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Emile Zola

Following discussions during Zola from his duel with Dickens in the Big Readers Cup, I thought perhaps he deserved a thread of his own.  He is underrated in Britain, I think, and the following article from the Guardian suggests that this is partly to do with the content of his books, but mainly to do with the lack of English translations.  Thought it was an interesting article about the great man, so am posting the link here:

I have only read one novel by Zola - The Masterpiece, which I read as part of a wider interest in novels that use art as a focus (it centres around an early Impressionist artist, assumed by Zola's childhood friend Cézanne to be based on himself - Cézanne was not a friend of Zola's once the book was published...).  It is a marvellous novel, ranging across all sorts of things - from gritty realism to gothic horror, romance to poverty, idealism to bitter disillusionment, all conveyed in, appropriately, a very painterly way, I thought.  I would love to read the whole Rougon-Macquart series, though am not sure my French is up to it - could at least start with the others that are available in English, though!

Hope more people will post thoughts here on Zola, as and when they read something or want to comment.

Emile Zola has become a great favourite on this board, largely due, I think, to the Baron’s advocacy.  Recently, both Penguin classics and Oxford World classics have published new translations of various Rougon-Macquart novels; I believe that about a dozen or so of the twenty are now available in modern translations. No doubt the rest will be following shortly – although I can’t help thinking that we can only really complain about the ones as yet untranslated once we have managed to read all the ones that are.

I was struck by mark Ravenhill’s observation about Zola’s depiction of masses. Although his novels contain several very finely characterised individuals, it is arguable that no-one depicted so well humanity as a mass. For instance, compare the masses of striking workers on Germinal[i] with the masses of striking workers in Elizabeth Gaskell’s [i]North and South[i], and it’s fairly obvious who had captured better the movements of masses of people, or the psychology of people when part of a crowd.

Zola also had hid finger very much on the pulse, identifying social trends even as they were becoming reality. In [i]A Bonheur des Dames
, for instance, he deals with the rise of consumerism, and identifies the transformation of people (that depiction of “masses”, once again) from being citizens to becoming “consumers”. In Pot-Bouille (surely the most disgusting depiction of humanity since Gulliver’s Travels) he depicts the rising lower-middle classes in their suburban flats.

His idea in the series was to depict every single aspect of French life, with each novel focusing on a different member of the extended Rougon-Macquart family, and, in the process, examining a different aspect of society. So in L’Assommoir, he depicts urban slum life; in La Terre, he depicts the peasantry; in Germinal, he depicts the mining areas, and industrial relations; La Debacle deals with war;  and so on. But all this appears very schematic: it doesn’t give any impression of the sheer life and poetry of each of the novels.

Yes, Zola did put forward ideas on genetic determinism: he claimed that any character’s behaviour is pre-determined, and that the author is more an analyst than anything else. Fortunately, he did not practise what he preached. Instead of the dreary didacticism implied by his frankly daft ideas, the novels really do take on a life of their own.

And yes, he enjoyed shocking the reader. His novels are full of gratuitous sex and violence, and they can shock even now. But I find that’s all part of the attraction: one expects Zola to pile everything on – it wouldn’t be a Zola novel were it otherwise!

Of the Rougon-Macqart novels that are available in translation, there are about 4 or 5 I haven’t read yet, and really must get round to reading. So much to read…

Yes, so much to read!  (So why do I spend time watching Come Dine With Me?!)  Thanks, Himadri.  The Rougon-Macquart series is an amazing project, and a massive achievement, as the article points out.  I really do need to read more of these!  I need to have a serious think about my reading plans for the coming months - I usually am pretty spontaneous about what I read, but now that I am middle aged and time is running out (!), I feel I might need to be a bit more organised...

Evie wrote:
(So why do I spend time watching Come Dine With Me?!)

Mostly for the sarcastic voice-overs, one assumes.  Wink


I watched it once and thought I'd like to smash their smug faces into the food  (but that would be a waste!) - not watched it since!

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