Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Earth by Emile Zola



Classics Spin #4!!!

I was so happy to get The Earth by Zola as my random selection (I was convinced it was going to be The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens).  I couldn't wait until the end of December to read this, so I've been sitting on this review since before Christmas.  And once again, Zola blows me away.

The Earth is #15 of the twenty novels of the Rougon Macquart series; but like most of the series, it's essentially a stand-alone novel. Set in the 1860s in rural France, not far from Paris, this is the story of two families living in a farming village, Rognes, and the plot seems loosely based on the Shakesperean tragedy King Lear.  The Rougon-Macquart connection is introduced to the readers with a day laborer, Jean Macquart, who has come to the village after serving in the Army.  Jean befriends a young girl, Francoise, who lives with her older sister Lise.  Lise is pregnant by her boyfriend, Buteau, but he refuses to make an honest woman of her.

Buteau's family quickly becomes the focus of the novel.  Buteau is the youngest child of three, and the primary action centers around Buteau's parents.  His father, Fouan, owns a good bit of land, and has decided to split it between his three children now, instead of after his death, to avoid inheritance taxes.  In return, Fouan and his wife will continue to live in their house and receive an annuity until they die.  Sounds generous, right?  Wrong!  The three siblings -- Buteau;  his drunkard brother, Hyacinthe (nicknamed "Jesus Christ") and his sister Fanny (and her husband Delhomme) can't come to an agreement about who gets which plots and how much their parents deserve to be paid for the rest of their lives (which would include firewood, wine, and various other allowances).  It's all very petty and they're haggling and bickering about it. Finally it all seems settled.

Meanwhile, Jean becomes closer to Lise and Francoise, but things take an interesting twist.  He's in love with Francoise, but feels obligated to marry Lise because she's older and has an illegitimate child.   Basically, everyone is greedy, jealous and bitter about the land they didn't get, they're all trying to wheedle more money out old Fouan, and there are several love triangles, some of them sort of icky.  The other people in the neighboring farms are just as unpleasant.  Since this is a Zola novel, things quickly spiral out of control and go from bad to worse, but it's still fascinating stuff.  Even though most of the characters are awful, I couldn't stop reading it since I absolutely had to find out how the story would turn out.  And two of the characters, Lise and Buteau, are some of the worst creations in the entire Zola canon.  Seriously, I cannot recall a nastier pair.

For the record, this book is really not for the faint of heart, or those easily offended.  This being a rural community, there's a lot of barnyard humor, much if it centering around reproduction (both animals and humans) and bodily functions.  Plus, Zola doesn't mince words, at least not in this modern translation -- I read the Penguin classic translated by Douglas Parmee.  This must have been shocking stuff back in the 1800s -- there's quite a lot of sex and violence for a classic novel.

Zola considered The Earth to be his greatest work.  I don't think it's nearly as famous or popular today as Germinalnot that I'd call any of his works terribly popular, at least not in the U.S. When I checked Goodreads, there were only 586 ratings, compared to more than 10,000 for Germinal and more than 8,600 for the next most popular, Nana, which I still haven't read.  I'm hoping Zola will get the attention he deserves -- The BBC television series The Paradise is based on The Ladies' Paradise, which I read last summer, and I noticed there were quite a few people on the waiting list for it at the library.  And there's another Rougon Macquart novel in a new translation!  Money (L'Argent), the 18th book in the series, is schedule for publication by Oxford World's Classics in March, so I'm looking forward to that.

Did anyone else read Zola for the Classics Spin?  Did you like your Spin selections? And most importantly, when is the Classics Club going to do it again?

9 comments:

  1. I've never read any Zola and I don't have any on my classics club list. But he will definitely feature on my second classics club list, especially as I have a copy of Ladies Paradise already.

    Glad you enjoyed your spin book :) I got Les Mis, which I was happy to finish!

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    1. Wow, Les Mis is a real whopper -- I do want to read it someday but the length is so daunting! Zola is wonderful and most of his books are fairly quick reads by comparison.

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  2. You are so lucky to have got Zola as Spin pick ;) I read Cranford and it was a perfect Spin and holiday rush time read - short, humorous, cozy.

    I think Classics Spins take place about once a quarter, I do enjoy them a great deal as well.

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    1. I know!! I was sure I'd get something I'd been dreading -- I even requested an audio version of The Old Curiosity Shop, I was so sure I'd get it. I ended up listening to it anyway and really liked it, so that's two more books off my list.

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  3. This seems really interesting. I have a Zola on my Classics Club list - The Belly of Paris, which is listed as #3 in that same series. I read the Goodreads synopsis and knew I had to read it.

    I'm glad you liked your spin pick!

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    1. Belly of Paris was my very first Zola! It has some great food descriptions in it. I read the Kurlansky translation and it was really good.

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  4. I've only read The Masterpiece and Germinal and I loved both. Certainly need to read more Zola!

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    1. I loved Germinal but didn't like The Masterpiece quite as much. My other favorite so far was La Bete Humaine, though I also liked L'Assommoir and Pot-Bouille.

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  5. There was an independent, low-budget British film adaptation of La Terre about ten years ago, a fairly faithful translation re-titled "This Filthy Earth". It was lambasted as needlessly horrible, brutal and borderline obscene, the sort of thing you could only get away with nowadays. Somewhere, Zola allowed himself a smile.

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