Emile Zola, the 19th-century author, poet, and philosopher, is known for his epic 20-volume history of the Rougon-Macquart family, but yet in his lifetime he wrote many other books and plays. In addition, he was a journalist, and his defense of the wrongly convicted Alfred Dreyfus, who was convicted of treason and sent to Devils Island, was front-page news under the title J’ACCUSE. He was a believer in naturalism and most of his books dealt with the lower classes and their lives. Many felt he was a successor to Honore` de Balzac (who himself wrote over 91 works known as the Human Comedy), and despite many French literary figures not appreciating Zola, he has come down through history as a master storyteller and helped liberalize France’s strict laws during his lifetime. Nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1901 and 1902, his death by carbon monoxide poisoning has been considered suspicious with many believing it to be a political assassination. His remains are now buried in the Pantheon in Paris next to those of Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo.
It is a daunting task, to both write and read a 20-volume series set during the 2nd Empire of France from 1850-1871. Yet, if Emile Zola is up to the task, I figured it was about time for me to start reading!
And this is Book 1 of the series and introduces us to the founding families upon which this story is told. What is interesting about this book is its focus on the rather lower class of life in the fictitious town of Plassan in the south of France. We meet Aunt Didi who is the mother of this clan, who had one child during her marriage and then two illegitimate children. There is strong dislike by oldest on Pierre Rougon and he plots to have his mother (Aunt Didi) sell her house and give him the proceeds. Meanwhile, he has successfully schemed to get his half-sister married and his half-brother Antoine Macquart enlist in the army with promises of future assistance.
Didi sells the house, Pierre gets the money and now the story gets very interesting. Pierre marries the daughter of an oil-trader and never hits as big as both of them so desire and it is their quest for fortune and prestige that moves the story along. After years Antoine is back in the picture and is making a nuisance of himself and eventually sides with the Republicans and oppose all that Pierre and his wife are plotting as they are supporters of what will become the Second Empire. There are scheming, plots, family foibles, and some interesting characters in this book, as even Pierre’s children have divided loyalties. And while it all must come to an end, the Rougon-Macquart saga is ready to set sail for another 19 books. Having read earlier works by Zola, I was impressed with his growth as a writer and the way he begins a saga that will eventually entail over 300 different characters. Many in France criticized him during his lifetime, but I found the book easy to read, and filled with characters that piqued my interest, even though I did have to do some research into 19th Century French history – something I happily did as I look forward to following this families fortunes!