Emile Zola’s Lust For Life

By which I mean La Joie de Vivre (admittedly translated here as Zest for Life – though why, when you have L’Assommoir, La Bête Humaine and La Débâcle, translate the title at all; – it’s a perfectly well understood phrase), Zola’s largely neglected 1884 work, coming directly after his wonderful department-store drama Au Bonheur des Dames (The Dram Shop, Ladies’ Delight etc.) and directly before his coal-mining syndicalist romp Germinal. And why is La Joie de Vivre so neglected? Two reasons come to mind: a) it’s a very claustrophobic work: it takes place entirely in a small fishing village, mostly within one house in that village; and b) as the title implies, its basic subject is: Death.

For yes, Zola has taken on that most modernist of subjects, Death (remember, in the nineteenth century, the world was highly ordered, based on rigid class structures supported by Christian thinking, and no one was remotely troubled by Death); and for the most modern of reasons: Existential Angst.

Science, or the Enlightenment, you see, had led to “a disenchantment of the world”, as explained clearly in this passage, spoken by the local doctor, Casanove:

Oh, that’s typical of you modern young men; you’ve nibbled at science and it’s made you ill, because you’ve not been able to satisfy that old craving for the absolute that you absorbed in your nurseries. You’d like science to give you all the answers at one go whereas … it’ll probably never be anything but an eternal quest. And so you repudiate science, you fall back on religion, and religion won’t have you any more. Then you relapse into pessimism … Yes, it’s the disease of our age, of the end of the century: you’re all inverted Werthers.

His remarks are addressed to our hero, Lazare, a man who’s read so much Schopenhauer he’s actually come to believe his philosophy and to exemplify it like a character in a book. Throughout the novel he’s obsessed by Death, to the extent that he’s incapable any longer of doing anything with his life, he just sinks instead into boredom and depression, frittering away the wealth of all those around him on projects which are doomed to failure because of the ennui and disinterest which will inevitably overtake him (and also, no doubt – since this is Zola – on account of his hereditary degeneracy). His counterpoint is Pauline Quenu (a Macquart), who exemplifies another part of Schopenhauer’s philosophy, as explained in this rather telegraphed passage towards the end of the novel:

she declared humorously that her cousin [Lazare] had converted her to great Saint Schopanhauer, and that she wanted to remain single so as to work for the deliverance of all mankind; and indeed she embodied renunciation, love of others, goodness extended to the whole of sinful humanity.

As you’d expect from a novel which derives from the ideas of Schopenhauer and the pen of Zola, it’s just one long catalogue of life’s miseries, filled with wretched people living lives of dire poverty, stupidity, bestiality and drunkeness; – and then, in the second half, most of the characters, one after the other, either suffer or die from painful and prolonged diseases.

But, on saying all of this, perhaps Zola isn’t so very modern: – because, of course, we know now that any intelligent man should always be thinking about death and be incapable of living (since he finds no worth in living) as a consequence, and those people who find the slightest joy in life are congenital idiots; – but sometimes, in Zola, I get the impression that he doesn’t quite think in the same way: – that instead he believes that this dwelling on death is a dangerous neurosis, perhaps brought on by reading too much continental philosophy but certainly not in itself an indicator of intelligence and anything to be lauded; and that those who get on and enjoy life should perhaps, on occasion, be listened to (and even if they wrote books which were, perhaps, not obsessed with the notion of death and the worthlessness of living, we should not uncharitably scoff at them). – At least, this is how I take Zola’s portrayal of one of the few truly likable characters in the book and its secret heroine, the cat Minouche. Minouche is always off whoring with the other neighbourhood cats, becoming pregnant, having her litters of kittens drowned, and yet she continues on completely untroubled by life’s horrors and calamities, as Pauline remarks:

“She’s losing her sight a little, thought that doesn’t stop her behaving like a hussy …. Would you believe it, less than a week ago we had to drown seven kittens of hers. She keeps on having them in such quantities that one’s really appalled … Well, she went off again on Tuesday, and now look at her preening herself! she only came back this morning, after three nights and three days of debauchery.”

“There’s this to be said for her, at least she’s clean,” concluded Abbé Horteur, watching Minouche wear out her tongue cleaning herself. “So many sluts don’t even wash!”

