Sunday, July 20, 2003

For a Night of Love: Emile Zola

For a Night of Love is a recent release of previously untranslated short stories by naturalist master Emile Zola. The three stories in the slim volume are all about love -- from Zola's sometimes perverse perspective.

What if the kind of man you pine for but could only attract the attention of if you burst into flames in his presence offered you a night of love? (Tom Cruise is single again, so let's use our imaginations.) That is the offer the shy, easily intimidated clerk an amateur flutist Julien Michon must respond to in the title story. He has courted the girl across the plaza by playing his flute for her for nearly a year. A haughty, convent educated marchise, she has ignored him. Then, an unforeseen occurrence in her life causes her to need Julien's body. He responds as expected, but does he achieve satisfaction?

Nantas, the protagonist of the second short story, is in a position readers of Zola and Balzac will find familiar. The young man has come to Paris from the provinces to make his fortune with only 200 francs in his purse. Two months later, he must choose between starving and hurling himself from the garret where he resides. To add insult to injury, Nantas believes himself to be a genius awaiting discovery. All he needs is an opportunity to prove his worth. Unfortunately, the busy world of Parisian commerce does not see it that way. It does not see him, one of thousands of ambitious youths in the same situation, at all.

A form of deliverance arrives at the last possible moment.

The young man decided this lady had come to offer him a job. He answered that he would accept anything. But, now that the ice was broken, she asked him bluntly: "Would you have any objection to getting married?"

"Getting married?" exclaimed Nantas. "Who would want me, Madame. . . .Some poor girl I wouldn't even be able to feed."

"No, a beautiful, rich your girl of magnificent lineage, who at a stroke will place in your hands the means or arriving in the highest position."

Nantas stopped laughing.

"So, what's the deal?" he asked, instinctively lowering his voice.

"This girl is pregnant and the child needs to be acknowledged," said Mademoiselle Chuin straightforwardly, forgetting her ingratiating turns of phrase so as to get to the heart of the matter more quickly.

Nantas accepts the offer. The capital he acquires by marrying Flavie will be the foundation on which his wealth and reputation are constructed. Consideration for her will be avoiding the scandal of bearing a child out of wedlock. One of the spouses is satisfied with the outcome a decade later. The other is not and considers suicide.

The third and shortest story in the collection is a character sketch focusing on two people -- a smug, vapid baroness and her equally depthless minister. It is a meditation on appetites and how easily one kind of desire can be mistaken for another. The baroness hungers for carnal satisfaction, the curate for gustatory delight.

Naturalism was an artistic movement that began around 1870. It was very influential into the 1900s.

In literature, [it is] an approach that proceeds from an analysis of reality in terms of natural forces, e.g., heredity, environment, physical drives. The chief literary theorist on naturalism was ?mile Zola, who said in his essay Le Roman Exp?rimental (1880) that the novelist should be like the scientist, examining dispassionately various phenomena in life and drawing indisputable conclusions. The naturalists tended to concern themselves with the harsh, often sordid, aspects of life. Notable naturalists include the Goncourt brothers, J. K. Huysmans, Maupassant, the English authors George Moore and George Gissing, and the American writers Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, Stephen Crane, James T. Farrell, and James Jones.

Persons who are sentimental might find reading naturalists and other practitioners of realism hard going.

Naturalists have been the most uncompromising realists. They believe that knowledge is acquired through the senses, and that the function of the writer is to report accurately what he or she observes. The naturalist tries to be as objective as a laboratory scientist. In their theory of life, naturalists are more pessimistic than realists. The realist believes people can make moral choices, but the naturalist doubts that they can. Naturalists believe everything people do is determined by their heredity, or environment, or both. Naturalists believe people are trapped by forces such as money, sex, or power.

In picturing people as trapped, the naturalist usually deals with the more sordid aspects of life. Characters in naturalistic literature are driven by their most basic urges. They are often brutal and usually failures. They use coarse language, and their view of life is often bleak and without hope. Yet in the best naturalistic works, there is a tone of compassion and even admiration for those characters who struggle against overwhelming odds.

I would describe my own fiction writing as domestic realism. However, I have found the uncompromising insights of the naturalists very useful in my development as a writer.

The stories in For a Night of Love are as vital today as they must have been when they were written. Love is one of those ongoing dilemmas of humans that never becomes dated. Zola is confronting the same concerns master of realism Raymond Carver does when he considers what we talk about when we talk about love.

Note: Some of the material in this entry is from the World Book Encyclopedia for OS X.

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