In the late 1860s Émile Zola decided he wanted to write something on a scale equal to his colossal ambition. He had already published a few novels, including one, Thérèse Raquin, that gained him some useful notoriety. He had developed a reputation in the Paris press as a combative critic of art, literature, and politics. His books had been read by Sainte-Beuve, Flaubert, the Goncourt brothers. But these seemed like apprentice achievements, and he was about to turn thirty. At that age Balzac had published the first books of what became La Comédie humaine, the greatest novel cycle in French literature.
Zola determined that his monument would also be a series of interconnected novels, but he was keen to distinguish his approach from Balzac’s. He took some notes under the heading “Différences entre Balzac et moi”: his predecessor was a “social” novelist, according to Zola, whereas he wanted to be a “scientific” one. His plan was to trace a vast family across several generations, all descending from a common ancestor, in order to demonstrate a hereditary basis, an “internal mechanism,” for their behavior. Zola figured it would take ten volumes to complete the work.
Even as the project ballooned from ten books to twenty, gained its own comprehensive title (Les Rougon-Macquart, the name of the extended family that was its focus), and took in nearly every sphere of French society, Zola continued to describe his work as proceeding from a scientific basis. In The Experimental Novel, his 1880 manifesto—he was at this point halfway through the series—he compared himself to a physiologist or “naturalist,” because a novel was “simply the report of the experiment that the novelist conducts before the eyes of the public.”
But Zola’s preeminence as the most significant French novelist of the last quarter of the nineteenth century does not rest on his scientific assurances; it endures in spite of them. One challenge in reading the Rougon-Macquart books is determining how literally we must take all their hereditary claims. When we get to the most magnificent passage of the whole cycle—the scene in Germinal (1885) in which the hero kills his sadistic nemesis in a coal pit hundreds of feet beneath the earth—and are told that the violence derives from an inherited “poison that slumbered in his muscles,” it can be hard to believe that an ancestral toxin is really the decisive cause. Hatred of another person in the present seems quite adequate.
While Zola’s etiology of human savagery is too tidy, he portrays it in such intense detail that origins often seem beside the point. The idiosyncrasy of his individual case studies can undermine his effort to reach a totalizing theory. The Rougon-Macquart teems with lurid characters who kill, seduce, drink, ravish, thieve, betray, and mutiny. In the closing pages of the first volume, The Fortune of the Rougons (1871), a young doctor belonging to the third generation has a vision of the family that could serve as a prophecy and a summary of the nineteen books to follow: “For a moment he thought he could see, in a flash, the future of the Rougon-Macquart family, a pack of wild, satiated appetites in the midst of a blaze of gold and blood.”
Zola uses the word “appetites” in his preface to that first book, which announces his plan for the series: “The great characteristic of the Rougon-Macquarts, the group or family I propose to study, is their ravenous appetites, the great upsurge of our age as it rushes to satisfy those appetites.” If there is a difference between the doctor’s vision and Zola’s own proposal, it is not in the existence of appetites but in the question of satisfying them. The doctor believes appetites can be satiated. Zola does not. Human life in these twenty books is an unrelenting ordeal of craving with little quietude.
This, not hereditary transmission, seems the one immutable theme in the series, for it is a condition that does not obey family distinctions. The Rougon-Macquart novels routinely switch out one backdrop for another, making possible the cycle’s great sociological variation, but they return again and again to descriptions of people with one appetite above all: a bottomless compulsion to dominate others. In extending this condition from one family to “our age,” Zola correctly foresaw, in that first volume, that one of the principal achievements of the books (especially The Kill, The Ladies’ Paradise, and Money) would be the depiction of life under capitalism, where no thirst is ever slaked.
