Review – Zola, “The Conquest of Plassans”

Emile Zola, “The Conquest of Plassans” (1874) (translated from the French by Helen Constantine) – My campaign to read Émile Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series, at the rate of a volume or two a year, continues apace. In this installment, a Rougon back in their ancestral home area of rural Provence gets messed with by a priest. Zola was an anti-clerical republican and so his priests are generally sinister figures, and so far in the series Abbe Faujas takes the sinister cake.

The abbe rents a room in the farmhouse of the Mourets, a solid-ish bourgeois family into which Marthe Rougon married. Francois Mouret grumbles about having the priest and his mom around- he’s a staunch skeptic, republican in a low-key way in second Empire France. But it still happens, and the abbe makes his play to conquer the town of Plassans for the church and for the Bonapartist party.

Who doesn’t like a good stranger-comes-to-town-and-messes-stuff-up story? I gotta say though, Faujas’s moves don’t seem to make much sense to me. As far as I can tell, he gets owned by the snooty Legitimist notables he came to town to undermine at a party. Then, he uses sympathy from that to get in with a few of the wives, including Marthe. He gives them meaning and purpose through things like founding a home for unwed women (and what bourgeois lady doesn’t like bossing unwed poor women around?) and creating a club for the teens. He also negs them mercilessly in the confessional. Through it all, Faujas shows few emotions other than light disgust for the rubes who come to throw themselves at him. He doesn’t display real passion for his work or his cause. Passion in Zola’s “naturalist,” Darwin-influenced worldview is for men like Francois, concerned with patrimony and pride. Faujas — priests in general — cut off from reproduction and displacing that energy into other goals, are unnatural, vaguely uncanny, both more and less than the likes of Francois.

Zola may have been a left-republican hero for his stances against empire and the Dreyfus affair, but he bought into some pretty standard gender ideology of the time. This is the French version, so the women in his novels are much saltier and more independent than equivalent figures in 19th century Anglo novels. But all the same, the women allow the abbe, his mom, and for some reason his ne’er-do-well siblings to gain social and financial power over Plassans. The men are all gaslit into either going along or literally going (or just seeming) crazy and being committed, like Francois. Marthe in particular develops a deeply erotic attachment to both Catholic ritual and Abbe Faujas. For his part, Faujas both brusquely tells her to tone it down — her enthusiasm embarrasses him — and relies on her devotion to squeeze the Mourets for everything they’re worth, eventually destroying the family and their home. How much of Marthe’s pathology is down to gender, and how much due to the immutable physical/moral characteristics Zola wrote into his two subject families as an experiment in literary “naturalism,” is hard to tell. But one gets the idea that the Rougon curse in a man would express itself pretty differently.

Either way, enjoying Zola’s novels at this point in history depend on whether the novel in question provides a clear enough picture with enough action to keep a reader who isn’t immersed in 19th century France engaged. I even know a fair amount about the history and it can be tricky for me in its more granular detail. This one gets a little subtle in terms of the social manipulations and hence harder to enjoy. Still worth reading for Zola completists, and really, if you’re doing Zola at all, might as well try for the whole whack, no? ***

Review – Zola, “The Conquest of Plassans”

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