Saturday, August 14, 2021

Back to the Classics Challenge 2021 - His Excellency, Eugène Rougon


Inspired by Karen at Books and Chocolate and her enthusiasm for the novels of Emile Zola, I decided a few years ago to read all of his Rougon-Marquand series - 20 books total - in the recommended reading order (as opposed to the order of publication). This initial bout of enthusiasm lead me to read The Fortune of the Rougons waaay back in 2013.  The best laid plans of mice and men as some one once said…it only took me eight years to read the next book.  At this rate, I will be 120 or so when I am done with the series. 

His Excellency, Eugène Rougon takes place fairly soon after the events of The Fortune of the Rougons. Eugène Rougon is a lawyer from the provinces who went to Paris to make his fortune and luckily (or shrewdly) put his faith in Charles Louis Napoléon Bonaparte in 1851 when Napoléon, who was then President of France, staged a successful coup and crowned himself emperor Napoléon III.  When the book opens, while the Empire is still at the height of its powers and popularity, Rougon is resigning his influential post in the national assembly. All those who relied upon him and his political power are astonished and disappointed; one by one they desert him. 

But it would appear Rougon is playing a long game and when he finds the opportunity to insert himself back into the Emperor’s good graces, he strikes and soon becomes, next to the Napoléon III, the most powerful man in the country. His sycophantic hangers-one soon flock him again and all are given power, favors and positions accordingly, but eventually things go too far and Rougon, or rather one of his cronies, oversteps the bounds of his office and Rougon finds himself politically walking a fine line.

I liked this book, though it was pretty heavy on the politics and I don’t think with either this or The Fortune of the Rougons (it has been too long since I have read Germinal to remember if it is any different), that Zola is a particularly subtle writer. The best thing I found about this title was the character, Clorinde de Babi, a young, beautiful Italian noblewoman with whom Rougon becomes obsessed and to his peril, he underestimates. The introduction I read suggested Clorinde was based on the mysterious, real-life Virginia Oldoïni, Countess of Castiglione, who was one of Napoléon III’s many mistresses and a fascinating person historically. Clorinde is as politically astute as Rougon in this novel, if not more so. However, as a female, her options are limited and her power necessarily more indirect and behind the scenes. 

Definitely these first two books have been a great window for me on the Second Empire historical period in France and I expect as I read on, my view will only be deepened. Though, it is very clear that Zola was no fan of the Emperor and this isn’t an unbiased view by any means. Unfortunately, though unsurprisingly, much of the political  practices criticized in the novel, the cronyism, the corruption, the abuse of power, etc. is not something left in history or unique to France or the 19th century, I’m afraid.

I read this title for the category "Classic in Translation" in the Back to the Classics Challenge 2021 hosted by Karen. 

14 comments:

  1. I know Zola so little and it is a fascinating period. I suspect I'd like these more than his novels of beaten-down and impoverished he's better known for. Criticism of high society feels like more my thing. So thanks for this! I'm also tempted by the idea of reading them all in order, but you're now two books ahead of me on that. ;-)

    I don't think anybody's ever accused Zola of subtlety though...

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    1. I think the next book in reading order - The Kill - will be right up your street. It is supposed to be take down of the decadent nouveau riche under Napolean III. Let's just see if I can manage to read it in less than seven years from now. :)

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  2. I've only read two of Zola's novels: Nana and The Ladies' Paradise. And I liked them both. But reading all twenty of his books? Probably not going to happen. ;D

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    1. I am looking forward to getting to Nana (No. 17) and The Ladies' Paradise (No. 8). Just a few more books in between, however, that I need to get to. I may never finish this project, I have so many lists of books. We'll see!

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    2. At least you'll never run out of things to read! :)

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  3. I haven't any of Zola's novels, but I don't believe I'd begin with such a long series. :) On the other hand, it would be an intriguing look at French history through a fictional perspective.

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    1. I am hoping to get my mojo back with these and not leave such gaps between the books. Otherwise I will forget too much between each entry.

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  4. Hi Ruthiella, Certain great authors I have missed out on reading and Emile Zola is one of them. I must read him and I'm thinking his novel Nana may be the way to go A 20 book series. Reminds me of Marcel Proust's multi-volume Rembrance of Things Past. I need to give that a try too.

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    1. Hi Kathy! I have also toyed with the idea of reading Proust's Remembrance of Things Past but not yet gotten up the nerve. I have the idea that Zola is more approachable, though I could be wrong.

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  5. Well, at least you are making progress on meeting your goal! :)

    I like Zola, and have one on my own classics list for this fall, and I like reading him as a way of educating myself about French history.

    Clorinde de Babi does sound interesting and intriguing.

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    1. Indeed! Slow progress, but progress nonetheless. :D

      Ooh! I will look forward to reading your review of the Zola title you chose for your fall TBR.

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  6. A formidable goal! I only have one Zola book - Germinal, which I haven't read yet. Would you suggest it as a good one to start with?

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    1. I read Germinal back in college - so decades ago! I remember that it was very frank about sex and had a sad ending. It is about miners and the terrible conditions they worked under at the time. If you don't mind that drama, go for it,

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  7. Mmmm - sad endings - maybe not right now!

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