Behind all these ravenous figures there is another: Zola himself, whose own encyclopedism, a determination to catalog and taxonomize an entire society, underwrites the mulish drive of all his characters represented within. Perhaps the most extraordinary quality of the Rougon-Macquart is its combination of centrifugal expansiveness with a scrupulous attention to the small components of an integrated machine. Zola was always highly organized in his design. Unlike Balzac, who imposed a retroactive order onto earlier books, Zola devised his sequence from the beginning. The Comédie humaine portrays domains of work and industry—the printing presses in Illusions perdues, for instance—with depth and fluency, but even Balzac did not attempt a meticulous delineation of all nineteenth-century labor. Each of the Rougon-Macquart novels abounds with vigorously researched portraits of distinct places and their inhabitants: food markets in one part of Paris, department stores in another, the peasant farms of the Beauce region, the coal mines near Valenciennes. But no matter where people are, they behave according to a shared law of appetite. Zola was a hedgehog who simply increased the circumference of his vision without really altering its nucleus as new subjects commanded his attention.
It is easy to savor certain installments in isolation: Germinal, The Masterpiece (1886), Earth (1887). But to read through the Rougon-Macquart in Oxford’s fine new translations—fourteen of the twenty volumes retranslated since 2000, seven in the last four years—is to see the mosaic that only Zola’s full scheme makes possible. It is also to understand how the giant cast of characters fits together. Most belong to the Rougon-Macquart family, of course, but this is a sinuous lineage of multiple branches, spanning a large portion of French society. The legitimate Rougons come to hold great power in imperial Paris; the illegitimate Macquarts are working class; the Mourets, a branch that splits off from the Macquarts, belong mostly to the bourgeoisie. Whatever their station, these figures are captive to a determinism that for a reader can be both beautiful—society as an exquisite latticework—and suffocating.
Three of the newly translated novels stand out from the rest. Each one exists in a familiar relation to the whole: life within a particular volume is specific to the milieu represented, sculpted with extraordinary detail, but it hews stubbornly to pattern. In His Excellency Eugène Rougon, for instance, which appeared in 1876 as the sixth installment in the series, Zola tells a distinctive story about power that in the end recalls versions going back to the first volume. The title figure is the eldest child of the third generation. We first met him in the opening installment, The Fortune of the Rougons, where he leaves Plassans (based on Aix-en-Provence, where Zola grew up) for Paris, seeking advantage in the 1851 coup that led to Louis-Napoleon’s reign as Emperor Napoléon III. That inaugural novel traced the Rougons’ fortunes to the rise of the Second Empire, and the subsequent volumes follow the family across the twenty years of Napoléon III’s rule. Here in this sixth volume Zola situates Eugène at the very center of imperial power.
His Excellency Eugène Rougon is the most straightforwardly political novel Zola wrote. Empire is rendered as a group of functionaries and strivers in the foreground, rather than (as in the other volumes) the background for some other action. When the book opens Eugène is president of the Council of State, close to Napoléon III but starting to lose his grip. He resigns after a conflict with the emperor, but his return is never far off:
He loved power for power’s sake, free from any vain lust for wealth or honors. Crassly ignorant and utterly undistinguished in everything but the management of other men, it was only in his need to dominate others that he achieved any kind of superiority.
Zola’s disenchanted view of politics in this novel creates a strange effect: Eugène lacks the charisma we might expect from both a politician and the main character of a novel. Usually in the Rougon-Macquart books, the hero who wants to dominate others is driven by a kind of feral vitality: there is the department store owner who wants to crush all his rivals, the real estate speculator who will do anything to make more money, and even the bohemian painter who wants to “conquer” the Paris art world. But Eugène is strangely languorous. From the opening scene, where he is a corpulent man with droopy eyelids slumped in his seat in the Chamber of Deputies, Eugène displays an ambition that is both ruthless and lethargic. The result is a political satire less like Trollope’s contemporaneous Palliser novels than like Daumier’s caricatures of députés earlier in the century, in lithographs like Le Ventre législatif, where fat men barely manage to look up from their benches. Political power doesn’t make you drunk, exactly: the effect is more like being bloated.
