Being Interesting in America

Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings is a book I hesitated over. On the one hand, it had a telescopic view of life, with more than thirty years of sheer life squeezed into its pages – this is a feat I am rather in awe of, as I find it a challenge to skip even a couple of years in my writing. On the other hand, it had the potentially rather annoying elitist vibe of ‘the chosen ones’ that I so disliked in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.

But plunge in I finally did, and I gradually warmed to it. It’s the story of six teenagers who meet at an expensive camp for ‘artistic’ kids, who try desperately hard to be cool, to stay interesting and to follow their dreams in NYC. As we follow them over the years, we see of course that they’ve had to abandon their dreams (in some cases), that they meander down the wrong paths, take many a false turn, but in the end, most of them find their way back. Only three of the six are fully developed: geeky, talented animator Ethan, golden girl from a rich family Ash and the ‘gatecrasher’ Julie, an awkward girl from the wrong side of the tracks, who desperately wants to fit in with this privileged crowd. The other three are viewed mainly through the others’ eyes: Goodman, Ash’s brother, the charismatic leader of the pack, until his life goes badly off the rails; Cathy the dancer with the far too womanly body; and Jonah, the famous folk singer’s son, who remains friends with the main triumvirate but abandons his music. Jonah does get his own chapters and the readers has some insights into his way of thinking, but somehow he never becomes quite as alive as the first three, although in many ways he is a more tragic character than any of them.

For about the first quarter of the book, I found the privileged characters and their hangers-on pretentious and snobbish. I very nearly threw in the towel. As they grow older, however, we see the way life knocks their stuffing out of them and how they persevere, regardless, how they still support each other even though they may have grown apart.

There are similarities to Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, but luckily without the extremely harrowing scenes which appeared fairly regularly in that book. The friends may have subtle (or not so subtle) rivalries, may vie for attention or affection, may silently undermine each other, may feel envious of the success and money that the others have, but overall they remain supportive and invested in each other.

Ultimately, I read on, not because the Interestings themselves were so interesting, but for the observation skills of the author. This is not quite the major disappointment and death of ambition of Richard Yates: the character’s lives are full of successes as well as disappointments. The author is great at capturing those shades of envy that can creep into even the closest of friendships, and there are astute observations throughout about men and women, what makes marriages work , about growing older and abandoning your dreams (or adjusting your dreams and becoming more realistic). I enjoyed the last quarter of the book far more, especially when they try to recapture some of the magic of youth and realise that it never works. I would have liked perhaps more critique or more satire of a society that, for all of its supposed opportunities for all, is far more class-conscious than it likes to believe.

Here are some quotes that I enjoyed:

I know we live in a very sexist world, and a lot of boys do nothing except get in trouble, until one day they grow up and dominate every aspect of society. But girls, at least while they’re still girls and perform well, seem to do everything better for a while. Seem to get the attention. I always did. (Ash)

… meeting in childhood can seem like it’s the best thing – everyone’s equal and you form bonds based only on how much you like each other. But later on, having met in childhood can turn out to have been the worst thing, because you and your friends might have nothing to say to each other anymore, except, “Wasn’t it funny that time in tenth grade when your parents came home and we were so wasted.” If you didn’t feel sentimental about the past, you wouldn’t keep it up. (Jules)

Novelist Meg Wolitzer at her home in New York, March 16, 2018. (An Rong Xu/The New York Times)

The camp would go on in its own fashion, and teenagers would continue to be shepherded through the gates, and then shepherded back out again at the end of the summer, weeping, stronger. They would blow glass and dance and sing for as long as they could, and then the ones who weren’t very good at it would likely stop doing it, or only keep doing it once in a while, and maybe only for themselves. The ones who kept up with it – or maybe the one who kept up with it – would be the exception. Exuberance burned away, and the small, hot glowing bulb of talent remained, and was raised high in the air to show the world.

#EU27Project: Belgium – Patrick Delperdange

When I went to Quais du Polar in Lyon in 2016, I was asking the booksellers what editions of Pascal Garnier and Jean-Claude Izzo they had (I was stocking up for my imminent departure from France). One of them told me: ‘If you like those writers, you might want to try this new novel by a Belgian author, Patrick Delperdange.’ It’s a sort of rural noir and its title indicates the bleakness of the subject matter: ‘If all the gods were to abandon us’.

