Read For a Night of Love Online
Authors: Émile Zola
Translated by Andrew Brown
Writing to his friend Thomas Sergeant Perry, of Rhode Island, Henry James said, ‘I heard Zola characterises his manner sometime since as
merde à la vanille
. I send you by post Zola’s last –
merde au nature
. Simply hideous.’ It is, for the master of circumlocution, a somewhat startling joke, but it conveys Zola’s shock value. James’ letter was written in 1876; the Zola novel in question was
Son Excellence Eugéne Rougon
. We only have to recall the climate of opinion over the Channel in London to imagine how startlingly frank Zola must have seemed to his contemporaries. In 1819, the publisher
asked Thomas Hardy to tone down a scene in
Tess of the D’Urbevilles
in which Angel Clare picks up the heroine in his arms and carries her over a ford. In the published version, to spare the blushes of readers, Tess is trundled over the stream in a wheelbarrow.
Zola, meanwhile, had written a whole series of novels in which the sexual needs of his female characters were fully explored. One thinks of the striptease artiste Nana and her string of hireling lovers; or the womenfolk of the miners in
, all freely indulging in sexual activity and displayed to the reader in the full realism of their energy and appetite. Or think of the girls who sell charcuterie in
Le Ventre de Paris
. The men they fancy, mock, and enjoy are seen as no more or less than the bits of meat they handle all day long in their market stalls in Les Halles.
We can’t doubt that Zola depicted the world with
accuracy. He is the master of detail piled upon detail. His novels and tales achieve their effect by thoroughly researched reportage. Whether he is describing the working routines of a coal-miner, or a laundress, or a clerk, or a priest,
he takes you through every detail of what they do, from their waking moment to sleep again.
To enjoy Zola at his best, therefore, you have to read one of the great novels, in which a whole panorama emerges, as in the work of one of those highly realistic nineteenth-century
, such as William Powell Frith (1818–1909), who attended to every last bootstrap or railway ticket clutched in the hands of characters who swarm across his canvases. Even in these shorter works, however, you can catch the flavour of Zola’s brilliance.
Henry James would no doubt have applied the scatological metaphor to the longest of the stories in this collection, ‘For a Night of Love’. It is a neat plot, ideally suited to its length, and with three main protagonists. Thérèse is a beautiful young woman in a small provincial town. Through the eyes of a gangling, awkward clerk, Julien, we enjoy ogling at her,
her from afar, deriving excessive sexual excitement from the glimpse of her letting her hair down as her maid undresses her for the night. He tries to woo her by playing the flute, a rather obviously phallic instrument, and seethes with fury when he realises that he has a rival.
Thérèse is a sadist, which adds to the kinky charm of the story. She has always enjoyed tormenting Colombel, a young man with whom, as a baby, she had shared a wet-nurse. Their love affair, when it develops, has almost something of incest about it. And their lovemaking is violent, including much wrestling and the exchange of insults. Again, think of the
in English novels of this period, or even the characters in the urbane and sophisticated novels of James! We might enjoy guessing what Dorothea and Mr Casaubon got up to in the bedroom in
, but we are certainly never told by George Eliot.
Thérèse kills Colombel during one of their violent romps. She offers Julien a night of love if he will dispose of the corpse. The actual business of his taking the body to the bridge and dumping it in the water is as exciting and full of suspense as a Patricia Highsmith story. (One wonders whether Highsmith knew this tale, in fact.) Julien’s reveries, however, are
late nineteenth-century ones. His carnal imaginings about Thérèse in a state of undress turn into a sick yearning for death.
in the French provincial manner follows. The morning light shows not Julien and Thérèse twisted in the bedroom sheets, but Julien and Colombel at the bottom of the river.
The high camp of ‘Fasting’ is very different in atmosphere. Zola had a line in highly anti-clerical tales that bordered on the pornographic. In one of these,
La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret
, we watch a young priest being seduced by a sort of gypsy earth maiden in naked garden scenes worthy of D.H. Lawrence. In ‘Fasting’ the erotic undertones of the relationship between the pampered curate and his silly aristocratic female congregation are much more subdued.
‘While from up in his pulpit he was talking of bones cracking and limbs roasting, the little Baroness, half asleep as she was, saw him at her table, blissfully wiping his lips, telling her, “My dear madame, this is a bisque which would ensure you found grace in the sight of God the Father, if your beauty were not already sufficient for you to be certain of a place in paradise.”’
The unmistakable point of the story is that Catholicism, indeed all religion, can never give true sustenance to the
spirit. Anyone who looks to religion to be nourished, like
the hungry sheep in Milton’s
, will be unfed.
