Émile Zola, “The Sin of Abbe Mouret” (1875) (translated from the French by Valerie Minogue) – This was an odd one. The fifth volume in Émile Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series, this one has the rough naturalism of the other installments for about half of the book. It begins and ends with impoverished rural France (as the modernization process Eugen Weber describes was just beginning) and the sordid doings of priests and local grandees. Abbe Serge Mouret, a relative of the family created for the series, is a priest of unusual fervor and dedication. He prays and fasts like the world depends on it, cutting off his own manhood (in Zola’s anticlerical view) symbolically to be a helpless child-lover of Mary, all to an empty church and parishioners too busy screwing each other in more ways than one to care.
He eventually prays so hard that we get to the odd middle of the book. He gets sick and his uncle doctor (a sort of hovering authorial presence in the series) takes him to an overgrown estate overseen by two hermits to get better. The first hermit is a societal reject because he still holds to a vulgar version of Enlightenment thought, and the second is his daughter, raised as a true child of nature (not quite Rousseauian- Rousseau thought mostly about boys), innocent, beautiful, free. She nurses Mouret, who loses his memory from the sickness and forgets he’s a priest, back to health. They then take to exploring the grounds, and seemingly half the book is taken up describing the grasses and trees and how the two innocents interacted with them and the childlike joy they take. There’s heavy biblical symbolism here, of course- they go looking for a special tree under which to have sex, and once they find it, the worst elements of Mouret’s former life intrude on their bliss and drag him back to reality. The rest is the inevitable sorrow and corruption of civilization, and someone gets an ear cut off. All in all, interesting in theory but in practice, one of Zola’s less engaging works. **