When​ I agreed to write about Les Rougon-Macquart, Émile Zola’s cycle of twenty novels, published between 1871 and 1893, I imagined it would take six months, after which I would write an amusing little essay about how we should all read more Zola.* This is not what happened. It took me two years. In that time, I had two books published, wrote another two books, moved from Iowa City to New York, taught myself film photography, became a professor of creative writing and an acquiring editor for a small press, adapted one of my novels for film, wrote a pilot for television, went on antidepressants, increased my dosage of antidepressants, stopped drinking coffee after 3 p.m., resumed tennis and table tennis lessons, and had my glasses prescription increased twice.

Les Rougon-Macquart encompasses almost every area of social life, from the rural bourgeoisie (The Fortune of the Rougons, The Conquest of Plassans, The Bright Side of Life) to the working poor (Germinal, The Assommoir, Earth) to the heights of government power (His Excellency Eugène Rougon) to the markets and commerce of Paris (The Belly of Paris, Money, The Kill, The Ladies’ Paradise, La Bête humaine) to the art world (The Masterpiece, Nana) to the theatres of war (La Débâcle), and everything in between. At times, it feels as if nothing that exists is outside Zola’s intimate knowledge. He seems familiar with every screw and bolt in the machines that lower men into mines and the trains that carry passengers from Le Havre to Paris, every nuance of the inner workings of the French parliament, every change of fashion on the boulevards. Then there is the size of the cycle itself, twenty novels filled with events and with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of characters, many of whom reappear, creating a taut network of narrative relations. I planned to summarise the books and describe this network, but had to stop when I realised that this in itself would result in a book-length account.

Zola began writing the cycle with clear intentions. In a document titled ‘Notes sur la marche générale de l’oeuvre’, he identified his subject as ‘une famille centrale sur laquelle agissent au moins deux familles’. That is, a central family and at least two collateral branches that would span the breadth of society, ‘dans toutes les classes’. He would follow the fortunes of this extended family through the years of the Second Empire – between 1852 and 1870 – and his exploration would demonstrate his conviction as a naturalist writer that an individual is subject to the natural laws that govern the physical world. In his manifesto ‘The Experimental Novel’, Zola declared that ‘a like determinism will govern the stones of the roadway and the brain of man.’ In the same essay, he wrote that ‘determinism dominates everything. It is scientific investigation, it is experimental reasoning, which combats one by one the hypotheses of the idealists, and which replaces purely imaginary novels by novels of observation and experiment.’

For Zola, a person’s psychology and appetites were determined by the biological (the hereditary) and the social (milieu and environment). The objective of the experimental novelist is

to possess a knowledge of the … phenomena inherent in man, to show the machinery of his intellectual and sensory manifestations, under the influences of heredity and environment, such as physiology shall give them to us, and then finally to exhibit man living in social conditions produced by himself, which he modifies daily, and in the heart of which he himself experiences a continual transformation.

His ambitions as a writer were vast and moral:

To be the master of good and evil, to regulate life, to regulate society, to solve in time all the problems of socialism, above all, to give justice a solid foundation by solving through experiment the questions of criminality – is not this being the most useful and the most moral workers in the human workshop?

Zola thought that if he could work out in his novels the exact combination of biology and environment that gave rise to all the evils in society – crime, disease, poverty, violence – he could save the world. This extra-literary dimension is what moves his naturalism beyond pessimistic determinism. The actions and circumstances of man may be understood as a product of his biology and social environment, but through careful study of these forces we can choose to act in ways that counter them. Therefore, Zola’s naturalism not only holds that one can shape and change one’s fate, but that it is a moral necessity to do so, at least in the extra-literary dimension that is life. For his characters, things are a bit bleaker.

