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.