This book often gets lackluster reviews, but if this is considered among the worst of Zola’s “Rougon-Macquart” novels, I look forward to reading more of them. This book isn’t as interesting as the other two in the cycle I’ve read (“The Fortunes of the Rougons” and “The Drinking Den”) but it’s not a bad novel.
The story begins in the French legislature, everyone stares about bored and weary. Their only interest is in whether the premier of the Corps législatif Eugene Rougon will resign or not due to a conflict with the Emperor — he does. Afterward Eugene’s friends are concerned about their own livelihoods and they come to him, expecting many favors through his influence. M. Kahn for example wants Eugene to get a railroad diverted to pass by his blast furnaces. The Charbonnels want him to help them settle a large inheritance claim. But the one person perhaps watching Eugene most closely is the beautiful Clorinde who wants to marry him and use his Machiavellian tactics to gain power for herself. Eugene sees women as entanglements, but is quickly seduced by Clorinde (in a memorable, rather masochistic scene involving a riding whip!) But he thinks their marriage would destroy them both, so he pushes her into the arms of another, and marries a quiet women who will stay out of his way. His friends, bitter about the state of affairs work behind the scenes to get Eugene back into power, Clorinde uses sex as a weapon, and a momentous event pushes him back into power. But ultimately it’s Eugene’s love of power for it’s own sake that proves his eventual downfall.
Here Zola takes us out of the working class trenches into the upper echelons of power. This is primarily a parlor-room drama. He pokes fun at the French Legislature for example, “They all stood up and then sat down again quite mechanically, without ceasing to converse and even without ceasing to sleep.” He covers the christening of the Emperor’s son with an unmistakable bitterness at all the expensive pomp. In Zola’s world those who go along with the times and have no convictions get ahead, those who actually hold convictions don’t. Although Zola portrays the Emperor himself as a decent fellow, it’s the middle-managerial positions below him which attract the worst types of courtiers. (Anyone who has worked in corporate America will understand this!)
I think the biggest theme here is the shaky, dependent nature of power and political favors. As M. Kahn remarks at one point to one of Eugene’s friends, “Rougon is contracting a debt to us to-day. Rougon no longer belongs to himself.” Eugene lusts for tyrannical power over others, but getting power often means corrupting oneself, and accumulating a debt to another party who can pull the power out from under him if they wish.
Eugene is of a cool, calculating nature. While others desperately speak of returning him to power, he sits calmly playing cards. He both despises those who grovel at his feet, and yet he needs them. This is where Clorinde comes in. In “The Fortunes of the Rougons” we see Felicite at the back of her husband Pierre as his adviser, here we see Clorinde often advising Eugene. Women can be powerful in this era too, but they must act in the background. And Clorinde’s utterly shameless pursuit of power, her using sex as a weapon is the most scandalous part of the novel.
I understood little of the rank and position of everyone involved in the story — but I think in 2013 most readers are looking for the universal reflections on human nature which Zola reveals, and the overall drama of the story, rather than the functioning of the French government in the 1850’s. Still, knowing a basic Wikipedia-lite background on the Second Empire is helpful. I read the Vizetelly translation of this book and found it quite readable, I understand some parts of the text may have been censored, but unfortunately there’s not a modern translation of this novel that’s readily available. Since it’s considered a rather minor novel, I decided to just go with this translation.