The Fortune of the Rougons by Zola
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As the first in Zola's 20-book Rougon-Macquart series, the role of this novel is to set the stage, to introduce the family, to explain the rationale, and to highlight the events that started the Second Empire. Zola has several goals in this series: to show the importance of heredity and its interaction with environment; to depict the particular characteristics of the successful, legitimate, Rougon side of the family and the unsuccessful, illegitimate Macquart side; and to illustrate the social system of the Second Empire.
I am glad I read Germinal and L'Assommoir before I read this book, because they show Zola at his best: the fully developed characters, the intimacy of their lives matched by the breadth of their world, the vivid details of the environment (be it coal mining or the slums), the satire, and the compelling story telling. While these can be found in places in this book, Zola gets a little bogged down in setting the stage for the whole series (lots of background information on the two main lines of the family) and goes a little overboard in showing the development of friendship and love between the teenagers Miette and Silvère, both of whom have had difficult childhoods. Additionally, Zola's view of heredity, as explained in this book, is seriously flawed by modern standards, although perhaps novel for its time.
Nonetheless, I enjoyed this book, which takes place over a week or so during the 1851 coup in which Napoleon's nephew took over the government in Paris fairly bloodlessly while republican resistance took place in the south and elsewhere. The teenagers get wrapped up in the resistance, while Silvère's uncle, Pierre Rougon, and his wife, scheme for greater power, even while fighting their continuing battle against Pierre's half-brother Antoine, one of the founders of the Macquart side of the family. The story of the scheming, and the satiric look at the reactionary cabal, are priceless. I appreciate the understanding I got of the structure of the family (helped by a family tree at the beginning of the edition I read), and I will definitely be reading more Zola.
Mine from last month:
The Fortune of the Rougons was both the first book written and the first in internal chronology of Zola's 20-volume Rougon-Macquart cycle. It tells of the origins of the Rougon and Macquart families, as well as the beginnings of France's Second Empire in 1851.
The novel begins with the late-night secret rendezvous of two teenage lovers in a secluded cemetery. Silvère, a 17-year-old apprentice coachmaker, has come to take a final stroll with 13-year-old Miette before he leaves to join the insurgents who are protesting the coup d'état in which Louis Napoleon has overthrown the French republic and proclaimed himself emperor. Zola uses their languorous and reluctant walk in the winter moonlight to describe at length the town of Plassans, its people and its surroundings. (Plassans is based on Aix-en-Provence.) Much to their surprise and delight, when they have strayed several miles from Plassans, the two children encounter the very column of republicans whom Silvère has planned to join. Armed with scythes, pitchforks and a few ancient muskets, they march together, singing the Marseilles, into Plassans.
Zola now digresses to give a lengthy history of the family of Adélaïde Fouque, a woman given to strange attacks of the nerves and to unconventional behavior. Inheriting her father's substantial farm, Adélaïde suprises Plassans by marrying a simple peasant named Rougon. She gives him one son, Pierre, before Rougon dies. Adélaïde then begins an affair with a smuggler named Macquart and gives birth to two illegitimate children before Macquart is killed. This sets up a conflict between the two lines: the Rougons: legitimate but somewhat tainted, grasping for wealth and bourgeois respectability; and the Macquarts: passionate and impulsive, nursing a bitterness not only against the legitimate Rougons but against all authority. They and their descendants will people all twenty of the Rougon-Macquart novels, a series which chronicles in parallel the crimes and foibles of the Second Empire.
Returning to the present we find the Rougons and the Macquarts on opposite sides of the political divide. Pierre Rougon has sided with the reactionaries and is scheming to use the uprising to serve his personal ambitions. Silvère, a descendant of the Macquart line, has, of course, joined the peasants and laborers who will strive in vain to restore the Republic. The contrast between the two leaves no doubt where Zola's sympathies lay.
But Zola's stated purpose in writing The Fortune of the Rougons and its sequels is to study human personality and behavior as it is shaped by two factors: heredity and environment. He doesn't describe his characters as "good" or "evil," but rather as the inevitable end result of the factors that went into their making. Zola's notions of human psychology and heredity are both archaic and simplistic by modern standards, but this detracts very little from the value of the novel.
"For a moment he thought he could see, in a flash, the future of the Rougon-Macquart family, a pack of wild, satiated appetites in the midst of a blaze of gold and blood." With this teaser, Zola gives us a foretaste of the Rougon-Macquart novels he had yet to write. The Fortune of the Rougons serves as both a standalone novel and as an introduction to what is to come. Zola does introduce a number of characters who will become significant only in later volumes, and his true masterpieces were yet to come, but The Fortune of the Rougons is worthwhile on its own.
This has been my least favorite of the series so far. If it had been the first Zola I read, I may not have continued reading (although probably I would have read at least one more). Unless you are a completist, I think this is one of the novels you can skip.
I really enjoyed Fortune of the Rougons in the recent Oxford World Classics translation. While the novels are capable of being read alone, Fortune of the Rougons sets up Plassans, the Rougons, the Macquarts and the time of the Second French Empire. The machinations of the family members against each other and against the Republic are so well portrayed it would be a shame to miss them. I wouldn't skip it.
That said, the initial chapter introducing Miette and Silvere is way too long and a bit weak. The supporters of the Republic are not drawn with anything like the attention given to the supporters of the Empire. (Aren't those colorful righteous laborers awesome?! See them march!)
I especially dig Zola's intros for each book. (So far - I am only just now finishing The Kill.)
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