Monday, February 12, 2018

The Sin of Abbé Mouret - Emile Zola

Way back in the mists of time (February 2014) I decided I would read my way through Zola's Rougon - Maquart cycle. Had I randomly started with 'The Sin of Abbé Mouret', I wouldn't have got very far. I don't know if this is Zola at his worst (I certainly hope it is as I've a long way to go yet) but he's very far from his best here.

Abbé Mouret, is Serge, son of François and Marthe Mouret, cousins who's marriage spectacularly unravels in 'The Conquest of Plassans' when Marthe discovers religion and becomes obsessed with her lodger, Abbé Faujas. It ends with the now insane François setting fire to the house. For all its sensationalist elements I loved 'The Conquest of Plassans' having no trouble believing in the mid life religious awakening of Marthe, or the slow degeneration of François, abbé Faujas' machinations, or those of his family. As the tragedy unfolds there's a terrible inevitability about it all.

But that's Zola in a relatively urban setting. I knew from 'Earth' that he had a startling view of life in the country, even so he excels himself in 'The Sin of Abbé Mouret'. The village of Les Artaud is a dusty hell hole, inhabitaed by a bunch of incestous, godless, savages. - the whole village is one family, the Artauds, who interbreed in a way that really couldn't be recommended.

Serge has something of his mother's religious mania, manifesting itself in an unhealthy adoration of the Virgin Mary. He neglects his physical self to a point where he collapses, at which point his uncle spirits him away to a neglected garden paradise and the care of a young woman, Albine.

The middle part of the book is Serge, who has amnesia, and Albine, falling in love whilst they explore the garden and their own awakening sexuality. It is by turns long lists of plant life (which might grow as described, but it seems unlikely), and heavy handed metaphors, it reaches a queasy sort of climax with the whole garden 'hot with universal rut'. Discovery quickly follows.

By this point I'd well and truly lost patience with it. But it goes on. I get the points Zola is trying to make, and not just because he signposts them in the literary equivalent of 20 foot neon, most of them are points worth making - though the garden descriptions are lazy and heavy going. The kindest thing to say about it is that's it's patchy.

Despite all that however I'm glad I've read it, and very glad that it's in a decent critical edition and new translation (by Valerie Minogue). Oxford World's Classics published this last year, before that it had been out of print for a while, at least in English. And at least part of the point of an undertaking to read a cycle of 20 books by the same author is to take the good and bad together. Anyway, I'm glad I've done it, and happy to be done with this one. Here's hoping the next Zola is less heavy going.

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