Wednesday, February 28, 2007


I see that Bookseller to the Stars is on a quest to spend the next twelve months reading celebrity biographies. I teasingly suggested that he was it doing to get some media attention, but he assures me that it's 'just a bit of fun'. Either way, he has an excellent blog and I only hope that he won't sustain any long-term damage from exposure to the vacuosity of celebrity memoirs.

I'm on a slightly different quest. I'm attempting to read all 20 books in Zola's Rougon-Macquart sequence of novels. It's not as easy as it sounds. Fewer than half of the books exist in decent modern translations and the well-known novels only account for a third of the total. Why have the majority of the Rougon-Macquart novels languished in obscurity for so long?

Amazingly, the only translation of the first novel The Fortune of the Rougons is the original Victorian one by Ernest Vizetelly. This may not be the best novel in the series, but has a pivotal role and I can't understand why no publisher has commissioned a modern translation. Vizetelly's translation is adequate, but to the modern reader it seems very stilted and I've recently discovered that he took huge liberties with the text.

The second book was also ignored until recently then, like London buses, two came along at once. Arthur Goldhammer's translation of The Kill is superb and I was shocked at how explicit and saucy a novel published in the 1870s could be. So far so good.

I am now on the third novel The Fat and the Thin and I'm struggling. The translation is okay but Zola is taking social realism to the point where nothing happens. I am on page 232 and the main protagonist is still ambling around the local fish market. There are some splendid descriptions of carp - if you like fish in literature, Zola's your man - but when is the story going to begin?

I'm determined to not give up, as I know that the best is yet to come. But I am beginning to see why some of the Rougon-Macquart novels have taken a back seat.

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