She is the very exemplification of Schopenhaurian Will-to-Power, acting always upon her instinctive animal impulses, not seeking to drive herself mad by imposing on herself complex systems of philosophy, morality and religion which only tend to her own misery.

– Oh, am I putting you off with all this? – Well, how about the 20-page graphic account of a woman in childbirth:

They obeyed his orders, for they too had lost consciousness of her nudity. They saw nothing but the pitiful misery of it, the dramatic struggle for birth, which killed all sense of love. Thus brutally exposed to the light, all the disturbing mystery had gone from that delicate skin with its secret places, with its fair crispy fleece; nothing remained but suffering humanity, childbirth amidst blood and ordure, the mother’s womb strained to bursting-point, the red slit stretched agonisingly, like the wound made by an axe in the trunk of some great tree, spilling its life-blood … Amidst the swollen, straining muscles, between pinkish folds of flesh, the child could be seen. But it had stopped there, unable to get past because of the narrowness of the organ. Meanwhile, however, the abdominal and lumbar muscles were still striving to expel it; even unconscious, the mother was still pushing violently, exhausting herself in labour, in the mechanical urge to be delivered; and the waves of pain still swept downwards, each accompanied by a cry in her stubborn battle against the impossible. The child’s hand was hanging out of the vulva.

Well, thank God Zola was at least restrained by Victorian morality – not like our modern writers who’ll write about any sort of unspoken obscenity for the sake of a headline [sorry, I mean of course, in order to break taboos and upset the bourgeois, which is the very essence of art].

Marvellous stuff.

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6 thoughts on “Emile Zola’s Lust For Life

  1. Having not read any Zola in all my years, Obooki, I was wondering if you could help me decide on a starting point with him. Would you recommend the usual suspects Germinal, Thérèse Raquin or one of the non-usual titles as my entrée into his world? By the way, hereditary degeneracy is one of my favorite tropes and this cat sluttery thing (something I had never even heard of before your infectiously-written post) may become one of my next ones!

  2. Did you read this in French?
    I’m about to start on Rougon-Macquart with La Cureé….this is one of those only available in older translation by the Viztelleys, which I understand are questionable.

  3. R: Yeah, start with Thérèse Raquin: it has all the elements of a good Zola novel. In fact, everything’s great (in my opinion) except L’Assommoir, which I found somewhat tedious. I’ve only read 8 of them, and mostly the more well known ones.

    LH: No, not in French – some old English translation. I’ve read La Cureé (The Kill) too in some old English translation (probably the one you’re talking about), a great American pulp fiction edition with a lurid cover. Really enjoyed it. – Next up, I think – possibly quite soon – will be La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret (in my edition, The Sinful Priest – another lurid pulp fiction type edition).

    I have this sudden desire of late to polish off the more obscure novels of Zola and Faulkner. I think for Faulkner I might read Pylon next. For a book he wrote between Light in August and Absalom, Absalom!, it seems curiously ignored, if not unheard of.

  4. I think Thérèse Raquin is a good place to start. It was the first Zola I read.

    Obooki, I expect you’re familiar with THIS Cézanne of Zola being read to by his secretary, Paul Alexis. Especially interesting in light of what happened afterwards.

    Have you read L’œuvre, obooki? I haven’t, but apparently its portrayal of Cézanne (a friend since childhood) led to the breaking of their friendship.

    I’ve read that Zola sent the painter a copy and received a curt ‘thank you’ note, after which, Cézanne never again communicated with or saw Zola again. Sounds like an interesting work. Any thoughts (assuming you’ve read it)?

    I think you’re eminently qualified to write what I believe would be a fascinating post on literary works that ended friendships.

    “What! Another of those damned fat, square, thick blogposts! Always scribble, scribble, scribble, eh, Mr. Obooki?”

    Get cracking, sunshine…

  5. Sorry about the redundant ‘never again…again’. New frontal lobes. I’m just breaking them in.

  6. No, I’ve read the other four Lantier novels, but I’ve never read L’Oeuvre.

    I’m not yet qualified to write about literary works that ended friendships, I don’t think. Perhaps when I’ve finally published my novel, eh?

    I’d have to say though, thinking vaguely from personal experience, if you’re going to write a vicious and satirical attack on one of your friends, perhaps there is something inherently wrong with your friendship already – something you’re not being entirely candid about.

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