Three years later, I finally read the book and it is indeed a very dark yet beguiling tale set in a tiny Belgian village close to the French border. There aren’t very many parts of Belgium that aren’t overpopulated, but this area seems to be remote and devoid of inhabitants. So much so that one of the main characters, a young girl Céline, escaping a violent relationship, walks down the road for miles without seeing another soul. She is somewhat relieved when she hitches a ride with a kindly but fairly taciturn old man Léopold, who offers her a place in his house overnight ‘if you don’t mind ghosts’.

Typical horror story trope, you might think, but in fact Léopold is a widower and the old farmhouse is still full of his wife’s presence. It is also rather primitive, without a proper bathroom, so Céline is grateful for his hospitality but also understandably eager to move on. She leaves the house to continue her solitary journey, but it starts snowing and she gets bitten by two fierce dogs and collapses in the snow. Luckily, Léopold finds her, brings her home and calls in a doctor to tend to her wounds. The dogs belong to Maurice, a bad-tempered local man, and when he finds out that one of his dogs has been wounded, he is furious.

The young girl and the old man start living together in his house, at least until she is able to walk without a crutch again,providing each other some much-needed comfort, without asking too many questions. But of course their situation gives rise to local gossip. One of the people who doesn’t know what to make of the stories is Josselin, Maurice’s younger brother. Regarded as somewhat simple-minded by his brother and by the village community, he is a bit creepy about women (and about Maurice’s former wife, who ran off with a waiter), but nevertheless an excellent observer of all the little human foibles.

The story is told in short chapters alternating between the points of view of Céline, Léopold and Josselin. None of them is quite what they appear to be at first sight, none of them are particularly likeable. They each have a darker back story and this meshing of stories is heightened by the closed-off, suspicious, very drab and grey community that they are living in. Things soon take a turn for the worse, and it does seem indeed as though there is no hope, no salvation, no well-disposed god for these three (very fallible, very pitiful) human beings.

There are indeed elements of Pascal Garnier here: eccentric, ambiguous characters (who turn out to be quite different than you might expect at first), the sombre atmosphere of storm clouds gathering and then the flashes of violence that seem to come out of nowhere, a sense of inexorable fate about the unfolding of the story. There are differences, however. Everything is told in the first person – and, although in many cases the protagonists are lying to themselves, that does make for a more personal and passionate take on things. The ending is also quite ambiguous, as if the author had decided that he wanted to offer a glimmer of hope to the readers after all.

Above all, it is a perfect portrayal of the flat, wooded Belgian countryside, which becomes another main character, without ever being described in great detail: neither beautiful nor ugly, neither welcoming nor hostile, a landscape that is only charming to visitors, a place that seems to promise sanctuary but ends up poisoning you. This is the landscape adjacent to the First World War battlefields, after all.

The book has not been translated into English, but I think it would certainly appeal to readers of Garnier. It would also make for a good film.

Rural America: Kent Haruf’s Plainsong

So many people have recommended Kent Haruf to me, for his pared down style and description of what one might call ‘heartland’ America in the fictional town of Holt in the prairies of East Colorado.

Holt County, the country all flat and sandy again, the stunted stands of trees at the isolated farmhouses, the gravel section roads running exactly north and south like lines drawn in a child’s picture book and the four-strand fences rimming the barrow ditches, and now there were cows with fresh calves in the pastures behind the barbed-wire fences and here and there a red mare with a new-foaled colt, and far away on the horizon to the south the low sandhills that looked as blue as plums.

I personally hate flat, wide-open country. It feels more suffocating to me than mountains, and it’s this suffocation in the small town in the middle of nowhere that Haruf captures so well in his trilogy. He also uses flat, plain, unadorned language which fits well with this landscape (and with the simple church music that the title Plainsong refers to).

I started with his first novel to be written in his distinctive utilitarian style (although he published a couple of novels before that with the same kind of setting). Plainsong describes the lives of several individuals and families in a small farming community: aging brother farmers, who understand each other almost without words; a pregnant teenager kicked out by her mother who is taken in by the old farmers although they don’t know much about women; young boys whose mother suffers from depression and leaves home, leaving them with their baffled schoolteacher dad; another schoolteacher who helps the pregnant girl, although her own father is proving a handful with his dementia.

