Tuesday 4 February 2014

Son Excellence, Eugène Rougon by Émile Zola

"For a moment the President remained standing amidst the slight commotion which his entrance had caused."

I had met Eugène Rougon in Zola's first book of the Rougon-Macquart series, The Fortune of the Rougons.  The oldest son of  Pierre and Felicité Rougon, he had been stationed in Paris, working for the cause of Louis-Napoléon Buonaparte as Emperor Napoleon III.  In Son Excellence, Eugène Rougon, we encounter Rougon as a man in disgrace, a man who has offended the Emperor and who has decided to resign before he is formally removed from office.  As he packs up his documents, a myriad of characters flow in and out of his office, almost in the formation of a dance, and each individual is as colourful as the next.  Yet as the respective characters speak their piece, the dance turns into a circling of sharks, as they all wonder how their position will be affected by Rougon's fall and how much he can still impact their various personal causes.

The book chronicles the political scene in Paris during the government of the Second Empire under Emperor Napoleon III.  Through Rougon, we see the political machinery grinding through the career of a politician; his fall from favour, his subsequent rise through the help of his sycophantic supporters, their fickle desertion, and so forth.  Behind the glamorous facade of the Second Empire, manipulation, betrayal, coercion, conspiracy and fraud seep from between its seams, and only the clever and opportunistic will survive.

Chameleon-like Rougon is a man who knows how to bend with the force of political volatility.  Initially, after giving his resignation, he is slow, methodical and patient, rather like a toad waiting in the mud for an insect to come buzzing around his head.  Yet when he regains his title as minister, he comes alive; robust, loud, and outspoken, he soaks in the approbation of those around him while ruling with a heart of iron.  Yet Zola does a marvellous job of retaining his provincial nature; his sometimes wild, untamed speeches and stubborn and shortsighted actions reveal a man who has not been able to completely shake off the country dust of his origins.

Pont de la Tournelle, Paris
by Stanilas Lépine
(source Wikipedia)

Zola's prose is so exquisitely compact, yet with it he constructs such a wide scope for the reader.  I felt I was really present during the baptismal procession for the Imperial Prince; I sensed the barely suppressed excitement in the air, the feel of the crowds and people pressing against me, the impatience, the festivity.  Zola doesn't just allow us to view the Second Empire with words; he takes us right into its grandeur, its character and the various intricacies that gnaw at its foundations.  

This novel is not amongst Zola's most popular books of the Rougon-Macquart series, but I really, really enjoyed it for its dynamic appeal and attention to detail.  Can Zola write a poor novel?  Somehow I don't think so.

(translation by Ernest A. Vizetelly)

Other Rougon-Macquart Series Reviews (Zola's recommended order):


  1. Really glad to have read your review - I struggled with this the first time around (the same translation, by the way), and you're giving me hope that perhaps I might have more luck with it next time! I just couldn't get into it, but perhaps I wasn't in the right frame of mind. I shall let you know when I come to re-reading it! (Won't be for a while yet, perhaps by summer)

    1. I think it helped that I haven't read any other Zola other than The Fortune of the Rougons, so perhaps my expectations were not that high. I really love reading history books so I found the political aspect of it really interesting. I know there have been comments that people feel that Zola took liberties with the characters ……. that they are perhaps not as believable as some of his others, but when I was in France I found the real life characters there so varied and vibrant that I didn't think he exaggerated. When I first started reading Russian Lit I thought the characters ridiculously exaggerated but now I know it's just a cultural difference.

      Rougon's character was one of the more interesting aspects of the novel. I'm still not sure if his development and actions were quite believable but his behaviour certainly mirrored the volatility of the politics in the capital.

      My next is La Curée and Karen K. said it was her least favourite so far, so I approach it with a teensy amount of trepidation. Yet perhaps if I can appreciate "His Excellence…", I can appreciate anything Zola!

      Great to hear from you, O!

  2. This sounds like a very engaging book, and one that invites the reader in to experience what is happening. Your reviews are so well-written, and are introducing me to many books I've never heard.

    1. Well, it's not his best loved book of the Rougon-Macquart series but I did enjoy it. I know very little about the Second Empire, so I think that's what made it particularly interesting for me. Zola writes a novel but he inserts real characters and events that have been well-researched.. It's fascinating.

      I'm so glad I am giving you new books to explore! I'm still being introduced to new classics every day yet I also have to find time to get to authors on my list that I have read little of …….. Zola is new for me and I haven't even made it to Balzac or Trollope, who I'm going to try to fit in this year. So many books …..!

      Your kind comments are so appreciated!

  3. I haven't read the earlier novels in the series (I read Zola in no chronological order), but this one looks promising. Unfortunately Oxford haven't published it, I have been enjoying their translation. What about this version, is the translation recommended?

    "Can Zola write a poor novel? Somehow I don't think so." >> I agree, 100%! :)

    1. I read the Vizetelly translation and I think the complaint with him is that he "Victorianized" the translations, which means he toned down any "racy" parts. I really liked the translation but I have nothing to compare it to. I am going to read the Brian Nelson translation (Oxford edition) of La Curée coming up, so I will have to do a comparison then.

      I'd like to know what you think of it when you read it. It certainly focuses mainly on one character, but the history and political scene of that period is fascinating.

  4. So glad to see Zola's lesser known works being reviewed. The scene I remember ... was the subtle seduction in the stables between Eugène and Clorinde. You can hear the slight panting and smell the moist hay.

    1. I was just discussing with someone on another blog, how descriptive and evocative Zola's writing is, without being over-descriptive. I'm looking forward to starting La Curée!