This does not mean that power is readily forfeited. Though Eugène departs from Zola’s other characters in constitution, he does not stray from the basic principle of domination. He returns to power thanks to a clever maneuver: he learns of an assassination plot on the emperor but stays quiet. When the plot fails (as it did in the real 1858 incident on which it was based), Napoléon III appoints Eugène minister of the interior. The emperor wants him to crack down on all forms of dissent, and Eugène obliges. In the novel’s coda, set three years later, Napoléon III has embarked on a new liberalizing agenda, which hardly makes a difference for Eugène Rougon; his politics has never been a matter of ideology. He gives a speech that feigns embrace of this new openness, and his future is secured. “In one hour,” Zola writes on the novel’s last page, “he had cancelled out his whole political life hitherto and was now ready, under the guise of parliamentary government, to gratify his insatiable appetite for power.”
It is an irony of this volume that when the “insatiable appetite for power” is depicted most literally—as a drive for political ascendancy—the portrait is less enthralling than those in many of the other books. Eugène Rougon’s torpor, as opposed to his many cousins’ magnetic ferocity, suggests that the world of conventional politics posed a special challenge to Zola’s powers of sympathy. An appetite for merely political dominance is more contemptible than the drive for sexual conquest, or even for murderous revenge. Certainly it is worse than the compulsion to fight against those who already enjoy domination, as in the hero’s doomed effort in Germinal to lead the colliers in their strike against the mine owners.
Zola, beginning the Rougon-Macquart in the very ashes of Napoléon III’s reign, wanted to be not just a historian of the Second Empire but its undertaker. When he began the series he made an assured vow: “My work will portray a dead regime, a strange period of human folly and shame.” A figure like Eugène Rougon tests that claim, for there is nothing strange about the period’s stupidity, nothing expired about its cynicism, nothing unusual about its politicians’ addiction to power. Eugène, languid in the cocoon of government, bestrides not just one regime but an ever-renewing sphere of folly and shame.
There is a small love plot in His Excellency Eugène Rougon, but one appetite that barely registers is sex. Zola writes that Eugène is not much drawn to the “pleasures of the flesh.” In this he is an unusual protagonist in the Rougon-Macquart and a particularly discordant successor to the hero of the previous volume, The Sin of Abbé Mouret. Sex, in this fifth installment, published in 1875, is like power in the other: it is an ordinary craving that links the title character to his relatives in the other volumes, although its manifestations here are idiosyncratic and even aberrant. The abbé Serge Mouret is a devout and abstemious young priest in the countryside outside Plassans. It is May, and the countryside is witness to a “tremendous burst of vegetation.” But the abbé dreams of a “hermit’s desert, some remote place in the mountains, where nothing living, no being, no plant, no water, could come to distract him from the contemplation of God.”
The ascetic temperament was a subject of enduring interest to Zola, but his books always struggled to accommodate it. He was deft at portraying men (they are usually men) who are hungry and who eat; yet every now and then he wrote about characters trying to starve themselves. In this case Serge Mouret is not allowed to maintain his self-denial. The priest, besieged on all sides by copulating goats, calving cows, and the smell of manure, is struck down by some kind of fever and faints. When he awakens, he is being watched over by a sixteen-year-old girl, Albine, who wanders the vast wilderness around the church.
Albine is so indigenous a part of this landscape that for Serge the vegetal allure of nature and her sexual allure seem versions of the same attraction. The next hundred pages are devoted to their wanderings through this wild paradise and eventually their consummation. Zola subjects us to catalogs and descriptions of trees and flowers so long they impede the story. The result is like the famous “symphony of cheeses” in the third volume, The Belly of Paris (1873), in which the list of cheeses on display in Les Halles goes on for nearly five pages. In The Sin of Abbé Mouret marigolds, ranunculus, and tuberoses have replaced Livarot, Pont-l’Évêque, and Camembert, but it is the same inventorial method that could continue for as long as Zola could think of new names.
