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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Sidenote Les Rougon Macquart


Survey of books--the short stories.]

It was, however, by no means at first that M. Zola took to the "document" or elaborated the enormous scheme of the Rougon-Macquart cycle: though whether the excogitation of this was or was not due to the frequentation, exhortation, and imitation of MM. de Goncourt is not a point that we need discuss. He began, after melodramatic and negligible _juvenilia_, in 1864 with a volume of delightful short stories,[471] _Contes a Ninon_, in which kind he long afterwards showed undiminished powers. And he continued this practice at intervals for a great number of years, with results collected, after the first set, in _Nouveaux Contes a Ninon_, and in volumes taking their general titles from special tales--_Le Capitaine Burle_ and _Nais Micoulin_. In 1880 he gave the first story, _L'Attaque du Moulin_, to that most remarkable Naturalist "symposium," _Les Soirees de Medan_, which, if nothing of it survived but that story itself and Maupassant's _Boule de Suif_, and if this represented the sole extant work of the School, would certainly induce the fortieth century to think that School one of the very best in fiction, and to utter the most pathetic wails over the loss of the rest of its production. Of _Boule de Suif_--in more senses than one the feminine of the pair--more presently. But _L'Attaque_ itself is a splendid and masculine success--the best thing by far, in respect of flawlessness, that its author ever did, and

not far below Merimee's _Prise de la Redoute_.

Unfortunately it was not in these breaches that M. Zola chose to abide. After the war, having no doubt laid his plans long before, he undertook the vast Rougon-Macquart scheme with its score of volumes; and when this was finished, carried on two others, smaller in bulk but hardly less ambitious in scope, "Les Trois Villes"--_Lourdes_, _Paris_, _Rome_; and "Les Quatre Evangiles"--_Fecondite_, _Travail_, and _Verite_, the fourth of which was never written, while the third, _Verite_, appeared with a black line round its cover, denoting posthumous issue.

[Sidenote: "Les Rougon-Macquart."]

In all these books the Experimental and Documentary idea is worked out, with an important development in the other directions above glanced at. The whole of the Rougon-Macquart series was intended to picture the varying careers of the branches, legitimate and illegitimate, of two families, under the control of heredity, and the evolution of the cerebral lesion into various kinds of disease, fault, vice, crime, etc. But further scope was found for the use of the document, human and other, by allotment of the various books, both in this and in the later groups, to the special illustration of particular places, trades, professions, habits of life, and _quicquid agunt homines_ generally. The _super_-title of the first and largest series, "Les Rougon-Macquart: Histoire naturelle et sociale d'une famille sous le Second Empire," can hardly need comment or amplification to any intellect that is not hopelessly enslaved to the custom of having its meat not only killed, dressed, cooked, and dished, but cut up, salted, peppered, and put into its mouth with assiduous spoonings. _La Fortune des Rougon_, in the very year when Europe invited a _polemos aspondos_ by acquiescing in the seizure of Alsace-Lorraine, laid the foundation of the whole. _La Curee_ and _Son Excellence Eugene Rougon_ show how the more fortunate members of the clan prospered in the somewhat ignoble _tripotage_ of their time. Anybody could see the "power" of which the thing was "effect" (to borrow one half of a celebrated aphorism of Hobbes's); but it must have been

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