I used this year's readalong to go back to the very beginning of the Rougon-Macquart series, a little worried that reading out of order might muck up the flow of the stories. However, reading part of Brian Nelson's Introduction before beginning, set my mind at ease,
the very nature of The Fortune of the Rougons as the founding text of the Rougon-Macquart series means that a knowledge of the later novels will make it all the more rewarding to return to the 'origins'.
I say 'part of' the Introduction, as Nelson warned that 'readers who do not wish to learn details of the plot will prefer to read the Introduction as an Afterword'. Because I knew very little about the Second Empire era of French history, I read the Introduction carefully for the historical notes, leaving the plot discussion for later.
Zola's aim was to show one family and it's various members through the time of the Second Empire. 'though they may seem at first glance totally dissimilar from each other, (they) are, as analysis shows, linked together in the most profound way. Heredity, like gravity, has its laws.' (Preface)
I can now never know what it would be like to read this origin story without some knowledge of the later novels, but exactly as Nelson suggested, I found it extremely gratifying to see where the unforgettable Nana and Etienne had sprung from.
My Oxford World Classic edition of The Fortune of the Rougons has a fabulous family tree at the front which I referred to often. Nelson also listed which characters appear in which book. I was fascinated to see that Anna (Nana) and Etienne (Germinal) were half brother and sister and that their grandfather was the drunken, brutish, undisciplined Antoine. Their mother was the beaten and abused daughter, Gervaise (L'Assommoir) who had her first baby at fourteen. She also took to the bottle.
However the story actually begins with a potted tour of the fictional town of Plassans (which was based on Zola's Provençal childhood home of Aix). This area of rural France maintained the strongest republican resistance against Louis-Napoleon's 1851 coup.
Young Silvère (cousin to Gervaise) is in love with the even younger Miette. Their love is platonic and idyllic in nature while their passions are fired up in defence of the Republic. They get caught up in the insurgent's march for liberty and head off together singing the Marseillaise.
The middle chapters of the book then detail the family history of the Rougon's - starting with the mad matriarch - the sensual, scandalous Adélaïde. Zola eventually weaves his way through the various branches of the Rougon's and Macquart's, back to modern times and the role each member plays in the birth of the Second Empire.
He (Pascal) pondered over the growth of the family, with its different branches springing from one parent stock, whose sap carried the same seeds to the furthest twigs, which bent in different directions according to the ambient sunshine or shade. For a moment he thought he could see, in a flash, the future of the Rougon-Macquart family, a pack of wild, satiated appetites in the midst of a blaze of gold and blood.
This includes a hauntingly beautiful chapter about what befalls our two young idealistic lovers, Silvère and Miette.
If you have yet to embark on your own Zoladdiction journey, I urge you to get started as soon as possible. Although I didn't start with The Fortune of the Rougons, I wish I had, purely for the pleasure of starting where it all began.
Zola's writing is quite raw and angry compared to the more measured tones that I found in Nana and Germinal, but right from this beginning, he impresses with his descriptive power, his attention to all the sordid details and his commitment to the naturalist form of story telling.
Now I just have to decide whether I read the rest of the Rougon-Macquart series in chronological order, or in Zola's recommended reading order!
O @Behold the Stars has her review here.