Monday, March 21, 2016

The Conquest of Plassans - Emile Zola

Translated by Helen Constantine.

Anybody with a long enough memory might remember me undertaking to read my way through Zola's Rougon-Macquart cycle - it's been a while. Not that this is a problem, I always saw it as a long term project (a decade seems reasonable as a time scale, longer would be fine). 'The Conquest of Plassans' is also the end of my trying to read them in order. The correct order is confusing anyway - the sequence Zola suggests isn't the same as the one he wrote them in, and not all of them are easily available in actual book format. If I have to read the last few as ebooks I will, but I'm hopeful a few more will have had the Oxford World's Classics treatment before then.

 It was good to be back in Plassans and amongst the small town bourgeoise. It feels like such a familiar, unchanging, setting that it was easy to be sucked into Zola's more outrageous plot developments this one left me unsure of the difference between naturalism and sensationalism. Briefly (there will be spoilers, but probably no more than could be found on Wikipedia, and I think the books been round for long enough for it to be quite acceptable to give away plot points...)

The novel opens in the house of François and Marthe Mouret. Marthe was a Rougon daughter who's married her cousin - given Zola's preoccupation with the madness that runs through the family this rings alarm bells. It's a scene of outward domestic bliss and some inward tension. Against Marthe's expressed preference, Mouret has agreed to take a lodger - Abbé Faujas, an impoverished priest, and his mother.

These new arrivals unsettle the family routine and start to highlight those tensions within the Mouret marriage. Abbé Faujas turns up with virtually nothing but his ambition and sets out to conquer the town. He does it in increments, first winning over his landlady, awakening a religious fervour in her, and then increasingly influencing the other women of the town, before eventually dabbling in politics.

 Meanwhile his sister and her no good husband have turned up and also moved in, Mouret, increasingly marginalised in his own home is becoming isolated, his behaviour increasingly questioned, and Marthe has taken religious devotion to the point of mania and beyond. Soon Mouret is locked up in an assylum, Marthe is being robbed blind by the Abbé's family, and the children are all dispatched away from home.

 It does not end well.

 Mouret and Marthe's mental disintegration is compelling - so much of it is based on perception and how those on the outside judge the couples behaviour. Mouret's eccentricities are picked on and embroidered until everyone believes the worst, and isolated as he is by this point it's hard to know quite what he himself believes. Marthe's religious fervour on the other hand is accepted and the assumption that she us her husbands victim soon takes hold. Just as interesting is the Abbé Faujas, ascetic and ambitious, he's morally compromised by his family's behaviour. His inability to stop them ravaging the house, or to show any compassion towards Marthe when she's no longer any use to him show a weak man without any true Christian feeling.

 Bits are overblown, I'm not sure that Zola's understanding of mental illness would stand much scrutiny today, and it all gets a bit grim, but it's also an absorbing and compelling book. I wasn't in the least bit ready for it to end. What I was ready for was another Zola novel...


  1. I read this a year or two ago and your review brought back what a powerful, upsetting novel it is. I found the Abbé a really scary character, so fanatical and ambitious, and so good at pulling the wool over everyone's eyes. Hooray for Zola!

  2. I could see it as a terrifying horror/thriller film, or at least have seen all these elements in just such films. It was unsettling but hard to stop reading. I've just finished 'The Earth' and that was entirely different (shockingly different).