- In Mortal Combat: The Conflict of Life and Death in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart
If the title of a work is an accurate indication of its content, those who open the cover of Kristof Haavik's In Mortal Combat: The Conflict of Life and Death in Zola's Rougon-Macquart are certain to enjoy an interesting read. With the stakes set high, Haavik composes a preface that could lead the reader to believe that they are headed for a less than original account of Zola's renowned series: Haavik states that he plans to examine the belief that Zola's works are dominated by life and death references, a struggle between the forces of good and evil, if you will.
The representation of life and death in the Rougon-Macquart series was a popular focus of research on Zola during the second half of the twentieth century. The studies published during this period include Marie Royce Hayes' Death in the Works of Balzac, Flaubert and Zola (1977), Gilbert Chaitin's The Voices of the Dead: Love, Death and Politics in Zola's Fortune des Rougon (1976) and George Perkins' Death by Spontaneous Combustion in Marryat, Melville, Dickens, Zola and Others (1964). Also noteworthy were E. Gingell's "The Theme of Fertility in Zola's Rougon-Macquart" (1977), Gilbert Darbouze's "Dégénérescence et régénéresence dans les romans d'Émile Zola et de Manuel Zeno Gandia" (1981) and Luc Estang's "Zola et la passion de la vie" (1971). Why then, at the dawn of a new century, does Haavik return to an already much analyzed topic? As the titles of the above-mentioned [End Page 938] works suggest, Haavik's decision to revisit an old theme may arise from the fact that, although Zolian critics have addressed the representation of life or death in the Rougon-Macquart novels, seldom have they attempted to characterize the link between the two concepts, and when they do, it is generally in the form of what Haavik calls a "mutually dependent" relationship, rather than an "epic struggle." Furthermore, Haavik explains that the already-existing works which explore life or death in Zola's Rougon-Macquart tend to concentrate on a small number of isolated incidences in select novels, such as the passages describing the cemetery in La Fortune des Rougon, the final chapter of Germinal, and the conclusion to Le Docteur Pascal; they fail to offer an exhaustive analysis of a single novel, or of the entire series of novels. Haavik strives to provide an overall picture of the representation of life and death in the unit that is the Rougon-Macquart; a subtle originality of Haavik's work that Zolian scholars have failed to appreciate. Indeed, closing Haavik's book after the preface would be a mistake: after following Haavik through his study of six of the novels in Zola's twenty-work Rougon-Macquart series, it becomes apparent that although Haavik's conclusion may not be original, the path taken to arrive there is indeed a novel one.
Haavik selects six novels through which he explores the juxtaposition of life and death forces in Zola's series: La Fortune des Rougon, La Faute de l'abbé Mouret, L'Assommoir, Une Page d'amour, Germinal and Le Docteur Pascal. The fact that several of the series' most-read, and what Zola himself qualifies as his most significant, works are missing from Haavik's analysis would make an interesting study in and of itself. While the absence of Nana, La Bête humaine and L'Œuvre does not, in my opinion, undermine the strength of Haavik's analysis, one can only hope that the author of Mortal Combat, the novel, will follow the lead of the creators of Mortal Kombat, the movie, and will decide to publish a sequel; a second study in which he explores the struggle of life and death in the works of Zola which receive little attention in this, his first publication.
Though the battle between life...