Sunday, January 17, 2010
I find the master touch in Zola’s Fortune des Rougon is the portrait of Antoine Macquart, the son of a poacher, and the stepbrother of the paterfamilias of the Rougon family, Pierre Rougon. Rougon has managed to take control of their mother’s fortune, while Antoine has been serving in the Napoleonic army (if serving described the far-behind-the-front shirking). Much of the novel’s story springs from the hatred and resentment of the aggrieved Antoine toward his bourgeois brother. I almost wrote that Antoine is working-class, but working is something his character does virtually none of.
Antoine is a truly unique character – a monster of bile, laziness, and narcissism. He has enough charm to marry a workhorse of a woman who is eager to work several jobs to allow him to spend his days lounging in cafés and lolling about time. He harasses the Rougons to force them to buy him off, at least in small measures. He forces his children to hand over their meager earning to support his leisure, while complaining constantly that they are eating him out of house and home.
He latches onto Republicanism as a way to vent his spleen. While his nephew Silvère is attached to Republicanism from sheer and naïve Utopianism, Antoine has dreams of a communist state where everyone works to support his luxuries. In origin, his political fervor is mostly a rhetorical stick to beat his stepbrother and his wife with, as three are among the leaders of the reactionary forces in town– it is clear that he has no real interest in politics, per se. He uses his status as a revolutionary, however, to avoid paying his café tab – the proprietor is too intimidated.
In the end, when the Revolution comes to Plassans, albeit temporary, he seizes power. He is unable, however, to get his hands on his stepbrother, who outwits and imprisons him. Finally, in return for a small sum of money, he abets Rougon is setting up his followers into an ambush, a bloodletting, establishing Rougon as the town’s savior.
All this is pretty mean, no doubt; but there’s also a humor in the character portrayal that makes Antoine the one truly fascinating character in the book. “Il lui semblait tout naturel qu’on l’entretînt, comme une fille, à vautrer ses paresses sur les banquettes d’un estaminet.” (It seemed to him only natural that he be kept, like a woman, to wallow in his laziness on the bench of a café.) While his son slaves away at his carpenter’s apprenticeship, he can look across the street to see his father “sugaring his demitasse”, with the wages of the boy.
Antoine’s greatest moment comes when he is imprisoned in the bath chamber of the Mayor’s palace. At first livid, he is seduced by the sampling of bourgeois luxury he finds in his “cell”, the soaps and the scents. “Il lorgnait le lavabo, pris d’une grande envie d’aller se laver les mains avec une certaine poudre de savon contenue dans une boîte de cristal. Macquart, comme tous les fainéants qu’une femme ou leurs enfants nourrissent, avait des goûts de coiffeur." (He examined the washstand, taken by a great desire to wash his hand with a certain soap powder contained in a crystal box. Macquart, like all ne’er-do-wells nourished by wife or children, had the tastes of a hairdresser.”) He talks revolution, but really wants to be a dandy.
Macquart who can “savoure sa fainéantise” (savors his slacking off) , is a piece of Zola’s even-handed condemnation of all political parties. His self-serving love of revolution, is contrasted with a parade of stupidity and self-seeking among the bourgeoisie, including the Rougons. In every case Except for the deluded troop and peasants and workers whose dreams are shattered by a volley from a regular army regiment, politics is a charade, a cover for self-seeking. Macquart’s narcissism is only a more transiently silly version of what is universal.