When Oxford University Press published Zola's 'Doctor Pascal' this summer it completed their set of the Rougon-Macquart cycle, and is apparently the first time all twenty of the novels have been in print with the same publisher in English. About 6 years ago I thought I'd read my way through the whole cycle, it's a long term project which started really well with 'The Fortune of the Rougons', 'The Kill', 'Money', and 'The Conquest of Plassans', all of which I really liked, then took a nose dive with 'Earth' and 'The Sin of Abbé Mouret'.
I think I need to replace a very old copy of 'La Débâcle' that I was supposed to read for first year history in 1992, but didn't, with the OWC edition with it's more recent translation, comprehensive introduction, and matching cover. Otherwise my collection is complete, I only have another 14 books to read, and I know some of them will be great.
I will admit 'The Sin of Abbé Mouret' was daunting (I found parts of it all but impossible to read - it was a word by word slog through the middle section, Zola is not his best writing about the country) and 'Earth' was as troubling as it was compelling.
The OUP translations have been rounded off with Brian Nelson's 'Emile Zola, A Very Short Introduction' which I've been reading over the last few days. It's rekindled my enthusiasm for Zola (and is the first time I learnt that he might have been murdered, which did not help me sleep last night). I guess most of the information in here is in the introductions to the books, but there are pictures, a little bit of gossip, a really useful chronology, and this is a handy pocket sized book to keep by whatever volume I'm reading if I want to check up on specific themes.
Not all the books in the cycle are discussed in depth, and the short introduction takes in Zola beyond the Rougon-Macquarts. It is in fact a very useful very short introduction, and I must check the list to see what other authors I might want to seriously tackle have similar guides.
I'm waxing particularly enthusiastic now because a couple of Zola's have been a feature of my Christmas stocking for the last 5 years (yes, my mother still does stockings for us even though we're in our 40's and the collection of paperbacks, lip balms, earplugs, chocolate coins, satsuma's and similar odds and ends it contains are the highlight of the day for me). OUP sent me this very short introduction, otherwise it would have been on my wish list, a final Zola contribution to the festive season.
If you have someone in your life who likes French literature, naturalism, matching sets of books, or classics in any combination something like this could solve present buying dilemmas for years. Getting the right books as gifts can be a delicate balance, it doesn't do to impose your taste on the intended recipient, but when you've got shared interests, or there's been a bit of discussion about it before hand (or there's an open wish list to look at) I love getting and giving books. A series that can be added to over the years and becomes a proper tradition is a particularly lovely thing.