La Fortune des Rougons
(The Fortune of the Rougons)
by Émile Zola ★★★★
Zola, basing himself on the works of thinkers of his time, including Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, believed that heredity and environment were the two most important factors in determining the course of a person’s life. He set out to demonstrate this theory in the 20-part Rougon-Macquart series subtitled The Natural and social history of a family during the Second Empire, which examines the lives of five generations of the ‘respectable’ (because legitimate) Rougon branch and of the dissolute (and illegitimate) Macquarts. As preparation for this huge undertaking, Zola first charted out an elaborate family tree (depicted above). I’ve read several of the novels in the series starting in high school as required reading, and my appreciation for Zola’s writing having grown over the years, I decided this year to start from the beginning and to read the novels in publication order to see how all the pieces fall into place in this vast undertaking. My goal is to read one novel in the series every month, or in any case, to read them all within less than two years so that I can keep the continuity fresh in mind.
La Fortune des Rougons, the first novel, establishes the origins of the two clans and presents a vast cast of characters, of which several will figure as leading protagonists in consecutive novels. The story opens on the clandestine meeting of two virginal young lovers, Miette and Silvère, just outside the fictional Provençal town of Plassans, and relates their love story leading up to this night—the eve of the 1851 coup d’état—during which Napoleon III came into power, the events of this historical day forming the central motif of the novel. The two idealistic adolescents are about to join a vast gathering of republicans to storm Plassans and nearby towns along the way to Paris, on a doomed journey to oppose the coup. Plassans is the hometown of Silvère’s grandmother, Adelaide Fouque, commonly known as Tante Dide who also happens to be the matriarch of the Rougon-Macquart dynasty. Tante Dide is an eccentric who suffers from a delicate nervous constitution and is treated by the town’s people as a pariah. After losing her husband, the late Rougon, who has fathered her only legitimate child, Pierre, Adelaide takes up with Macquart, a notorious alcoholic and trafficker, a union from which two more illegitimate children are born, causing great scandal in the community.
We follow the progress of Pierre Rougon, who is motivated to gain respectability at all cost, while he takes his first steps to secure the family fortune for himself as a young man, which he does by conning his mother out of her ancestral home and property and taking away his siblings’ inheritance. Thereafter, Pierre Rougon and his wife Félicité see their limited fortune spent away on their children’s education and a floundering business. All the while, Pierre’s illegitimate half-brother Antoine Macquart continually harangues the Rougons for money, which he demands as compensation for being cheated out of his legacy. Antoine is a profoundly lazy man who contrives to marry a hard-working woman and sponge off her and his own children too as soon as they are of working age, while claiming to have high republican ideals and spending all his time in cafés expensively dressed and chatting about politics. On this night in 1851, the Rougons, after decades of vain struggles, finally seize the opportunity they’ve bee waiting for, putting in place a series of Machiavellian schemes. Pierre and his wife don’t hesitate to put the lives of men on the line to finally come into wealth and recognition, all the while playing power games among each other to determine who will have the upper hand in this old couple’s marriage. In order to achieve their goal, they’ve recruited the half-brother Antoine, who has contrived to gather a following of men he has little qualms of double-crossing for his own purposes. A fascinating read with plenty of complex characters with less than noble motivations, and a very promising start to a great literary saga.