It can be hard to know where to start with this cycle. I’d recommend you begin with a book that seems interesting and take it from there. The only reason for reading Les Fortunes des Rougon first is because you’re determined to do the whole thing. I love Zola, but this is not his best and it’s mostly a hell of a lot of set up and exposition.
To judge which books might take your fancy, look at the table below. I’ve tried to mostly avoid spoilers, but I’ve not been overly strict with myself because it’s hard to give a sense of some of the set pieces without giving a little away…
|Read if you’re interested in…|
|1||Les Fortunes des Rougon (The Fortunes of the Rougons) 1870||– Starting the cycle at the beginning.
– The formation of the 2nd empire (kind of)
|2||La Curee (The Kill) 1871||– Property speculation
– Baron Haussmann’s rebuild of Paris
– Incest and fantastic descriptions of corrupt opulence
|3||La Ventre de Paris (The Belly of Paris/ The Fat and the Thin/Savage Paris) 1873||– Les Halles, the massive central food market in Paris, newly housed during the 2nd empire
– Amazing descriptions of food. The book covers the fruit, charcuterie, fish, slaughter-house, cheese, flower and fruit stalls of the market all in luscious sensuous detail. Every chapter has a different setting and the descriptions of food permeate the novel.
|4||Le Conquête de Plassans (The Conquest of Plassans) 1874||– How much Zola hates priests
– Small-town politics (how to make friends and influence people)
|5||La Faute de L’Abbé Mouret (Father Mouret’s Transgression) 1875||– How much Zola hates organised religion
– Odd, mystic and surreal descriptions of mythical gardens
– SPOILER ALERT: Suicide by flowers, one of the best deaths in literature
|6||Son Excellence Eugene Rougon (His Excellency Eugéne Rougon/The Minister) 1976||– Power politics under Emperor Napoleon III|
|7||L’assomoir (The Drunkard/The Dram Shop) 1877||– Amazing descriptions of urban squalor, this essentially contains reportage of life on the poverty line in nineteenth century Paris
– Descriptions of lives being ruined
– People drinking themselves to death
|8||Une Page d’Amour (A Love Story/A Love episode) 1878||– Life at the time for the moderately well-off in the suburbs
– Zola doing romance
– Hysterical 19th century children
|9||Nana 1880||– Life as a 19th century actress
– Life as a 19th century courtesan
|10||Pot-bouille (Potboiler/ Restless House) 1882||– Middle-class hypocrisy
– Life and intrigue in a crowded apartment building
– Things not being unbearably tragic all the time
|11||Au Bonheur Des Dames (The Ladies’ Paradise) 1883||– Department shops (and the start of department stores in Paris)
– Good old-fashioned Cinderella stories
– Wonderful description of merchandise.
|12||La Joie de Vivre (The Joy of Living) 1884||– Ironic titles, this is not a happy book. Even by Zola’s standards, this is not a happy book at all. You might just want to re-read L’Assomoire
– People’s lives being ruined, their dreams crushed and their inheritance squandered by their relations
– Interestingly, the first literary description of OCD I’ve encountered. Seriously, this book is a must for anyone interested in literature and medicine.
|13||Germinal 1885||– Miners, strikes and workers movements
– Hideous social inequality and deprivation
|14||L’Oeuvre (The Masterpiece) 1886||– The Impressionists, Zola was great friends with all of them and this book is basically about Cezanne (and apparently ended the friendship between the two, some people just don’t like veiled biographies of artists who can’t live up to their potential). It depicts the Salon de Refuses for anyone who has ever wondered what it would have been like to be at the first public showing of Déjeuner sur l’herbe and is a must for anyone interested in the art of the period.
– Realist narratives of tormented artistic genius
|15||La Terre (Land/The Earth) 1887||– Rural poverty
– King Lear. I may be stretching a point here, but I can’t help make the connection. The main story is about Fouan, who has decided to split his land up between his three children who will then support him during his later year. If you know King Lear, you’ll know how well this is going to work. The story is heart-wrenching, and the depiction of the brutal peasant lifestyle as shocking today as when it was first written.
|16||La Rêve (The Dream) 1888||– Zola doing religious, mystical fantasy. This is a timeless, romantic fairy-tale and you have to work really hard to relate it to the thematic, social … well, just about anything in any of the other books. I love it.|
|17||La Bête Humaine (The Human Beast/ The Beast in Man) 1890||– Sensational serial killers. That’s how the book is sold anyway. It’s certainly true that just about everyone in this book is trying to murder everyone else.
– Trains. The main character is a railway driver and the descriptions of the railways and 19th century engines are incredible, seriously, this is a must read.
|18||L’Argent (Money) 1891||– Corrupt bankers (a tale for our times)
– The Credit Mobilier scandal
|19||Le Débâcle (The Debacle) 1892||– The Franco-Prussian War of 1870
– The Paris Commune of 1871
|20||Le Docteur Pascal (Doctor Pascal) 1893||– Tidy endings with no lose ends
– Death by spontaneous combustion(!)
– The conflict between science and religion
– How Zola redeems the family line, SPOILER ALERT AND WARNING, the solution is only satisfying if you accept Zola’s own definition of what is and what isn’t incest.