I’m halfway through Rome, the second volume of the Three Cities trilogy by Zola, and I have to admit it’s a slow slog. After Lourdes I thought I knew what to expect, I knew it wasn’t going to be top-class Zola but I thought it would be readable in its way, but Rome may defeat me yet. I’m taking a break and I may continue at a slower pace, maybe a chapter or two every week or so, or I may just pack it in.
Rome continues the story of Abbé Pierre Froment, who first appeared in Lourdes, and who seems to have regained his faith in some sense. I can never quite understand the Froment character as he seems to have lost his faith before Lourdes began only to accept by the end of that novel that, ok, he’s not a believer but he may as well carry on as a Priest as he can’t do anything else. By the beginning of Rome he’s regained a sense of faith in the form of Catholic Socialism and he’s off to Rome to meet the Pope in order to convince him that he and the Catholic hierarchy should renounce all earthly pleasures and return to a purer form of christianity and help the poor. Now, I’m pretty sure that every reader then, and now, would be certain that in no credible version of the Universe would the Pope agree to such a scheme. So Pierre has the impossible task of convincing the Pope of his plans; but before that he has to arrange a meeting with him and to convince him to get his book, New Rome, taken off the Index of banned books. He has to battle his way past the Papal bureaucracy which seems determined to thwart him at every step.
From the short synopsis this seems quite appealing to me; it sounds similar to Kafka’s The Castle, a tale of a fight against a powerful bureaucracy or one of my favourite films, Patrice Leconte’s Ridicule where the main character has to battle his way through Louis XVI’s court to gain access to the king and ultimately to get funds to drain a mosquito-ridden swamp back home. But Rome consists largely of Zola’s travel notes from his visit to Rome in 1894. We get a tourist’s guide to many of Rome’s buildings at the beginning of the novel, a guide of some of Rome’s ruins, the Appian Way, the catacombs, the Sistine chapel together with a comparison between Michelangelo and Botticelli, the view from St Peter’s and we witness a public Papal event called Peter’s Pence Fund, amongst others. In an attempt to add some drama to the book he invents a Shakespearian subplot that involves Benedetta and Dario who are in love with each other; only there’s a slight problem because Benedetta is already married. As the marriage was never consumated she is trying to get divorced, thus introducing her own battle with the Papal authorities. And so, the first half of Rome reads as a pretty dull tourist’s guide to Rome combined with a bit of history and a melodramatic love story. The book only becomes slightly interesting when Pierre is encountering the obstructive Papal bureaucrats or when they all go to visit some of the ‘lower classes’, even if Zola’s description of them portrays them as little better than lazy pigs rolling about in filth.
It’s interesting to see what others thought of Rome. In the introduction to the physical book I have (see image) the author has this to say of Zola’s work after the Rougon-Macquart series:
…the Three Cities and the Four Gospels will subsequently prove to be fairly mechanically assembled, with plot subservient to ideas. Characters now tend to be stereotypes or mouthpieces, and to recur not in the Balzacian sense – from novel to novel – but at regular and predictable intervals within each.
This is a fair point. With Lourdes Zola seems to be just using the form of the novel because that is what he’s familiar with, whereas it would have worked better as a piece of journalism. With Rome all the tourist stuff and the love-story are just add-ons to make the piece look like a novel; he could have expressed his ideas better in an essay if he could no longer be bothered with plot or character. One of the main criticisms I had with the book is that we rarely know what Pierre, or any of the other characters, are thinking so that all we get are third person descriptions of objects and events. Graham King is a bit more sympathetic to Zola and Rome:
Rome is a long, wide-ranging and complex novel with more merits, I think, than deficiencies. The problem for the modern reader is that it suffers from a marked loss of topicality…Its historical background, vital then, is irrelevant now: Pope Leo XIII’s emerging social conscience, which brought about the establishment of Catholic trade unions.
And so, I’m faced with the decision to continue or not. Because I’ve read the introduction to the book and biographies of Zola I know how Rome ends, so I may just take the less painful way out and abandon it. Then the next decision will be whether to continue with the final volume, Paris.
This was cross-posted on the Books of Émile Zola blog.