A Love Story by Émile Zola

Translated by Helen Constantine

Reviewed by Harriet

Here at Shiny we’ve reviewed several of the new Oxford World Classics editions of the novels of Émile Zola: Money, Earth and The Conquest of Plassans. All three form part of the twenty-one volumes of what is known as the Rougon-Macquart series, published between 1871 and 1893. A Love Story (Une page d’Amour), the eighth in the series, appeared in 1878. Zola’s purpose in the series was to show the effects of heredity and environment on the development of members of a family in which respectable bourgeois hard-workers, the Rougons, intermarry with dissolute ne’er-do-wells, the Macquarts. Many of the novels show the results of this in violent and disturbing ways, and shocked Zola’s early readers by their depictions of vice and sexuality. You won’t find much of what Victoria, in a BookBuzz article, called ‘racy and sordid’ in A Love Story, but the theme of heredity is still present: the child protagonist, Jeanne, has inherited her mental instability from her mentally-disturbed grandmother Aunt Dide.

Interesting though all this is, you don’t need to have read any of the previous novels to enjoy this one, which is in any case different in its themes and approaches from the rest of the series. It tells the story of a young widow, Hélène Grandjean, who has moved from Marseilles to an apartment in Plassy, a Paris suburb, with her nervous, delicate eleven-year-old daughter Jeanne. Widowed for eighteen months, Hélène has been living a quiet life, taking care of Jeanne and attended by her loyal maid Rosalie. Her only social event has been her weekly dinner with her husband’s friends, Abbé Jouve and his brother, the rather dull middle-aged businessman Rambeau. All this is about to change, though, as the novel starts with Jeanne suffering a serious seizure, from which she is saved by Dr Henri Deberle, who lives next door. When Hélène goes to thank him for his help, she meets his lively young wife Juliette, who quickly draws her into her social circle. Meanwhile, Abbé Jouve suggests to her that she should visit an impoverished woman, one of his parishoners, known as Mother Fétu, who lives in a squalid hovel nearby. While there, she meets Deberle, and the two become increasingly attracted to each other. Eventually, during a chidren’s party at the Deberles, the doctor declares his love for her. She’s confused at first, realising she’s falling in love with him, and tries to resist, until another of Jeanne’s serious attacks brings them into daily contact. When Jeanne finally recovers, Hélène declares her love for the doctor, and finally, finding themselves alone together through a series of circumstances, they make passionate love. But Jeanne has intuited her mother’s attachment to the doctor, and deliberately makes herself gravely ill again, and, let’s just say, things do not end well.

So, I’d say the title of the novel is somewhat ironic. Hélène and Deberle certainly fall in something, but is it love? A powerful physical attraction seems to play a large part in it. As Hélène is starting to have feelings for the doctor, she realises that she never really loved her rather dull husband, and when the Abbé tells her that his brother wants to marry her, she’s appalled: ‘the idea that he loved her makes her freeze’. She’s certainly ready for a more fulfilling relationship. But she tries initially to fight her feelings for Deberle, turning instead to religious devotion. She feels confused and out of her depth in the social circle of the doctor’s wife Juliette, who, she discovers, is engaged in a an intense flirtation with their friend Malignon, who is clearly a womaniser. And Juliette is not alone in toying with ideas of adultery, as Hélène discovers through the conversations of the fashionable women who attend Juliette’s parties: in this circle, it seems that having a lover, ‘cheerful, insouciant adultery’, is the acceptable norm. Hélène’s provincial values are shaken and shocked by all this, making it all the more painful and problematic to find herself so deeply engaged with Deberle. But when she finally gives herself to him, the experience is overwhelmingly powerful:

They were far from the world, a thousand leagues away from the earth. And this forgetfulness of the bonds that attached them to beings and things was so absolute they seemed to have been born there at that moment and would die there in a little while when they took each other in their arms.

At the end of the novel, though, she has repudiated all the feelings she has for the doctor and returned to her state of what we might call denial: ‘she became calm again, without desire, without curiosity, continuing slowly forward on the dead straight path’.

We should also not forget the part Jeanne plays in all this. Her attachment to her mother is almost alarmingly intense. Hélène is all in all to her, as her delicate health has prevented her going to school or forming a circle of friends. It’s clear that she’s hovering on the brink of adolescence, and her awakening sexuality makes her especially sensitive to the growing passion between her mother and the doctor. Seeing Deberle as a rival for her mother’s love, she turns against them both and seeks refuge in the uncomplicated affection of the Abbé’s brother Rambeau. And, although Jeanne obviously does have severe health problems – she’s almost certainly tubercular, though this is never spelled out, and presumably epileptic too  – there’s a powerful psychosomatic component there too, and she seems to will herself into what ultimately will be her final illness.

There’s so much to love and admire about this novel, which has rarely appeared in an English translation (the last one was 1957). Another remarkable feature is the extended descriptions of the landscape of Paris as it appears from Hélène’s suburban balcony. Equivalent to the cityscapes produced by Zola’s contemporaries the Impressionists, they act as introductions to the four parts of the novel, each one evoking a different mood of the city to reflect the changing emotional states of the protagonists: sunrise at the start, as Hélène’s feelings awake; brilliant light as she is drawn into passion; a tremendous storm for the consummation scene; and cold snow at the end to echo her sad future. This would be a great novel for an intelligent book group as there so much to discuss.

Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Émile Zola, A Love Story, trans. Helen Constantine (Oxford University Press, 2017). 978-0198728641, 304pp., paperback original.

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