The stories build up gradually, patiently, layer after layer, from small details, everyday observations and the different points of view. No insight into the characters’ inner feelings other than what they say or do. Yet by the end you feel you know them well.

At times the style can grate on you and feel drab and repetitive. To think that I was afraid my sentences were too long! Here is a typical one:

He went out into the hall again past the closed door and on into the bathroom and shaved and rinsed his face and went back to the bedroom at the front of the house whose high windows overlooked Railroad Street and brought out shirt and pants from the closet and laid them out on the bed and took off his robe and got dressed.

But the advantage with this minute observational style is that it keeps both the writer and the reader at arm’s length, prevents the story from descending into melodrama and sentimentality. There are plenty of elements here that could have veered into cliche territory in the hands of another writer. Here, it feels like a universal and timeless story. Or at least, a universal story for the American rural community, that ferocious mix of cruelty and kindness, of stubbornness and innocence. Life is hard, unsparing for pretty much everyone, but it is what it is. And those patient, uncomplaining people make the best of it. It’s the small examples of humanity and the survival instinct of the pioneers who headed west that inspire Haruf’s work, although a few of his characters fall by the wayside.

There are also moments of almost reluctantly poetic descriptions too, but nothing is overdone:

The empty house… The broken –down neglected locust trees, shaggy barked, the overgrown yard, the dead sunflowers grown up everywhere with their heads loaded and drooping, everything dry and brown now in the late fall, dust-coated, and the sunken house itself diminished and weathered.

I have a sneaking suspicion that if I read more of Kent Haruf, I will feel that his trilogy could be the quintessential Great American Novel.

Women Misbehaving: Novels by Jane Bowles and Laura Kasischke

This June is American author month for me and I started off with two unusual and insufficiently known American women. I braced myself for poetic, unusual, eccentric and they did not disappoint! Jane Bowles’ Two Serious Ladies was published in 1943 and was her only novel. Laura Kasischke is better known as a poet (I’ve had the pleasure to attend one of her master classes), but has also written several unsettling, hypnotic novels. I was a particular fan of Mind of Winter, but this time I read Be Mine, published in 2007.

Both books are about middle-aged women (I suppose back in the 1940s the mid-thirties were perceived as middle-aged) trying to recapture (or perhaps even capture for the first time) that elusive sense of happiness. And the way they choose to do so may be quite disturbing to the regular, sane reader, namely by plunging into some rather reckless adventures.

Jane Bowles led a very colourful life herself, but her two ‘matrons’, Miss Goering and Mrs Copperfield, don’t at the outset of the novel. Miss Goering has flaming red hair and a grumpy disposition, never caring about pleasing others.

I wanted to be a religious leader when I was young and now I just reside in my house and try not to be too unhappy.

She is a wealthy spinster and at first people expect her to be easy to manipulate. Certainly Miss Gamelon thinks so,appearing on her doorstep one day and asking to be her companion. She then meets the hapless Arnold at a party (and later, his father) and they all move in with her, but then she decides to sell her luxurious home in New York and moves to a shabbier house on Staten Island. Even that doesn’t seem to satisfy her desire for bizarre and tawdry adventures, so she keeps taking the ferry back to town and getting involved with shady characters. Meanwhile, Mrs Copperfield goes on a trip with her husband to Panama but abandons him to move into the seedy Hotel de Las Palmas in Colon, run by the disillusioned yet ever-hopeful Mrs Quill and falling under the spell of teenage prostitute Pacifica. Both women have numerous entanglements from which they emerge wiser and somehow braver. As Mrs Copperfield says:

I have gone to pieces, which is a thing I have wanted to do for years … but I have my happiness, which I guard like a wolf, and I have authority now and a certain amount of daring which, if you remember correctly, I never had before.

