The Republic, The Province & The Family

I am not overly fond of French Literature. In fact I am not fond of French literature at all. I had a lot of problems completing Flaubert and I am still kind of ambiguous about Hugo. But if I could make the mistake of trying Daphne Du Maurier so many times, I had to be fair to French literature as well and give it another shot. A good place to start seemed the 12 Months Classics Challenge and its February’s theme – A classic you’ve always dreaded reading; after all if not now, then when? So I bravely plunged forward to try French Literature again and this time in the shape of Emile Zola’s The Fortune of the Rougons.

Set during the eve of the 1851 coup, that created the Second Empire under Napoleon III, the novel explores the rise of the Rougan family from Plassans. The novel opens with the description of Plassans and the secret meeting of 17 year old Silvere and his 13 year old sweetheart, Mitte. They meet in old graveyard, before Silvere sets off to join the Republican forces, but inspired by the Republican’s march, Miette also sets off with them. The novel then moves back in time to introduce the reader to Adelaide Fouque, a rich, scatterbrained and simple hearted woman, who is left orphaned after the death of her parents during the French Revolution. She marries a common peasant Rougon and has a son through him, Pierre Rougon. Soon after the birth of the son Rougon dies and Adelaide takes up with a lowly smuggler and an alcoholic Macquart. She has two more illegitimate children – a boy Antoine and a girl, Ursula. As the three children grow up in a haphazard wild manner, Pierre soon begins to resent his step brother and sister as well as his weak minded mother. By connivance and contrivance, he gets rid of all three, Antoine Macquart is forced into army conscription, Ursula marries and moves away, and finally poor Adelaide starts living alone in Macquart’s cottage after the smuggler is killed. Pierre then gets complete hold of his mother’s property and sells it off and marries the daughter of an down and out oil merchant, Felicité Puech in an effort to rise beyond his peasant background and become the bourgeois. Despite initial success, Pierre and Felicite, who is an equally socially ambitious woman, never really rise much and struggle to make their livelihood. However, they send their sons to expensive schools and university, in the hope that they would make great success of their lives. Eugène the eldest becomes a lawyer but does not set himself up as a success, Pascal, the second son becomes a kind scholarly doctor and naturalist who is happy to treat the poor and explore nature and study it and the youngest and Felicite’s favorite son  Aristide also becomes a lawyer but only dreams of success and does no constructive work. As Pierre and Felicite retire and move into a small apartment, their disappointment in failing to make it big is palpable  but there is no relief in near sight, until Eugène leaves for Paris, two years before the Coup and from there on directs the actions of his father and mother in Plassans that should set them up for success. In the meanwhile, the novel comes back to the present with Miette and Silvere continuing their march with the Republicans. By now the readers are aware, that Silvere is actually the youngest son of Ursula and her husband Mouret. After the death of his parents, Silvere is brought by Adelaide, now called Aunt Dide and is apprenticed as a wheelwright and was introduced to Republican politics by his uncle, Antoine, the latter now back from Army and bitter against his half brother Pierre who he claims has cheated Antoine of his inheritance. As the the clash of the Republicans with the government comes to its, climax, the yellow drawing room of Pierre and Felicite becomes the center of politics in Plassan as the chief patrons of the the town rally behind President Napoleon. Guided by the directions of their son Eugene, Pierre and Felicite plan one of the biggest gambles of their lives for the riches they had always dreamt off and as they near their goal, no sacrifice and no price to high t for the final triumph!

All my fellow readers had assured me that I would love the book. When I read the blurp, I was not sure, I generally like happy things and this book did not seem happy! As I reached the end, I realized that my initial assessment was correct, this was not a happy book, in fact there were some moments of downright heart break, but I loved the book! Absolutely and completely! There are hardly any likeable characters in the book, except Dr. Pascal and Silvere and Meitte, but you cannot take your attention away from them. Exceptionally well drawn and  distinctively different, you can see all them in your mind, down to their stoop and dirty waistcoat. The protagonists are all selfish social climbers, but somehow they are all distinct from one another – Pierre has some native shrewdness, while Antonie is just stupid. Felicite is cunning and shows some streaks of conscience and honesty, but they are drowned in her need to make a material success of her life. You feel sad for poor, foolish Aunt Dide and then are uplifted by the strong convictions of Silvere. The characters are as real as they can get and set up one of the best cases of art imitating life! Zola follows a dual narrative style, starting from the present and taking you back to past and then bringing you back in the present. There are vivid descriptions of the Provinces, the land as well its people and while you do meander somewhat aimlessly at times, it all comes together beautifully in the end! There is much romanticism as well as  a strong streak of condemnation of everything that is narrow-minded, provincial and bourgeois. There are several interesting themes in the book including, the effect of nerves that leads to weak minded, lascivious behavior; the effect of haphazard reading in impairing the complete development of mind and good understanding as well need for good moral conduct being the cornerstone of a good character, rather than material success. The language is beautiful and Zola wrote with sensitivity and deep insights into the human heart, that leaves you awe struck. The ending paragraph displays all of this, the quintessential Zola brilliance, that makes you feel, that you have just undergone an emotional catharsis –

“But the strip of pink satin fastened to Pierre’s button-hole was not the only red spot in that triumph of the Rougons. A shoe, with a blood-stained heel, still lay forgotten under the bedstead in the adjoining room. The taper burning at Monsieur Peirotte’s bedside, over the way, gleamed too with the lurid redness of a gaping wound amidst the dark night. And yonder, far away, in the depths of the Aire Saint-Mittre, a pool of blood was congealing upon a tombstone”

Profound, moving and I cannot help but keep saying heart breaking! One of my best reads of not only the year, but like forever!