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Desire & sexuality in the work of Émile Zola

The second series of the BBC Radio 4 dramatization of the novels of Émile Zola (Blood, Sex and Money) is just coming to a close. The central theme of the present series is Sex. Sex is all-pervasive in Zola. It encapsulates the themes of desire, pleasure, and perversion; and it is inseparable from Zola’s social themes.

Zola’s Naturalism (as he called his brand of realist fiction) entailed a new explicitness in the depiction of sexuality and the body.  Nana, for example, represented a drastic advance towards erotic verisimilitude. In the opening scene, Nana, the actress-prostitute, appears with progressively less clothing on the stage of a variety theatre that its director insists on calling a brothel. The power of her sexuality is such that she reduces her audience to a single mass of lusting, panting flesh. Nana’s first appearance as Venus prefigures her future as a “man-eater,” for after this performance she becomes the object of desire of every man in the audience. Nana devastates the lives of aristocrats, bankers, and government officials. She symbolizes Second Empire Paris itself—a society and a city crackling with desire, built on its urges and appetites. Counterparts of Nana in other novels, embodying different kinds of female desire, are Renée Saccard in The Kill, Clorinde Balbi in His Excellency Eugène Rougon, and even the demure Hélène Grandjean in A Love Episode. The power of sex in Nana reverses class hierarchies, converting the male oppressor into the oppressed. The possibility of class collaboration is explored in The Ladies’ Paradise, where Octave Mouret, the creator of the great modern department store, masterfully exploits the desires of his female customers—until he falls in love with Denise Baudu, the only one of his salesgirls who refuses to be commodified.

Nana assumes a mythic dimension, as her death is transformed into an almost hallucinatory picture of cultural collapse. Zola is playing on nineteenth-century male fears of the ‘natural’ woman, and in particular the possibility that prostitutes might transgress established social boundaries and infiltrate the bourgeoisie and upper class.  A similar vision of the breakdown of class hierarchies, though not expressed in the same apocalyptic vein, is to be found in Pot Luck, a kind of satirical Upstairs, Downstairs set in a new apartment building in Paris.  The bourgeois tenants wish to be seen as respectable citizens, with culture and education on their side: a superior class. They go to extreme lengths to maintain the segregation between themselves and the lower classes, whom they portray as dirty, immoral, promiscuous, stupid—at best a lesser type of human, at worst some kind of wild beast.  But the bourgeois are not what they seem. Class difference is merely a matter of money and power, and has a tenuous hold over the raging forces of sexuality and corruption beneath the surface.  The more searchingly Zola investigated the theme of middle-class adultery, the more he risked uncovering the arbitrariness and fragility of the whole social order.

In Pot Luck Zola ironically subverts the notion that bourgeois supremacy over the workers is a natural rather than a cultural phenomenon.  The conflict between nature and religious dogma is explored in The Sin of Father Mouret, where the graceful Albine echoes the innocent Miette in The Fortune of the Rougons and looks forward to the young Angélique in The Dream.

Blood, Sex and Money succeeds admirably in translating Zola’s fictional world into vivid radio drama, with Glenda Jackson superb as the 104-year-old narrator, Aunt Dide. By combining and juxtaposing different texts, the series brings out very clearly the thematic coherence of Zola’s work. Nearly all of Zola’s novels are now available, in actual translation, in the Oxford World’s Classics series. I would make two points about the challenges facing the translators. First, it is supremely important to capture the pungency and dynamism of Zola’s language: to produce English versions that are as vibrant as the originals, and which reproduce the rhythm and colour of his amazing descriptions, with their proliferating detail and brilliant use of poetic metaphor. These descriptions express the very meaning of Zola’s work. Second, there is the particular challenge, with regard to the language of sex, of rendering appropriately—without distortions of register, directly, idiomatically—his ground-breaking candour of expression.

Featured image credit: “Portrait of Émile Zola” by Édouard Manet. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Lisa Hill

    Let’s hope that the dramatisation succeeds in bringing new readers to Zola, because IMO there is no substitute for reading these novels. They are essential reading in the way that the novels of Dickens are…

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