This lowering of man from the Romantic or idealised hero of his own story to the mundane victim of the universe and its cold indifference is not unique to naturalism. (Or literature: consider the discourse about the term ‘content creator’ and the accompanying anxieties about the devaluing of art and artists.) In some ways, naturalism is the perfect vehicle for expressing the alienation we feel after being commodified under capitalism. If you ignore the eugenicist undertones of the idea that class is biologically determined, and squint a little, you can understand why naturalism has been making a sneaky comeback.

I say this because I detect strong naturalist tendencies in my fellow millennial novelists, particularly those who write novels largely concerned with the theme of identity. This isn’t new: there was a genre called Black Naturalism which encompassed such writers as Richard Wright, Ann Petry and Paul Laurence Dunbar. The Black Naturalists found naturalism a ready-made mode for representing life under white supremacy. For many Black Americans, there was always a boundary in sight, setting a limit on how prosperous they could be, how happy, how free. I can put this in a slightly different way: not long ago, I was browsing Instagram and came across a celebration of the first Black woman neurosurgeon, Alexa Irene Canady, who began her career in the 1980s. Do you know how insanely racist your country has to be for someone becoming a particular kind of doctor to be judged remarkable enough to be worthy of celebration, decades after the fact, by their entire race and its allies? The dynamic of the ‘first one’ is familiar to many under-represented groups. In America, on college campuses, we even have a term to describe people who are the first in their family to get a university education: First-Gen. The first woman to lead a major American publisher. The first out trans woman elected to Congress. All such celebrations are really reaffirmations of the deterministic structures that run through our civilisation.

The novel of female complaint, ascendant over the last decade or so, is another example of the existence of naturalist undercurrents in contemporary literature. The narrator of Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy feels so strongly that her life has been overdetermined by her gender that she has literalised it by erasing herself from her own story. Every time a young woman in a novel sits down and thinks very hard about gender and what she is and is not allowed to do, I think of Zola. Perhaps this is why Nana bored me. ‘Ah,’ I thought, ‘another terrible woman who feels she’s mediocre at her job wanting to devour men and take a nap.’ It’s all just Zola, all the way down.

I’m starting to think that the Sebaldian turn in contemporary literature, which people keep trying to justify as a loss of faith in storytelling convention, in its falseness or whatever, really just reflects the feeling that their lives have been determined by forces outside their scope. The effort of imagining a person sufficiently free to exercise agency within a traditional plot is beyond their powers to such an extent that they’ve resorted to dramatising the act of imagination itself. How does one write about race, class, gender, sexuality, or any of the large forces that affect a life, without giving them totalising authority over one’s self?

The unacknowledged debt to naturalism and the silent faith in determinism feel like the deep spiritual background to the novels produced by my generation. In some respects, we live in an era of unprecedented freedoms and scientific information, and yet the myths we make for ourselves have never been smaller or more restrictive. Is this really the best we can do at this moment: adopt the debunked pseudoscience of what Angus Wilson, in his excellent study of Zola, called a ‘fourth-rate cultural superstructure’? We seem to have moved from believing in a genetic basis for identity to a socially determined one. This doesn’t represent a rejection of Zola’s naturalism, but a change in emphasis.

Zola believed in the overwhelming determinist force of what he calls ‘l’effet héréditaire’, referring both to the simple fact of inherited traits but also to the ways in which they are combined. He sought to dramatise this in the depiction of his ‘famille centrale’. Over the cycle, drama arises because children inherit the faults and virtues of their parents, which drive them to behave in ways that put them in conflict with the rest of their families. For the Rougons and their relatives, the Mourets and Macquarts, the traits inherited and combined are mania, obsessive neurosis, some form of epilepsy, egoism and greed. Adélaïde Fouque is the progenitor of the entire Rougon-Macquart clan. She has always suffered from periods of mental illness and instability. She marries a gardener called Rougon who, being a peasant, is coarse and motivated by base urges. They have a son, Pierre. Later, she takes a lover, a vagrant and criminal called Macquart, with whom she has two children, Antoine and Ursule. The birth of these children allows Zola to begin his experiment in the effects of heredity.

