although I’ve been lucky enough to meet a few in person, most I know only in the spectral way of the internet. And yet I do feel I know them. At a time in my life when I don’t interact with many readers on a daily basis (which might surprise you, given that I’m an academic, but there you have it), I really cherish that community.

As for the coming year on the blog, I suspect it will be much like the last: a series of too occasional, too long meditations on stuff I’ve been reading. I plan to add a few things. For example, I’m writing monthly round-up posts. I’ve pledged to host a group reading of a long nineteenth-century Danish novel in May (please join!). And when the semester ends I will try, as I did last year, to write a few essayistic pieces.

Until I re-read the plans I made last year, I’d forgotten I suggested coordinating a celebration of Primo Levi’s centenary. (I’m puzzled that no one seems to be talking about this milestone.) Having committed to the Big Danish Novel in what is prime reading and writing time (just when the semester ends) I’m not sure when this going to happen, but I think it’s important to commemorate this wonderful writer, so I will devise some kind of plan, however modest. Let me know if you have suggestions. In fact, if you would like to help me (primarily by keeping me accountable) I would be ecstatic. Levi’s hardly forgotten, but his oeuvre is more varied than you might think. Plus, as a writer of witness, and as a person who found the worlds of science and literature mutually enlivening rather than entirely separate, he remains as relevant as ever.

And then there’s Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries, which I have sadly neglected after such a strong start. I hope to get back to it. But I know the siren-song of another giant NYRB release will be calling my name come summer.

If I can get my act together, the long-suffering Keith and I will continue our slow tour through Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle. I’ve loved sharing Keith’s writing, as I have Nat’s. Reading Olivia Manning with Scott was typically satisfying. If you’re looking for a (very modest) platform for your bookish writing, let me know. I’d love to have more contributors here, either regularly or as a one-off.

Before I close, let me list a few highlights from the past year:

Heartfelt thanks to everyone who stopped by the site this year. Your interest and support mean so much.

Onwards! That book mountain isn’t going to climb itself.

2018 Year in Reading

At first, I thought my 2018 reading was good but not great. But then I looked over my list and I kept remembering books that had left an impression. Maybe not a lot of books for all time, but plenty of high-quality stuff.

I read 126 books in 2019 (and abandoned a lot of others). Of these, 67 were by women and 59 by men; 99 were originally written in English and 27 in translation. 17 were audio books; 14 were re-reads.

Some highlights:

Kapka Kassabova, Border. A book I keep coming back to, and if it weren’t for a certain gargantuan novel (more below) this would be my book of the year. Border, as I wrote for #BulgarianLitMonth, is “about the periphery, places where resistance to centralized authority often succeeds, though usually at the cost of poverty and marginalization.” Kassabova’s journeys through Thrace (the intersection of Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey) is filled with indelible portraits; it is the rare travelogue that is more about the people the writer meets than the writer herself.

Phillip Marsden, The Bronski House: A Return to the Borderlands. Back in June I described this book as “a story about home and exile amid the violence of the 20th century. It is a meditation on the idea of return. And it is a portrait of a sweet and moving friendship that crosses generations, sexes, and cultures.”

Jon McGregor, Reservoir 13. I think about this book all the time, even though I listened to the (gorgeous) audio book way back in March. A novel about the passing of time as marked by the rhythms of the natural world. I’m considering adding it to my Experimental British Fiction class for its brilliant use of passive voice (except the last thing that class needs is another book by a white guy).

Laura Lippman, Sunburn. Brilliant noir that subverts the genre’s misogyny. (I think it’s a response to Double Indemnity.) At one point I made a few notes for an essay, abandoned for now, about what life was like before the Internet, when serendipity seemed to structure what we knew, and many things were hard to know. This book is set in the 90s, not just for the backdrop of the Clinton impeachment hearings, which it uses to good effect, but because not knowing, or barely knowing, or needing to find someone who knows what you need to know is central to the plot.

Alfred Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz. Michael Hofman’s translation is a triumph (his afterword is fascinating); he makes Döblin’s collage of idioms and styles live for English-language readers. Not a book to love, for me at least, but certainly one to admire. Even more fun than writing about it was reading what Nat had to say.

Nick Drnaso, Sabrina & Liana Finck, Passing for Human. My two favourite comics in a year of good ones. (Honourable mention to Jason Lutes, for his satisfying conclusion to the Berlin trilogy). At first glance, these books have nothing in common, but they’re both dark and troubling, and they use the form in such interesting ways. I wrote about Sabrina here. You’ll hear more from me about Finck.

Helen Dunmore, Birdcage Walk. Even though this book felt a bit misshapen and truncated (it was her last and I’m sure her health was bad as she was completing it), it’s stayed with me much more than I expected. I wrote a bit about it here. I’ll read more Dunmore this year, starting with The Siege. If you have other favourites, let me know.

Lissa Evans, Old Baggage & Crooked Heart—One of this year’s many blogging regrets is that I never made time to write about these two novels. I read Old Baggage (2018) on the recommendation of various Twitter friends, and then tracked down Crooked Heart (2014) at my local library. This reverse order turned out just fine, as Baggage is a prequel to Crooked; knowing what has happened to get the child protagonist to the situation he’s in at the beginning of Crooked makes the earlier book even more poignant. If you’re allergic to poignancy, though, don’t worry. Evans is funny (in real life, too—follow her on Twitter) and anything but sanctimonious or sentimental. Which could have been a real risk: each of these books, set in England during the 1920s-40s, describes a boy’s relationship with two older women, ersatz parents. Even though each is in her own way a social misfit, the women have a lot to teach the child, whether it’s how to make a speech or how to pull a con. I loved both books, but preferred Baggage because the child plays second fiddle to the indelible Mattie Simpkin, a former Suffragette leader who, in her declining years, challenges herself to galvanize a generation of young women who are taking for granted the gains made by their elders. (As far as they’re concerned, Mattie and her ilk are just “old baggage.”) What happens, Evans asks, when the movement you’ve devoted your life to fades away? As great as Mattie is, she’s not even the best character: that would be her friend and sometime amanuensis, nicknamed The Flea, so kind, so loving, so long-suffering, so surprising. Old Baggage is a quick read, but it’s packed with things to think about and enjoy. You’ll have to get it from the UK but it’s worth it.

Jessie Greengrass, Sight. Smart novel/essay about the pleasures and pains of making the invisible visible.

Olivia Manning, The Levant Trilogy. Scott and I wrote about these wonderful books. Maybe not quite as amazing as their predecessors, The Balkan Trilogy, but there’s one scene in the first volume that is such a stunner.

Rachel Seiffert, A Boy in Winter. I hate almost all contemporary novels about the Holocaust. But Seiffert won me over, partly by emphasizing the Shoah by bullets (the murderous movement of the SS Einsatzgruppen across the Soviet Union in 1941-2), partly by focusing on victims, perpetrators, and bystanders alike, and complicating those seemingly separate categories, and partly by her thoughtfulness about the relationship between assimilation and survival. I even forgave the book for being written mostly in first person, a pet peeve of mine. (Long live the past perfect, I say.) I also read her first book, The Dark Room, also about the war years: also good, though not as light on its feet as Boy.

Brian Moore, The Mangan Inheritance. Seventies books are the best books.

Marlen Haushofer, The Wall, translated by Shaun Whiteside. This book is a wonder, so still and careful and joyous. It’s about a woman who survives some sort of apocalypse that leaves her trapped in a lovely, though also punishing alpine valley, with only various animals for companionship. I reveled in the details of the narrator’s survival and the suggestion that it might take a complete rupture for women to find their place in the world. John Self says the rest of Haushofer’s (small) body of work is good, too.

Émile Zola—Some of the year’s greatest reading moments came from the project Keith and I launched to make our way through the Rougon-Macquart cycle. We read three novels this year (at this rate, our kids are going to be in college before we’re done) and it was such a pleasure thinking about them with him. The Fortune of the Rougons was tough sledding, but The Belly of Paris and The Kill were great. I’m obsessed with Zola’s use of description, and how that tendency threatens to derail the aims of the naturalist project (if we in fact take those aims seriously; Tom cautioned me not to) and even the idea of narrative itself. We’re committed to continuing with Zola in 2019—maybe I can get my act in gear to read and write a little faster.

And my reading experience of the year: Jonathan Littel, The Kindly Ones, translated (heroically) by Charlotte Mandell.

I’m sad I never made time to write about this, the longest (900+ pages) book I read in 2018. I read 20-50 pages each day in June, and as soon as I finished we left on our long Canada vacation and the moment for writing about it passed. But I have thoughts! This extraordinary novel of the Holocaust is narrated by Maximilian Aue, an SS officer who experiences most of the significant moments of the war and the Final Solution: he’s in Paris in the summer of 1940, and at Stalingrad two years later. He’s with the Einsatzgruppen as they extinguish Jewish life in the Ukraine (including a horrifying set piece describing the events at Babi Yar), he’s in the Caucasus, he’s in Vichy France, he’s in Pomerania as the Red Army overruns the Germans. It’s amazing how Littel makes Aue’s peregrinations seem plausible rather than a Forest Gump-like gimmick. Early on, I found the novel so grim and distasteful that I could only read 20 pages at a time—I asked Mandell, always so gracious on Twitter, how she could stand to translate it, and she told me it was hard, and even worse when she started to dreamed about it. Aue is not a nice man, but he’s smart and erudite and a compelling storyteller. He’s so much more reasonable, though I shudder to put it this way, in his extermination of Jews and other so-called undesirables than most of the men he works with, and he has the decency to make himself sick over what he’s done that occasionally we forget what the hell is really going on and even look on him kindly. Quite a trick how Littel pulls us towards accepting or at least understanding the intellectual underpinnings of fascism while never letting us forget what a failure it would be to really be seduced. There’s an utterly engrossing lengthy section in which Aue and various other officials discuss whether the Mountain Jews of the Caucuses (descendants of Persian Jews) are racially or “only” ritually Jewish; that is, whether they ought to be exterminated or not. The cold-bloodedness and ethnographic hairsplitting of the conversation offer a powerful example of how men can set notions of decency or morality aside.

The Kindly Ones is ultimately a flawed book: alongside the political/ideological explanations, Littel gives Aue another motivation for his actions—his incestuous love for his sister. (This is the strand that references the Orestia, the last volume of which gives the novel its name.) Littel never reconciles these political and personal strands, so that in the end all of his work at showing the all-too-human motivations for genocide is undone by the psychopathic aspects of this second strand. But the accomplishment here is tremendous. I don’t know if anyone less obsessed with the Holocaust than me could ever enjoy—well, let’s say value—such a book, but I was very taken with it, especially because the book wanted me to feel gross about feeling that way.

Some bests and worsts:

Best new (to me) series: Robert Galbraith (a.k.a J. K. Rowling)’s Cormoran Strike & Robin Ellacott books. A little bloated, but Galbraith knows how to tell a story. From the classic meet cute in the first pages of the first volume, Galbraith pushes my buttons and I don’t care. The plots are genuinely suspenseful, and the “will they/won’t they” storyline between the private detective and his temp-become-full-fledged assistant is catnip. I recommend the audio books.

Best Holocaust texts: Georges Didi-Huberman, Bark (beautiful essay on some photographs the author took on a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau); Molly Applebaum, Buried Words: The Diary of Molly Applebaum (the story of how Applebaum survived the war is incredible, as is the cognitive dissonance between that text and her postwar memoir, also included in this volume); Nechama Tec, Dry Tears (I will be writing about this memoir soon).

