Thursday, April 18, 2019

The Fortune of the Rougons: The Rougon-Macquart Origin Story

"A new dynasty is never founded without a struggle. Blood makes good manure. It will be a good thing for the Rougon family to be founded on a massacre, like many illustrious families." 

I had six unread Zola novels on my TBR shelves when Fanda announced her annual Zoladdiction readalong, and although I've been reading Zola for close to a decade, I still hadn't read the very first volume, The Fortune of the Rougons. 

Published in 1871 but set twenty years earlier, The Fortunes of the Rougons sets up the story of the three branches of the Rougon-Macquart family. The story begins on a cold December day in 1851, and a pair of teenage sweethearts meet in an abandoned lumber yard in the fictional town of Plassans (loosely modeled on the Provencal town of Aix). Silviere, aged 17, tells 13-year-old Miette that he is planning to join an uprising of Republicans who are resisting a coup d'etat by Napoleon III.

The book then jumps backward in time to describe the origins of the family: a young heiress, Adelaide Fouquet, inherited land from her insane father some years before, then shocked the town by marrying a peasant gardener, Rougon. A year later, she gave birth to a son, Pierre, but Rougon died soon after. The town was further scandalized when the young widow began an affair with a smuggler named Macquart, and though they never married, she bore two more children, Ursula and Antoine. So essentially the family is split along the three children: Pierre is the first of the bourgeois Rougons; the middle-class Mourets are Ursula's children by her marriage to a hatter; and the working-class Macquarts are the descendents of Antoine.

The eldest son, Pierre, manages to marry the daughter of an olive oil merchant, and when most of the action of the story takes place in 1851, he and his ambitious wife Felicite are trying to manipulate their way into the upper part of society and local politics. Felicite has a sort of salon in apartment, and her youngest son Pascal, a doctor, seems to stand in for Zola himself as he studies their Plassans cronies:

Pascal, to appease her, came and spent a few evenings in the yellow drawing room. He was much less bored than he feared. . . . [they] seemed like so many strange animals, which hitherto he had had no opportunity to study. He looked, with the fascination of a naturalist, at their grimacing faces, in which he discerned traces of their occupations and appetites. . . . At the time, he was greatly preoccupied with comparative natural history, applying to the human race the observations he had made on animals with regard to the workings of heredity. In the yellow drawing room, therefore, he was amused at the thought that he had accidentally wandered into a menagerie. He noted the similarities between the grotesque creatures he saw and certain animals he knew. The Marquis, with his leanness and sly look, reminded him very much of a long green grasshopper. Vuillet struck him as a pale, slimy toad. He was more indulgent towards Roudier and the Commander, a fat sheep and a toothless old mastiff. The fantastic Granoux, however, was a particular source of fascination. He spent a whole evening studying his facial angle. Whenever he heard him mutter some vague insult about bloodthirsty republicans, he expected him to moan like a calf; and he could never watch him rise from a chair without imagining that he was about to leave the room on all fours. (pp 88-89)

Pierre uses the political crisis after Napoleon's coup and the subsequent uprising to try and gain power in Plassans. Meanwhile, his illegitimate brother Antoine is trying to win back his portion of an inheritance he believes he is owed by Pierre. When we get back to young Silviere, it turns out he is a Mouret, the nephew of Antoine, who strongly influences his political beliefs. Poor Silviere gets tragically caught up in the resistance and with him young Miette; naturally, things don't end well.

I enjoyed this book, but I definitely enjoyed the sections of the family history and of the Macquarts better than the political and social machinations of the Rougons. Of the volumes I've read so far, I mostly prefer the stories based on the Macquarts. I'm not sure if it's because the Rougon stories tend to have more politics, which isn't my favorite subject, or because I think that the Macquart characters are just more vivid and interesting -- they're all a bunch of fascinating train wrecks.

Emile Zola

I normally don't read book series out of order, but back when I first started, many of the twenty volumes in the series didn't have recent English translations, and the original translations from the French done in Victorian times had significant cuts. Overall, twenty novels are generally chronological, but each book really stands on its own, and some of them are only very loosely connected. I'd read twelve of the series in no particular order when I finally read the first volume, and the other books in started to fit together in my mind like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. (I was very grateful for the excellent family tree included in the book, though it does include dates of birth and death which are sort of spoiler.) I also found this great website, simply titled Rougon-Macquart Novels, with lots of background and information about the Rougon-Macquart series. It's great if you're having trouble keeping characters straight, how all the novels connect, or for me, the basic plots of the books I finished several years ago.

I've now completed thirteen of the twenty novels in the cycle, and look forward to completing the rest There's only one left in the series without a recent translation: the final novel, Doctor Pascal. But Oxford University Press has published new editions of almost every single Zola novel in the past ten or so years, so I'm confident a good translation is on the horizon.

I'm counting this as my Classic in Translation for the Back to the Classics Challenge, and for my book set in France for the European Reading Challenge.


  1. I am sure your TBR is still mountainous (whose isn't?) but that is impressive to have ready 13 of 20! I have read this one but I read a version on Gutenberg translated in 1898 by E. A. V. Merton. I really liked it but stalled on reading any further. Otherwise I'd only read Germinal in college for a French History class.

    I really enjoyed The Fortune of the Rougons and was enthused to read more in the series, but then stalled out for whatever reason... I thought the characters were so well drawn in it. Zola really showed them warts and all but they were nonetheless compelling to read about.

    1. The TBR Pile is a never-ending battle, isn't it? But I do plan on reading the rest of the series -- I'm going to try for one more this year and just ration the rest out for the next few years. Then maybe I'll read them all again in order someday!

  2. I had read Nana and Germinal only when OWC began to bring out the new translations and editions of all the Zola's, so I decided to start at the beginning and read in chronological order - one a year with Fanda! I hope she's up for a 20 year project!!

    I enjoyed going back to the start after reading a couple of the books too; every good series needs a foundational story to hinge the rest of the stories on.

  3. This is really a fascinating reading journey that you have been on—I like the comparison to a jigsaw puzzle, and thank goodness for family trees to help us navigate the familes’ histories.

  4. Now I realise that, although the Rougon-Macquart is not a series, to be able to follow Zola's train of thoughts, we should start from The Fortune of the Rougons. I am almost done with the 19 translations from OWC (leaving Doctor Pascal for next year), and plan to reread them all in chronological order, in... let's say... 4 years (5 books every year).

    Agree, the Rougon branch is mostly boring - political and financial. Though I'm intrigued with The Dream (Angelique Rougon) - they say it's the most unrealistic of R-M. The Macquarts, I think, is more relatable to us, and to Zola himself, thus the most exciting.

    Thank you for participating again in Zoladdiction again, Karen. See you next year! ;)


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