Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Conquest of Plassans

I have just finished the fourth book in Zola's Rougon-Macquart series of novels - only another sixteen to go. I might die first.

I started my quest in August 2006 which I realise is rather slow, but that's the only way I could face doing it. The received wisdom is that whilst Zola is a great writer he was also an erratic one and at least half of the Rougon Macquart novels aren't very good, which is why no modern translations exist for them.

I approached reading all twenty books like a marathon (not that I've ever run one).

I'd start full of energy and although the first six books weren't great I'd have the promise of L'assamoir (or The Drinking Den as it now seems to be called) to aim for. From then on, as my spirits flagged, the number of refreshment breaks would increase: Nana, Germinal, Earth, La Bete Humaine and The Debacle to get me through to the final novel, Doctor Pascal. However, after struggling through the third book - The Fat and the Thin - I was surprised to find myself completely bowled over by The Conquest of Plassans.

Zola was a social realist and his descriptions of France during the Second Empire are incredibly vivid. But sometimes, when Zola switches into panoramic mode, he gets carried away. The third novel successfully evokes the atmosphere of the Parisian markets, but there are only so many descriptions of fruit, vegetables and fish that one needs. As Roxette sang, Don't bore us, get to the chorus.

I approached The Conquest of Plassans with all the enthusiasm of someone reading a set text, but within a few pages I was hooked. The strength of this novel lies with the main characters, from the Rasputin-like Abbe Faujas to Francois Mouret, who is the nearest thing that French literature has to Homer Simpson. This was almost a great novel and it's a mystery why no modern translation exists.

Apart from the sharply-drawn characters, the other asset of this novel is that the narrative rarely flags and Zola resists the urge to describe every single item on a table. It is only let down by the unnecessarily melodramatic James Bond ending, which seems out of character with the subtle interplay of the first 280 pages. But that aside, this is a very enjoyable read and if you don't want to trawl through all twenty novels in the Rougon Macquart sequence, I'd strongly recommend La Conquete.


Junk Monkey said...

Why does Emil Zola look like one of the Wild Things from Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are?

Steerforth said...

Good're right!

susie r said...

I just found your blog while searching for Eric Ravilious images...good stuff!

I am also attempting the trawl through the Rougon-Machquart series, also about four books in, but starting more or less in the middle. My favourite so far is The Ladies' Paradise (Au Bonheur Des Dames)- I never thought department stores could sound so rapturous! The Fortune of the Rougons is not going quite as well - I think I needed to start out with a better grasp of French politics...

Steerforth said...

Glad you like it.

I read The Ladies' Paradise a few years ago and also loved it. It must have been the first time anyone had written about a department store.

You're right about knowing something about French politics. I don't know that much, but I read a brilliant book about the Second Empire called 'Tales of the New Babylon' a few years ago, which gave me some idea of the huge social changes that were taking place during the time of the Rougon-Macquart novels. It's now out of print, but I expect are selling it.