Friday, March 14, 2008

His Excellency Eugene Rougon

The sixth book in Zola's Rougon-Macquart is an improvement on its predecessor but it's easy to see why no-one has commissioned a modern translation. The plot of the novel is as follows: Eugene Rougon, who is one of the chief figures in Napoleon III's government, is forced to resign. He spends a while in the political wilderness until he makes a spectacular comeback. Sadly he gets too big for his boots and ends up having to resign again. Then he starts to make another comeback. The end.

As a novel His Excellency doesn't work. The plot creaks along slowly and when it does change gear it is done in a way that is clumsy and uncompelling. However the book does have its merits. On the one hand it is a fascinating portrait of France during the rule of Louis Napoleon and even features the Emperor as one of the characters. Zola is clearly not a fan of the Second Empire, but his portrait of Napoleon III is balanced and plausible. Some of the historical references went over my head, but luckily I found a copy of the Penguin History of Modern France in a local charity shop for £1.

In Zola's novels, France in the mid-nineteenth century is ruled by a cabal of corrupt, greedy politicians who are more concerned with lining their own pockets (and those of their friends) than the glory of France. The historical accuracy of the Rougon Macquart novels is one of their chief merits, but at times I think the demands of fiction are subservient to Zola's desire for authenticity. His Excellency is a case in point.

1 comment:

JRSM said...

As a beginning Zola fan (only read 'Therese Raquin', 'Nana', 'The Kill' and some short stories), it's reassuring to know that the ones in the RM cycle I can't find in print are perhaps not worth pursuing after all. Although I did buy 'The Belly of Paris' before reading your review...