Best book by Dorothy B. Hughes: I read four Hughes novels this year. The Expendable Man, her last, was my favourite, and I think it’s a genuinely great book because it implicates readers in its cultural criticism. I enjoyed the more famous In a Lonely Place, but I preferred the first half of the earlier The Blackbirder. Hughes isn’t a conventional suspense writer: plot isn’t her strength. What she’s brilliant at is describing how people deal with threats they know about but can’t escape. That skill is evident from the first page of The So Blue Marble, her first and mostly utterly preposterous novel. Even though Hughes’s protagonists aren’t always women, she writes from a position women know only too well: being victimized not by some unknown person, but by someone close to them—someone the rest of the world is slow to suspect. This accounts for the atmosphere of desperation and fear that characterizes her work. I’ll hunt down more Hughes in 2019.

Best essay about prison libraries hiding inside what pretends to be a crime novel: George Pelecanos’s The Man Who Came Uptown.

Best crime discovery (I): Anthony Horowitz, who I’ve in fact been enjoying for years as a longtime fan of (a.k.a. total suck for) Foyle’s War. The Word is Murder is pure genius: Horowitz puts himself in the story, uses the oldest odd-couple idea in the book, and still makes it work. Clever and fun. Afterwards, I read the earlier Magpie Murders, similarly clever and fun, though not quite as genius as Murder, which, I am delighted to see, looks like it will become a series.

Best crime discovery (II): Lou Berney, who lives just down Interstate 40 in Oklahoma City and isn’t afraid to write about it. The Long and Faraway Gone was good, but November Road is great, and I say that as someone allergic to anything to do with the Kennedy assassination.

Book I had to stay up all night to finish: Cherie Dimaline, The Marrow Thieves. Indigenous Canadian dystopian YA—will follow her career with interest.

Best thriller—Lionel Davidson’s Kolymsky Heights, by a mile. His first, The Night of Wenceslas, is weaker, but the guy can write a chase scene.

Best SF-alternate history-who knows what genre this is and who cares: Lavie Tidhar’s Unholy Land. Tidhar hasn’t always been to my taste, but he’s always worth thinking with, and here he delivers a compelling story that imagines a Jewish homeland in Africa. (Modelled of course on one of the many such plans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.) A thoughtful book about borders, as sad as any book about that topic must be, and as such relevant to everyone.

Most vexing: P. G. Wodehouse, Thank you, Jeeves. It is delightful! But can it be delightful with a minstrelsy sub-plot?

Interesting, but I don’t quite get the fuss: Oyinkan Brathwaite, My Sister, the Serial Killer; Anna Kavan, Ice. I wrote about my struggle to teach the latter.

Books I liked at the time but have sunk without a trace: Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend is a good dog book and a book about a good dog. As I recall, it seems to be suggesting autofiction is intrinsically good at portraying grief, which is interesting. But although I enjoyed it a lot at the time, I never think of it now. I should be the target audience for Maybe Esther (Trans. Shelley Frisch), Katya Petrowskaya’s investigation into and speculation about the fate of her family in the Ukraine during WWII. And it really has its moments (there’s a great bit near the beginning about a ficus plant). But somehow it didn’t add up for me. I might like it a lot more on a re-read—do you ever feel that way about a book?

Disappointments: Claire Fuller, Bitter Orange (not terrible, and on the face of it the sort of thing I like best—Gothic country house, unreliable narrator—but underwhelming; maybe Our Endless Numbered Days was a one-off?); Ian Reid, Foe (fair bit of buzz about this quasi-SF, quasi-philosophical novel concerning humans and replicants, but I didn’t think it was as smart as it seemed to think it was).

Lousy: Leila Slimani, The Perfect Nanny (histrionic); Emma Viskic, Resurrection Bay (overwrought); Arnaldur Indridason, The Shadow Killer (losing his way, I fear).

Reliable pleasures: Tana French (Witch Elm deserves a better fate: it’s typically gorgeous and tricksy, but for the first time French concentrates on an individual rather than a relationship; I’ve read some grumbling about it, and I don’t get it); Jeanne Birdsall (Penderwicks 4eva!); John Harvey (the new book is his last and it is very sad); Ellis Peters (check out Levi Stahl’s lovely piece); Ian Rankin (came back to Rebus after many years away, and am catching up—sometimes the writing is bad, but he’s good at weaving subplots, and at knowing when a book is long enough); Phillip Kerr (making my way through the Bernie Guenther’s and they’re evocative, suspenseful, and damn funny: hard to pull off).

*

My big regret for 2018 is that I wrote almost nothing for publication. I was tired after a few very busy years. And I was scared to pitch new venues after some of the journals I’d been most associated with folded in 2017. I’m aiming to write more in 2019. Here on the blog, I would love to write more frequently and less longwindedly, but I’m coming to realize that over-long, close-reading analyses are what I do best (or what I do, anyway). I’m going to try something new, though, as a way to say a little something about more of the books I read: at the end of each month, I’ll write a round-up post, something like Elisa Gabbert’s magnificent year-end piece. I don’t have her lightness or ease, but I think it will be an exciting challenge.

As always, I’ve loved reading and writing with friends this past year. For the first time I even included a post about a book I’ve never even read (thanks, Nat!). I’d love to have more contributions from other readers and writers. If you want to suggest something to read with me, just let me know. And if you just want a place to share your thoughts about a book, say the word. I do have one concrete suggestion: join me and others to read a long Danish novel about canals and Jews! And I know I will be avidly reading Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad when it comes out this summer. And I will make it back to Anniversaries, I promise. Other than that, I’ll probably keep reading as waywardly and haphazardly as always. Although a hedgehog in personality, I am a fox when it comes to reading.

Thanks to everyone for reading and commenting in 2018—I hope you’ll stick around for more in 2019. After all, the blog is turning 5 next month! And if you want to see my reflections on the last few years, you can read about 2014, 2015, 2016 & 2017.

 

Spent: Émile Zola’s The Kill

Keith and I continue to make our way through Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series. You can find his take on The Kill here.

The Kill is a great book, light-years more compelling than its predecessor, The Fortune of the Rougons, which Keith and I wrote about not so long ago. You could absolutely read this without having read the earlier book. In fact, I think Kill is the perfect entry point into Zola’s work.

The book is at once a miniature and an epic. It’s short—well under 300 pages—with a small cast of major characters. It has thematic density and coherence: its three great subjects—financial speculation, urban modernization, and the equation of spectacle and desire—are different iterations of the same dynamic and destructive energy. And its style is similarly uniform: the book is composed mostly of fabulous blocks of descriptions that show how significant and yet destabilizing appearances can be. An early description of the Bois du Boulogne—the vast new park that is the setting of the opening and closing scenes—is larded with the language of artificiality: what seems natural is anything but (conversely, what seems contrived is, in the Paris of the 1850s, understood as quite natural): a grouping of evergreens is “theatrical,” its foliage “like the fringe of curtains”; the landscape is “like a newly painted piece of scenery” manifesting “an air of entrancing artificiality”; the walks that wend their way through the park are lined with iron hoops “in imitation of rustic woodwork.”

I’ve already written a little about Zola’s yes of description in my post on The Belly of Paris, but there’s still more to say, not least about his use of similes—are these another instance of the insatiable drive of a capitalist economy (which of course doesn’t spare the arts) to transmute one thing into another, to take something solid and turn it into air? Or are these similes the very method by which the controlling entity that is Zola’s narration reacts against, even acts as a check on, capitalism’s headlong and glib transformations? To say more, I feel the need to read Lukács’s famous essay on narration and description. As I understand it, he posits description as a reactionary force (because committed to keeping things the same, by telling how things are) opposed to the progressive potential of narration (which is about change). If that’s right, all I can say is that Lukács must not have read Zola. (Surely he did—but what on earth did he make of him?) The power of Zola’s description might not fall neatly into the progressive/reactionary distinction, but I can’t see how anyone could read Zola and think description was committed either to keeping things the same, or neutrally observing what exists.

If anyone has ideas about this, I want to hear them. I’ll keep thinking about the issue as we make our way through more of the cycle. For now, though, tempted as I am to simply cite long chunks of the novel, I want to consider some of the moments that ruffle the novel’s clarity. These moments often concern secondary characters. Although unimportant to the plot, and perhaps even to its themes, these characters are what give the novel a pleasingly unruly and capacious quality. They are hints of bagginess in an otherwise controlled exercise.

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As its title suggests—and Keith gives a lovely explanation of the connotations of the original—this is a turbulent, even violent book. Often that violence concerns financial speculation and chicanery. In this regard, the book is only too relevant to our own gilded age. But the book’s violence is often less abstract and more corporeal. And invariably women are the ones who suffer from that violence. It’s as if the economic machinations—which are concerned with making something out of nothing (as when Saccard inflates the rents of his buildings in order to increase the payout when he is compensated for their expropriation)—need a physical analogue; the bodily version of making something from nothing is the ability to reproduce.

So we have Renée’s rape, resulting in her pregnancy, leading to her desperate marriage to Saccard. It tells us a lot about the cultural acceptability of rape that Saccard has no scruples about pretending to have perpetrated the act. In the end, she miscarries (an event uncannily predicted by Saccard’s sister, the mysterious and cutthroat Madame Sidonie, in a brisk and businesslike way that makes me wonder if she had some kind of hand in it). That might be for the best, given the fate of children (especially girls) in this novel. Saccard, for example, pawns his daughter from his first marriage off on his brother, Pascal (the doctor I discussed in my post on Fortune), although given what we’ve seen of the latter’s kindness, she might be better off with him.

Throughout the novel, Zola compares Saccard and Maxime. Although they superficially seem quite different—the father a ruthless speculator, the son a languorous dandy—the end of the book intimates that the son might be ready to follow the father into a life of speculation rather than simply gliding along as he has. (In the novel’s memorable formulation, “he usually remained at the bottom of whatever pit he fell into.”) We oughtn’t be surprised by that possibility, though, because we’ve already seen that Maxime is more than ready to ape the father when it comes to women. In fact, he does something even worse than his father. Whereas Saccard didn’t actually rape Renée—he only pretends to have been the man who did it—Maxime has no such scruples with his stepmother’s first maid. As the narrator wryly puts it, describing the way Renée introduces Maxime to the world of female sexual display by asking him to accompany her to her dressmaker: “The excellent education Maxime received bore early fruit.” The consequences of that fruit are much more serious for the maid than for him:

At seventeen the young lad seduced his stepmother’s maid. The worst of the affair was that the maid had a baby. They had to send her to the country with the brat, and give her a small annuity.

Zola’s judgmental language—“the worst of the affair,” “the brat”—isn’t just a ventriloquism of Maxime’s perspective. It’s the whole family’s, even the whole society’s. Saccard doesn’t care; he just pays out. But Renée is furious, yet not because of his abuse of his power over the young woman, but because of the girl’s social standing: “That he, whom she wanted to turn into a gentlemen, should compromise herself with a girl like that!” But she gets over her anger quickly enough, when she considers what a delightful scandal it would have been had Maxime in fact taken her advice to “have started off with a lady.” What the maid makes of it all or what becomes of her life: the novel doesn’t know or care.

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I suggested a moment ago that Maxime does what his father doesn’t—the son actually takes advantage of a woman, while the father only pretends to. But that’s only because the older man doesn’t have to. At two key moments in the book, Saccard is poised to hurt a woman, even kill her, but then something happens to stop him. One is an important scene Keith mentions, in which Saccard discovers Maxime and Renée’s affair, but is diverted from whatever emotional and physical outburst he is on the point of launching when he sees that his wife has signed over her property to him. (It is interesting that Renée is disappointed that nothing dramatic or drastic happens, as if the affair would only hold meaning if it did unleash trouble.)

