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.

Fortune-1

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.