‘You’re reading Zola now?’ the Librarian asks in a slightly disbelieving tone, one surely coloured by unsettling memories of undergraduate courses in European literature, with beckoning names like ‘Realism’ and ‘Naturalism’. ‘Why would you put yourself through that?’
She sits down to lunch with Modern Nature—Derek Jarman’s 1989-1990 journals—while I consider the question. I felt I needed a novel – to go with the pile of current not-novel reading; I thought I was due a ‘classic’; a quick survey of the fiction titles unread by me that we currently own didn’t throw up one to snag my attention in the right way (yes, there are hundreds of those but many of them sitting in boxes in a storage unit) and this one was close to hand; I haven’t read Monsieur Zola for years; he crops up a lot elsewhere, when you read about Cézanne or Dreyfus or dip into the Goncourt Journals; Ford Madox Ford remembers coming across him in Hyde Park—an anecdote about hairpins—and also riding with him in a hansom cab. So I’m reading Zola.
Though not, as it turns out, for very long. La Bête Humaine (1890), set in the 1860s, is the seventeenth (out of twenty) in the Les Rougon-Macquart series. It’s an odd and uncomfortable mixture, ‘a curious hybrid’ the jacket announces: a railway novel and a story of murder. Less than twenty pages in and Roubaud is attacking his wife with ferocious violence – because she was sexually exploited by her distinguished guardian when a teenager and victim-blaming clearly comes easily—naturally?—to him. ‘In three years he had never laid a finger on her and now he was murdering her’ – surprisingly, he isn’t, quite. But a few pages on and Jacques Lantier, in the company of Flore, is afflicted by some ‘madness’ which ‘seemed to be taking possession of him, some ferocity making him cast his eyes round for a weapon, a stone, anything to kill her with.’ He suffers, it seems from some ‘hereditary taint’, from ‘sudden attacks of instability in his being’. ‘At such times he lost all control of himself and just obeyed his muscles, the wild beast inside him.’ And: ‘He was coming to think that he was paying for others, fathers, grandfathers who had drunk, generations of drunkards, that he had their blood, tainted with a slow poison and a bestiality that dragged him back to the woman-devouring savages in the forests.’
At which point even the translator, Leonard Tancock, notes that the paragraph ‘stretches probability to breaking-point’, though he’s referring to the fact that, since Zola ‘invented Jacques as an afterthought’, he has to pile in the back story and familial connections. Whereas I, still musing over Séverine’s apparent recovery from her husband’s enthusiasm for throwing her across the bed in order to rain ‘blow after blow on her, anywhere’, am now edging away from that ‘tainted’ blood and those ‘woman-devouring savages in the forests’.
‘To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven’, Ecclesiastes says (3, i-viii)—so too do The Byrds (and I notice in passing the topical ‘a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing’). Similarly, I’ve always thought there was a right time to read a book, for me to read a book at any rate. My early enthusiasm for Dylan Thomas was strong enough to make it difficult now to get on a sensible footing with him, Henry Miller too (though The Colossus of Maroussi apparently presents no such difficulties). Some books I tossed aside two or even three decades years ago and was glad to find my way back to in the last few years. But what I always thought of as a Protestant reading ethic meant I usually ploughed on, with only a handful of abandoned books. There’ve been quite a few more lately.
When you’re younger, there may not be complete autonomy: reading lists, deadlines, course requirements. Decades later, the real authority is time: age and time, the one increasing, the other decreasing. Then, too, the profusion of box sets and streaming services mean that viewers have developed a sixth sense, not necessarily unerring but a sense they’ve learned to trust, as they sit down before a new series. We have it down to around five minutes in a lot of cases: the sideways glance at the Librarian, sometimes a muttered ‘Anything?’ or ‘What d’you think?’ Occasionally returned by an ‘I’ll watch it on my own’. Something comparable has happened with the reading: it – the click, the connection – has to come sooner. I have five hundred books in my head that I still want to read – plus the ones that haven’t been published yet – and I tend not to set things aside for a couple of decades now. If it’s gone, it’s probably gone. But I also seem to have shaken off that dutiful sense. Nothing now that I must read let alone must finish. The pleasure principle has conquered, it stands with legs astride on a battlefield heaped with the discarded dustjackets of a hundred duty-reads.
In short (or medium?), that particular Zola is returned to the shelf. There might be another one at some stage (a return to Germinal, most likely). For the moment, Patrick Leigh Fermor (and Artemis Cooper’s biography of him), the stellar Stella Bowen, Frank O’Hara and—just arrived—Shirley Hazzard’s stories, will keep me going for a while. Plus, of course, a good many volumes, scans, transcriptions and notes related to a certain Ford Madox Ford.