The other is to my mind the most vivid scene in the novel. It describes the death of Saccard’s first wife, Angèle, whom he brought to Paris from Plassans. Angèle might be “an insipid, fair-haired person,” but she’s shrewd in her insight into the depth of Saccard’s desire to carve his fortune from the flesh of Paris, no matter what the cost. (There’s a great scene with them in a little restaurant overlooking the city, in which Saccard accurately predicts just where the new boulevards will slice through the city.) Saccard’s attitude to Angèle is deplorable; he thinks of her as “an inconvenient piece of furniture of which he was eager to rid himself.” And before long he gets his wish. She comes down with a lung inflammation that quickly worsens. It’s as the woman is dying in their cramped rooms—“death entered slowly into the hot, moist room, where the uneven breathing of the dying woman sounded like the spasmodic ticking of a clock running down”—that his sister comes to him with the proposal about marrying the disgraced Renée in exchange for money and property. Saccard is immediately tempted; he sends his sister to conclude the negotiations, leaving him to wrestle with whatever scruples he has:

Saccard went to the window and pressed his forehead against the icy panes. He forgot himself so far as to beat a tattoo with his fingers on the glass. But the night was so black, the darkness outside hung in such strange masses, that he began to feel uneasy and returned to the room where Angèle lay dying. He had forgotten her [!!!], and received a terrible shock on finding her half raised up on her pillows; her eyes wide open, a flush of life seemed to have returned to her cheeks and lips. Little Clotilde [the daughter who will soon be shipped south], still nursing her doll, was sitting on the edge of the bed; as soon as her father’s back was turned, she had quickly slipped into the room from which she had been removed and to which all her happy childish curiosity attracted her. Saccard, his head full of his sister’s proposal, saw his dream dashed. A hideous thought must have shone from his eyes. Angèle, terrified, tried to throw herself back in the bed, against the wall; but death was at hand, this awakening in agony was the last flicker of the lamp. The dying woman was unable to move; she sank back, keeping her eyes fixed on her husband, as if to watch his every movement. Saccard, who had dreaded a resurrection, a devil’s device of destiny to keep him in penury, was relieved to see that the wretched woman had not an hour to live [!!!]. He now felt nothing but deep anxiety. Angèle’s eyes told him she had overheard his conversation with Madame Sidonie, and that she was afraid he would strangle her if she did not die quickly enough. Her eyes also betrayed the terrified amazement of a sweet and inoffensive nature that discovers at the last moment the infamy of this world, and shudders at the thought of the many years spent living with a thief.

Jesus! This has to be one of the most cruel scenes in literature, up there with the end of Père Goriot and Brighton Rock. From the beginning the passage shows Saccard’s terrible selfishness: if we are expecting the first sentence to be an indication of his anxiety for his wife, or his guilt about what he is contemplating, we are immediately disabused: he’s pressing his forehead against the window not because he’s distraught but because he’s so excited by his future prospects that he beats a lively rhythm against the panes. (He’s practically about to burst into song.) Is Saccard ruthless enough to murder her? My sense is he’d really rather not but that if he had to, well, needs must. (His sister would do it in a second.) Think about how he describes the possibility that Angèle might recover: not as a blessed or fiercely-desired event, almost a miracle, but rather as “a devil’s device of destiny to keep him in penury.”

In the end, everything goes Saccard’s way. Angèle obligingly dies, and even gives mute signs of forgiveness. Clothide’s attitude here (and let’s not forget her doll: an important motif) is shown to be one of natural curiosity, a kind of childish fascination with death that could seem ghoulish but that the novel seems to present as innocent. But she’s paying attention to the wrong thing. The lesson here isn’t that bodies are mortal, but that men are bad, or, at least, that they are ready to use women for their advantage.

Throughout the novel, even in circumstances less grim than this one, women are trophies for men, pawns to be used to bolster their self image and to help them get ahead. There’s no difference between Saccard’s marrying Renèe for money and him giving her ostentatious jewelry that he requires her to wear at parties in front of his business associates. And there’s only a slight difference between these sets of exchanges and Saccard’s willingness to murder his first wife and Maxime’s casual seduction and abandonment of the maid.

So thoroughgoing is this attitude of violence to women that even scenes that could otherwise seem sweet become ominous. Late in the book there’s a vivid scene in which Saccard and some associates tour a building site. Renèe’s property, the one she in desperation signed over to her husband for pennies on the dollar, is to be torn down to make way for one of the new boulevards. As the men, dressed in their fine clothes, advance gingerly through a sea of mud, half-enviously, half-contemptuously observing the efforts of the myriad of workmen dismantling the site, they reminisce about the neighbourhood that was. One of the businessmen, who used to live there, sees his old rooms in a half-demolished building: “A breach in the wall showed it quite bare, already cut into on one side, with wallpaper with a pattern of big, yellow flowers, a broad strip of which fluttered in the wind.” The old man is overcome with emotion for his younger days, a time when he was poorer, perhaps more honest, and, it seems, a little happier, not least because, as his colleagues tease him, he was sowing his wild oats: “‘I still remember an ironing girl who lived opposite. The bed was on the right, near the window. Ah, my poor room, look what they’ve done to it.” Is the bed his or hers? Either way, they presumably slept in it. And what happened to the girl? The man doesn’t care, he’s on about his room. Hard not to read the description of the room’s violation as a hint at the fate of the woman.

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Happily, not every woman in the novel is abused. The prime exception is Céleste, Renée’s maid (presumably hired after Maxime disgraced the previous one). For most of the novel she glides almost unnoticed in the background. The most we learn of her is that she is “always methodical,: and arranges her mistresses dresses according to their dates, labelling them and “introducing arithmetic into [Renée’s] blue and yellow caprices. She kept this closet as calm as a sacristy and as clean as a stable.” These qualities inhere in all aspects of her life, it turns out: at the end of the book, she abruptly leaves Renée’s employ, the very day when she has saved the five thousand francs she needs to return to her village and set up a little shop. Renée, who has deceived herself that nothing can shake the woman’s devotion to her—to the point when she mawkishly imagines Céleste closing the eyes on her corpse—is shocked to find that the maid cares nothing for her, indeed has contempt for her whole way of life. Céleste refuses Renée’s entreaties, her promises of money: “‘You could offer me all the gold in Peru,I wouldn’t stay a week longer. You really don’t know me. I’ve been with you for eight years, haven’t I?’ … ‘I’ll go back home; I’ll buy Lagache’s house, and I’ll live very happily’.”

Céleste is the only character in the novel who doesn’t care about Paris, who doesn’t want more than she can have, who gets what she wants, and who doesn’t hurt anybody to do it. (Well, she hurts Renée’s feelings, but that’s because Renée hasn’t a clue about her.) Its interesting to compare her to Saccard’s valet, Baptiste, a figure who shares some of Céleste’s contempt for the family they serve, and is characterized by extreme rectitude. But Saccard fires Baptiste, and Céleste finally tells Renée why: Baptiste has for years been seeking out the stable boys. In the end, Baptiste differs from Céleste in that he continues to inhabit the frenzied world of Parisian high society—after Saccard fires him (rather than prosecuting him, because that would be to risk too much fuss), Baptiste ends up in the employ of another wealthy family. In stereotypical fashion, Baptiste’s homosexuality is expressed primarily through his contempt for women. In this way, he might not be so different from the novel’s other men, though they themselves would no doubt dispute it strenuously.

Out of this landscape of ruined, violated, abused women—I didn’t even mention Louise, Maxime’s tubercular wife, who dies within six months of being married off to him; Henry James would have written a whole novel about her: she is hunch-backed, and witty, and unflappable, but her knowingness doesn’t stop her from being taken advantage of, for Maxime only marries her for her money—the woman who suffers the most is Renée. There’s the rape, of course, and the abuse Saccard and Maxime put her to. There’s her father’s coldness to and disdain for her. And there’s her self-abuse, almost a kind of masochism, expressed in her need to feel her relationship with her step-son in a sin, even a crime. (In this regard, the novel shares her feeling: Zola repeatedly describes their affair as “incest,” which isn’t quite accurate, as if he feels the need to insist that what their relationship is deplorable.)

Keith finds her the only sympathetic character in the novel: I’d put Angèle in that role first, and Céleste second, but I see what he means. It’s hard not to feel for her, especially when she thinks of herself as a broken doll: “she had come to that, to being a big doll from whose broken chest escaped a thin trickle of sawdust.” In the novel’s final scene, she returns to her childhood home and makes her way to the room on the top floor where she and her sister spent their happiest times. The room is sadly denuded, deserted, silent, a shell of its former self. Among other bits of junk she finds one of her old dolls, “all the bran had flowed out through a hole, and the porcelain head continued to smile with its enameled lips, above the wasted body which seemed as if exhausted by puppet follies.”

Exhausted by its own follies—even in this offhand description the novel casts judgment on women and the figurines that symbolize them, as if the bran (or sawdust, in the earlier image) had run out through the fault of their own dissipation. But it would be more accurate to say that this enervation is the result of their abuse at the hands of men. If everything has to change so that it can stay the same—so that the rich can get richer, and the poor poorer—then we need to consider the role women play in this rapacious stasis. Almost without exception they comprise the spoils that the masters of speculation tear into in what Zola calls—and now we can see this is a pleonasm—“an orgy of gold and women.”

 

 

 

The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors: Émile Zola’s The Kill (Guest Post, Keith Bresnahan)

Keith and I continue to make our way through Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series. Here is his take on the second volume, The Kill. Mine is here.

Toronto, where I live, was recently named the fifth-most expensive city in the world adjusted for income. The house my spouse and I bought a decade ago, for a sum that at the time stretched the upper limits of plausibility, is now, at least on paper, worth three times what we paid for it. Local media outlets frequently cover stories of families cashing in on the boom and moving out of the city, and of a younger generation priced out of home-ownership — along with an accompanying rental crisis, skyrocketing rents, and new condo developments crowding out the city’s waterfront. All this was on my mind this week as I read The Kill, Émile Zola’s 1872 novel of greed, sensuality, and corruption, set against the backdrop of real-estate speculation and urban renewal in 1850s Paris.

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The Kill takes up the story of Aristide Rougon, son of Pierre and Félicité, who in The Fortune of the Rougons had abandoned his Republican ideals in the immediate aftermath of Louis-Napoléon’s coup d’état of 1851, to side with his parents’ Bonapartist politics.
One of the first things we learn here about Aristide, who has moved to Paris in the wake of the coup, is that he has changed his surname, to Saccard. This is at the request of his elder brother Eugène, a power-broker in the new Imperial government (so they don’t ‘get in each other’s way,’ Eugène says), though the choice of name is Aristide’s. A derivation of his first wife’s family name, Sicardot, this new moniker evokes money (sacs d’écus), and the sacking of cities (saccager), as translator Brian Nelson notes in his helpful introduction to this volume. For Saccard’s younger second wife, Renée, the ‘dry syllables’ of this name “reverberated in her ears like two rakes gathering up gold,” while Aristide himself reflects that “there’s money in that name; it sounds as if you’re counting five-franc pieces.” To which Eugène sardonically responds that it will either make Aristide a crook or a millionaire. Both, as it turns out.

