Les Rougon-Macquart #1 – La Fortune des Rougon (1871)

AKA “The Fortune Of The Rougons”

The first book in a series is often the most famous. Even if later works have much greater success, it will be revisited by readers, curious about the back-story of the characters – especially when it sets out the entire structure of the series. If someone think about making a series of films, they will usually consider the first book to start with. So why then is La Fortune des Rougon so obscure? Why has nobody tried to make a film of it when there have been at least four adaptations of Nana? Why has nobody even made a translation since 1886? These things don’t happen by accident. It was natural, therefore, that when I started to read I suspected that the book would quite likely substitute extensive family history and theories of heredity for real narrative drive and characterisation. I was partially right, but generally I was way off the mark.

The Fortune Of The Rougons is not a normal novel – it has a strange structure, an utterly tragic upbeat ending, and is set very much in historical events instead of just having them as a backdrop. The story starts with a sweeping pan-shot of the town of Plassans, which narrows in to show an emblematic private scene between a couple of young lovers, having one last night together before the boy goes away to fight in a war. It’s a very effective scene, as it must be – I can’t say whether Zola spent months on it, but it certainly seems well-honed.

The second chapter then suddenly jumps into an extensive family history – it’s a fairly decent chunk of the novel and contains no dialogue at all – the narrative never stops on any scene long enough to merit even a description. To be fair, it is an essential part of the story and needs to be told, but putting it in this form just leads to it being more confusing. At first the story concerns “Tante Dide”, the matriarch of the Rougon-Macquart family, but quickly the focus switches to her son Pierre Rougon, as he cheats her out of her money and sets himself up to climb the town’s social ladder. The narrative then thankfully slows down a bit and we get the background to the central events of the novel. Then we shift back again to follow the life of his half-brother Macquart, a lazy alcoholic wife-beater who lives off his family and bears a massive grudge against the equally unpleasant Rougon. Finally the third part of the family is introduced, Rougon & Macquart’s nephew Silvère, AKA the male half of the two lovers from the first chapter.

All this may sound pretty exhausing, and I’ve only skimmed the surface of the narrative, but it’s at once more confusing and more readable than it may seem. The love story between Silvère and Miette which follows is the real apex of the novel, though – the only two ‘nice’ characters spend a few years wandering the town and countryside together, swimming in rivers and climbing trees, before the fateful day when the Republic is overthrown in a coup and they both go marching off to fight a doomed resistance.

Meanwhile Pierre Rougon and his wife have been using the inside information gained from their son to organise a group of conservatives to support the coup and take over the management of the town when it happens. The three parts of the family are aligned against each-other and the climactic last few chapters make for a gripping, brutal conclusion, with one of the most horrific scenes imaginable juxtaposed with a triumphant, undeserved victory.

In conclusion, then, a slightly difficult novel, which takes a bad turn at the start, but recovers for a magnificent second half. Unfortunately the work done in the first half is necessary to set up the second. So what can be done?

A fairly ancient translation by Henry Viztelly, made less than 25 years after the book’s original publication, extensively edited by his son Ernest. Understandably it now seems quite old-fashioned and stilted. Earthy rural working characters tend to talk in a ridiculously literary way ("You’ll be in a fine plight when you’ve broken one of my arms or legs, who’ll keep you then, you lazy fellow?") and swearing is censored to the extent that the title of ‘old rogue’ is reserved for when the translator wants to convey a particularly foul insult. Nevertheless, the text is very readable, and the descriptive passages are very well-formed and lyrical.

Historical background
The central part of the novel takes place during the coup of 1851, where Napoleon’s nephew Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte overthrew the new Second French Republic to declare the Second French Empire. Zola’s personal experience of these times is self-evident, and the importance of these events to the story is obvious.

"I wish to explain how a family, a small group of human beings, conducts itself in a given social system after blossoming forth and giving birth to ten or twenty members, who, though they may appear, at the first glance, profoundly dissimilar one from the other, are, as analysis demonstrates, most closely linked together from the point of view of affinity. Heredity, like gravity, has its laws."
Zola’s naturalistic plan fails to show itself convincingly here, apart from a few heavy-handed asides. Presumably the plan was to start off with these characters and develop their inherited features in later books.

No film appears to have been made from this novel, and it’s easy to see why – The story is impossibly convoluted and told out of order, and there are far too many characters. Still, it could be done, though it would have to cut most of the backstory. Which would mangle the rest of the plot immesurably. Some things just don’t work.

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