Of Pierre, Zola writes: ‘He embodied the first phase of that evolution of temperaments which ultimately brings about the amelioration or degeneration of a race.’ He then elaborates on what he sees as the admixture of what almost amount to two races, the bourgeois and the peasant: ‘Although he was still a peasant, his skin was less coarse, his features less heavy, his intellect greater and more flexible. In him the defects of his father and mother had reacted on each other in a positive manner.’ Antoine Macquart takes after his father in his ‘love of vagrancy, his tendency to drunkenness and his brutish fits of anger’ but resembles his mother in ‘his total lack of discipline, in his egotism, like that of a sensual woman … which disposed him to accept any bed of infamy provided he could sprawl on it at his ease and sleep warmly in it’. Ursule takes more after their mother, and is described as ‘whimsical, and [displaying] at times the shyness, the melancholy and the sudden outbursts of an outcast’.

Pierre’s peasant genes have made him more robust than his mother, and he turns his strength against her as he sets about getting rid of his siblings so that he can attach her wealth to himself. Antoine is conscripted into military service (Pierre refuses to pay for a proxy, against their mother’s wishes) and Ursule is married off to a bourgeois merchant. This sets a pattern for their descendants. Pierre marries a vicious woman called Félicité whose greed and status consciousness combine with his own inherited egotism to produce a family characterised by possessiveness and cunning. Ursule’s children and her descendants, who take more strongly after Adélaïde, are feverish exquisites whose bourgeois upbringing leads them to express their manias in socially sanctioned forms, such as commerce, religion or patriotism – though it also finds an outlet, for the men especially, in promiscuity. For Antoine’s descendants, forced to grow up in squalor having been deprived of their inheritance as a result of Pierre’s scheming, the underlying traits manifest as alcoholism, violence, wanton sensuality and vagrancy. Meanwhile a marriage between two first cousins, Marthe Rougon and François Mouret, strengthens the trait of obsessive neurosis. Their son Serge becomes a zealous priest given to visions and ecstasies (in The Sin of Abbé Mouret) while their daughter, Désirée, becomes obsessed with animals and suffers from bouts of madness. Their other son, Octave, moves to Paris and develops a fixation with chasing women (in Pot Luck), later channelling his neurosis into the establishment of a department store that will eventually attract the entire city (in The Ladies’ Paradise). It is this third, sublimated family line that survives.

Zola’s hypothesis about the combination of traits that characterise the Rougon-Macquart and their relatives was that the family line would end either in the sublime or in utter stupidity, but his treatment of his material is rough and would give comfort to the most depraved eugenicist because it makes class an output of biological destiny. Though he says that Les Rougon-Macquart is concerned with a single family, his theories are not represented solely by its members. He is interested more broadly in the inheritance of appetites and the ways these appetites manifest in relation to class and environment. Peasants always have a crude, animal intelligence. The nobility are intelligent but indolent. The poor behave like brutes, driven by emotion. The rich are cunning and morally dubious. Everywhere, Zola sees biological destiny.

We​ might assume that, given such an elaborate design, Zola published his books in a preordained and logical sequence. But this would be to credit him with superhuman powers of prediction and artistic control. Like Balzac, he tried retrospectively to organise his books into a pattern that did justice to his conception. In his 1899 biography of Zola, Ernest Alfred Vizetelly (the son of Zola’s English publisher, and the translator of many of his books) provides the order in which, he says, Zola intended the books to be read, ‘if the series is to be judged as a whole’:

Publication Order
The Fortune of the Rougons (1871)
The Kill (1872)
The Belly of Paris (1873)
The Conquest of Plassans (1874)
The Sin of Abbé Mouret (1875)
His Excellency Eugène Rougon (1876)
The Assommoir (1877)
A Love Story (1878)
Nana (1880)
Pot Luck (1882)
The Ladies’ Paradise (1883)
The Bright Side of Life (1884)
Germinal (1885)
The Masterpiece (1886)
Earth (1887)
The Dream (1888)
La Bête humaine (1890)
Money (1891)
La Débâcle (1892)
Doctor Pascal (1893)

