Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Zola, La Conquëte de Plasaans (1874)

After two Rougon-Macquart novels set in Paris, Zola returns us to his native Provence in La Conquëte de Plasaans, the fourth in the series। Unlike in Paris, the revolution of the modern, in industry, finance, morality, and daily life, has hardly reached Plassans (the fictionalized Aix-en-Provence).

And the clergy, which is definitely out of favor in Paris, has real political power in Provence. In La Fortune des Rougon, the Church kept a low profile, preferring to operate through proxies, at one remove. But fully pragmatic, it makes it peace with the new Bonapartist order and tries to re-establish its influence.

But in parallel with the politics is the destruction of two members of the Rougon-Macquart clan – François Mouret, a semi-retired businessman and Marthe, his cousin and wife (She’s the daughter of Pierre and Felicité Rougon, the protagonists of the first book in the series.) We see them as a relatively happy if eccentric household, along with their three children. Then they lease a few rooms to the down-at-the-heels Abbé Faujas and his mother. We see the Abbé worming his way into the comforts of the house until he becomes the master. At the same time, he rises in clerical hierarchy, supported by outside political powers, until he becomes the de facto leader of the local church.

In the meanwhile, Marthe becomes a religious fanatic, mutilating herself, neglecting her children, giving away much of the family property to the church. She dies eventually. Mouret goes gradually insane, is carted off to an asylum, and returns at night to, in a totally unexpected stroke of energy, burns down this own house with the abbé and his loathsome family.


1. As with most Zola novels, the women hold the real power. It is the women, starting with Marthe, that the Abbé brings over to his side.
Si l’abbé avait conquis les femmes et les enfants, il restait sur un pied de simple politesse avec les pères et les maris. Les personnages graves continuaient à se méfier de lui, en le voyant rester à l’écart de tout groupe politique.

If the abbé had conquered the women and children, he remained on terms of mere politeness with the fathers and husbands. The serious characters continued to mistrust him, seeing him keeping a distance from any political group.
In the end, a Greek chorus-like group of wives of the important men in the town of all parties (Republican, Orleanist, Bonapartist, Bourbonist) overcome the reluctance of their husbands to support the abbé. The husbands, though full of self-importance are easily led by their wives.

2. Abbé Faujas is an interesting villain. His own obvious vices are pretty minor: gluttony and pride. His holiness seems pretty hollow, and he is quite unable to rein in the real, crazed piety that he sets in motion in Marthe. His unwillingness to intervene as she destroys herself and her family is one example of his deep indifference to others, his own solipsism, all cloaked under pretend meekness. He also is virtually indifferent to the depredations of his parasitic sister and brother-in-laws, who rob the Mouret household, slowly take it over, and hold wild parties. The brother-in-law is set up, due to the Abbé’s influence, at a sinecure where he has opportunity to seduce unprotected girls, and the scandal is hushed up, thanks the power of the Abbé.

3. In the end Marthe’s attraction to religion is tied in with an absolute passion for the Abbé, for whom she declared her love, he wish to be his servant. She turns against her husband and neglects her children, and bankrupts her household.
je vous aime, et vous le savez, n’est-ce pas ? …. je sentais bien que vous deviniez mon cœur. J’étais satisfaite, j’espérais que nous pourrions être heureux un jour, dans une union toute divine

I love you, and you know it, don’t you? .... I felt that you guessed my heart. I was satisfied, I was hoping we could be happy one day, in a union totally divine.
When the Abbé, disgusted and होर्रिफ़िएद, hears her avowal, he rejects her cruelly. She takes to her bed and gets progressively sicker and soon dies.

4. When Fréjus arrives in Plassans, he is poorly groomed, wearing threadbare clothes, unwashed – for all of which he is mocked in the town. As he gains power, he dresses himself in rich new clothes, takes some care of his person. Then, when he ascends to power, he lets himself go again.
Plassans, en effet, dut le prendre mal peigné. ,,,La ville fut positivement terrifiée, en voyant le maître qu’elle s’était donné grandir ainsi démesurément, avec la défroque immonde, l’odeur forte, le poil roussi d’un diable. La peur sourde des femmes affermit encore son pouvoir.

Plassans, indeed, had to take him unkempt. , The city was positively terrified when they saw that the master they had given themselves had grow so out of proportion, with his foul ragged clothes, strong smell, the reddish hair of a devil. The secret fear of women maintained his power.

I find this reversal and the contempt it expresses a surprising yet believable result of power, an indication of Zola’s mastery – of observation, of narration, and originality –that makes even this lesser work so rich.

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