Émile Zola

I think Émile Zola wrote the Rougon-Macquart novel cycle in order, basically, to show off.


One way to collect the novels

I haven’t read everything that Zola wrote, but I have read this amazing novel sequence and it was one of my most enjoyable reading projects ever.  To be honest, I was a bit depressed when I finished and I put off reading the last book for several months after I’d finally bought it to delay the inevitable. Seven years, 2o novels, what felt like hundreds of trips to random second hand book shops and now I’d never be able to read a new Rougon-Macquart book ever again.


My own set – collected with love (including duplicates for when I couldn’t decide which edition I liked more)

All 20 novels are set within the 18 year period of the 2nd empire. This may seem like a minor blip in French history, but Zola treats it as a case study for understanding humanity.  Within the 20 novel cycle he explored the major industrial and social phenomena of the time.  The novels also follow (and prove) Zola’s theories of inheritance and genetics, and, less famously, demonstrate his ability to play with a huge number of literary forms, from journalism to the pastoral and from social criticism to mythical fantasy.

The books can be read in any order.  The general recommendation is to pick a theme that interests you (railways, departments stores, alcoholism) and then wait to see if you get hooked.  If you don’t you’ll probably have read a great novel and the majority of the books are pretty much stand-alone triumphs in their own right.  It is true, there are some less engaging books along the way, but the hit rate is impressive, and this was one of the most enjoyable read projects I’ve every undertaken.

Below is an image of Zola’s family tree, explaining all of the links between the characters.  Personally, I find it pretty difficult to decode, but it might work for you and I feel somewhat obliged to share in case it helps…


4 Responses to Émile Zola

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    Yes, me too, I read the whole cycle and felt the same way when I came to the end of it. In fact, I love Zola so much that although I reviewed all 20 on my blog, I found some fellow fans and started a collaborative blog which hosts not just reviews but all things Zola including book covers, translations and films as well. You might like to have a look, it’s at https://readingzola.wordpress.com/
    Oh, and I also enjoyed the quest to track down the books. Most of mine were new OUP Classics translations, but Oxford hasn’t got new translations of them all and so I read some old Vizetelly translations on kindle, and others that I found in a local secondhand shop and some that I had to order from overseas…

    • You’re bringing that epic book quest back to me! I’m delighted to see you’ve also got a Comedie Humaine site too (there’s a link on readingzola). That’s a future project for me and I hope to create my own mini Balzac library in the same painstaking and piecemeal way!

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