Tag Archives: Three Cities

‘Paris’ by Émile Zola

Image source: scan of personal copy

Paris is the last volume in the Three Cities trilogy and was first published in 1898. After the struggle I had with the previous volume, Rome, (see here and here) I did wonder if I would ever finish the trilogy; but I have. Even the first volume in the series, Lourdes, was a bit of a struggle. The main character throughout the series is the Abbé Pierre Froment, a priest who no longer retains his faith, and although Zola makes us sympathise with Froment’s predicament we know right from the start that he will end up leaving the church; it just takes so bloody long for it to happen. The whole series is seriously flawed, in my opinion, Lourdes would have worked better as a piece of journalism, Rome should have been abandoned completely, although a short story could possibly have been salvaged from it, and Paris, which was the best of the three, would still have worked better without Pierre’s struggle with his faith.

Paris opens with Pierre agreeing to take some alms from Abbé Rose to a former house painter, called Laveuve, who is on the verge of starving to death. Abbé Rose is being watched by his superiors as his persistent alms-giving is starting to annoy the church hierarchy. Pierre agrees to take the few francs to the man and visits Laveuve in his working-class slum. Pierre witnesses many scenes of poverty which Zola describes ruthlessly. Pierre enquires with a family as to the whereabouts of Laveuve, whom they know as ‘The Philosopher’. Pierre eventually locates him in a nearby hovel.

Here, on a human face, appeared all the ruin following upon hopeless labour. Laveuve’s unkempt beard straggled over his features, suggesting an old horse that is no longer cropped; his toothless jaws were quite askew, his eyes were vitreous, and his nose seemed to plunge into his mouth. But above all else one noticed his resemblance to some beast of burden, deformed by hard toil, lamed, worn to death, and now only good for the knackers.

Pierre not only delivers the alms from Rose but he also spends the rest of the day trying to get Laveuve admitted into the Asylum of the Invalids of Labour by using his connections with the wealthy people on the board of the organisation. Zola here presents the high-society of Paris, particularly the Duvillard’s family and friends; the Baron Duvillard is a banker involved in an African Railway scheme and his wife, Eve, does at least want to help Pierre. But he’s passed around from person to person, none of whom are willing to help him directly. In the end all his efforts are in vain as Leveuve dies before any decision can be made. He is disgusted with himself that he had allowed his hopes to rise once again, to hope that he could actually help people with charity, and as a result his doubts return.

He had ceased to believe in the efficacy of alms; it was not sufficient that one should be charitable, henceforth one must be just. Given justice, indeed, horrid misery would disappear, and no such thing as charity would be needed.

Pierre is then witness to an act of terrorism as he notices a man, Salvat, whom he had seen when visiting Laveuve, meet Pierre’s brother, Guillaume. Salvat walks away to the Duvillard’s mansion, followed by Guillaume, who is followed by Pierre. Pierre watches Salvat enter a doorway and is soon seen running from the building; Guillaume enters the building and there follows an explosion. Pierre helps his injured brother get away and lets him stay at his house to recuperate. The only casualty of the bomb is a young servant girl.

Pierre and Guillaume, who had been estranged, now become better acquainted and Pierre gets to know both Guillaume’s family and his revolutionary friends. Guillaume is a chemist who had been working on a new explosive and Salvat had managed to pilfer some of this when he was working briefly for Guillaume. The rest of the novel now concentrates on Pierre’s complete disassociation with the church and his appreciation of Guillaume’s scientific and atheistic outlook on life. Pierre is completely astonished and then smitten by Guillaume’s fiancée, Marie, who seems to embody the best of this new, more open, outlook to life. Now that Pierre has lost his faith in God he seems to find a new faith in some sort of scientific positivism, whereby all the problems of the world are going to be solved by socialism, science and work. This was no doubt close to Zola’s personal views but it certainly seems to be highly unrealistic to a modern reader. I wonder how the contemporary reader would have found these arguments? It is strange that all the political talk about socialism and anarchism concentrates on Saint-Simon, Fourier, Proudhon et al. rather than Marx, Engels, Bakunin et al.; it’s almost as if a hundred years of political thought meant nothing to Zola.