In Fortune Aristide, in whom the “coarse, greedy” appetites of the Rougons had “matured too quickly,” was an indolent but greedy sensualist who dreams of becoming rich as rapidly as possible, “building castles in the air.” (Eugène, for his part, dreamt of “bending people to his will,” which I’m sure we’ll see more of when we get to His Excellency Eugène Rougon). In the present novel, Aristide sees these dreams realized, rising quickly through the city’s social ranks as he takes advantage of the opportunities afforded by the massive urban renewal of Paris to turn incredible profits on land speculation:

he knew that the shower of gold beating down upon the walls would fall more heavily every day. Smart people had merely to open their pockets. He had joined the clever ones by reading the future in the offices of the Hôtel de Ville. His duties had taught him what can be stolen in the buying and selling of houses and land…. he knew how you sell for a million what has cost you a hundred thousand francs; how you acquire the right to rifle the treasury of the state, which smiles and closes its eyes; how, when throwing a boulevard across the belly of an old neighbourhood, you juggle with six-storeyed houses to the unanimous applause of your dupes.

Aristide’s employment at city hall gives him insider knowledge of Baron Haussmann’s plans for the redevelopment of Paris, which he exploits by purchasing properties slated for future demolition, ‘renting’ them to fictitious tenants at inflated prices and thus artificially driving up their assumed value for the compensation monies given to landlords holding expropriated properties. It’s a lucrative game, though not without its risks — Aristide gains a fortune of millions, but finds himself both blackmailed and blackmailer of colleagues who could expose him, and anxiously teetering on the verge of financial ruin as projects threaten to fall through.

After our first two Zolas, the fantastic Belly of Paris and the so-so Fortune of the Rougons, I’m glad to say I found The Kill a great read, especially the second time through. In this second book of the series, Zola already seems to have found his voice, settling into the stylistic marks and themes that will characterize the other books. It’s also nice to be back in Paris; having already started on our next book, The Conquest of Plassans, it seems to me that there’s a marked difference between those novels set in the bustling capital and those set in that sleepy southern city — where the latter are suffused with the heavy slowness of summer days in a small town, the former, and this was true too of The Kill, seem to be impelled forward with the motive force of great cities. It’ll be interesting to see if this holds true through the rest of the novels, as we work through them.

Early on in The Kill, Aristide prophecies the future transformation of Paris, hints of which he has gleaned through attentively watching and listening at work. Eating dinner with his first wife Angèle on the Buttes Montmartre, looking out over the city laid out before them, they see a ray of sunlight illuminate the houses below, which “seemed to catch fire and melt like an ingot of gold in a crucible.” Saccard jokes that it’s raining twenty-franc pieces, while his wife comments that they are not easy to pick up. But Aristide is already off and running, demonstrating with outswept arms the great cuts that will be made in the city in the coming years:

a cut there, another further on, cuts everywhere, Paris slashed with sabre cuts, its veins opened, providing a living for a hundred thousand navvies and bricklayers, traversed by splendid military roads….

Angèle, frightened, sees Saccard himself as this knife, the movements of his hand mercilessly slicing up the city. When, later in the novel, Aristide glances at Haussmann’s famous map of Paris, he sees that the Prefect’s “blood-red pen-strokes cut even deeper gashes” than he had. It’s the bleeding of the city that will yield gold, for the man who knows how to play the system: “There lay his fortune, in the cuts that his hand had made in the heart of Paris, and he had resolved to keep his plans to himself, knowing very well that when the spoils were divided there would be enough crows hovering over the disembowelled city.”

This trope of hunting runs throughout the novel, and gives meaning to its title, which is a little misleading in English; the original French title, La curée, refers not to a ‘kill’ as such but to that part of the killed animal given to the hounds as a reward for running it to ground (the spoils, maybe?). There’s a great passage here where Zola has Aristide smelling out the traces of his prey:

[it was a] breath, vague as yet, that rose from the great city, the breath of the budding Empire, laden already with the odours of alcoves and financial deals, with the warm smell of sensuality. The faint traces that reached him told him that he was on the right scent, that the prey was scudding before him, that the great Imperial hunt, the hunt for adventure, women, and fortunes, was about to begin. His nostrils quivered, his instinct, the instinct of a starving animal, seized unerringly on the slightest indications of the division of the spoil of which the city was to be the arena.

Between 1853 and 1870, Haussmann cut vast swaths through Paris, displacing some 350,000 residents from the city center, most of them the urban poor, while building new apartments, parks, and boulevards that reconstituted central Paris as a leisure-ground for the bourgeoisie. We don’t see much of the actual demolition here, or the displaced poor (though I think we’ll see them soon enough in the series); Zola’s concern is rather with the speculators, city-planners and bureaucrats who profited from the opportunities provided by urban renewal on a grand scale. For these, it is a hunt: the city becomes a forest, filled with “the rush for spoils…with the yelping of hounds, the cracking of whips, the flaring of torches… The appetites let loose were satisfied at last, shamelessly, amid the sound of crumbling neighbourhoods and fortunes made in six months.”

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It’s not only gold that is opened up in this orgy of speculation; vice, too, “flowed through the gutters, spread out over the ornamental waters, shot up in the fountains of the public gardens, and fell on the roofs as fine rain”:

At night, when people crossed the bridges, it seemed as if the Seine drew along with it, through the sleeping city, all the refuse of the streets, crumbs fallen from tables, bows of lace left on the couches, false hair forgotten in cabs, banknotes that had slipped out of bodices, everything thrown out of the window by the brutality of desire and the immediate satisfaction of appetites…the voluptuous nightmare of a city obsessed with gold and flesh.

This voluptuous nightmare is embodied in the novel by Saccard’s second wife Renée and his son Maxime (Renée’s stepson), who embark on an incestuous affair. Maxime and Renée adore the new Paris, riding through the Bois de Boulogne, strolling along its boulevards, admiring the uniform façades of the new apartments, the shops and cafés, then returning home to Saccard’s mansion near the Parc Monceau, “the flower-bed of this new Paris.”

The city is made for them, encouraging their crime. Renée too senses an exhaled message emanating from the city’s streets, but it is different from Saccard’s: “The shamefulness that had lingered there—momentary lust, whispered offers, prepaid nights of pleasure—was evaporating, floating in a heavy mist dissipated by the breath of morning. Leaning out into the darkness, she inhaled the quivering darkness, the alcove-like fragrance, as an assurance of shame shared and accepted by a complicitous city.”

Zola’s mania for description, which was largely absent from The Fortune of the Rougons, is given full rein here, particularly in pages filled with architectural detail — much of it provided by Saccard’s mansion, whose ornamental excesses satirize the eclectic and gaudy interiors of the nouveaux-riches of the Second Empire:

balconies shaped like baskets full of blossoms, and supported by tall, naked women with wide hips and jutting breasts…[and] escutcheons, clusters of fruit, roses, every flower it is possible for stone or marble to represent…Roses and dazzling garlands encircled the arch; fillets of gold, like threads of molten metal, ran round the walls, framing the panels, which were hung with red silk; festoons of roses, topped with tufts of full-blown blossoms, hung down along the sides of the mirrors. An Aubusson carpet spread its purple flowers over the polished floor. The furniture of red silk damask, the door-hangings and window-curtains of the same material, the huge ormolu clock on the mantel-piece, the porcelain vases standing on the consoles, the legs of the two long tables inlaid with Florentine mosaic, the very flower-stands placed in the window recesses, oozed and sweated with gold.

Here, the dominant note is struck by gold; in Renée’s private apartments, it is flesh and carnality that reign:

The bed seemed to stretch out till the whole room became one immense bed, with its carpets, its bearskin rugs, its padded seats, its stuffed hangings, which continued the softness of the floor along the walls and up to the ceiling. As in a bed, Renée left upon all these things the imprint, the warmth and perfume of her body… still warm and moist, where one found on the fine linen the adorable shape, the slumber, and the dreams of a thirty-year-old Parisian woman…. The pink bath, the pink slabs and basins, the muslin of the walls and ceiling, under which pink blood seemed to course, had the curves of flesh, the curves of shoulders and breasts; and, according to the time of day, one would have imagined the snowy skin of a child or the warm skin of a woman. It was redolent of nudity. When Renée emerged from it, her fair-skinned body added a little more pink to the pink flesh of the room.

These rooms also exert an influence on the characters, various décors leading Renée to assume a different aspect of sensuality: now ‘dainty and pretty,’ now ‘a capricious, carnal courtesan,’ now a ‘goddess’ assuming ‘chaste postures…revealing noble outlines of antique grace.” There’s another place, however, the bizarre, dark center of this affair, the mansion’s hothouse, where the idea for the affair first clearly comes to Renée, and to which she ‘drags’ Maxime “on bad days, when she needed a more acrid form of intoxication… It was there that they tasted incest.”

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Zola calls Renée “the most complex of women,” which may be true; for me she was the only sympathetic character here: sad, manipulated by various men, while continually reverting to her memories of innocent childhood games. The daughter of a wealthy old bourgeois family, made pregnant at 19 by a rape and married off to Aristide, who saves her honor in return for a couple hundred thousand francs of start-up capital, she is world-weary at 30, pursuing an affair with her stepson without really knowing why — to experience “something different” but also following a path of vice she feels, since her violation, to be intrinsic to her being. Maxime, for his part, is a dissipated and effeminate child of the Second Empire, in whom vice is “a natural, external growth. It waved over his fair hair, smiled upon his lips, dressed him in his clothes,” and was reflected in his ‘whorish’ blue eyes that “were never lowered: they roamed in search of pleasure, a pleasure that comes without effort, that is summoned, then enjoyed.” He neither desires nor pursues the affair, but simply takes it as it comes, and is seemingly unperturbed by its end.

That end, when it comes, is crushing in its abandonment of Renée: Saccard discovers her in an embrace with Maxime (she is trying to convince him to run away with her) when his eyes fall on the long-sought deed to Renée’s property, which she has just signed. His anger immediately abates. He takes the deed in hand, amicably guiding Maxime downstairs, and leaving Renée alone in her apartments:

So the drama was ended! Her crime, the kisses on the great grey-and-pink bed, the wild nights in the hothouse, the forbidden love that had consumed her for months, had culminated in this cheap, banal ending. Her husband knew everything and did not even strike her. … She looked down, and when she saw herself in her tights, and in her light gauze blouse, she gazed at herself with lowered eyes and sudden blushes. Who had stripped her naked? What was she doing there, bare-breasted, like a prostitute displaying herself almost to the waist? She no longer knew…. She was ashamed of herself, and contempt for her body filled her with mute anger at those who had left her like this.

It is, of course, Saccard and Maxime who have stripped her, left her as a blank figure of exchangeability, her husband using her “like a stake, like an investment… an asset in [his] portfolio.” She is part of that ‘band of illustrious prostitutes,’ “creatures who let their lovers pay for their luxuries, and who were quoted in fashionable society as shares are quoted on the Bourse [stock-exchange].”

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The novel ends as it began: with a ride in the Bois de Boulogne, where ‘tout Paris’ goes to see and be seen. In the first, Renée and Maxime are not yet lovers, dreaming of something to shake them from their lethargy, while in the second, at the novel’s end, Renée is alone. She has just spied a reconciled Aristide and Maxime, walking together on the side of the path — Aristide is encouraging his son to invest in his newest business venture — when, suddenly, the Emperor rides by: Aristide calls out a cry of support, and is briefly acknowledged with a glance. The cruel symmetry of these bookends, which highlights Renée’s suffering (what was it all for, in the end, if nothing changed?), also shows up the real point of all this activity, this frenzy of destruction and speculation: it is precisely to make sure that nothing changes, to safeguard the city as a pleasure-park for the wealthy, where all sins, even incest, can be waved away if there’s profit in it. Reading it, I heard an echo of another fictional depiction of 19th-century bourgeois revolution, Giuseppe Lampedusa’s The Leopard, with its cutting justification for Garibaldi’s unification of Italy: “everything must change, so that everything can stay the same.”

