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  • A Love Story by Émile Zola
  • Robert Lethbridge
Émile Zola, A Love Story. Translated by Helen Constantine; with an introduction and notes by Brian Nelson. (Oxford World's Classics.) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. xxix + 271 pp.

As Zola had intended, contemporary readers were disconcerted by the appearance of Une page d'amour in 1878. 'J'adore dérouter mon monde', he wrote to Théodore Duret on 2 September 1877, anticipating 'la stupéfaction du public'. Deliberately positioning it in his Rougon-Macquart series immediately after L'Assommoir, as he would strategically insert Le Rêve between La Terre and La Bête humaine, Zola thought long and hard about his novel's apparently bland title. In a prefatory note to her fluent translation, Helen Constantine admits that rendering it in English is problematic. To Jacques Van Santen Kolff, Zola later described the novel as 'un entre'acte sentimental', explaining in a letter of 8 June 1892 that 'le titre veut dire cela: une page dans une œuvre, une journée dans une vie'. Modern readers only familiar with Zola's most famous novels will be equally surprised by this excursion into the private sphere and the writer's exploration of the vicissitudes of sexual desire. But in Brian Nelson they have the ideal guide. His chapter on Une page d'amour, within his Zola and the Bourgeoisie (London: Macmillan, 1983), remains, more than thirty years later, the most penetrating analysis of the novel. His Introduction to the present edition (which includes an updated bibliography and authoritative annotation) explores the ambivalence of Zola's own 'novel of adultery', but is less concerned with the nuances of hypocrisy than suggesting that while Une page d'amour 'gives only glimpses of Zola's most characteristic and powerful gifts' (p. xii), its tonality is less muted than it might seem: in its focus on Paris as presence and panorama; its pictorial experimentation akin to the seriality of Monet or Pissarro; and its insights into 'patriarchal containment' (p. xxiii) also exemplified by the cover illustration of Berthe Morisot's Femme et enfant au balcon (1872). As a title, A Love Story, unless ironically overlaid, barely accommodates the novel's more insidious counterpoints to the 'douceur et tendresse' that Zola imagined this interlude to be. In announcing its imminent serialization, Le Bien public of 11 October 1877 reassured subscribers that 'c'est une page intime qui s'adressera surtout à la sensibilité des lectrices […]. Ce roman pourra être laissé sans crainte sur la table de famille.' That was not what Flaubert thought, writing to Zola in April 1878: 'je n'en conseillerais pas la lecture à ma fille, si j'étais mère!!! Malgré mon grand âge, le roman m'a troublé et excité.'

Robert Lethbridge
Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge


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