AKA The Conquest of Plassans or A Priest in the House
It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, and for good reason. While the first three books in the series were a breeze to get through, this one was a bit of a trudge. I started it in April, now we’re in October, and a fair few other books have been read in the meantime. I’m not sure if it was the dull subject matter, tired writing or poor translation, but I only managed to get through the middle 60% by continually putting the thing down and coming back to it. The ending was almost worth it, though.
Another near-contemporary translation from Ernest Vizetelly, apparently less Bowdlerised than his other efforts, but there doesn’t seem to have been much sex or violence to Bowdlerise in the first place. According to whoever wrote the entry on Wikipedia it’s “much more readable than many of the other Vizetelly texts” but I found the style stodgy, humourless and littered with annoying anachronistic expressions, particularly during the more lighthearted passages. There was another translation produced in the 1950s, but it’s long out of print.
During the Second Empire the state was, on the surface, friendly to the Catholic church – the coup had been carried out with their support, and they grew increasingly restless after the country took the “wrong side” in the war with Austria over Italy. Numerous battles took place in provincial towns, where imperial representatives fought secretly with the clergy for control of local government.
The novel is based around two aspects of a single story. On the surface, the more important thread is about the arrival of a priest, Abbé Faujas, who carefully uses his relationship with the infamous Mrs Rougon to steadily gain back control of the town of Plassans for the Empire. He concocts various plots, undermines rivals, brews discontent with the establishment, and generally acts like a bit of an all-round shit. After an oddly rushed chapter on a semi-rigged election he takes control fully and stops bothering to hide his true colours. This part of the story was the biggest pain to get through, with what seemed like hundreds of upper-middle-class people and clergy gossiping about each-other to little or no end. It was difficult to keep track, let alone care.
The other thread concerns the poor family who have to put him up – Rougon daughter Marthe and her husband (and cousin) Francois Mouret. At first they tolerate the priest and his mother, but later Marthe is used for various schemes and develops an attachment to Faujas, which soon develops into full-blown religious mania, resulting in the commitment of her husband to a mental asylum (after he is blamed for her self-inflicted wounds – the scenes where he is gradually hounded from the town by the neighbours felt a bit flat) and the gradual take-over of their house by the priest’s sister and brother-in-law. This thread was much more interesting than the first, but Christ did it take its time.
The ending of the novel, where (spoilers!) the now genuinely insane Mouret escapes from the asylum and burns down the house with everyone inside (except Marthe, who is dying from tuberculosis at her mother’s house) is the only part where the book really comes alive, and it’s no real shame for these characters I don’t really care that much about to be written out of the sequels.
Speaking of which, the next book leads off where this one ends, with Mouret’s son now joining the priesthood himself. Will this one be better? I really hope so.
We’re getting heavier with the Naturalism here, as Marthe has supposedly inherited her tendency to develop nervous mania from her grandmother, Tante Dide – the matriarch of the Rougon-Macquarts. In a way she is a similar character – dull on her own, but easily led into obsession by others who don’t have her best interest at heart – but her descent into madness is much easier and with much less cause.
No film, of course – and it would be a task and a half to put one together.