Listen to, and read a transcript of an interview from Nicola Barranger for Oxford World’s Classics with Valerie Minogue, translator of Money by Émile Zola, part of the Rougon-Macquart cycle. In the interview, she introduces the Rougon-Macquart, Zola’s epic cycle of twenty novels.
Nicola Barranger: Why did Zola write the Rougon-Macquart series?
Valerie Minogue: Zola’s intention really was to do something like Balzac had done in ‘La Comédie humaine’. While Balzac had taken a sort of horizontal view of French society, and given a very broad panorama of that society, whereas Zola wanted to do it – if you like – in vertical terms going from one generation to another. Above all because he was tremendously interested in the effects of heredity, race, environment and moment in time. So you see history playing a large part in it and indeed historical events playing a large part and heredity yes, but you also see that heredity can also produce very different results
NB: There is a huge cast of characters for these twenty novels
VM: Huge, yes
NB: Was it always his intention to write quite so many novels when he started?
VM: I think he started off thinking that he would write about ten, but then the whole thing grew, and grew, and grew so he ended up with twenty novels. The reason why it is Les Rougon-Macquart is that there are two sides of this family. This is very much relevant to the whole question of heredity because you have the Macquart which are the illegitimate side of the family, which are the mostly rather poor, working class and all that. Then you have on the other hand the Rougon, who are the go-getters, the ambitious, mostly middle class even ministerial as in Eugène Rougon. So you have quite a divide really, on the Macquart side you get people like Gervaise in L’Assommoir, the laundress, which is the most wonderful novel, which tells her very sad life. And again her daughter Nana
NB: The very famous novel Nana,
VM: Yes so, on the other hand the Rougon you have Saccard, Eugène Rougon and Pascal Rougon.
NB: Was there a feeling that the social ills of the period that Zola was writing about, should be studied as much as the scientists would study hereditary disease?
VM: Absolutely, and Zola’s view was that however disgusting or even obscene, you must look at it closely, describe it accurately. It was important as if you were a doctor investigating a disease and the growth of the disease and all the symptoms of the disease. And then if you showed that properly, his view was that if you managed to show this effectively then somebody would do something about it, I mean the government, the people, would create a sort of grand swell if you like, of feeling. And indeed and quite to some extent he succeeded in that.
Featured image credit: Arbre généalogique des Rougon-Macquart annoté by Émile Zola. CC0 Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.