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- A Zola Dictionary - 2/54 -


/L'Evenement/, but from the first failed to do so, and its publication was stopped before it was half completed. Soon afterwards /L'Evenement/ was incorporated with the /Figaro/, and Zola's connection with it terminated. A time of hardship again began, and during the year 1867 the wolf was only kept from the door by unremitting toil of the least agreeable kind. In the midst of his difficulties Zola wrote two books simultaneously, one supremely good and the other unquestionably bad. The one was /Therese Raquin/, and the other /Les Mysteres de Marseille/. The latter, which was pure hack-work, was written to the order of the publisher of a Marseillaise newspaper, who supplied historical material from researches made by himself at the Marseilles and Aix law courts, about the various /causes celebres/ which during the previous fifty years had attracted the most public attention. These were to be strung together, and by an effort of legerdemain combined into a coherent whole in the form of a novel. Zola, desiring bread, undertook the task, with results that might have been anticipated.

/Therese Raquin/ is a work of another kind, for into it Zola put the best that was in him, and elaborated the story with the greatest care. It is a tale of Divine Justice, wherein a husband is murdered by his wife and her lover, who, though safe from earthly consequence, are yet separated by the horror of their deed, and come to hate each other for the thing they have done. The book is one of remarkable power, and it is interesting to note that in the preface to it Zola first made use of the word /naturalisme/ as describing that form of fiction which he was afterwards to uphold in and out of season. A violent attack in the /Figaro/ gave opportunity for a vigorous reply, and the advertisement so obtained assisted the sales of the book, which from the first was a success. It was followed by /Madeleine Ferat/, which, however, was less fortunate. The subject is unpleasant, and its treatment lacks the force which made /Therese Raquin/ convincing.

Up to this time Zola's life had been a steady struggle against poverty. He was terribly in earnest, and was determined to create for himself a place in literature; to accomplish this end he counted no labour too arduous, no sacrifice too great. His habits were Spartan in their simplicity; he was a slave to work and method, good equipment for the vast task he was next to undertake. He had long been an earnest student of Balzac, and there is no doubt that it was the example of the great /Comedie Humaine/ which inspired his scheme for a series of novels dealing with the life history of a family during a particular period; as he described it himself, "the history natural and social of a family under the Second Empire." It is possible that he was also influenced by the financial success of the series of historical novels written by Erckmann-Chatrian, known as the /Romans Nationaux/. It was not, however, the past about which he proposed to write; no period was more suitable for his purpose than that in which he lived, that Second Empire whose regime began in blood and continued in corruption. He had there, under his own eyes and within his personal knowledge, a suitable /mise-en-scene/ wherein to further develop those theories of hereditary influence which had already attracted his attention while he was writing /Madeleine Ferat/. The scheme was further attractive in as much as it lent itself readily to the system of treatment to which he had applied the term /naturalisme/, to distinguish it from the crudities of the realistic school. The scientific tendency of the period was to rely not on previously accepted propositions, but on observation and experience, or on facts and documents. To Zola the voice of science conveyed the word of ultimate truth, and with desperate earnestness he set out to apply its methods to literary production. His position was that the novelist is, like the scientist, an observer and an experimentalist combined. The observer, he says, gives the facts as he has observed them, fixes the starting-point, lays the solid ground on which his characters are to walk and his phenomena to develop. Then the experimentalist appears and starts the experiment, that is to say, he makes the personages in a particular story move, in order to show that the succession of events will be just what the determinism of phenomena together with study demand that they should be. The author must abstain from comment, never show his own personality, and never turn to the reader for sympathy; he must, as Mr. Andrew Lang has observed, be as cold as a vivisectionist at a lecture. Zola thought the application of this method would raise the position of the novel to the level of a science, and that it would become a medium for the expression of established truths. The fallacy of the argument has been exposed by more than one critic. It is self-evident that the "experiments" by the novelist cannot be made on subjects apart from himself, but are made by him and in him; so that they prove more regarding his own temperament than about what he professes to regard as the inevitable actions of his characters. The conclusion drawn by a writer from such actions must always be open to the retort that he invented the whole himself and that fiction is only fiction. But to Zola in the late sixties the theory seemed unassailable and it was upon it that he founded the whole edifice of /Les Rougon-Macquart/. The considerations then that influenced Zola in beginning a series of novels connected by subject into one gigantic whole were somewhat various. There was the example of Balzac's great /Comedie Humaine/; there was the desire of working out the theories of heredity in which he had become interested; there was the opportunity of putting into operation the system which he had termed /naturalisme/; and there was also the consideration that if he could get a publisher to agree to his proposals he would secure a certain income for a number of years. His original scheme was a series of twelve novels to be written at the rate of two a year, and he entered into a contract with a publisher named Lacroix, who was to pay him five hundred francs a month as an advance. M. Lacroix would, however, only bind himself to publish four out of the twelve novels. The arrangement could not be carried out, and at the end of three years only two volumes of the Rougon-Macquart series had been published, while Zola found that he had become indebted to the publisher for a very considerable sum.

