Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Book Review: Emile Zola's The Fortune of the Rougons

I think of myself as a pretty adventurous reader, so it’s surprising how often I realize I’ve never read a single book by a well-known author. I am not participating in the Paris in July Challenge, but a number of my blogging buddies are, so I’ve been enjoying a raft of reviews of French literature lately – and my limitations in that area are becoming apparent to me. For instance, after reading a fine review of Emile Zola’s Germinal by Karen at Books and Chocolate, I racked my brain trying to remember anything I’d read by Zola. I came up with nothing.

This led to an internet search, which led to Zola’s sweeping Rougon-Macquart epic, which led to the first novel in the twenty-book series, The Fortune of the Rougons. Since I generally prefer to begin at the beginning, and the title was available for Kindle, I decided to download it. Once I opened it up, I absolutely could not put it down!

Some background: The Rougon-Macquart novels tell the story of one family with two branches, one legitimate (the Rougons) and one illegitimate (the Macquarts), all descended from the same wealthy but unstable heiress, Adelaide Fouque. In the 20 novels of the series, Zola used France’s Second Republic as a kind of “incubator” for his ideas about evolution, and explored the impact of both predisposition and environment on various characters in the family line. In the first book, Zola sets up the “nature” elements of the book, by giving the Rougon and Macquart families particular traits, some distinct because of their different fathers, some overlapping because of they share the same mother.

More character study than chronicle, the narration moves about in time, starting at the birth of the Second Republic in 1852, but near the end of the book’s action, with the love story of Silvere and Miette. Silvere is a grandson of Adelaide’s and a staunch Republican, urged on by his bitter uncle, Antoine Macquart. Antoine blames his wealthy half-brother, Pierre Rougon, for disinheriting him and causing all his troubles – and he isn’t completely wrong in that regard. Zola creates characters of great depth and complexity, showing how their personal traits, social circumstances and decisions have brought them to that critical moment in the history of both the family and the nation:
There are some situations which benefit only persons of bad repute. These lay the foundations of their fortune where men of better position and more influence would never dare to risk theirs…The game was too risky. There was no one among the middle classes of Plassans who cared to play it except the Rougons, whose ungratified longings urged them on to extreme measures. Kindle location 1272

Not all of the books in the cycle are currently available in English translation, and some of the translations that do exist were censored for what was considered a more puritanical audience. I have read a lot of criticism of the translation I read, by Vizetelly, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. I will be looking for even better translations for the other books, either in English or in Spanish – I now want to read them all!

So 2011 is the summer I fell in love with Zola. I hope I can participate in Paris in July next year! If you have any suggestions for what my next Rougon-Macquart novel should be, let me know!

This book in one sentence: A bitter seed bears a bitter harvest.


  1. I, too, have shamefully never read anything by Zola. I've been seeing posts about his books everywhere this month. I'll have to get on that. Thanks for the inspiration. :)

  2. Ooh -- I've also never read Zola but I'm ready to jump on your bandwagon -- this sounds marvelous. Perhaps next year I can do classic-authors-I-ought-have-read challenge for myself.

    V interesting re: the translation. I'm picky about my translations but I find often prolific authors aren't always translated consistently in the US -- sadly!

  3. Looks like I'm in good company! I've never read anything by Zola either.

    It would be interesting to read the book in French but my French never really got past the "Je m'appelle Christina" stage.

  4. You and Karen have me adding even more Zola to my tbr list today! I loved Therese Raquin and The Ladies' Paradise (as well as some short stories), have just started The Belly of Paris, and am beginning to think I should just read the whole series in order!

  5. I'm so delighted you're enjoying Zola as well -- and how cool that we both posted on the same day. I saw on Wikipedia that Zola has a recommended reading order which is different than the publication order of the series. I think I'm just going to skip around and read them as I find them.

    The edition of Pot Luck (#10) was translated by Brian Nelson, who is apparently at work on a new translation of the Fortunes of the Rougons. I thought it was a great translation and I'm hoping to read more of his.

    I've really liked all the Rougon-Macquarts so far. I read the Kurlansky translation of #3, The Belly of Paris, and I really recommend it.

    So fun to find another Zola fan!

  6. I fell in love with Zola this summer too, courtesy of The Ladies' Paradise. It was just so readable!

  7. I read a lot of books set in France but not a lot of books by French authors. A good reminder for me to do so!

  8. Very interesting review. I haven't read this book by Zola but would now definitely like to.

  9. @Julie @Audra @Chris -- I sense a need for a Zola Challenge. Or maybe even a Rougon-Macquart Challenge! I would absolutely participate!

  10. @JoAnn -- It was Karen's review of Germinal that put me on to Zola, and now I can't wait to read another. I've added Ladies' Paradise to my list.

  11. @Karen -- Thanks so much for introducing me to Zola. This is what I love about book blogging!

  12. @FleurFisher -- I think I may focus on the titles that focus on women for a bit. I'm assuming Ladies' Paradise is one of them?

    @Amused -- You're not alone -- I read way more lit from India or Japan than France. But I really do want to amend that!

    @neer -- I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. I will probably check out the newer translation once it's available, but I'll try to read the others available in English or Spanish first!

  13. Hi, I'm Lisa with TLC Book Tours. I really like your review style and would like to talk to you about a book we have coming up on tour. It fits into one of the challenges you're doing. However, I can't find an email address for you.. could you send me an email at ? Thanks!


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