Émile Zola, “His Excellency Eugène Rougon” (1876) (translated from the French by Brian Nelson) – I’ve been reading Zola’s “Rougon-Macquart” series at the rate of about one a year. This one is the sixth one. I guess I have another fourteen years to go before the thrilling conclusion! This one is concerned with politics in the early years of the Second Empire, when Napoleon’s dumbass nephew, Napoleon III, ruled France. The Second Empire is generally seen as an age of corruption, waste, and nonsense, brought in by Napoleon III ending the Second Republic in a coup and ending in ignominy with the French defeat at the hands of the Prussians.
Émile Zola, a committed republican, was one of the people to hammer this impression home, in no small part through this novel. The titular Eugène Rougon is an authoritarian power-broker who falls out of and back into the center of the power multiple times over the course of the book. He belongs to the Rougons, the nasty family of petty rural landowners that drive much of the action of the series, and represent the resentful petty bourgeois core that drove Napoleon III to power and backed reactionary movements in France (and elsewhere) thereafter. He is blunt in his authoritarianism, unlike the other regime supporters who flitter around him, and the Emperor uses him like a widget to reign in the regime’s enemies as Minister of the Interior. Rougon is surrounded by hangers-on trying to get favors from him, a railroad concession here, employment for a dumb son there. They’re never happy — unsatisfied with his efforts when he’s in power, abandoning him when he’s out — and they represent French civil society at this time. Rougon has a sort of horny-rivalry with a sexy Italian woman, Clorinde, who uses her wiles to influence the political system, at turns helping and hindering Rougon. Clorinde wants to prove to Rougon that women can have power in the political system. Rougon, for his part, just wants to stay in power, and sort of wants to sleep with Clorinde but not as much as he wants the first thing.
I get the picture, at this point in the Rougon-Macquart series, that plot or character is less the point of these books than the construction of set-piece scenes that illustrate this or that point Zola was trying to make about French society. This one includes a charity bazaar put on by various regime bigwigs where everyone is ogling the society ladies in their risque dresses and paying hundreds of francs for a toothpick to get their attention and show what big wheels they are. No one ever accused Zola of being subtle, I don’t think, but the series makes for interesting reads. ***’