The book is almost entirely made up of dialogue; the conversation seems reckless and strange, constantly provoking you to think, retort, defend yourself, certainly not the kind of dialogue you expect to strike up with strangers. The author is also unapologetic about not giving us too many reasons for why the characters are behaving the way they are, beyond what they tell others. There is no extensive introspection here and a certain ‘don’t care if you like me or not’ attitude which is funny and refreshing. There is also no neat resolution or sense of an ending: the women have had their adventure, they are somewhat smarting from their experiences (not all of which have been pleasant). ‘Hope… had discarded a childish form forever.’ And yet they move forward, as if everything is ‘of no great importance.’

Laura Kasischke’s Sherry is less unrepentant, and less able to move on and shake off her experiences at the end of her novel. In the beginning, she appears to have a solid, happy life: a respected lecturer at her local community college, living just outside town in a nice big house with her devoted husband Jon, her only son Chad having just left for college on the West Coast. However, no life is quite as perfect as it looks on the surface. She has few real friends. Her father is in a nursing home, suffering from dementia. She experiences a bit of a midlife crisis, empty nest syndrome, her marital sex life has got a little too tame, she wants to still feel desirable and mysterious… and so, when she receives an anonymous Valentine in her locker at work with the message Be Mine, she is intrigued and excited. But then she thinks she has guessed who the sender is, finds her husband oddly turned on by the thought of her having a secret admirer and so begins a descent into a very dangerous erotic game.

Billed as an erotic thriller, it is in fact very much a poet’s introspective coming to terms with aging and with what Sherry calls ‘planned obsolescence’, as she no longer feels useful or necessary to her son:

All those years feeding and rocking him, and the birthday parties – the cakes and the candles added one by one until the surface of the whole thing danced with flames – driving him to track meets, band practice, soccer, I was driving him all those years into adulthood. Oblivion. Into my own obsolescence.

She alternates between flirtatious moments, when she thinks she might be the kind of woman ‘a man might fall in love with from a distance’ to moments of stark recoil in front of the mirror: ‘I have built my house on sand… Where have I gone?’ She spends the rest of the novel searching for herself – and in the process messing everyone else’s life.

The French cover, Kasischke being quite popular in France.

Although the ending fell a little too neatly into the thriller genre, the journey to get there was filled with terrifyingly relatable moments to perimenopausal women everywhere, while at the same time hoping that we would never make such disastrous choices.

As American writers go, perhaps neither of the two are fully representative. They are elusive, allusive, telling things slant, comfortable with ambiguity, and therefore I can imagine both of them being more popular in Europe. Or maybe they simply are representative of a more universal ‘women’s literature’ and ‘women’s sensibilities’, if there is such a thing.

#EU27Project: Greece

Although there have been moments over the past 3-4 years when I thought I would never want to hear about or see Greece again, it is in fact a place that is very special to me and my family. My children are half-Greek, I’ve spent lots of holidays in Greece, I learnt to speak (and read a little) Greek and of course when I fell in love with a Greek back at university, I went through a period of intense study of Greek history and literature.

Constantine Cavafy soon became one of my favourite poets: his sensual descriptions of night-time encounters in the fascinating melting-pot of cultures that is the city of Alexandria are soooo me (which is probably why I loved The Alexandria Quartet so much in my teens). I have about 4-5 different translations of Cavafy’s poems in English, so you can imagine that when I heard about this novel that reimagines a key moment in Cavafy’s life, I had to get it.

Ersi Sotiropoulos is a very prolific, award-winning writer in Greece, but not much of her work has been translated into English as far as I can tell. What’s Left of the Night may be about to change her reputation abroad: it was translated into French and won the 2017 Prix Méditerranée Étranger, and in 2018 the English translation by Karen Emmerich (published by New Vessel Press) was talked about and reviewed quite a bit.

It is 1897 and Cavafy is in Paris, the last stop on the European tour he has embarked upon with his brother. He is a clerk in the Ministry of Public Works in Alexandria, the city that he considers home, although the family has also lived for a while in Constantinople and (surprisingly and far less romantically) in Liverpool. He has published some poems by that point, but largely for close friends – but his best known poems are still to come, and in fact most of his reputation was posthumous, as he was not following the current ‘fashion’ in poetry.

So the novel traces his possible sources of inspiration: Ancient Greek history, erotic desires for men (about which he feels somewhat conflicted still), feeling suffocated by his family and by society. We see Cavafy’s obsession with finding the perfect line or the right word – he was a skilled craftsman and a perfectionist, and had a rather unique use of the Greek language that perhaps only someone brought up abroad could have. This makes him fiendishly difficult to translate, but in this novel Sotiropoulos tries to capture some of the feel, the rhythm, the sensibilities of the poet… and succeeds most of the time.

