The Bright Side of Life by Emile Zola

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Translated by Andrew Rothwell

Reviewed by Harriet

Fans of Monty Python may have a bit of trouble with this title – I’ve had their iconic song stuck in my head for weeks. In French the novel was called La Joie de Vivre – the joy of life – and I’m not convinced that the new title is an improvement. Either way, many have taken the title to be ironic, a not unnatural supposition for a novel which contains more pain and anguish, both mental and physical, than anything else I can remember ever reading. But, as this new translation’s introduction points out, Zola did not mean it to be ironic. His purpose seems to have been to demonstrate that it is possible to remain cheerful and positive even in the face of some of the terrible things that life throws at you.

The person in whom this positive view is exemplified is Pauline Quenu, aged only ten when the novel begins. She’s an orphan who is sent to live with the Chanteaus, a family of relatives in the small village of Bonneville on the Normandy coast. The family is comfortable but far from wealthy, as M. Chanteau suffers terribly from gout and has had to give up his business. Pauline has a fair-sized inheritance, which Mme Chanteau promises to take good care of. She’s a happy, bright, trusting child and quickly develops a fondness for her new foster parents. Above all, though, she rapidly learns to love her teenage cousin Lazare, a love which will endure into her adult life. At the start of the novel Lazare has just finished college and ‘for the last eight months had been roaming the cliffs, unable to settle on a profession, passionate about music’. His parents hope he will settle to something soon, but Lazare is never going to stick to anything in life. Though sensitive and intelligent, he’s easily bored, terminally pessimistic, neurotic and unstable. 

The Chanteaus have been counting on Lazare finding a good job so that their small income can be increased. When this doesn’t appear to be happening, Mme Chanteau starts to ask Pauline for initially small amounts of financial support. The girl is cheerfully willing to help, and soon is parting with large sums to sustain whatever new idea Lazare has become temporarily infatuated with – a factory for processing seaweed into useful chemicals, a scheme to hold back the violent damage created by the sea during winter storms – all of which result in large financial losses. Pauline is saddened by Lazare’s moodiness and pessimism, but continues to love and support him, both emotionally and financially.

As Pauline reaches puberty, her relationship with Lazare deepens, and the family suggest that the two of them should marry when she reaches eighteen. But then into the household comes another cousin, pretty Louise, who stays with them for protracted times. She is foolish and naïve, and despite her virginal innocence is quick to respond to Lazare’s passionate love-making, something that Pauline is made deeply unhappy about when she discovers it. Mme Chanteau encourages Louise to respond to Lazare – Louise has a very large inheritance, and Pauline’s money has by now dwindled considerably. When Louise returns home, Lazare pines for her dreadfully, and Pauline unselfishly arranges for her return and suggests the young couple should marry. This they do, but the marriage is not a success, and Lazare realises that it was Pauline all along who he should have married.

La Joie de Vivre has never been among Zola’s most popular novels, especially in its English translation. In the Translator’s Note to this new World Classics edition, Andrew Rothwell explains why. Until now the only English version available has been that of Vizetelly, first published in 1886 and a travesty of the original. In order to make the novel suitable for Victorian readers, the translator suppressed all the material that makes the book so fascinating and powerful:

Suppressed or sanitized elements include references to sexual desire, reproduction (including Minouche the cat’s amours), Pauline’s self-instruction about anatomy from the engravings in Lazare’s medical books, nudity and bodily functions (especially puberty and menstruation), undressing and female undergarments, references to the human body as a machine, and the sexual transgressions of the inhabitants of Bonneville.

As a result, the novel lost its force and indeed almost ceased to make sense. In its original version, available for the first time, it is a startling read. Pauline’s physical development into puberty is described in great detail, including her pride in her first period. Sexual desire is fully developed, including an astonishingly powerful episode between the married Lazare and the virtuous but equally passionate Pauline. Vizetelly also removed all the descriptions of physical suffering, of which there are many: Chanteau’s agonies from his gout, Mme Chanteau’s dreadful death from dropsy, Pauline’s almost terminal suffering from a severe throat infection, and most distressing of all, Louise’s appalling experience of childbirth. These do not make easy reading, but once read are not easily forgotten.

All in all this is a remarkable picture of bourgeois French life in the late nineteenth century, and one that seems wholly credible and authentic. The descriptions of the environment, and in particular the terrible power of the sea, are extraordinary – indeed, in its destructive force the sea seems to offer a parallel to the consuming physical passions which overwhelm the characters. Lazare, his keen intelligence coupled with an inability to sustain his enthusiasm for any project, is simultaneously sympathetic and infuriating. But above all, at the centre of the novel, is Pauline. In less able hands she could be an irritatingly virtuous Victorian heroine, but she’s far from that. Intelligent, generous and loving, she is also immensely human, and admirably proud of her strong young body and its capacity for love and for childbirth. Well aware of the failings of her adopted family, she forgives and nurtures them in their pain and distress. All credit to World’s Classics for making this new version available. Highly recommended.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Emile Zola, The Bright Side of Life, trans. Andrew Rothwell (Oxford University Press, 2018). 978-0198753612, 322pp., paperback.

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