A Risky Game: Émile Zola’s The Fortune of the Rougons (Guest Post, Keith Bresnahan)

Keith & I are making our way through Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle. My take on the first book is here. Keith’s follows below:

Beginnings. They’re difficult. On the one hand, total freedom to establish characters, contexts, motivations; on the other — and particularly in the first of a projected series of works building on the same characters (or family) — there’s the burden of having to establish all these things, loading the origin with the necessary elements for everything yet to come. So, first installments can often feel weighed down by the historical heavy-lifting they have to do, establishing not just a particular context but a legacy framing the importance of the origin for future developments (if you don’t believe me, watch any of the recent spate of superhero films and see if you don’t agree).

For a project like Zola’s, which seeks “to discover and trace the thread that leads mathematically from one person to another,” to show the ‘laws’ of heredity that bind members of a family together through generations, this origin is especially important. Physiologically, Zola tells us in his famous Preface, the Rougon-Macquarts:

illustrate the gradual sequence of nervous and sanguine accidents that befall a race after a first organic lesion and, according to environment, determine in each individual member of the race those feeling, desires, and passions — in sum, all the natural and instinctive manifestations of humanity – whose outcomes are conventionally described in terms of ‘virtue’ or ‘vice’.

Moreover, these accidents will, over a series of 20 novels, tell the story of the Second Empire — that “strange period of human folly and shame,” in which the “ravenous appetites” of this family matches “the great upsurge of our age as it rushes to satisfy those appetites.”

In the Fortune of the Rougons (1871), the first novel in this monumental social and family saga, Zola takes on not one but two ‘tainted’ origins — that of the Rougon-Macquart family, and that of the Second Empire itself, in the coup d’état of Louis-Napoléon on 2 December 1851. Both the family and the historical era they embody are marked by this origin, and by the taint that follows them through decades. The action of the novel concerns the brief period following the coup, as it plays out among the members of this family in the fictional southern town of Plassans and its environs.

Pierre Rougon and his wife Félicité, frustrated and envious, take the opportunity provided by the coup to improve their social and economic standing in the town, while Pierre’s half-brother Antoine Macquart means to use the coup to get back at Pierre and Félicité for past slights against him. The matriarch Adélaïde Fouque, crippled and isolated by a nervous disorder, and pained by confused memories of the past, dies during these same few days, distraught at the fate of her grandson Silvère, who’s taken up arms (specifically, the gun owned by Adélaïde’s former lover Macquart) against the coup.

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Like Dorian, I didn’t love this book, and found it difficult to write about, especially at a distance of a couple months. As Dorian notes, it’s got a convoluted plot, and is surprisingly staid for Zola — one really misses those intense descriptive passages that, in Dorian’s great phrase, “wriggle free” of authorial intent. I’d agree that if you’re thinking of getting into Zola, you should definitely not start with this one. The good news, is that things do get almost immediately better: The Kill, also next on our list, is an absorbing (if imperfect) book, and in just the next book in the series Zola gives it its first bona fide masterpiece: Belly of Paris, which we wrote about here and here.

Fortune would seem to have it all: family drama, insanity, young love, revolution, death. But I found it all a little too airless, insubstantial even. It never really felt dangerous, or surprising, as everything moved to its inexorable conclusions. The weird trajectories I look for in Zola, where the narrative escapes its bounds and gets twisted in its own descriptive convolutions, or characters are consumed by their inner compulsions, were never as weird or sustained as I wanted. They’re not totally absent – Dorian’s already noted Vuillet’s perverse diddling of the mail-bags, and the Rougons’ bloody dream. I just wanted more of them.

I want to try to address some of the very interesting points Dorian made in his post, about realism vs. naturalism. On the one hand, I think it’s true that the determinism Zola wants to assert here, i.e. the ways in which characters are conditioned by these dual forces of heredity and environment, doesn’t really work – those moments where he inserts observations about this inheritance feel pretty strained (he works this out in the later novels). As Dorian notes, Pierre and Félicité scheme, manipulate, and act, in ways that don’t seem particularly determined by either hereditary or environmental factors.

In some ways, it’s their self-directed activities that bring out most clearly where conditioning and determinism do and don’t reside in this book. At bottom, Zola asserts, “all the members of the family had the same brutish appetites” (all, perhaps, save ­ Pascal Rougon, an oddity seemingly free of any genetic inheritance from either his mother or his father). The Rougons are greedy, frustrated, and envious, scheming to capitalize on opportunity; Macquart is indolent, alcoholic, envious, and greedy, with a self-serving sense of social injustice (It’s his descendants, via the fearsome Josephine ‘Fine’ Gavaudan – of whom we see all-too little here – who furnish the series with its best-known novels: Belly, Germinal, L’Assommoir, Nana, La bête humaine)

Ok, so if this is true, if these appetites are inherited and handed-out through all parts of this ‘wolf-litter’ of a family (the description is Adélaïde’s), then what’s surely important are the differences in how these appetites are worked out, the objects they take, and so on. And here, I would suggest, it’s class, not heredity, that makes the difference. Antoine, every bit the lumpenproletariat, seeks immediate satisfaction of his desires; Pierre, who is just as greedy, and more callous, wants to feel his appetites satisfied within a framework of cultivated taste and social respectability—which is to say, he is bourgeois. And even the objects of his desire are different: not wine, or sex, or even money as such, but a provincial government post: receiver of taxes. I guess my argument would be that these characters, and the narrative as a whole, are still naturalist, in that ways-in-which-people-are-conditioned-to-experience-things way, but that the powerful determinants of character and action here, rather than heredity and environment, are history and class.

Which brings us, I suppose, to Marx. After I first read Fortune a couple months ago, it occurred to me to go back to Marx’s well-known 1852 essay on the coup, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis-Napoléon (I granted Dorian a reprieve from this particular reading assignment!). I hadn’t looked at it since my grad-school days, and was hoping that it might give me a better purchase on the context of the coup as background to the novel; but I was surprised to see how much of it resonated with the rest of Fortune, as well.

(I don’t know whether Zola knew this text first-hand, or any Marx for that matter, despite an apparent acquaintance with his ideas – which this article from the Guardian gives some sense of.)

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The title of Marx’s pamphlet already throws considerable shade on Louis-Napoléon; as every French schoolchild would know, the Eighteenth Brumaire was the date of the coup that brought the first Napoléon to power in November 1799— an event whose conjunction here with the name of his nephew’s less-than-heroic coup sets the slightly mocking tone. And introduces Marx’s great theme here: the 1851 coup d’état, and the Empire it ushers in, are so many reiterations of earlier historical events, which become farce in the replaying. Both Marx and Zola share a sense, I think, not only of the farcical aspect of this political power-play-cum-historical theatre, but also of the way that this moment is overdetermined by a particular relationship to history. As Marx writes at the outset of this text,

Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.

Louis-Napoléon is clearly no Napoléon I, but it’s his more famous uncle, and the dream of restoring the Empire, that conditions the fantasies and actions of the characters here — even as they also rehearse other by now well-established revolutionary roles. As Marx sees it, the old names, the old figures, the old dates, the old chronology, all the tropes of a ‘defunct epoch’ rise up again in the midst of revolutions, and it makes for bad theatre.

 Fortune is similarly rife with images of history coming to haunt the present moment: there’s the old cemetery, where the young lovers Silvère and Miette meet, where bodies used to feed twisted and monstrous pear-trees, and today, though the skeletal remains have long-since been exhumed, the ‘warm breath’ of the dead continues to fuel their incipient passions (creepy!). “Nowadays, nobody thinks of the bodies that once lay there,” Zola says, but by the novel’s end there will be at least one more body stretched out on these stones: Silvère, executed for his part in the failed rebellion against the far-away coup.

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Or consider the Napoleonic prints adorning the Rougon’s yellow drawing-room, center of the town’s Bonapartist reaction; it is the old dream of empire, of Napoléon I, which feeds its impoverished repetition in 1851. And when Pierre and his ramshackle troops spend a panicked night in a nobleman’s garden, on the lookout for rebel armies and their campfires across the landscape, we might hear echoes of the ‘Grande Peur’ of 1789, when rumor and panic of noble plots swept across France. But the most pointed similarities between Zola’s and Marx’s accounts come in the farcical repetitions of historical drama enacted by the figures of Louis-Napoléon and Pierre, his Plassans counterpart.

Marx’s concern, he explained, was to present the “circumstances and relationships that made it possible for a grotesque mediocrity [i.e., Louis-Napoléon] to play a hero’s part.” And here’s Zola, on the middle-aged olive-oil salesman Pierre Rougon: “this grotesque individual, this pale, portly bourgeois, [who] became, in one night, a fearsome gentleman whom nobody dared to ridicule anymore.” Pierre’s new status rests on his having saved the town of Plassans twice in as many days: first, during a minor skirmish with the peasant rebels crossing through the Var, during which he places his half-brother Macquart under house arrest, and then (to cement his reputation amid doubts about this first act of heroism) during a second attack on the town hall orchestrated and directed by Félicité and starring Macquart, whom she has freed and promised payment.

Pierre is no great leader, his ‘troops’ a “band of reactionaries” in whom “cowardice and brutality were mingled with stupidity.” His sought-after prize? A coveted small-town sinecure. Such are the origins of the family’s fortune – and they are also, as Marx and Zola both show us, the origins of the Second Empire. The coup, Zola tells us, “laid the foundations of the Rougons’ fortune. After being mixed up with various phases of the crisis, they rose to eminence on the ruins of liberty. Like bandits, they lay in wait to rob the Republic; as soon as its throat was cut, they helped to plunder it.” With a few modifications, this could be Marx, writing of Louis-Napoléon, and the clergy, nobility, and haute-bourgeois citizens who invest little hope in this Bonaparte — but whom, once the coup takes place, heartily accept him as the hero they’ve got, if not the one they wanted.

In the same vein, Zola gives us their counterparts in Plassans, gathered in the Rougons’ yellow drawing-room, happy to let the uninspiring Pierre suffer potential repercussions for being the face of opposition to the Republic:

The game was too risky. There was no one among the bourgeoisie of Plassans who would play it except the Rougons, whose unsatisfied appetites drove them to extreme measures.

When the game comes off, Zola makes sure we don’t miss the connection between this farcical small-town figure and that of his doppelgänger in Paris: alone in the mayor’s office the morning after the first skirmish, “leaning back in the mayor’s armchair, steeped in the atmosphere of officialdom that pervaded the room, he bowed to right and left, like a pretender to the throne whom a coup d’état is about to transform into an emperor.”

The Rougons are opportunists, taking any chance to move up in the world; this is not about political commitment, but about playing the game well, making the right moves, capitalizing on situations, even if a little fraud or subterfuge is required, and a few bodies pile up along the way. This is the story, for both Marx and Zola, of the Second Empire: it is a revolution made for capital and speculation, for bourgeois striving, for those who can take advantage, to do so. Félicité upbraids her son Pascal for his naïveté, his failure to capitalize on his opportunities, as a particular moral failing. It’s a lesson not needed for Aristide Rougon, who in The Kill embodies precisely the kind of ruthless opportunism encouraged by the Second Empire (when being cuckolded by one’s own son is just one more chance to make a deal). When a noble friend tells Félicité that ‘blood makes good manure’ for a family fortune, or an Empire, she shudders. But does not reject it. And, in her dreams, fueled by petty resentment and a desire to bring the entire town under her heel, blood becomes gold.