I’m not quite sure if it is historically accurate to say that this trip to Paris marked a turning point in Cavafy’s writing, but that turning point undeniably did occur at some time:

The great need for rupture in his poetry he had felt so strongly in recent months, the reckless urge to break the rules… to share free of lyricism and elegance, to banish all influences from other poets and movements, to become a movement of his own, may in the end have reflected a need for rupture in his life… How could someone who lived a conventional, conservative, medocre life write important peotry? How could he speak of great passions, heroic ages?

Photo of Cavafy, from the Hellenic Foundation for Culture.

In Alexandria he felt mediocre, a failure. He may have admired Baudelaire and Oscar Wilde, but he did not want to write like them. In Paris, he hoped that he would feel closer to the artistic pulse of the ‘fin de siecle’, but everywhere he goes, he carries the the curse of the city, that lazy, dirty, inadequate city with him, as he says in one of his most famous poems. He cannot leave behind his prejudices, his impatience, his dark and selfish impulses. This is no hero-worship of Cavafy we find in this book, but an acknowledgment that, while the poetic process remains mysterious and unfathomable, it is all about transformation. Taking sorrow, shame, anger, fear of mediocrity and turning it into… complexity. And complexity is beautiful.

My First Dorothy Whipple #PersephoneReadathon

I am succumbing to the charm of the rediscovered women writers of Persephone Books publisher and bookshop. Last month I read Elisabeth De Waal’s The Exiles Return and this month I couldn’t resist reading another one so I could take part in the #PersephoneReadathon that I saw Jessie from the Dwell in Possibility blog is organising this year (for the third time, if I’m not mistaken).

I’d heard such good things about Dorothy Whipple, but I was warned that Someone at a Distance might be a hard read for me, given the breakdown of my own marriage. And it really was painful, because I couldn’t help comparing things with my own situation. I appreciated the observational skills and strong characterisations this author is capable of, but at the same time I was a little too judgemental of the characters.

This is the story of a happy family in the period following the Second World War. Rationing is still on, but easing a little, servants are hard to find, but the Norths, who live just outside London in a beautiful house and garden with stables for their daughter’s horse, seem to lead a charmed existence. Avery works in publishing and life has been easy for him. His father was rich and paved his way to a not entirely merited career path in publishing (his only skill being networking), his mother dotes on him, he has two charming and healthy children and his wife Ellen smoothes his everyday life and makes him the centre of her life and of the family. He does not seem to be a bad man, he really does love his wife and children, but his privilege makes him selfish and thoughtless. His wife, meanwhile, is aware of her privilege and considers herself lucky to have everyone back safe at home after the war.

She is so busy building the perfect home and family, she is so loving and trusting, that she fails to see the serpent sneaking into the garden of Eden, although she has the odd twinge or two of suspicion or dislike. The serpent comes in the shape of neat, well-dressed and coiffed Louise Lanier, daughter of a solid but unimaginative couple, bookshop owners (and pen repairers) in a small provincial town in France. Louise seeks to escape from the stifling boredom of her life and her failed romance with the local squire and takes up a position as ‘French conversation companion’ to the widowed Mrs North, Avery’s mother who constantly complains of neglect. Although she only stays there a short while (and does not impress the rest of the family), she is so good at winning the old lady’s affection that when the latter dies a short while later, she bequeathes a certain sum to Louise in her will. Louise decides to stay with the Norths, whose ‘mediocre’ happiness makes her slightly nauseous as well as envious, until she gets her hand on the money… but ends up getting her hand on much more than that.

Nicotiana plant

Her sly seduction of Avery is both funny and excruciating to read. Even her characteristic perfume is designed to provoke and ruin, reminiscent of the Nicotiana, the tobacco plant, ready to choke everyone with her poisonous fumes. She is an excellent (if cynical) judge of character and she instantly spots the chinks in her opponents’ armours.