There is a lot more in this novel as well; there’s the manhunt of Salvat as well as his public execution; the threat of terrorism; there’s Zola’s look at bourgeois society and its decadence at the end of the nineteenth century by portraying political, financial and moral corruption; there’s the joys of cycling (for men AND women); the joys of marriage and fatherhood. Unusually for Zola this novel has a very positive, almost utopian, ending, predicting the downfall of Catholicism and the rise of Science and Justice.

Therein lies the new hope—Justice, after eighteen hundred years of impotent Charity. Ah! in a thousand years from now, when Catholicism will be naught but a very ancient superstition of the past, how amazed men will be to think that their ancestors were able to endure that religion of torture and nihility!

I wonder what Zola would have made of the world today?

The novel ends with the whole family looking out over a Paris bathed in golden light from the setting sun. Marie holds up her son, Jean, to look at the sight, promising him that he’s going to reap the benefits that Science and Justice are going to bring. Jean would be aged sixteen in 1914.

This was cross-posted on the Reading Zola blog.

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‘Rome’ (Part 1) by Émile Zola

Zola_Rome_fcX-700pxI’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.

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‘Lourdes’ by Émile Zola

Zola_Lourdes_fcXC-700pxLourdes was first published in 1894. Zola first conceived of the book when he visited Lourdes in September 1891 and was taken aback by the number of pilgrims that visited the shrine to the Virgin Mary. He returned the following year during August, which is the busiest period for pilgrimages, and in Zola’s typical fashion he spent time with the pilgrims, carrying out interviews and observations to form the basis of this book.

The book is set over a five-day period starting on Friday 19th August, with each day covering approximately a hundred pages each. The main characters are the Abbé Pierre Froment and his childhood sweetheart Marie de Guersaint, who has been paralysed since the age of thirteen when she fell from a horse. Day one covers the trip by train from Paris to Lourdes and we are introduced to a whole host of characters mostly made up of those pilgrims who have a variety of ailments and who are hoping for a miracle cure at Lourdes. Pierre’s and Marie’s story is revealed early on in the novel and it is noted that Pierre has lost his faith. Marie is aware that Pierre has lost his faith but she is optimistic that she will be cured at Lourdes and that such a miracle may help Pierre believe again. So, if Pierre has lost his faith, why doesn’t he leave the priesthood? He reasons that he is permanently marked as different than other men and that having kept his vow of chastity he should be able to conquer his mind as well. As for Marie’s illness, the doctors are not agreed on the cause of it and are unable to cure her, indeed one young doctor suggests that it is psychosomatic and that a cure at Lourdes may be possible if she believes in it herself.

He even predicted how the miracle would come about; it would be like a lightning stroke, an awakening, an exaltation of the entire being, whilst the evil, that horrid, diabolical weight which stifled the poor girl would once more ascend and fly away as though emerging by her mouth.

When the pilgrims arrive the next day they settle in to their accommodation and eagerly wait for their visit to the Grotto at Lourdes. Pierre meets an old friend Dr. Chassaigne, whose story mirrors Pierre’s, in that he has lost his ‘faith’ in medicine following the deaths of his wife and daughter; his own inability to save either has crushed his spirit and his only hope is for God to re-unite them with his death.

Many believe that bathing in the waters at Lourdes will cure them of their illnesses. This belief is so strong that even the corpse of a man that died on the train is immersed in the waters at the piscina in the hope that he will live again. Pierre is persuaded to help some of the patients enter the waters and here Zola describes the state of the waters in which the sick are to bathe:

…the water was scarcely inviting; for, through fear lest the output of the source should not suffice, the Fathers of the Grotto only allowed the water of the baths to be changed twice a day. And nearly a hundred patients being dipped in the same water, it can be imagined what a terrible soup the latter at last became. All manner of things were found in it, so that it was like a frightful consommé of all ailments, a field of cultivation for every kind of poisonous germ, a quintessence of the most dreaded contagious diseases; the miraculous feature of it all being that men should emerge alive from their immersion in such filth.

