Earth by Émile Zola

Reviewed by Hayley Anderton

earthRegular readers of my blog might remember that I set myself the task of reading through Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series a couple of years ago.  Earth is the fifteenth book in the series and the fifth that I’ve read, I had started roughly in order of publication, which if you follow it through until the end is not the same as the order Zola recommended for reading. Nor are there current translations for all of the cycle, so when Shiny New Books asked me if I’d like to read this new edition of Earth it was the excuse I needed to stop fretting over what order they should be in and just get in with it.

As it turns out Earth works as a stand alone title anyway, the hero (for want of a better word) is Jean Macquart, now a long way from Plassons where the cycle starts, and sick both of his original trade as a carpenter, and of his later career as a soldier. He has turned to the land and life as an itinerant labourer for peace, and initially he finds it – but this being Zola it doesn’t seem destined to last.

Until now I had wondered why Henry Vizetelly had got into such trouble for translating Zola. Even for the 1880s, the previous four I’d read seemed mild enough, but I can quite understand why Earth landed him in court, got him fined, and eventually led to a prison sentence. Thanks to Brian Nelson and Julie Rose’s translation it’s still a shocking book (what, I wonder, happened to Zola in the countryside?). No episode of casual fornication, rape, domestic violence, murder, drunkenness, incest, or general cruelty is overlooked. Nor does Zola shy away from self mutilation, abortion, birth control, jokes about farts, indecent exposure, godlessness, descriptions of exactly what effect too many grapes are likely to have on the bowels, or any of the less picturesque features of the farmyard. People literally end up thigh deep in shit (for agricultural purposes) as well as metaphorically, and whilst none of this should deter the would be reader it does make it a deliberately challenging book to read. Everything is so grim. All of the time (that was not an exhaustive list).

For Zola the peasants seem to be more beastly than the beasts of the field; he finally describes them as …’the stinking bloodthirsty peasants, vermin who disgrace and exploit the earth.’ And the reason for all this brutality? It’s two fold; first an inheritance system that demands the land is divided equally between all the children in a family, leading to increasingly small plots to try and scratch a living from, and secondly an increasing tension between the needs of town and country.

Working the land is becoming increasingly unprofitable, cheap imported wheat is driving prices below the cost of production for French farmers. Industry demands cheap bread to feed the factory workers and urban poor – will it be protectionism or free trade? That’s a debate as current today as it was in the 1880s.

Here then we have Papa Fouan no longer able to physically manage his few acres but reluctant to give up his hold on them. When he does finally decide to subdivide the land between his 3 children all that he fears essentially comes to pass. Without that land he’s simply a burden to his children who no longer respect him and whilst the elder 2 are feckless and cold in turn it’s the youngest son, with whom owning the land is an obsession, who really drives the novel (the only commandment he doesn’t break is the one about graven images – unless you count money, or I missed something).

The relentless repetition of violent acts, sexual encounters, back breaking hard work, and fart jokes  doesn’t make this the easiest book to read, but in the end it is rewarding. It’s a testament to Zola’s skill that however brutalised I felt I was becoming as a reader he still managed to shock me again and again. His vision of peasant life is maybe too nightmarish to be entirely convincing, and that’s just as well – this isn’t a world you’d really want to believe in, but it’s close enough to be profoundly unnerving. It’s also made me wonder what else Zola has up his sleeve as nothing so far had prepared me for Earth.

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Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader

Émile Zola, Earth (Oxford University Press, 2016). 978-0199677870, 433pp, paperback

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