AKA The Sinful Priest / The Sin of Father Mouret / Abbé Mouret’s Transgression / The Demise of Father Mouret
After the tedium of La Conquete de Plassans I was reluctant to pick up another book about the misdeeds of clerics in rural France, but fortunately this time my initial feelings were entirely mistaken. Despite weaknesses with both start and ending (and the continuing tendency of Zola to devote multiple chapters (in a row!) to elaborate descriptions of nature which occupy much of the middle third) this book is still a near-masterpiece. The central conceit – that a feverish priest loses his memory and falls in love with his carer – seems utterly glib when spelled out, but the thought Zola puts into the philosophical implications and the sheer primality of emotions delved into render any criticisms completely irrelevant.
Again unable to get my hands on any more recent translations (two from the 1950s and 1960s, both out of print) I’ve had to resort to our old friend Ernest Alfred Vizetelly and his reliably-out-of-copyright versions. This one’s been roundly criticised for its Bowlderisation, and unlike previous entries the prudery is on open display. Compare book 2 / chapter XV in the original to the same chapter in the translated version (google translate does a pretty good job here if you can’t read French) – and you can see what a terrible squeamishness he must have had about describing the two lovers. Anyway, the story survives nearly intact.
Little or none here – it’s a simple enough story, moreorless divorced from detailed historical context, aside from that of the general decline of the church in 19th century France.
The book begins with another grand opening set-piece – Father Serge Mouret presiding over mass for an empty church. A young priest, fresh out of seminary, he’s been assigned to a remote village where none of the locals care at all for either the teaching or practice of religion, apart from the usual weddings and funerals. The rest of this first section is used to introduce the principals – humorless busybody housekeeper Le Teuse, misanthrope (and utter arsehole) Brother Archangias and Serge’s mentally disabled nature-loving sister Desiree – before the sickly Serge stays out in the cold too long and catches himself a nasty fever.
In a nifty device which goes on a bit too long, we are then led through a series of flashbacks detailing his life so far – the childhood devoted to worship of the Virgin Mary turning into a youth spent worshiping Mary and a career at the Seminary, well, you get the idea. This idea – the sublimation of sexual desire onto religious iconography – has been done to death now, but at the time it must’ve been quite daring, and possibly even insightful. Right now, though, it just seems a little tame – if this is what you’re after you’d be better off with William Golding’s The Spire.
Seeing him so ill, his uncle Doctor Pascal transports him to the house of a local atheist, a curmudgeonly old sort with a young niece, Albine, who officially lives in his house, but is effectively feral, living in the house’s immense, overgrown environs. She’s given the job of looking after Serge until he’s recovered, but when he wakes up the sickness has left him unable to remember anything much beyond his name. Having dreamed of The Virgin, he shifts his idol-worship to Albine. She gradually brings him back to the world of the living, then introduces him to the world of nature outside.
This is where the book really comes alive – the next few hundred pages are effectively one long rapturous hymn to nature, as the two innocents wander around in the gardens for weeks on end, their minds entirely free from barriers to the beauty and drama of the world around them. In theory this could be grating, pretentious or even nauseating, but the way Zola gives everything over to this vision is nothing short of astonishing. The fact that reading multiple chapters largely consisting of descriptions of beds of flowers (and in a poor translation too) left me enthralled is testament to this.
Of course, these tableaux are accompanied by a romance – the two innocents very gradually progress towards being lovers – and each chapter includes the tiniest of baby-steps in their romance. This also could have misfired terribly, but it just works somehow. Their interactions aren’t sappy or clichéd, because they don’t have anything or anyone to copy. They are two new people, without any baggage, free to explore the world, a new Adam and Eve. Of course, as they finally do consummate their relationship, their happy days are over – not due to any discovery of original sin, but just because the interfering Brother Archangias has discovered the pair, and snatches Serge away to return to the cold church and recover his memory.
The last third of the book deals with his recovery, during which he returns with renewed fervour to his real home – Christianity. He’s wracked with guilt on both sides – for the betrayal of his vows and the betrayal of Albine. Gradually he begins to get back to how he was before, until news reaches him of Albine being ill herself. Soon after she pays him a visit, and he’s thrown back into conflict – his love for her seemed like the purest, most natural thing, but so does his devotion to god. After tearing himself apart for a while he finally goes to see her again – but now it is winter, and the gardens are unable to put their spell on him. Albine realises that, despite his protestations, his heart and mind are devoted entirely to his very personal religion, and he cannot be hers.
As Serge returns to the church, the matter resolved, Albine decides to die with the flowers, making a great heap for herself and lying on them until she dies from either cold, hunger or exposure. As set-pieces go, it’s not quite up there with the start, but the point is well-made. The book closes with Albine’s funeral, a seemingly emotionless Father Mouret going through the motions of the latin service, and Desiree finally interrupting with her excitement about the birth of a new calf. Nature will continue.
The grand scheme of Naturalism seems to be invisible until Zola’s recurring author surrogate Doctor Pascal turns up for one of his visits at the church. Seeing Serge in his terrible state and his sister obsessed with her animal dependents, he comments that
‘Yes, yes! there should be nothing but animals. Ah! if they were mere animals, how happy and gay and strong they would all be! It has gone well with the girl, who is as happy as her cow; but it has gone badly with the lad, who is in torture beneath his cassock. A drop too much blood, a little too much nerve, and one’s whole life is wrecked! … They are true Rougons and true Macquarts those children there! The tail-end of the stock; its final degeneracy.’
A heavy-handed crowbarring-in, sure, but if we’re to be fair, the rest of the story has earned it. As much as the plot may read like a naive hippy fantasy of a new Garden of Eden, the sting in the tail makes it darker than anything so far. We have all of this beauty in front of us, but contrive hideous, complex ways of making ourselves suffer, deny both pleasure and freedom and become heartless, callous creatures. This is Zola’s indictment of religion, and it really is a powerful, fundamental one.
There’s one adaptation from 1970, called (very oddly) ‘The Demise of Father Mouret’ in English. It has fairly negative reviews on IMDB, and the one clip I can find from it (Albine lying down to die among the flowers) looks pretty rum. Someone should have a better go at it.