"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)
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.
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.