Saturday, December 12, 2009

La Fortune des Rougon: Winter in Provence

The first book in Zola's Rougon-Maquart series, La Fortune des Rougon is also one of Zola's earliest novels, surprisingly (to me) fully conceived, carefully written, and masterfully-structured.

Unlike Balzac’s Comédie humaine, the overall plan of the series is sketched out in this first book, which introduces this complex family, a score of its members, and a hint of the obsessions of both the characters and Zola himself.

There are two main narrative lines: The story of the youth Silvère, an apprentice carriage-maker and republican idealist and his young love Miette, a servant-girl at a vegetable farm; the second is the resistible and sometimes comical rise of Pierre Rougon as he goes from being the son of a peasant to the most prominent man on the small Provençal city, the fictional Plassans (a version of Zola’s native Aix-en-Provence.

First, the lovers’ plot. I had not expected that the master satirist/detailed observer Zola could write so lyrically and wondrously as he does in the first section. Silvère and Miette, both orphans and in dire circumstances, meet after hours and secretly in an old graveyard, now converted to a lumberyard. They hold on to each other with desperate (unconsummated) love.

Most of the chapter has these two very young lovers – he is around 18, she is 14, as I remember – literally walking as one through the beauties of the frosty landscape outside the town. Both are wrapped n Miette’s capacious woolen “pelisse,” a custom, we are told, for wooing couples in the South of France. Muffled and hooded in the cloak, they are unidentifiable, free from scandal.

They are clutching to each other fro warmth, both body warmth and the warmth of affection, something they otherwise lack in their lives. They shuffle along as one in the folds of the pelisse, losing all human form.

They wander by the river, fields and woods, all dimly lit and magical:

“Par cette nuit de décembre, sous la lune claire et froide, les champs fraîchement labourés s’étendaient aux deux abords du chemin, pareils à de vastes couches d’ouate grisâtre, qui auraient amorti tous les bruits de l’air. Au loin, la voix sourde de la Viorne mettait seule un frisson dans l’immense paix de la campagne.”

(On this December night, under a clear, cold moon, the freshly plowed fields stretched out on both sides of the road, like vast layers of grayish cotton, which would deaden all noises in the air. Far away, only the muffled voice of the Viorne added a tingle to the immense peace of the countryside.)
But the idyll is soon interrupted by the (anticipated) arrival of ghostly columns of rebels, supporters of the Republic, both peasantry and working-class rising defend it, singing the Marseillaise. Like a catalog of Homeric heroes, Silvère describes to Miette each contingent as it passes by. From neighboring town and village they march, each carrying what weapons they can gather: carbines for the poachers and smugglers, old blunderbusses and muskets for tradesmen, axes for the lumbermen, scythes for pitchforks by the peasants.

The chapter ends with Silvère joining the ranks, and Miette ending up taking the standard, becoming a kind of mascot for the troops, who march on into Plassans.

The dreamlike nature of this chapter is reinforced by its lack of specificity in terms of the wider world. Which of a number of uprisings in French history could this be? We are given no clear idea yet, though we’ll soon enough get a complete context.

The night, the cold, the former graveyards (from which bones still occasionally emerge), and the ghostly army all point toward a tragic ending for the two lovers. And of them, we still know very little beyond what happens in the few hours of the events of this chapter.

Zola suspends the story at this point, to fill in 50 years of retrospective narrative. We won’t learn the lovers’ fate until much later in the book. The dreamy beginning is impressively contrary to (my) expectations.

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