In ‘Nantas’ we find ourselves in the world in which Zola’s imagination really felt most at home, the crowded Paris of the 1870s, its rain-soaked streets, its garrets where young people, lured to the big city from the provinces, lie hungry in the intervals of their tedious work and emotionally unfulfilled lives. Nantas believes himself to have one asset – his ‘strength’. He has paced the streets of Paris, and found nothing; he is down to his last hunk of bread when the offer comes. Thereafter, Nantas’ meteoric rise to a ministerial post is not really very plausible. Balzac could have made it so. The core of the story, though, is not so much the outward ‘success’ of Nantas’ life as his inner perceptions of himself and his sexual needs. Hence, the power of its closing scene with Nantas attempting to blow his brains out, and Flavie at the last minute bursting into the room to say she loves him. After humiliating him with a sexless marriage, she has at last sniffed
. We are back in Zola country.
A.N. Wilson, 2002
Two of these stories are about the way contracts between men and women unexpectedly break down. In ‘For a Night of Love’, Thérèse de Marsanne kills her lover Colombel in a sado-masochistic tussle. Knowing that Julien Michon is in love with her (he has shyly been serenading her from a neighbouring house with his flute), she beckons him over, and offers him a deal: if he will dispose of her lover’s body, she will give herself to him. In ‘Nantas’, the contract is between Nantas on the one side, and Flavie Danvilliers on the other. She has not murdered her lover, but, with almost equally grave
repercussions for her family honour, has become pregnant by her momentary paramour, M. des Fondettes, who is already married. This time the deal involves him marrying Flavie in exchange for her rich dowry, which will act as seed capital for him to realise his intentions. Flavie herself insists, as part of the contract, that theirs is to be a
, with separate lives. At first Nantas is only too happy to accept, so as to devote himself to his financial and political enterprises. But again the contract fails, and again it fails without either of the characters really defaulting on it. Or rather, Nantas does default – but by falling in love with his wife. This leads him to become jealous of her (something he attempts to rationalise by seeing her ‘infidelity’ as a potential slur on his honour), convincing himself, especially thanks to the machinations of the double-dealing maid, Mlle Chuin, that she has taken up again with M. des Fondettes (who does indeed long to ‘possess’ her once more). Nantas wants to revoke her autonomy, but in a battle of wills between them realises he cannot, and, broken, retreats, telling her ‘you are free’. His political moment of triumph (he has been appointed
finance minister by Napoleon III) has been rendered
: he will put the finishing touches to his budget and then kill himself.
Contracts are particularly fragile when, as in these two cases, they involve sex: their vulnerability is increased by the fact that the signatories to the bargain are not social equals. In both these stories, an upper-class woman in a crisis offers a deal to a lower-class man who needs her (for her love or her money). In ‘For a Night of Love’, Thérèse requires Julien’s physical strength to dispose of Colombel’s body; Julien successfully performs his task, and thereby gains a right to the woman’s body, and thus to sexuality (he is a virgin): but he ends up refusing it, and life itself. In ‘Nantas’, Flavie needs Nantas’ ‘name’ to legitimise her child (who then conveniently disappears from the story), and allow her to remain part of the Danvilliers clan. Nantas keeps his side of the bargain, and gains a fortune that opens up his path to political power (his success is partly due to the sublimation of energies that are not channelled into a full marital relationship). His ‘strength’ is a leitmotif of the story: it is not simple physical strength, like Julien’s, but the strength of will and intellect that enable him, even on the evening he is plotting to murder both his wife and her assumed lover, to show such eloquence at dinner on the subject of his projected budget that his daring new financial plans even convince his more conservative father-in-law. Nantas himself is by now convinced that his strength is worthless, since it has not gained him his wife’s love – but even as he privately decides that, although he has won everything,
her he has nothing, we see Flavie viewing him with an enigmatic new tenderness. And just as he is about to shoot himself (in the same Parisian garret where he had spent two penniless months trying to find a job – both ‘Nantas’ and ‘For
a Night of Love’ are topographically circular), Flavie bursts in to declare that she does now love him because he is – in the story’s last word – ‘strong’. The aphrodisiac of power seems to have worked its charm. And yet the melodramatic
that Zola foregrounds (it is just as Nantas is going to kill himself first time round that Mlle Chuin is shown in, like a fairy godmother, to wave her wand and offer him a rich marriage; it is just as he is going to blow his brains out that Flavie rushes in to pronounce the equally magical words ‘je t’aime’) suggest that Nantas’ ‘strength’ is only part of the story. On both occasions, it has not been enough by itself to save him: he needs help from outside, from a woman. Any strength he has must be
(by Mlle Chuin in the first instance, by Flavie in the second) for it to be effective. Without this recognition, he will die – yet another victim of a Paris depicted, in the early scenes, as tantalising in its Second-Empire bustle and glamour but also as inhuman and anonymous. Flavie’s final gift of herself is a sublation of the original contract, which as a
was a paradox (or a
): now that their relation is to be a proper marriage, the separation accepted as part of the original terms is annulled.