The Marxist critic Georg Lukács hated this quality in Zola. He thought that descriptive excess was proof that naturalism, unlike the truer realism of Balzac, leveled all proportions: it was fetishistic, and it capitulated, despite Zola’s avowed political commitments, to the blandishments of capitalism.
Zola would have been stunned by the accusation. He had conceived of naturalism as a quasi-scientific method for examining contemporary life. It would trace the effects of heredity and environment on human behavior just as the physiologist relied on laboratory experiment to study the functions of the liver or pancreas. Naturalism would surely provide a comprehensive social diagnosis. But Lukács was not convinced: naturalist description merely brought everything, including human characters, to the level of objects; it was only “the writer’s substitute for the epic significance that has been lost.”
Though for Zola such density of detail was evidence of the rigor of his scientific method, a necessary accretion of data, perhaps in The Sin of Abbé Mouret it can be defended in another way. Time has stopped—description has replaced narration, as Lukács would put it—because these lovers inhabit a magically suspended world outside history and society. Still, an ahistorical fable is a curious thing to find amid Zola’s systematic analysis of the historical fact of the Second Empire. Neither this descriptive style nor this paradise can go on forever. After sex, in which Serge and Albine have made the landscape “one huge fornication,” they are beset by shame and doubt. Serge returns to the church and rejects Albine: “Never, not even in Albine’s arms, had he felt the happiness he now experienced in this voluntary martyrdom.”
It is important to pause on this last word. In no obvious way is Serge a martyr to a cause, certainly not a cause with any connection to the circumstances of his time. He martyrs himself to a code of abstinence after a brief period of indulging his sexual appetite. At one point a relative calls Serge “the saint of the family.” But what is sainthood in Zola? An ideal at odds with the appetites, a condition forbidding domination, it was not a subject that came naturally to him—not as it did to Flaubert, who in these same years was writing about St. Julien and the self-abnegating servant Félicité in Trois contes.
Zola was not at bottom an ascetic like Flaubert, and in the end not a scourge of the world around him. He did criticize his era: his exposure of its folly and shame buttresses the novels, and of course years later in “J’accuse…!” he wrote the most powerful denunciation of the political order of his time. But you don’t get the feeling that he detested his era personally in the way that Flaubert, who liked to compare himself to St. Polycarp (“Oh Lord! What a century you have brought me into!”), always did. Zola was scrappy, and he was stimulated by his times. Indeed, it is clear that he appreciated having such a useful adversary.
The Sin of Abbé Mouret and His Excellency Eugène Rougon both date from the mid-1870s, by which point Zola’s books were widely admired by his fellow novelists and usually sold well. But it was the following volume, L’Assommoir (1877), that changed his fortunes. This story of a laundress and her two lovers, beset by alcoholism in one of the poorest quarters of Paris, was the work that gave Zola his enduring fame and notoriety. His detractors had always suspected that naturalism was nothing more than la littérature putride, and that under cover of science and systems Zola was a pornographer; this book, dirtier than its predecessors, confirmed their views. The novel caused a scandal and made Zola a lot of money. The earlier volumes were republished and now sold better than ever. A circle of acolytes, including Maupassant and Huysmans (who had not yet split from naturalism, as he would in À rebours), continued to grow around him. Naturalism was now a movement, Zola its chief theorist and exponent.
It was into these circumstances that he delivered Nana, his famous novel about a prostitute, and the ninth installment in the series, in 1880. The title figure had already made a brief appearance in L’Assommoir, as the young daughter of the laundress and her alcoholic husband. When Nana opens she is eighteen and playing the lead role in an operetta called La Blonde Vénus. It is 1867, the decadent pinnacle of the Second Empire. The crowd in the stifling theater waits for her to appear; everyone is impatient. When she finally takes the stage her singing is abysmal. Her arias, however, are not the point. She is half naked, and the 1,500 people in the room nearly pass out from a concupiscent frenzy. Nana, part Venus and part Amazon, “remained victorious with her marble flesh, her sex strong enough to destroy them all and emerge unscathed.”