The first novel of the series was begun in 1869, but was not published till the winter of 1871, delay having occurred on account of the war with Germany. Zola was never a rapid writer, and seems to have regulated his literary production with machinelike uniformity. As his friend and biographer Paul Alexis writes: "Only four pages, but four pages every day, every day without exception, the action of the drop of water always falling on the same place, and in the end wearing out the hardest stone. It seems nothing, but in course of time chapters follow chapters, volumes follow upon volumes, and a whole life's work sprouts, multiplies its branches, extends its foliage like a lofty oak, destined to rise high into the air and to remain standing in the forest of human productions."

His literary creed at the time he began the Rougon-Macquart series may be conveniently summed up in a few words from an article which he had only a month before written in the /Gaulois/: "If I kept a school of morals," he says, "I would hasten to place in the hands of my pupils /Madame Bovary/ or /Germinie Lacerteux/, persuaded that truth alone can instruct and fortify generous souls."

In /La Fortune des Rougon/, then, Zola set out to plant the roots of the great family tree which was to occupy his attention during the next twenty years of his life. His object was to describe the origin of the family which he had selected for dissection in his series, and to outline the various principal characters, members of that family. Mr. Andrew Lang, writing on this subject in the /Fortnightly Review/, points out that certain Arab tribes trace their descent from a female Dog, and suggests that the Rougon-Macquart family might have claimed the same ancestry. Adelaide Fouque came of a race of peasants who had long lived at Plassans, a name invented by Zola to conceal the identity of Aix, the town in Provence where his youth had been spent. She was highly neurotic, with a tendency to epilepsy, but from the point of view of the naturalistic novelist she offered many advantages. When a mere girl she married a man named Rougon, who died soon afterwards, leaving her with a son named Pierre, from whom descended the legitimate branch of the family. Then followed a liaison with a drunken smuggler named Macquart, as a result of which two children were born, the Macquarts. Adelaide's original neurosis had by this time become more pronounced, and she ultimately became insane. Pierre married and had five children, but his financial affairs had not prospered, though by underhand methods he had contrived to get possession of his mother's property, to the exclusion of her other children. Then came the /Coup d'Etat/ of 1851, and Pierre, quick to seize his opportunity, rendered such services to the Bonapartist party as to lay the foundation of the family fortune, a foundation which was, however, cemented with treachery and blood. It was with these two families, then, both descended from a common ancestress, and sometimes subsequently united by intermarriage, that the whole series of novels was to deal. They do not form an edifying group, these Rougon- Macquarts, but Zola, who had based his whole theory of the experimental novel upon the analogy of medical research, was not on the outlook for healthy subjects; he wanted social sores to probe. This is a fact much too often overlooked by readers of detached parts of the series, for it should always be kept in mind that the whole was written with the express purpose of laying bare all the social evils of one of the most corrupt periods in recent history, in the belief that through publicity might come regeneration. Zola was all along a reformer as well as a novelist, and his zeal was shown in many a bitter newspaper controversy. It has been urged against him that there were plenty of virtuous people about whom he could have written, but these critics appear to forget that he was in a sense a propagandist, and that it was not his /metier/ to convert persons already in the odour of sanctity.

/La Fortune des Rougon/ was not particularly successful on its publication, but in view of the fact that the war with Germany was barely concluded no surprise need be experienced. Zola's financial position was, however, by the arrangement with his publisher now more secure, and he felt justified in marrying. This he did, and settled down into the quiet bourgeois existence in which his life was spent.

The next book was /La Curee/, a study of the mushroom society of the Second Empire. The subject--the story of Phaedra adapted to modern environment--is unpleasant and the treatment is daring; but despite a slight /succes de scandale/, its reception by the public was no more favorable than that of /La Fortune des Rougon/.

/La Curee/ was followed by /Le Ventre de Paris/, which reached a second edition. It contained some excellent descriptive writing, but was severely attacked by certain critics, who denounced it as the apotheosis of gluttony, while they resented the transference of a pork butcher's shop to literature and took particular exceptions to a certain "symphony of cheeses."

Next came /La Conquete de Plassans/, an excellent story, to be followed by /La Faute de l'Abbe Mouret/, one of Zola's most romantic books, and the first to attain any considerable success. He next wrote /Son Excellence Eugene Rougon/, in which he dealt with the political side of the Second Empire and sketched the life of the Imperial Court at Compiegne. For this task he was not particularly well equipped, and the book was only moderately successful. Then came /L'Assommoir/, and with it fame and fortune for the writer. It is a terrible story of working-class life in Paris, a study of the ravages wrought by drink. Again to quote Mr. Andrew Lang, "It is a dreadful but not an immoral book. It is the most powerful temperance tract that ever was written. As M. Zola saw much of the life of the poor in his early years, as he once lived, when a boy, in one of the huge lodging-houses he describes, one may fear that /L'Assommoir/ is a not untruthful picture of the lives of many men and women in Paris."


A Zola Dictionary - 2/54

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