- Émile Zola et la Commune de Paris: aux origines des 'Rougon-Macquart' by David Charles
Zola's ambivalent response to the Commune has long been familiar to specialists of both the writer and the period. The episodes devoted to it in the closing chapters of La Débâcle are vitiated, at twenty years' remove, by the benefit of hindsight. It is the barely transposed Revolutionary narratives within Le Ventre de Paris (1873), however, that have hitherto provided critics with supporting evidence of Zola's positioning in the immediate aftermath of the events of 1871, culminating in the Semaine sanglante but with the legacy of the latter continuing to haunt the collective imagination. David Charles has had the original idea of placing within this same frame of reference all three of the opening novels of the Rougon-Macquart, justified by the coincidence of their preparation. Under the heading of 'Travail simultané des trois romans' (p. 111), Charles reminds us that, in the second half of 1871, during the gestation of Le Ventre de Paris, Zola was also correcting the proofs for the publication in volume form of La Fortune des Rougon and finishing La Curée, only the first chapter of which had been written before the Franco-Prussian War. These [End Page 615] overlapping chronologies, it is argued, have far-reaching implications: the revisions to La Fortune des Rougon endow the fictional representation of the coup d'état of 1851 with a renewed topicality; and La Curée's depiction of the Haussmannian project is informed by the Communards' destruction of Paris. The shadow of the Commune extends, in fact, through the terminal conflagration of La Conquête de Plassans to the insurrectionary violence of Germinal. But the novels of 1871-73 effectively form a triptych, subject here to penetrating textual analysis. This is enriched by recourse to Zola's articles in the contemporary Parisian press and in Le Sémaphore de Marseille, the latter inflected by the specificity of its provincial readership. Charles also brings to bear on Zola's reflections the comparative perspectives of the likes of Hugo in his L'Année terrible. Particularly revealing is the novelist's commentary on the legal vicissitudes of Gustave Courbet's entanglement with the fate of the Colonne Vendôme, the painter finding his 'avatar romanesque' (p. 311) in the early portrait of Claude Lantier. More than half the book is focused on Le Ventre de Paris, reinforcing the identification of its characters and plot (and, of course, plotting) in relation to prominent figures involved in the Commune itself; indeed, its sites (Les Halles being inscribed in 'une poétique des ruines', p. 235) accommodate the disintegration of the very architecture of civil society. One of the many strengths of this study is its deeply researched familiarity with context, captured not only in a political and historical background but also in the discursive modalities of parliamentary debate and critical reception. What emerges from it is not a radically revised version of Zola's thinking about the Commune. Instead, Charles's work illuminates both the individual novels in question and the constraints of the Ordre moral which shape the oblique and problematically symbolic texture of the writer's engagement with national trauma.