In 2010 I read a novel by Émile Zola titled Nana, and loved it. It was funny, interesting in it’s detail (I found out, for instance, about Parmentier, through the most throw-away of comments) and just an all-round good read.
I knew of Zola through his standalone classic, Thérèse Raquin, and through his involvement in the Dreyfus Affair, but had never heard of any of his other work. To be honest, I didn’t think there was any to think about.
Nana was in fact just one of a twenty-volume collection of realist novels called the Rougon-Macquart series. I spent the following year tracking down every decent translation from this series. They comprise, in my opinion, of some of the best writing I have ever experienced, and yet are pretty much unknown. In a small way, I am trying to rectify that, whilst being as brief as possible. If you’re fed up with the waffle, scroll ever downwards to very short summaries of the books easily available in English.
The Rougon-Macquart series is interested in three things. Firstly, it charts the history of one family living under the Second French Empire. Secondly, it aims to portray the social character of France at this time, by examining the different industries and social milieu in turn. And thirdly, it was to explore the idea of genetic traits (albeit in a very crude form). Pretty amazing stuff, and made all the more remarkable in that every book is interesting and well written. Here is Zola’s representation of the Rougon-Macquart family tree:
Each cloud/bubble/collection of leaves is a character, and each character has their own book (this simplifies things a bit, but generally each character will appear in other volumes but have one dedicated to themselves), and their traits are derived from those of their parents, with some siblings inheriting certain traits more than others. This is an attempt to show the influence of different families on individuals (each circle is a person, each colour is a family)
So there you have it, the premise behind the Rougon-Macquarts. If you are anything like me you will be pretty much hooked. Here is the sad part. Not all these books have been translated into English, and of the ones that have been translated a few haven’t been translated for a long time and are, well, awful. But the ones that do exist are brilliant, and should be read and discussed. Here they are, in no particular order (there is a suggested order of reading them, which can be found on Wikipedia) –
Germinal has it all, class struggle, the desperate lives of striking workers, socialism and capitalism at each others’ throats, and more. Gritty and bleak, the descriptions it paints of the coal pits and the poverty-stricken families is heartbreaking and beautiful.
The Masterpiece, a novel about the bohemian art world of the late 19th century, it is said to have caused Cézanne to break off his friendship with Zola.
The Ladies’ Paradise is about the rise of the department store in Paris, and through it the destruction of independent retailers (the Amazon of the age) Recently it was bastardised by the BBC into a two-series (please, no more!) drama set in the North called The Paradise. Don’t watch that, read this!
The Kill is an account of the feverish property speculation during Haussmann’s rebuilding of Paris, and detailed description of the fevered callousness of the nouveau riche. Will make your fists itch.
The Fortune of the Rougons is the newest Zola translation, replacing a truly awful version written in the last decade of the 19th century. This is where the series begins, and is full of revolutionary fervour and hope (as well as a great deal of backstabbing, political machinations and the like).
The Earth depicts the disintegration of a family eking out it’s existence in the fields of France. This shows rural life at it’s most awful, and the impoverished people described is heartbreaking. If possible, more bleak than Germinal.
The Debacle is the end of the Second Empire, pretty much. An account of the horrors of war, especially war as experienced by the losing side, this is an account of the disastrous (even as war goes) Franco-Prussian war, followed by a great description of the Paris Commune.
The Belly of Paris. Read this. Please. Even if you just skip through to the scene where we are brought inside a cheese shop and each cheese’s smell takes on the part of an instrument in an orchestra. Also for great descriptions of Les Halles, the massive covered market in Paris that is now sadly no longer. Read this.
Trains and murder meet without a Poirot or Marple in sight. La Bete Humaine (or Beast Within, as it is sometimes referred) is a novel of extraordinary traction – you can feel the pull of the progress train dragging you through the novel. Also to be read for a description of one man’s love for his steam engine. Trigger warnings for violence against women.
If ever there was a novel for our time it is Money. On display is the insufferable greed of financiers, the terrible effects of speculation and fraudulent company promotion and the impotency of contemporary financial laws. Sound familiar?
As I started so will I finish. Nana Coupeau is a prostitute, who was badly abused by her drunkard father (found in The Drinking Den). At the age of 15 she is spotted by the owner of a music hall, and all Paris is talking about her. She is powerful, clever and brilliant.