Both Thérèse and Flavie are haughty and imperious
simultaneously subversive and conformist. They are subversive in challenging the traditional roles of women, but conformist in that they both ultimately uphold the
order: Thérèse allows Julien to be her scapegoat for Colombel’s death, and having thus eliminated two plebeian suitors marries a member of her own aristocratic caste; Flavie falls in love with Nantas because he has shown himself an adroit financial and political manipulator – her love is given only for a specific reason (‘because you are strong’) and thus
tacitly imposes another condition: that his strength should continue. We may legitimately fear for the couple’s newly romantic relationship if a ministerial reshuffle precipitates Nantas from his eminence, just as Thérèse is unlikely to be satisfied by the young Comte de Véteuil unless, like Colombel, he is prepared to give her a bit of rough stuff.
These contractual aspects of the two stories act as a
scheme around which Zola weaves a web of
evocations. These are limited in ‘Nantas’ to the brief vignettes of the streets of Paris or the chime of the cash registers in Nantas’ firm: in ‘For a Night of Love’, they are more poetic. Thérèse is a white-faced, black-eyed, red-lipped frost-queen from an Edvard Munch canvas. Her haughty exterior conceals a baroque passion; she lives in a house that is compared to both a tomb and a church, and she bears the name of a saint (Teresa of Avila) closely associated with the intersection between fleshly and spiritual love (Thérèse herself is a mixture of intense piety and eroticism). The taciturn Julien finds absorption in a lyrical, ever-constant nature, and his only mode of self-expression is through that most natural instrument, a wooden flute. This is a story of chiaroscuro effects being disturbed by the harsher edges of black and white. Julien’s dark nocturne is slashed open by the dazzling light from Thérèse’s room, his grey placidity intruded on by the whiteness of her face and dress. His music should be heard, not seen – it initially attracts Thérèse, but then she sees the ugly young man playing it. His final refusal to take advantage of her offer marks a turn back from her ‘culture’ (the aristocratic residence, the elegant young men, the noisy waltzes, the underlying cruelty) to his ‘nature’, associated with music (the river Chanteclair with its clear song), the tranquillity of nature, and identification with his rival (almost
his double) Colombel, calling him home to death.
‘Fasting’, in its depiction of a gourmet curate who preaches ascetic self-denial to a congregation of pampered upper-class women, is very different from the other two tales in this collection. Obviously anti-clerical in tone, on a deeper level it engages with the sheer sensuality of Catholicism that proved such an ambiguous source of attraction to the ‘decadent’ movement of the fin-de-siècle. The Baroness listening
to the sermon is enveloped in a warm bath of mildly erotic fervour, and responds to the
of the curate’s words, not to their
– ‘as some to church repair, / Not for the doctrine, but the music there’ (Pope,
An Essay on Criticism
). This is a story of hot air: the Baroness swoons at the ‘music’ of the curate’s vacuous rhetoric, but even more at the warm gusts from the air vent playing up her skirt (the French ‘bouche de chaleur’, ‘mouth of warmth’, is nicely explicit). It is also a story which, like James Joyce in the ‘Lotus-Eaters’ episode of
(communion as the injunction to ‘shut your eyes and open your mouth’ for the ‘lollipop’ of the host), focuses on the intensely oral aspects of Catholicism: the curate’s words, preaching mortification, come from the same mouth whose ‘ready tongue’ wags in the salons of his ‘magdalens’, and absorbs the Baroness’ salmon pâté and Pommard with the fervour of someone taking the bread and the wine. The title, ‘Fasting’, is doubly ironic. This church is failing to provide its congregation with the real bread of angels: full bodily communion is replaced by mere fantasies – vaguely idealistic, languidly erotic products of sublimation. In this kind of society, even the well-fed little Baroness is left, in a real sense, fasting: hungry for something more real than the twilit
of the church. And, though the text necessarily cannot say this, history is soon to impose its own fasting on a society
indifferent to the unchosen ascesis, the hungers of every kind sapping the strength of the Second Empire. The story was published in early 1870: some of its first readers would before long be part of the starving population of a Paris besieged by the Prussian army and torn apart by civil war and revolution, lucky to dine, not off salmon pâté, but dogs and rats.
– Andrew Brown, 2002
Note on Publication Dates:
‘Fasting’ (‘Le Jeûne’), was published in March 1870. In June of that year, the first volume (
La Fortune des Rougon
) of Zola’s massive sequence of novels on life under the Second Empire,
started serialisation. ‘For a Night of Love’ (‘Pour une nuit d’amour’) was written for the Russian review,
Le Messager de l’Europe
, where it was published in 1876. It was also published in the French review
in 1877. ‘Nantas’ too was published in
Le Messager de l’Europe,
in October 1878 – this being contemporary with the composition of the first chapters of
, Zola’s study of the Parisian
under the Second Empire (eventually published in 1880): but its storyline has more in common with another instalment of the
), published in 1871.