Eight years ago I took out Germinal by Émile Zola from my high school library. Yesterday, during my flight from Barcelona to Oslo, I finished the last volume of the Rougon-Macquart series, Doctor Pascal. Perhaps the most well-known series in France, this set of twenty books tells the story of a family but also of that country during the Third Empire (1851-1871). He carefully examines every single socio-economic and political aspect of the regime and devotes a book to it. There are also some more psychological books, such as The Dream or Une Page d’Amour, and yet those convey a clear picture of the moeurs of the society at the time.
I must confess it took me some years to decide to read the whole saga. After Germinal I soon read The Ladies’ Paradise, which still remains one of my favourite novels of the Rougon-Macquart’s. Then followed The Fault of Abbé Mouret, The Dream, and Money. I felt such a strong dislike for the latter that I discarded the idea of reading anything else by Zola.
Fortunately, a friend of mine who at the time was studying French Literature at the Sorbonne suggested me to read the first volume, The Fortune of the Rougons. It was completely different from the other books of the series, and I loved it so that it gave me the determination to read the remaining fourteen.
A nice thing of the series is that each book is self-contained. Of course, reading it in order (be it the chronological order o the suggested order) will make the overall experience more enjoyable, as you’ll be able to track what characters from other books are up to.
Throughout the years there have been some disappointments, as I mentioned before, but some of his books are simply brilliant. For instance, The Earth – a novel about farmers – the is not very well-known and I find it one of his most accomplished works. In general, Zola is not known for being bland or indulgent. He can be rather crude in his descriptions of human nature. But at the same time you can feel in his words that he is in love with life and that he loathes society for imposing some rules that seem to be a hindrance to happiness.
The last two books are, in their own way, paramount examples of these two
characteristics found in Zola’s novels. In La Débâcle – where he narrates the Franco-Prussian war through the eyes of two soldiers – there’s a ferocious criticism to Napoleon III’s reign, his incompetence as a ruler (you end up pitying the guy) is evident, and there’s also a lot, a lot, of drama (1).
In Doctor Pascal I believe he tries to set an example of what should be a healthy lifestyle, that is, of living happily, without consuming ambitions or (unromantic) passions, and he establishes love as the only way to achieve happiness. It is also where he explicitly writes down his theories on the inheritance of physical and moral traits within a family. Predating genetics, Zola had an intuition that some characteristics were passed on from parents to children, and even guessed that a generation or two could be skipped or that this inheritance could be from uncle to nephew, for instance. He had no idea on how this process took place but was certain of its existence. I haven’t got any idea on genetics myself, but sometimes his theories seemed a bit too far-fetched; it almost looked as if an individual was doomed from the very beginning to be the combination of her ancestors. I guess that’s naturalism for you.
Overall, I had mixed feelings when reading this book. It’s the story of Pascal Rougon, a country doctor who’s fifty-nine, and his niece Clotilde (twenty-five), whom has been living with her uncle for the last eighteen years. They fall in love. To be fair, I didn’t care that much about the incestuous side of the relationship, but what made it feel wrong to me was how they treated each other. Clotilde always, always, calls Pascal “master”, which is just… no. She constantly refers to herself as being her servant, wanting give herself to him, or him to take her.
This was the more surprising since I always thought Zola was quite a feminist for the time. In his books he usually defends how important is to educate women and for them to know what sex is before entering marriage. He also warns of how vulnerable and easily manipulated women are without education, and how terrible the consequences of that can be. Furthermore, in The Ladies’ Paradise Octave and Denise relationship is one of love and respect, quite modern I think.
Unfortunately, I think Zola heavily identified himself with the doctor, especially given that he also had an affair with a women thirty years her junior, and felt this need of being admired and praised, to mistake the teacher-pupil relationship with a romantic one.
Pascal also seems to be particularly obsessed with her youth, adoring her young and lean body, and her devotion to him. It is true that at some point he says that he also loves her for her mind and independence, but… only once.
I can give it a pass because I guess this was still a pretty healthy relationship for 19th century – he respects her wishes, thinks of her well-being, and treats her as an equal despite her devotion – but some aspects seem weird two hundred years later.
However, this should not deter anyone to read a book from the series. There are great books, great stories, and great characters to be found in them.
This is probably the longest review I’ve ever written, but I wanted to give a proper close to this brilliant series, and I hope it encourages someone to start!
(1) If you want to read a nice and heart-warming 19th century, Zola is not your best choice. I think that all of his books except one end in tragedy. Not only that, the books are filled with terrible events, cruelty, and the worst people can give. There are also moments of sheer happiness, but it doesn’t last long. Also, I find Zola extremely liberal in his description and analysis of sex, religion, and violence considering he wrote in the late 19th century.