Surely Ellen was a little too good to be true? A little too kind, trusting and happy? An example of the well-known English hypocrisy, she supposed. Either that, or Ellen was what she was because she had never had reason to be otherwise. She had everything: a handsome husband, money, children, a charming house… But… she managed her husband badly. Ellen was unselfish, so in consequence, he was not. Ellen took responsibility for everything in the house and evidently for the children too; so he did not. He took Ellen for granted and that was, Louise considered, Ellen’s own fault. She was altogether too open and simple.

Ouch! I certainly felt that dart! And sure enough, Avery finds himself attracted to the French girl, even as he laughs at some of her ridiculous posturing. But he is quick to blame his wife for it, for after all ‘she shouldn’t take it for granted that he was as safe as all that.’ He is full of self-justification, because he believes he is so in control of things. And although this is a story written in the 1950s, it is a timeless tale indeed:

It was a long time since he had felt so vividly alive. He didn’t mean to go far. He was giving way to an attraction, letting himselve be caught in a lazy, amused way. Although he felt mean to Ellen, he was allowing himself a bit of latitude. Surely after twenty years of fidelity a man… Well, anyway, what did it matter?

So the inevitable happens. Avery and Louise get caught in a compromising position on the living room sofa, by his wife and (even worse) his horrified daughter Anne. He flounces off like a spoilt toddler and announces he wants a divorce, although he manages to tell himself the story that he is forced to do so because his wife doesn’t want him back, he is humiliated in front of his children and he has to protect Louise’s honour. In other words, he manages to blame everybody but himself for his predicament and takes to drink.

Dorothy Whipple

However, for Ellen, the shock, though devastating, has a liberating effect as well. The scales have fallen from her eyes:

Men liked youth in women. They felt entitled to it… Unless you behave like the favourite of the harem, your husband goes off with a woman who does… Let him!.. Even if it had occurred to me to work at fascinating him, I couldn’t have done it. I treated him like a partner, someone as responsible as I am for our marriage, but he walks out half-way through as if it were no more than a film show he was tired of.

The conflicting emotions of an abandoned woman are so well described: the pride, the self-pity, the anger, the sadness, the concern for her children’s emotions, the feeling that her once beloved house is now dying, and, on occasion, passive resignation.

She wondered if she would ever be able to take pleasure in things for themselves. For twenty years she had evidently taken pleasure in things so that she could use them for her husband and children, pass them on to them in the way of beauty or food or comfort… Flowers, trees, the house, the garden, other people, everything had delighted her while she could look at them from the standpoint of personal happiness. Now they didn’t mean anything.

Nevertheless, she persists, she finds a solution, she encounters much gentleness and understanding from the people around her, while her ex-husband descends into a personal hell of his own making. If there was anything I disliked about this book, it was the rather unsatisfactory, almost fairytale resolution, with the baddies get their come-uppance. Louise’s complicated plan of revenge in her home town doesn’t quite work out, Avery is not happy with Louise and shows genuine remorse for what he has done, the children are entirely on their mother’s side and blame their father for everything, and yet Ellen might find it in her heart to forgive him at some point in the future…

I wanted to tell Ellen: ‘You’re better off without him!’ Perhaps it’s because my own experience has shown things to be far more complicated than that, and that the bad often does go unpunished and unrepentant. Yet I was sad to hear that this, Dorothy Whipple’s last novel, never received any reviews. It had become unfashionable for its time, I suppose.

My first but certainly not my last Dorothy Whipple. This has the potential to become one of my favourite Persephones, but yes, I will read more, more, more Persephone Books!

The Debacle of Zola’s Vision of the Paris Commune

Advertisement for the new novel by Zola.

So I finally finished Zola’s The Debacle and, while it was a fascinating, at times gruesome depiction of the Franco-Prussian War, it lacked substance when it came to the presentation of the Paris Commune. While it’s not fair to criticise the book for something that it’s not, I had picked it up in the expectation it might give me some new insight into the Commune, however brief its treatment of it.

Sadly, it does not.

The reason for that is probably because Zola himself (and his contemporaries) were not entirely sure what to make of the Commune. It had been brutally vanquished by the government, after all. There was no attempt at reconciliation, forgiveness or negotiation. Thousands were killed, many more sent into exile in a penitentiary colony. Its most visible supporters (like the painter Courbet) were imprisoned and then had to flee France to avoid having to pay off horrendous debts to the state for the destruction of property.

