Visiting Lyon for a week, I took with me The Conquest of Plassans by Émile Zola [Oxford: OUP, 2014]; a good choice as it turned out. Never short of ambition and seemingly able to write to a band playing, Émile Zola completed this fourth volume of the twenty book Rougon-Macquart novels in 1874. The two connected but opposing families have their roles in this volume. The two central characters are Marthe, a Rougon, and the Abbé Faujas, a zealous and, it seems, cunning supporter of the Imperialist government after the coup d’état. Marthe’s husband, François Mouret is a semi-retired businessman who does not consult his family about important decisions which is why, in the first chapter, Marthe finds out that he has rented their rather decrepit second floor to a newly arriving priest and his mother. The Mourets are not practising Catholics although one of their sons seems to have chosen the priesthood. Marthe is unhappy with the prospect of any strangers, not least such strangers in her house. The story unfolds as the Abbé gradually takes over the house, the local church hierarchy, the town and, finally, Marthe herself as he sets out to conquer the too republican Plassans as a covert agent for the government in Paris.
From the point of view of the Mouret family, the story goes from bad to worse. Faujas has seedy relatives who join him upstairs, greedy and rapacious. The Abbé schemes and accomplishes his successive goals while poor François is literally driven out of his mind and into the local asylum as Marthe becomes devoted to the church and a disciple of Faujas. The Mouret family members are, one by one, driven from their home. All this is set against a backdrop of back-biting and intrigue concerning local rivalries, Rougon versus Macquart feuding, and national politics. Familiar motives like greed, envy and self-indulgence play the roles they seem to play not only in Zola’s novels but in life writ large.
For what it’s worth, since this blog does not reveal plots, the Abbé gets his come-uppance, as do the other villains of this complex piece but, as is so often the case in Zola, the good seldom get their just reward; not in this world anyway.
For those new to Zola, try out two novels first: Germinal and The Ladies’ Paradise and if they take your fancy that leaves only eighteen others to read over the next few years. As it says of favoured restaurants in the Guide Michelin, ça vaut le détour. Zola can be compared and contrasted with Dickens as a powerfully observant chronicler of his century but bear always in mind that as the author himself said, ‘the real in literature cannot be the real in nature’ and that the work of art is ‘a corner of nature seen through a temperament’. I lifted these last two observations from the excellent introduction by Patrick McGuiness and I also commend the lively new translation by Helen Constantine.