Saturday, February 22, 2014
The Fortune of the Rougons - Emile Zola
My fascination with the process of translation comes from my complete dependence on the translator to have any sort of access to the story, my language skills can just about get me through a wine label in French but not much further. It's a love of history, and more specifically the history of art, which initially prodded me in the direction of nineteenth century literature, the books and paintings taken together give each other an extra depth and context. Because of my lack of skill with languages my studies veered towards British art and classics of English literature, otherwise I might have started reading Zola 20 odd years ago when I first found him on a recommended reading list (I love the way books will wait until your ready for them).
The only time I've ever been to France we only got as far as Paris, this was about when as I should first have been reading Zola, the overwhelming impression was how much the bits of the country I saw from the back of a car looked like England, and Paris itself felt Parisian rather than French in the same way that I never think of London as particularly English. The France that Zola shows us in 'The Fortune of the Rougons' is distinctly foreign to me, set as it is far further south than I've ever been and that in itself was unexpectedly exciting. It's also distinctly different to anything else I've read from the time, though a very helpful girl in Waterstones suggested that I might want to read some Gissing alongside the pile of Zola's I bought from her which seems like a good idea.
A lot happens in 'The Fortune of the Rougons' in the space of a week, and a lot more family history is covered at the same time which made it occasionally confusing (this edition comes with a handy family tree which I regularly referred to) but also very fast paced and very effective as a teaser for the rest of the series. The setting is the fictional Provencal town of Plassans, a sleepy but reasonably prosperous town which is home to Adelaide Fouque. She is the daughter of a prosperous market gardener and the unfortunate possessor of a nervous condition which may or may not be insanity. When her father dies she marries the hired help - a peasant named Rougon, it's a union that scandalises the town and leaves her with a son before Rougon himself also dies at which point she starts and affair with a smuggler by the name of Macquart with whom she has two illegitimate children which further scandalises the town. When Pierre Rougon grows up he promptly swindles his mother and two siblings out of her family money and marries an ambitious woman named Felicite. 'The Fortune of the Rougons' deals mostly with Adelaide and Felicite's children and the various traits they've inherited from their parents. Basically low peasant cunning, a disposition towards alcoholism and nervous disorders, and greed.
The best of the lot is the idealistic young Silvere and his love Miette, Silvere is a committed republican - his fervour for the cause borders on obsession, but he's also a kind and gentle young man. He and Miette head off with a republican uprising full of hope for the future - it ends in a way that's both cruel and beautiful. Meanwhile after 30 years of disappointment Silvere's uncle Pierre Rougon (by now in his 60's) has been positioning himself to take advantage of the Bonapartist coup (it's 1851) which after various unsavoury machinations he manages to do and that leaves everything set up for the rest of the cycle.
I have about nine volumes now so my next decision is what to read next. The second book in the series seems hard to get hold of unless as part of an ebook bundle that has all 20 parts in it and that I doubt I would actually read particularly soon. The scene setting done in this volume makes me feel like I could pretty much jump in anywhere, even more so because it seems so many of these books work as stand alone novels as well so it seems likely that I'll settle on whichever title calls the loudest to be read next.