Those months of self-governance were presented in the newspapers and popular culture of the time as destructive, indiscriminate, incoherent, rudderless. Now, Zola is not one to shy away from controversy (remember the Dreyfus Affair?), but he was clearly influenced by the flood of published literature in the 1870s condemning the whole movement. While similar, on the whole, to the critical stance of most of his liberal republican contemporaries (disenchanted with the Second Empire and the Franco-Prussian War and attributing the outbreak of the rebellion to the poor handling of that), Zola’s views on the uprising were slightly more compassionate than most, calling on the National Assembly to listen to the ‘legitimate grievances’ of the Commune. Following the suppression of the rebellion, however, Zola is conspicuously silent about the government-sanctioned blood-bath. Perhaps he felt that the French were a little too prone to be swept away by revolutionary fervour, without thinking about the consequences.

Caricature of Zola, suggesting he uses the most disgusting things to ‘cook up’ something.

His ambivalence about the Commune has been noted by historians: he wrote some negative chronicles in the newspapers of the time, and there is one letter dated 22nd May, 1871, addressed to the newspaper La Semaphore in Marseille, in which he makes fun of the Communard desire to recognise all children born out of wedlock and to do away with titles of nobility:

The farce is now over and the clowns will be arrested. Rochefort is already in chains and surely the others will follow shortly. The cannon is booming, these are the last horrors and last remnants of the civil war.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that in The Debacle, Maurice, the idealist who had been so keen to fight against the Prussians at the start of the novel, is the one who is indoctrinated with revolutionary ideals, while practical, down-to-earth Jean remains in the army. Of course, Jean is horrified by the disproportionate revenge he sees the army exacting upon the Communards and, in a fine piece of melodrama (spoilers ahead), he is the one who pierces Maurice with a bayonet before realising just whom he is killing. Maurice is ravaged by fever and keeps repeating that Paris is burning, that the only way to purify the city is by having it burn to the ground. But the purification does not come from the rebels themselves. What Maurice says in his delirium (but which probably reflects the author’s views) is:

This is the sane and reasonable part of France, the measured, sensible peasant part of France, which has stayed closer to the land, defeating the mad, exasperated side, spoilt by the Empire, irredeemably broken by dreams and pleasures. It had to be done: cutting into the very flesh… The bloodbath was necessary, the loss of French blood, this abominable holocaust, this living sacrifice, to be purified by fire.

The wall at Pere Lachaise cemetary where at least 150 were shot in the last couple of days in May 1871 (an estimated total of 20,000 men, women and children died during the Bloody Week – or Fortnight – in May).

This is repeated in the final chapter of the book, Zola’s belief that the birth of a new nation and an improved form of republic can come out of all that suffering. The novel ends on a tiny note of hope, with Jean and Henriette looking forward to the reconstruction of the city and, indeed, all of France ‘… like a tree bringing forth a new, powerful shoot, after cutting off the putrid branch whose poisoned sap had turned the leaves yellow.’

The Siege of Paris and the Commune are despatched hurriedly in a few short chapters (comprising only about the last 10% of the book) and is perhaps less interesting (and more ambivalent) than what we encounter on our journey there. The chapters following the fall of Sedan, when Jean and Maurice are made prisoners of war by the Prussians, are particularly grim. The appalling conditions in the prison camps, the dead bodies (of both men and horses) floating in the Meuse river, the desperate attempts to slaughter and eat horses are images that were almost unbearable to read and will stay with me forever. Not a trace of sugarcoating from Zola, pure condemnation of violence and war at its nastiest and messiest.

Almost at the opposite end of the spectrum, there are some lighter moments, almost comic relief with the self-centred and vain Gilberte, wife of the local merchant and Henriette’s friend. But this is a far cry from the comedy of manners or social critique that Zola incorporated in his other novels (and in his literary ideal of realism). This is almost photographic realism, forcing the reader to look at the terrible consequences of nationalism, pride, revenge and the futile hunt for glory.

I am glad that I read this novel, it is certainly unforgettable, but I do wish I had spent more time on the Vautrin book for a fuller (and more sympathetic) Commune experience.