Meanwhile Marie visits the Grotto and prays to the Virgin Mary to be cured. Over the next couple of days Pierre visits the Verification Office, where all claims of miracles are assessed by a team of doctors, visits some of the local shops that sell all sorts of souvenirs, accompanies Marie’s father to a communal eating establishment run by some nuns and visits a local barber who rants constantly against the ‘new’ Lourdes that has appeared since the pilgrimages, despite making money by taking in lodgers.

The story culminates with Marie’s cure during a night-time vigil at the Grotto. Pierre arrives in the morning to take Marie back to their accommodation and witnesses Marie’s cure:

But all at once, when the Blessed Sacrament passed by, and she saw the star-like monstrance sparkling in the sun, a sensation of dizziness came over her. She imagined herself sruck by lightning. Her eyes caught fire from the glare which flashed upon her, and at last regained their flame of life, shining out like stars. And under the influence of a wave of blood her face became animated, suffused with colour, beaming with a smile of joy and health. And, suddenly, Pierre saw her rise, stand upright in her little car, staggering, stuttering, and finding in her mind only these caressing words: “Oh, my friend! Oh, my friend!”

The crowd cheer and applaud her, she sobs, and walks, Pierre sobs as well. After all the jubilation Marie ends up at the Verification Office and after much debate it is declared a miracle; only Pierre, who knows the true nature of her illness, is sceptical. And so the last day consists of the return trip; Pierre and Marie have to decide what they want to do with their lives. Will it be together or will they stay apart?

The book is split into five chapters, one for each day, and then each chapter is split into five sections as well. The last section of each chapter recounts the story of Bernadette Soubirous who is the girl to whom the Virgin Mary appeared to eighteen times in 1858 and is the source of the fame of Lourdes as a holy site. Theses sections are interesting enough and give some important background information to the reader. Zola is brilliant at crowd scenes and one is included here, where a whole chapter is devoted to a night procession. There are also some funny episodes and some analysis of the Lourdes phenomena from an outsider’s perspective; but I must admit I had problems reading Lourdes, it proceeds at such a slow plodding pace that it was quite tedious to read at times. It felt so static and the structure of the novel was too restrictive, especially where two of the five chapters are taken up with the train journey to and from Lourdes. At times it felt more like a piece of journalism than a novel and may have been better if it had been written up as an article. Unlike Zola’s previous novels where his extensive research added to the stories, here it just bogged it down in too much detail as he tried to cram everything in. The other criticism is that there is no tension to the story; we know Pierre has lost his faith, we’re pretty sure that Marie will be cured and because Pierre accepts that her illness is psychosomatic he is unlikely to consider her ‘cure’ a miracle and therefore it is not likely to help him regain his faith. Even the multitude of characters is a bit repetitive as they’re all defined by their illnesses.

I was intrigued to see what other critics thought of Lourdes and as always I found Graham King‘s summary the most accurate and entertaining:

Why then isn’t Lourdes read today? With its potentially explosive ingredients, it should be ticking away like a time bomb, even after all these years. The trouble is that despite the proliferation of characters, the swirling, nervous crowds and the fascinating conflict between the sacred and secular activities, the narrative has lead boots, with one foot anchored firmly in a single location, Lourdes, and the other, equally immobile, in Pierre Fromant’s mind. It is a little like being confined to a dreary little holiday hotel for days on end because of bad weather; even though we are in the company of a raconteur who desperately tries to entertain us, it isn’t what we came for.

Although I had a physical copy of the novel (the one pictured) I ended up reading most of it on my kindle, partly because of the ease but also because the print was so small in the book. Both were versions of the Vizetelly translation which can be found at Project Gutenberg. The translation is a bit old-fashioned and stuffy and the book could do with a more modern translation but it was still quite readable and I don’t think it would have been bowldlerised that much, if at all.

Despite the faults with Lourdes I shall continue with the others…next stop Rome.

This was cross-posted on the Books of Émile Zola blog.

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