One of the things the novel does really well, I think, is depict the inertia of life in a small city, and the smallness of political ambition among its residents. Plassans may sleep while Paris fights, as Zola writes; but its intrigues take place in the drawing-rooms rather than the streets, and the point of all the revolt and counter-reaction here, which parallel the larger events playing out in the capital, ultimately only serve to secure the petty bourgeois ambitions of Pierre and Félicité for themselves and their sons. This doesn’t seem to make the Parisian events or their subsequent legacy grand history, though: for Zola, as for Marx, it’s farce—and tragedy—all the way down.

 

 

 

 

Reeking of Crime: Émile Zola’s The Fortune of the Rougons

Several weeks ago now, flush from the success of reading Belly of Paris, Keith and I read the first volume in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series, The Fortune of the Rougons (1871), in Brian Nelson’s recent translation. I promised Keith I would write something about the novel, which he could respond to if he wanted. And ever since I’ve been avoiding doing it.

I didn’t dislike Fortune, but I didn’t love it either. Books that leave me ambivalent are the hardest to write about. In fact, the only thing I loved unreservedly about the first novel of Zola’s vast cycle was the family tree at the beginning of the excellent Oxford World’s Classics edition. I appreciated it as a practical feature (an invaluable guide to the novel’s many characters). But I loved it as a spur to daydreaming about future reading. All of those names had at least one, sometimes more novels attached to them! How amazing was that?

Dreaming of the future was, as it so often is, easier than responding to the present. Fortune left me stymied. No part of it grabbed hold of me the way those incredible descriptions of Les Halles did in Belly (or of the department store in Au Bonheur des Dames, which I read many years ago, but still think about regularly, and look forward to revisiting). Worse, the more I procrastinated, the less I remembered about the book. (Its plot is complicated, requiring readers to know something about the origins of the Second Empire with the coup of Louis-Napoléon in 1851. This is an excellent plot summary.) To write this post came to seem ever more daunting.

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Then I read one of those interesting pieces at Five Books, this one about the political novel, as chosen by the novelist Joshua Cohen. (His selections are interesting and unexpected.) Cohen makes a helpful distinction:

What I am interested in, when it comes to the politics of the novel, is the revival of that old debate, realism v. naturalism, which I always took to mean the distinction between writing about the-ways-in-which-a-character-experiences-something and writing about the-ways-in-which-a-character-has-been-conditioned-to-experience-something. I find the tension between those two approaches enlivening.

That certainly spoke to the way that I’d been taught to think about naturalism (though I’d never seen its difference from realism explained so clearly before). More to the point, it made me wonder about Fortune. Is it even naturalist? Crazy question, right? After all, Zola introduces not just the novel but also the entire Rougon-Macquart cycle with these now famous paragraphs:

My aim is the explain how a family, a small group of human beings, behaves in a given society after blossoming forth and giving birth to ten or twenty individuals who, though they may seem at first glance totally dissimilar from each other, are, as analysis shows, linked together in the most profound ways. Heredity, like gravity, has its laws.

By solving the dual problem of temperament and environment, I shall attempt to discover and trace the thread that leads mathematically from one person to another. When I am in possession of every thread, and hold in my hands an entire social group, I shall describe the behaviour of this group as it plays its part in an historical period; I shall show it in action, with all its varied energies; and I shall analyse the aims and ambitions of its individual members along with the general tendency of the whole.

(An aside: the confidence, not to say bald ambition, of late 19th century writers is breathtaking and in its way quite appealing. Zola’s unabashed statement of the writer-thinker as scientist reminds me of certain tendencies in Freud.)

The Rougon-Macquardts descend from a woman named Adélaide Fouque. Eve, not Adam, or perhaps more accurately Sara, not Abraham, is the progenitor of this people. (Unclear that this makes the family a matriarchy, though.) Adélaide married a man named Rougon; they had a son named Pierre. But suddenly Rougon died. And not long after that, to the scandal of everyone in Plassans (a fictional town in the Var department of Provence, but apparently modeled on the Aix-en-Provence of Zola’s own upbringing), Adélaide took a lover, one Macquart, a poacher, smuggler, alcoholic, and general ne’er-do-well. With Macquart, Adélaide had two more children, Ursule and Antoine.

This family history takes up much of the first third of the novel. By the time of its present-day events—that is, the coup of 1851—Ursule has died. One of her sons, Silvère, is taken in by Adélaide. Silvère, an idealistic young man, spurred to Reublicanism by some half-digested readings of Rousseau, plays an important part in the novel, but in the end he is less important than his uncles, who are engaged in a power struggle between legitimate and illegitimate sons. Pierre Rougon, incensed at the idea of having to share his patrimony with his half-sibling, schemes to deny Antoine not just his share of the inheritance but also any material success from the societal upheaval brought about by the coup.

This scheming is rather convoluted and pretty ironic, inasmuch as much of it works out only by accident, and the parts that come about by design are the brainchild of Pierre’s formidable wife, Félicité. (It’s fascinating to see how this character, introduced as petty and grasping, develops into a formidable and ruthless figure. I wanted more of her.) But regardless of where it comes from and how effective it is, the scheming is still scheming. That is, it’s the result of characters conspiring to do things. And in that sense, it seems contrary to the conditioning vaunted by naturalism.

Because Plassans is so far from Paris, it takes a long time for people to know what’s happening to the government, and to shape their responses accordingly. History, if only in the farcical version proposed by Marx in his famous depiction of Louis-Napoléon’s coup, might be the ultimate driver of events, but Zola never shows us those events directly. We only get rumours and reports, especially from the Rougon’s eldest son, Eugène, who, having trained as a lawyer, lit out for the capital years before and, long having seemed to his family almost totally unaccomplished, now reveals himself as a key mover and shaker in the plot to bring Bonaparte to power. Although we don’t ever see any of that orchestration directly, his reports to his parents about when and how they should act in order to get on the Bonapartist bandwagon early enough to set themselves up for the plum political appointment that is all they want out of life present Eugène as a shadowy mastermind, and his parents, especially his mother, as the initially suspicious but ultimately shocked and grateful beneficiaries of that knowledge.

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Why am I going on about this? Because even if Eugène is telling them what to do, Pierre and Félicité still make a lot of decisions, admittedly often in response to events beyond their control. This sort of political action doesn’t seem like the “heredity is destiny” stuff Zola is on about in his preface. To be sure, the novel has its share of such material. The girl Miette, who together with her lover Silvère dies for the failed Republican cause, feels herself to be “living under a curse” because of the actions of her father, a murderer. Similarly, the original Macquart is described as the product of his lifestyle: he has “the furtive, melancholic look of a man of tramp-like instincts, gone to the bad because of wine and the life of an outcast.” Eugène, the Parisian politician, is said to look just like his father but to have the temperament of his mother: “By one of those alleged quirks of nature, of which science is now beginning to discover the laws, if Eugène’s physical resemblance to Pierre was total, Félicité seemed to have provided him with his brains.” But such moments are asserted by the narrator rather than expressed through the text. Most of the novel is instead made up of what Cohen calls realism: ways in which the characters experience something.

There’s nothing wrong with the novel’s surprising realist tendencies, and besides I doubt it’s possible definitely to separate realism from naturalism. But I was a little disappointed by how little the novel emphasized determinism. On reflection, I think that’s not because I think determinism explains the world but because what I like most in Zola is when the naturalist stuff—the ways in which characters are conditioned to experience things—comes out indirectly in the text rather than being baldly asserted by it, as if they were mere instructions for an experiment set by the writer.

Mostly what I missed here in comparison to other Zola novels I’ve read is the weird, fantastical stuff, like those extended descriptions of fruits and vegetables in Belly that seem to wriggle free from their creator’s intentions.

Happily, there are a few such moments here. In his admirable introduction, the translator Nelson gives one: an almost Gothic little scene suggesting Pierre and Félicité will never escape the bloodthirstiness of their actions, no matter how rich it’s made them. Here they are, having consoled each other before bed that their troubles will soon be over and fallen into the sleep of the sanctimonious, watched over only by the reflection of the night lamp:

They kissed each other again and fell asleep. The patch of light on the ceiling now seemed to be assuming the shape of a terrified eye, staring unblinking at the pale slumbering couple, who now reeked of crime under their sheets, and were dreaming that they could see blood raining down in big drops and turning into gold coins as they landed on the floor.

Only the narrator sees the “terrified” eye; the couple sees only the perverse transubstantiation of bloody deeds into filthy lucre. It tells you everything you need to know about them that this vision comes to them in dreams rather than nightmares.

A less sanguinary, more coolly ironic detail is the mirror in the city hall, which is shot to pieces by accident but becomes a synecdoche for the blood-thirstiness of the revolutionaries that the good burghers of Plassans must put down at all costs.

Or how about this description of a creep named Vuillet, a bookseller and newspaper publisher, who for purely pigheaded reasons takes the opposing line to Rougon (but is eventually brought to heel by Félicité). In the tumult of the hour, when it is unclear whether the Republicans will take the town, Vuillet sneaks into the post office and gorges himself on secrets:

Never had Vuillet felt so happy. Since he had been able to slip his little fingers into the mailbag he had tasted the most exquisite pleasures, the pleasures of a prurient priest about to relish the confessions of his penitents. [He’s like someone logging on to Facebook.] All the sly indiscretions, all the vague chatter of sacristies resounded in his ears. He poked his long, pale nose into the letters, gazed amorously at the addresses with his suspicious eyes, felt the envelopes just as young abbes feel the souls of young virgins. He experienced endless enjoyment, he was titillated by endless temptations. The thousand secrets of Plassans lay there. … Vuillet was one of those terribly bitter, cold-blooded gossips who know everything, worm out everything, but never repeat what they know except to deal somebody a mortal blow. He had often longed to plunge his arms into the public letter-box. Since the previous evening the little postmaster’s office had become a big confessional full of shadows and religious mystery, in which he nearly fainted in rapture as he sniffed the letters which exhaled vague longings and trembling confessions.

You can see from the description of Vuillet as molester and the Rougons as murderous profiteers that Zola has no affection for the counter-revolutionaries. But he’s ambivalent about the Republicans, too. Here he is describing their naivety at thinking the rest of the country shares in their ideals:

Intoxicated by their belief in the general insurrection of which they had dreamed, they fancied that France was following their example; they imagined that, on the other side of the Viorne, in that vast ocean of diffuse light, there were endless columns of men rushing like themselves to the defense of the Republic. In their naivety and self-delusion, so characteristic of crowds, their simple minds imagined that victory would be easy.

The only people Zola seems to have any affection for are the young lovers Miette and Silvère; when he makes fun of them it is in a teasing, affectionate, kind-hearted way. Here he is describing their nightly parting in a walled-off patch of waste ground called the Aire Saint-Mittre:

Of all the sounds that reached them only one made them feel uneasy, that of the clocks striking slowly in the darkness. At times, when the hour struck they pretended not to hear, at other moments they stopped short as if in protest. But they could not go on forever giving themselves ten minutes grace, and so the time came when they were at last obliged to say goodnight. They would have played and chattered away until dawn, arm in arm, in order to enjoy that strange feeling of breathless excitement that never failed to surprise them. Then Miette reluctantly climbed up on the wall again. But that was not the end, for they would linger over their leave-taking for a good quarter of an hour. When the girl had climbed up on the wall she remained there with her elbows on the coping and her feet supported by the branches of the mulberry tree which she used as a ladder. Silvère, standing on the tombstone, was able to take her hands again, and continue their whispered conversation. They repeated “See you tomorrow!” a dozen times, and yet still found something more to say.

