On the Night Stand: commentary on The Rougon-Macquart Cycle by Emile Zola

Emile Zola (1840-1902)

Ever since watching a PBS Masterpiece Theater production of Nana back in the late '70s, I've been curious, perhaps without realizing it, about Emile Zola. Being fifteen years old at the time you may wonder what piqued my interest in such arcane material. Well, it didn't hurt that the BBC produced teleplay contained  uncensored nudity; that'll grab a teenager's attention every time. Nana is about a prostitute who is "discovered" and becomes a stage actress at the Théâtre des Variétés in Paris. It is also the ninth out of a total of twenty works of fiction written by Zola known collectively as the Rougon-Macquart Cycle.

For better than thirty years I have had the more well-known Zola titles like Nana and Germinal tucked away on my "Eventually To Be Read" list, never even approaching one of them until just a few months ago. That's when I read a bit more about the complete works of this iconic French novelist. He has been compared to earlier French masters like Honore de Balzac who dedicated his life's work to a collection of novels entitled La Comédie Humaine (about 100 titles). Whereas Balzac's work deals primarily with scenes from various aspects of French life in general, Zola endeavored instead to focus his studies not only on the hereditary lines of two branches of one family, The Rougon-Macquarts, but also on the historical events occurring roughly over the twenty year period of Napoleon III's Second Empire in France (1851-1871).

Zola, a self proclaimed progenitor of French Naturalism, a school of literature which didn't really take hold until about 1890, is also considered an optimist, even though most main stream Naturalist writers were later regarded as pessimistic. He explores themes such as: the science of heredity and how it is affected by the environment, vice, and class structure. The initial book in the series, Les Fortunes des Rougon chronicles the beginnings of the two limbs of the fateful family tree, focusing on its matriarch, Adelaide Fouque, and her wolfish brood including the scheming Pierre Rougon and the illegitimate and lazy Antoine Macquart. The novels were, according to Zola, written out of order. Below is a list of the recommended order, suggested by the author himself, in which to read the entire cycle:

  • 1)La Fortune des Rougon (tr. THE FORTUNE OF THE ROUGONS); 
  • 2) Son Excellence Eugene Rougon (tr. HIS EXCELLENCY or CLORINDA); 
  • 3) La Curée (tr. THE KILL); 
  • 4) L'Argent (tr. MONEY); 
  • 5) La Rève (tr. THE DREAM); 
  • 6) La Conquête de Plassans (tr. THE CONQUEST OF PLASSANS or A PRIEST IN THE HOUSE); 
  • 8) Au Bonheur des Dames (tr. THE LADIES' PARADISE or THE LADIES' DELIGHT); 
  • 9) La Faute de l'Abbé Mouret (tr. ABBE MOURET'S TRANSGRESSION); 
  • 10) Une Page d'amour (tr. A LOVE EPISODE); 
  • 11) Le Ventre de Paris (tr. THE BELLY OF PARIS or THE FAT AND THE THIN); 
  • 12) La Joie de vivre (tr. THE JOY OF LIFE, HOW JOLLY LIFE IS! or ZEST FOR LIFE); 
  • 13) L'Assommoir; 
  • 15) La Bête Humaine (tr. THE BEAST WITHIN or THE HUMAN BEAST); 
  • 16) Germinal; 
  • 17) Nana; 
  • 18) La Terre (tr. THE EARTH or THE SOIL); 
  • 19) La Débâcle (tr. THE DOWNFALL); and, 
  • 20) Le Docteur Pascal (tr. DOCTOR PASCAL).

So finally after thirty some years of incurious deferment my libidinous teenage behavior has paid some hefty literary dividends. After completing The Fortune of the Rougons, I heartily advocate for the rediscovery of this knot of novels by Emile Zola. I have already begun reading the aptly titled, His Excellency and look forward to absorbing even more about the 300 plus other characters that populate the Rougon-Macquart world.