So much is going on in 'The Fortune of the Rougons' that it needs at least a couple of posts, significant portions of the book are spent in explaining the origins of the Rougon-Macquart family which tends towards
the gossipy and scandalous, they're not a very likeable bunch but that makes for fun reading.
The rest of the book, the bit that deals with that one December week in 1851 is different. It starts and ends in what's left of a graveyard, a place where the earth has been gorged with corpses until it will hold no more, over time it's been abandoned, the bones dug up and carried away in a tumbril, and the whole lot turned into a sort of common ground for gypsies and a wood yard. It was on the first page with that description of a corpse gorged patch of land covered in a monstrous growth of weeds and pear trees that no housewife will have the fruit from that I fell in love with the book. I like a good strong visual image to hold onto and between them Zola and Nelson excel at providing them, for me there's a distinctly Pre Raphaelite feel to these scenes (they bring to mind Millais 'Ophelia' or something like Arthur Hughes 'April Love'). Silvere and Miette have been meeting in a corner of the wood yard by an old grave - it's a clear precursor of their fate.
They are 17 and 13 respectively and innocently in love, the emphasis is very much on their innocence, for two years they've talked and kissed on the cheek, Silvere has been the one bright spot in Miette's otherwise pretty grim existence, in turn his feelings for her are distinctly chivalrous. Her father is a convicted murderer and Plassans is happy to visit the sins of the father on the child. Silvere dreams of winning respect for Miette and is deeply disturbed by any hint of sexuality creeping into their relationship. His other great love is for the Republic, that too is a pure love and one that provides a stark contrast to his uncle Rougons support for the Bonapartist cause or his uncle Macquart's brand of republicanism.
Silvere and Miette's relationship is almost all conducted in open countryside - as enclosed as it gets is between the wood stacks and the wall of the old graveyard, and again this is a contrast to the Rougon Macquart scheming which takes place mostly behind closed doors. The descriptions of the Provençal countryside are wonderfully evocative and again had me searching for paintings to match them (I tried looking for French ones, but for now everything is going through a Pre-Raphaelite filter) and curiously I found myself paying more attention than I might normally have done to these bits because of a background awareness of Nelson's translation.
Silvere's two loves become one when Miette dons a red cape and takes up the red flag of the republic (which finally put me in mind of Delacroix and just a little of David's 'Napoleon Crossing the Alps) but again all this red isn't a great omen for the future. Eventually Miette ends up dead in Silvere's arms wrapped in her cape and flag having just become aware of what their dreams have cost them in the way of love and life. It could be tedious - there's a lot of symbolism and regretted virginity, but it's not, instead it's beautiful and heartbreaking as is Silvere's eventual death.
I have no idea what the rest of the cycle holds for me, and don't even know much about what Zola was trying to do with his writing yet - I've a lot of reading to do around these books as well as of them to really appreciate what's going on, but as an introduction this has been such an inspiring read.