How characteristic of Zola to write about sexual power in this way—as a means for tactical conquest. Here the metaphoric potential of appetite is stretched to its extreme, as he takes to calling Nana a “man-eater.” Nana is about sex the way that His Excellency Eugène Rougon is about politics, Germinal about labor strife, and La Débâcle (1892) about war, which is to say that it sees its subject as an arena that makes possible the degradation and subjugation of other people. Lust, which had overwhelmed Serge Mouret, represents for Nana her one advantage: it is the weakness she sees in men everywhere.
The novel traces her conquest of the upper classes through the indomitable force of her voluptuousness. Nana becomes courtesan to aristocrats, bankers, journalists, speculators, old men, and grown boys, and each one is defeated by the association: some kill themselves out of jealousy, others are ruined financially, most are in some spectacular way humiliated. The saddest of them all, a count named Muffat, sinks from luxury and rectitude to watching the disintegration of his family and the liquidation of his fortune. He is led away from the debauchery by a churchwarden, but not before Nana makes him crawl on all fours like a dog, chasing after her scented handkerchief.
It is not always evident what Zola wants from this parable of excess. One thing does seem clear: the novel’s moralizing tendency clashes with any naturalist pretense of detached observation. Zola never allows us to forget that Nana has sprung from the most destitute street in Paris, the rue de la Goutte-d’Or, and that her prostitution marks a kind of working-class revenge: “The immorality that was being allowed to pollute the common people was rising to the surface and rotting the aristocracy.” Zola seeks to expose the Second Empire’s sexual-social hypocrisy, and Nana’s “loins” (his preferred term) are merely the unmasking agent.
And yet it is impossible to read Nana without feeling her creator’s own fervent, even prurient, interest in her flesh. Zola did not write frequently about female sexuality—men tend to be the ones with the appetite in his novels—but when he did, as in later volumes like Earth and La Bête humaine (1890), he seemed often stymied by the task, unable to get inside the mind of women who crave sex, which was never a problem for him when writing about men. It is not on Nana’s desires that Zola lavishes his attention but on her breasts, her thighs, and the golden hair in her armpits.
While he holds Nana’s interiority at a distance, Zola keeps suggesting that she channels an unconscious wish—a drive to bring down the entire society of the Second Empire. In this respect Nana is a little like Zola himself, who in his novels came not to praise the empire but to bury it. The question is how widely he wished to draw the dimensions of what he was diagnosing and condemning. Throughout the Rougon-Macquart we see Zola performing two competing duties: on the one hand embalming a specific “dead regime” and its vices, on the other hand formulating a master theory of human behavior that would be indifferent to periods and politics, and operational as long as there were new generations to study.
The punishing final pages of Nana make clear how entangled these assignments were. The year is now 1870. Nana lies dead, and a crowd of people, chanting “To Berlin!,” agitates for war with Prussia. Readers of the novel upon its 1880 publication would have felt choked by the irony of a jingoistic mob: still fresh in their memory were the ignominious defeat to the Prussians and the resulting collapse of the empire. But if the characters in Nana are arrogant and depraved, they are only meant to resemble Zola’s contemporaries. Those ignorant throngs who march off the last page of Nana did not, in his view, reform themselves in the years that followed, once the Third Republic emerged from the ruin of empire; the twenty volumes of the Rougon-Macquart suggest instead an eternal condition of appetite and turpitude. The circus world of Zola’s novels—in which speculators are busy manipulating stock prices, soldiers are firing their guns into crowds of workers, religious charlatans are infiltrating vulnerable families, ruthless entrepreneurs are putting small shops out of business, men are assaulting women, and politicians are doing whatever they can to hold on to power—seems less a chronicle of a dead regime than a vivid rendering of contemporary life.