No matter how sweet this young love, it seems ominous that the site of these assignations—so interestingly described in the first chapter (the best in the book)—is a former graveyard. (There’s a ghoulish description of the way, thirty years before, the bodies were dug up and transported, slowly and in full view of the townspeople, with “fragments of bone and handfuls of black soil” scattered at every jolt of the carts to their resting place in the new cemetery.) At such moments, the novel makes us feel the taint or curse that elsewhere it simply asserts.

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Maybe the reason the novel is ultimately always more critical than affectionate is that to be otherwise would get in the way of the attitude it values most of all: dispassionate diagnosis. Pierre and Félicité’s second son, after Eugène, is Pascal, who becomes a doctor. During the insurrection, Pascal treats the wounded, no matter what side they are on. In the aftermath of the fray he runs into his cousin Silvère, whipped up into revolutionary fever:

Pascal listened with a smile, and watched the youth’s features and vigorous facial expressions with great interest, as if he were studying a patient or analyzing a passion, to ascertain what might lie behind this fever of excitement.

The climax of this dispassionateness comes when Pascal observes his dying and now mad grandmother, the family matriarch/progenitor, though here reduced, in his observations, to something like an insect or plant or tree, something to be studied, at any rate:

Pascal looked intently at the madwoman, then at his father and uncle; his professional instincts were getting the better of him; he studied the mother and the sons, with the fascination of a naturalist observing the metamorphosis of an insect. He pondered over the growth of the family, with its different branches springing from one parent stock, whose sap carried the same seeds to the furthest twigs, which bent in different directions according to the ambient sunshine or shade. For a moment he thought he could see, in a flash, the future of the Rougon-Macquart family, a pack of wild, satiated appetites in the midst of a blaze of gold and blood.

Here character merges with author (this passage could have come from Zola’s preface). Zola is less contemptuous than his near-contemporary Flaubert, but I wouldn’t call him warm. I’m curious to read the book about Pascal, to see whether Zola will eventually deign to admire someone unreservedly, and what such admiration would look like, but I gather that’s the last one of the series, so it looks like I’ll be waiting a while.

In sum: If you’re new to Zola, I wouldn’t recommend starting with this book. Maybe I should have waited even longer to read it, got a few more of the series under my belt, but I can already tell there’s no perfect place to start with the Rougon-Macquart cycle. You just have to plunge into it, with the understanding that you’ll miss some things at first but knowing that you’ll be able to revisit bits of it in the light of the discoveries to come. Next stop: The Kill.

 

“A Whole World Drowned in Fat”: Émile Zola’s The Belly of Paris

A long time ago now, fifteen years anyway, I went through a bit of a Zola phase. I remember reading Nana and L’assomoir and my favourite, Au Bonheur des Dames. (Although my very favourite Zola is Thérèse Raquin, which isn’t part of the big Rougnon-Macquart cycle, and as dark as anything written by Simenon or Jim Thomson.) I’ve always wanted to return to Zola, and in the meantime a number of his books have found their way to my shelves. So when my friend Keith (a specialist in modern French art and culture) and I started talking about reading something together, Zola seemed a natural fit. We settled on The Belly of Paris (1873) the third in the cycle, which I read in a recent (2007) and, it seems to me, admirable translation by Brian Nelson.

If you haven’t already done so, you should read Keith’s post. Not only is it excellent, but it also offers a concise summary of the novel’s plot, freeing me to be more impressionistic in my comments.

Like most readers of this novel, I was most taken by its extraordinary descriptions. In fact, this tendency seemed even more excessive than in the other, later works I’d read. Tom wrote a few years ago that Belly is really just an excuse for extended descriptions, and that seems exactly right. The plot isn’t up to much; it’s not suspenseful; there’s a good joke at the end, admittedly, but there’s not much reason to read the book just for what happens.

It’s when nothing is happening, and the narrator is simply describing stuff, food mostly, or things that could become food, the whole Leviathan that makes up the food market of Les Halles, that the novel dazzles.

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Here, for example, a character dozes at his poultry and game stall:

Above his head, fat geese were hanging from spiked bars, the hooks sunk into bleeding wounds in their long, stiff necks, while their huge bellies, reddish beneath a fine down, ballooned out obscenely between their linen-white tails and wings. Also hanging from the bar were grey rabbits, their legs parted as though in readiness for some gigantic leap, their ears flying flat, with a tuft of white tail, and their heads, with sharp teeth and dim eyes, grinning with the grin of death. On the counter plucked chickens displayed their fleshy breasts, stretched taut on the spit; pigeons, packed tightly together on wicker trays, seemed to have the soft skin of newborn babies; ducks, with rougher skin, splayed out their webbed feet; and three magnificent turkeys, shadowed with blue like a clean-shaven face, their throats sewn up, slept on their backs in the broad black fans of their tails. On plates close by were giblets, livers, gizzards, necks, feet, and wings; while in an oval dish was a skinned and cleaned-out rabbit, its four legs wide apart, its head bespattered with blood and its belly slit to reveal its kidneys; a trickle of blood, running down to its tail, had fallen drop by drop, staining the white dish. Marjolin [the man at the stall] had not even bothered to wipe the carving board, next to which the rabbit’s paws were still lying. His eyes were half closed, and he was surrounded, on the three shelves at the back of the stall, by further piles of dead birds, birds in paper wrappers like bouquets, such a regular pattern of folded legs and rounded breasts that they confused the eye. Amid all this food, with his large frame, his cheeks and hands and powerful neck seemed as soft as the flesh of the turkeys and as plump as the breasts of the geese.

Now, this might not be an appetizing passage (not like the one with the fruit stand Keith quotes in his post) but it’s pretty amazing. There’s just so much muchness here, especially the brute facticity/physicality of the animals’ bodies. Although I introduced the quote by referring to a character’s action (that is, his sleeping), most of the passage has nothing to do with human qualities. Marjolin’s half-consciousness here moves him closer to the inanimacy of the corpses that engulf him. Indeed, the final sentence compares him to those foodstuffs (his body as soft as the flesh of the turkeys, as plump as the breasts of the geese), just as the descriptions of the slaughtered animals reference human physiognomy (the pigeons that have the “soft skin of newborn babies” or the turkeys that are “blue like a clean-shaven face”). The boundary between the human and the non-human—those that eat and those that are eaten—is blurred.
But the main point of the passage isn’t to proffer that equivocation. Instead, it’s to gape at the commodities on display. (And display, even more than their being for sale, is what matters.) The “regular pattern” of the bodies is so dazzling that it “confuses the eye.” You’re supposed to look at the overwhelming displays of Les Halles, but the more you look, the more confused you get. I find these scenes hard to envision, and also hard to read. The sentences cascade onward, clause after clause, adjective after adjective. I’m tempted to compare these passages to an aria in an opera: a place to pause, to revel in beauty, to ignore the on-rushing, self-consuming demands of plot, except that arias are more legible than Zolan description.

I can’t resist quoting one more moment of description. This time of a person, though here too food is omnipresent. Florent, who passes for the novel’s protagonist, is looking at his sister-in-law, Lisa, the proprietor of a charcuterie. What begins ordinarily enough disintegrates into a confused, phantasmagoric, even repellent vision:

She looked beautifully fresh that afternoon. The whiteness of all the dishes heightened the whiteness of her apron and sleeves, and set off her plump neck and rosy cheeks, which had the same soft tones as the hams and the same transparent pallor as the fats. As Florent continued to gaze at her he began to feel intimidated, disturbed by the dignity of her carriage; and instead of openly looking at her he glanced furtively in the mirrors around the shop which reflected her from the back, the front, and the side; and the mirror on the ceiling reflected the top of her head, with its tightly drawn bun and the little bands over her temples. The shop seemed to fill with a crowd of Lisas, showing off their broad shoulders, powerful arms, and large breasts so smooth and passionless that they aroused no greater desire than the sight of a belly would. At last Florent’s gaze came to rest on a particularly pleasing side view of Lisa which appeared in a mirror between two sides of pork. All down the marble of the walls, and all down the mirrors, sides of pork and strips of larding at hung from hooks; and Lisa, with her thick neck, rounded hips, and swelling bosom, looked like the queen of all this dangling fat and meat.

The passage is about objectification, but it’s not sexual, unless meat turns you on. (That explains what could otherwise be puzzling—the narrator’s claim that bellies aren’t enticing.) The detail that most gets me here, though, more than the vision of Lisa as Queen of the Fats, more than the disorienting crowd of Lisas, their reflections composed of so many chopped-up body parts, is the passing reference to a mirror on the ceiling. On the ceiling! That place must be creepy as hell to shop in!

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Zola is famously a naturalist and naturalism famously says that insides (people’s character, desires, psychology, etc) are determined by outsides (environment, surroundings, genes/heredity, etc). So the places people inhabit, the trades they practice, the atmosphere they breathe are the engines of meaning. This tactility has practical consequences. From reading Belly you can learn a lot about how to make sausages and the like—this novel exemplifies that pleasure of realist fiction that Philip Roth talked about wanting to bring into those scenes of the glove factory in American Pastoral.

Zola even solves the “info dump” problem by transferring the tendency on to his characters, as in a scene in which Marjolin, the young man last seen sleeping in his stall, sublimates his sexual attraction to Lisa, Queen of the Fats, by “rapidly explaining the business of slaughtering,” forcing her “to feel the feathers lying in heaps on the blocks” (adding the exact price the highest quality feathers receive after being sorted and weighed), urging her “to sink her arms into the big baskets of down,” and making her stoop over “the drain which carries everything away” (there’s so much blood cleaners have to come every two hours to scrub the place down). “There was no end to the information he gave,” the narrator deadpans. Indeed. It’s a neat trick, to legitimate your own obsession by giving it to another: a meta-info-dump. It’s as though Zola is taking the narrate/describe distinction and reversing it. Here narration is the digression from description rather than the other way round.

And yet description is certainly doing something in the novel. It is there both for its own sake—to be admired, reveled in, exclaimed at (the aria idea again)—and to make a point. Reading the novel I wasn’t really sure what the point was, couldn’t figure out how to put it in words, anyway. Then I read Keith’s observation about how little eating there is in the book. No feasts, that’s for sure. The pleasures of bourgeois life—if they are pleasures: mostly Zola presents them as seductions that are ultimately gross, in both the historical and current sense: they are coarse, and fat, and yucky; has any novel ever had so much grease in it?—are connected to plenitude, no question, but having so much to eat so ready to hand doesn’t seem to make anyone happy, the way even the simplest meals can in Dickens, say.

Food in this novel is primarily for smelling and, especially, for seeing, but only secondarily for eating. Which leads Keith to argue, brilliantly, that the book uses food as a cover for its real interest in order. The petit bourgeois denizens of Les Halles value order above all (above liberty, equality, and fraternity, that’s for sure; there’s little in the way of social justice in the novel). And Zola is skeptical of this ordering mania, finding it conservative, even deadening, though he also has no time for what passes in the novel for political radicals. Florent’s arrest in the protests against Louis-Napoleon in 1851—the act that leads him to be imprisoned in a penal colony from which he returns, more than half dead, on the novel’s first page—comes about from bad luck and mistaken identity instead of anything he does (the police find him covered in the blood of a woman who was shot next to him and mistake this happenstance as evidence of murderous violence). And the would-be radicals Florent spends his evenings with are so hapless (the ones who aren’t on the take, that is) they make the anarchists of Conrad’s The Secret Agent look organized.

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So where are the novels sympathies? Only in description, I would argue. But description is a kind of ordering. At least, I think it is. Maybe when it becomes the main event it starts to become disorderly? It certainly disorders plot.

Perhaps an answer can be found in the character of Madame François, the only wholeheartedly sympathetic person in the book, in fact the only person with a heart. (In the book’s fantastic opening pages—a hypnotic description of the convoys of wagons, laden with produce, that slide silently, through the night towards the markets in Paris—Madame François rescues the starving Florent, who has passed out on his way back to the capital; yet even her affection is brusque: she throws him on her cart with the vegetables.) Three quarters of the way through the book, Florent and his artist friend, Claude Lantier, apparently modeled on Zola’s boyhood friend Cézanne, join the old lady for the day at her farm near Nanterre.

Together the men help Madame François with the manuring, Lantier reflecting with satisfaction that “vegetable peelings, the mud of Les Halles, the refuse that had fallen from that giant table” would nourish new vegetables “Paris,” he reflects, “made everything rot and returned everything to the earth, which never wearied of repairing the ravages of death.”

Florent is more pessimistic: “Les Halles now seemed to him like a he ossuary, a place of death, littered with the remains of things that had once been alive, a charnel house reeking with foul smells and putrefaction.”

The idyll at Madame François’s offers the most conventionally uplifting and neat description. Her garden offers “a pleasant atmosphere of drowsiness and fertility,” in which lettuces, onions, leeks, and celery are planted in rows “like little regiments of solders on parade” and “not a single weed could be seen.” Here is food as it should be, Florent concludes: instead of being bruised by the jolting of the carts that take them to market, the cabbages “shine with well-being,” the carrots look “bright and cheerful,” and the lettuces “lounge[ ] with an air of carefree indolence.”

Can this scene of obedient plenitude offer a key to understanding both what the book values about its society and about the kind of literature that should depict that society? For the order of this scene feels so different from the order of the descriptions of Les Halles (think of the game arrayed in Marjolin’s stall, for example). Does this moment of modest delight that the book seems so in sympathy with offer a vision of the world the novel can get behind? Could it be an allegory for the “new form of art” Lantier knows is on its way but that, to his great frustration, he feels he cannot describe? Can the right kind of description be the basis of an organic criticism? Can it organize without ordering?

But if this the world of Madame François’s farm is a vision of a better world, how come this moment is so brief, and how come its descriptions, charming as they are, have none of the force of the extended set pieces set in that ossuary of Les Halles? The lounging lettuces are lovely; the manuring feels healthy. But those carcasses (and the stinking cheeses, oozing fruits, and gleaming fish I could have cited but didn’t), well, they dominate the book.

What, in other words, are the novel’s politics? Is Zola an heir to the Flaubert of Sentimental Education, valuing nothing but the excoriation of value? Is there anything here to hold on to? Nothing, it would seem, less slippery than the grease that drips over every surface, down to very nails, in the Quenus’s charcuterie, “a whole world,” Zola disgustingly and hypnotically renders it, “drowned in fat.”

 

 

“Political Fanatics Get Nothing to Eat”: Émile Zola’s The Belly of Paris (Guest Post by Keith Bresnahan)

Keith Bresnahan is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences at OCAD University in Toronto, where he also directs the Graduate program in Contemporary Art, Design and New Media Art Histories. He is also an all-around good human being and a friend of mine from way back. At the end of last year, we talked about reading something together, with the idea of each writing about it for the blog. We settled on Émile Zola’s The Belly of Paris, and I’m pleased to share Keith’s wonderful essay below. I’ll offer some thoughts of my own in a day or two.

Émile Zola, Belly of Paris [Le Ventre de Paris] (1873)

Translated by Mark Kurlansky (Modern Library, 2009)

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‘What bastards respectable people are!’

This seems like as good a place as any to start, at the very end of Zola’s book, with the painter Claude Lantier’s exasperated cri de coeur at the good health and happiness of the bourgeois denizens of the Parisian district of Les Halles —their round bellies, ample breasts, and well-fed smiles.

The novel tells the story of Florent Quenu, who has escaped to Paris after some seven years of wrongful imprisonment in French Guiana, for his presumed participation in street riots of 1851. When the book opens, we see him lying in the road, emaciated and exhausted, his body blocking the passage of a midnight train of farm-carts and wagons loaded with produce destined for the central market of Les Halles. Rescued by the widowed farmer Mme François (she throws him in back, on top of the vegetables, in the first of the novel’s equations of bodies with food), Florent makes his way into the city and into the lives of his half-brother Quenu and sister-in-law the ‘Beautiful Lisa’, who run a bustling charcuterie near Les Halles.

Embroiling himself both in neighborhood spats and a disastrous radical politics, by the novel’s end Florent has once more been arrested and deported back to Guiana in what is essentially a death sentence. The novel’s final scene, providing the context for Lantier’s declamation, shows us the morning after Florent’s deportation; it is late summer, and Les Halles is bustling with happy activity, a return to order after this temporary shake-up:

The day had risen like a white fountain from the depth of rue Rambuteau. The sun was spreading its rosy light above the rooftops, bright expanses washing the pavement even at this early hour. And Claude sensed a cheerful mood awakening in these vast echoing marketplaces filled with their piles of food. It was like the pleasure of recovered health, the brightening sound of people at last relieved of a heavy burden weighing on their stomachs… All around him he could see nothing but Fats, growing, bursting with health, saluting a new day of lovely digestion.

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The Belly of Paris is the third novel in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series, and incidentally the third I’ve read (after La Bête humaine and Au bonheur des dames). It was my favorite to date, maybe the first in which the characters felt less like ciphers of some Second Empire social type, and more like people in whose lives I could immerse myself.

Its historical setting, like those of the other Rougon-Macquart novels, is the Second Empire (1852-70), as played out through the lives of a few generations of the Rougon-Macquart family (here, Lisa is née Macquart). The temporal distance between the novel’s setting in 1858 and Zola’s writing of it in 1872 feels significant; he’s writing from the other side of the Empire, which concluded with the abdication of Napoleon III during the Franco-Prussian war, but also of the 1871 Commune and its brutal repression by Versaillais forces. While these more recent historical events come after the events depicted in the novel, of course, I couldn’t help but see echoes of them here, in Florent’s fantasies of a people’s revolution and his deportation to a penal colony (in 1871, it was New Caledonia), and in smaller details peppered throughout the novel: cabbages piled like cannonballs, vegetables and market-carts forming ‘barricades,’ and so on.

The book is, of course, centered on food: its transport, display, production, and sale; the sights and smells and sounds of Paris’s central market; the overflowing displays of food in shop windows; and, somewhat hidden behind all this, hunger and privation. Zola always tells us whether a character is fat, or thin: Mme François’ donkey, Balthazar (shades of Bresson?) is ‘an overweight beast’, while Mme François herself has ‘thick arms’; Florent is thin, a beanpole (a fact that makes him immediately suspicious in the eyes of Lisa and others in the market). Lisa and Quenu’s charcuterie window, which displays “a world of good things, mouthwatering things, rich things,” is reflected in Quenu’s clean-shaven ‘pig-like’ face and Lisa’s ‘ample bosom’, her “wonderful freshness…her plump neck and rosy cheeks…echoing the pastel of the hams,” and when the childlike orphan Marjolin covets Lisa, he imagines himself taking her into his arms “as though plunging his hands into an olive barrel or a cask of dried apples.”

And then there are Zola’s lapidary descriptions of fish, meats, vegetables, fruits, and cheeses, which are one of the great pleasures of the novel: fins of skates, “cinnabar red striped with Florentine bronze, in the somber palette of toads and poisonous flowers,” salmon “gleaming like well-buffed silver…etched by a burin on a polished metal plate,” “shiny carp from the Rhine, all bronzed in beautiful rust-colored metallic, each scale like a piece of cloisonné enamel,” not to mention the Roquefort cheeses like aristocratic faces marred by disgraceful disease, or the frankly sensual description of La Sarriette’s fruit-stand, her wares and her person merging in a singular, heady sensuality:

The strawberries exhaled a scent of youth…while the baskets of grapes in weighty bunches, heavy with drunkenness, swooned over the edge of the trellis, their colors deepening in spots where they were touched by the sun’s voluptuous warmth. This was where La Sarriette lived, in an orchard of intoxicating perfumes. The less expensive fruits—cherries, plums, strawberries—were piled in a flat, paper-lined basket in front of her. They bruised one another, staining the stand with juice, a strong juice that vaporized in the heat. On those sweltering July afternoons her head would spin with the powerful, musky odor of the melons. Then, slightly inebriated and showing some more flesh under her shawl, barely ripe and still fresh from springtime, her lips pouted: many had the urge to plunder those lips.

If Zola’s novel provides an encomium to the visual and olfactory pleasures of food, the pure sensuality of ripe fruit or jewel-like fish, the book strangely has almost nothing to say about taste, or eating. I’ve tried, and failed, to remember a single extended description of taste in the whole of the book; we see people eating, but that’s all. A starving Florent muses that it had not occurred to Lantier “that all those beautiful objects were there for people to eat. He loved them for their colors.” It’s hard not to think of Zola himself. Or, indeed, of our own ‘foodie’ age, where Instagrammable plates and an obsession with artisanal production so often seems to displace the actual pleasures of eating.

In this sense, I think food is not so much the theme, but the alibi for Zola’s real interest in order (and its opposite): the characters mostly yearn for it, in the form of good profits, stable politics, marriages and family, while Zola seems to harbor a clear affection for disorder, in the overwhelming mountains of food in Les Halles, the noise of the fish auction, the innocent pleasures of the market-urchin Muche, who fills Lisa and Quenu’s daughter’s pockets with dirt and soaks himself in fountains, or the free sensuality of the orphaned lovers Marjolin and Cadine.

Zola doesn’t seem to side with Florent’s radicalism, exactly (his revolution remains a delusional adolescent fantasy) but he also turns a critical eye onto the bourgeois obsession with order and calm that manifests itself in the speech and behavior of the denizens of Les Halles. As Lisa puts it, ‘I support a government that’s good for business. If they commit acts of evil, I don’t want to know.’ When she goes to the prefecture of police to turn in her brother-in-law, she finds that half the neighborhood has beat her to the punch, assuaging whatever guilt she might have had. And when Marjolin attempts to rape Lisa, what might have been the basis for melodrama (she strikes him, causing him to hit his head on a stone table and reducing him to a permanent state of idiocy) is defused, all simply seems to be for the best: Marjolin has entirely forgotten what happened, and if anything is happier than before.

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There’s a message here: the comfortable morality of the bourgeois shop-keepers, their support for whatever is ‘good for business’, is equated with the ready availability of food, which acts as a political soporific. And it’s seductive: in one of the novel’s best passages, when Florent accepts (at Lisa’s urging) a job as inspector of the fish market, he feels himself giving in not only to this single request, but to a great wave of contentment:

It was as though he were permeated by the smell of the kitchen, the nourishment of all the food that had been loaded into the air. He slid into the happy lethargy that is brought on by eating well and living in fat…He felt a tingling on his skin, the seduction of fat slowly invading his entire being, rendering him soft and easy like a contented shopkeeper. At this late hour of night, in this overheated room, all his bitterness and determination melted away… he found himself wishing for more, for an endless succession of such evenings, slowly fattening him.

It is above all Les Halles, that ‘gluttonous beast’, the beating heart of a Paris wallowing in fat, which props up a grotesque Empire by rendering all, like fat itself, soft and easy: “it was the belly of shopkeepers, the belly of ordinary people puffing themselves up, celebrating in the sunshine, declaring that everything was for the best, since passive people had never been so well fattened.” Those who are full, forget their complaints. And political fanatics, Lisa notes, get nothing to eat.