Recommended Order
The Fortune of the Rougons (1871)
His Excellency Eugène Rougon (1876)
The Kill (1872)
Money (1891)
The Dream (1888)
The Conquest of Plassans (1874)
Pot Luck (1882)
The Ladies’ Paradise (1883)
The Sin of Abbé Mouret (1875)
A Love Story (1878)
The Belly of Paris (1873)
The Bright Side of Life (1884)
The Assommoir (1877)
The Masterpiece (1886)
La Bête humaine (1890)
Germinal (1885)
Nana (1880)
Earth (1887)
La Débâcle (1892)
Doctor Pascal (1893)

Having followed Vizetelly’s advice, I agree that to take the books in their publication order is to blunt their cumulative effect – one misses out on a subliminal flow. It is also constantly to wonder didn’t I meet you somewhere once? You encounter the characters in the wrong order, as in a bad dream, and lose sight of important connections. The sequence starts to seem random. Vizetelly’s order arranges the novels into a fluid narrative: we begin in the country amid the romance of rural life in Plassans on the very night of the coup which will pave the way for the Second Empire. From there, we watch as the cruel, legitimate branch of the family, the Rougons, amass power and influence first in their rural foothold and later in Paris. Then we have the novels of the middle-class collateral branch, the Mourets, whom we follow from the country into Paris and its environs. And from the bourgeois branch of the family we pass finally to the illegitimate Macquart line, whose representatives work close to the land or in positions of servitude in the cities. These novels of work and labour – miners, laundrywomen, farmers, soldiers and servants – lead up to the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War and the end of the Second Empire. And then we have the final novel in the series, bringing us once more back to the country, to Plassans, to rural life and a doomed coupling between two relatives, shortly after the empire’s end, with a great summing up. This arrangement allows us to move down through the social classes as we move across the family tree, turning genetic relations into narrative connections that coalesce into a broader story about France.

I would make one change to Vizetelly’s sequence. Nana, which comes after Germinal in his recommended order, should instead come after The Masterpiece and before La Bête humaine. If Nana comes after Germinal, we leave the rural landscape of a miners’ strike to return to the hothouse of the Parisian theatre. And then we depart once more, in Earth, for the country, to sow crops alongside Nana’s uncle, Jean, who will subsequently stand at the barricades in La Débâcle. This is inharmonious. The Masterpiece, which follows Claude Lantier, Nana’s half-brother, is set mostly in the Parisian art world and is a far more suitable lead-in for Nana. This also allows La Bête humaine, with its virtuoso descriptions of trains and movement, to transport us from Paris to the mining villages of Germinal and then to the fields of Earth.

Iwrote​ that it took me two years to write this piece, which gives the impression of a leisurely stroll through ten novels a year, when in fact for most of that time I was fighting for my life against three particular novels. Probably not the ones you’re imagining. No, it wasn’t Germinal or La Débâcle, both of which I dispatched fairly easily. It wasn’t Earth – which is perhaps the great unsung masterpiece of the series, depending on your capacity for melodrama. Nor was it the endless list of a novel that is The Ladies’ Paradise or the slippery and pungent The Assommoir. No, I lost a year in total to The Sin of Abbé Mouret, The Dream and Nana.

Anyone who has read Les Rougon-Macquart might wonder how I could have had such difficulty with these three books. After all, they are among the shorter novels in the series. The Sin of Abbé Mouret and especially The Dream are loose on plot and high on vibes. The Dream deals with an unruly girl called Angélique whose intense fantasies run both to the religious and the carnal. When she finally achieves her wish of marrying a local boy, she expires from happiness. She simply cannot go on living. Before she dies, the reader is treated to many rhapsodies. The book insists so firmly and so intensely on its own feelings that the reader is totally shut out. It’s more a fable than a novel.

The Sin of Abbé Mouret is similar, telling the story of a young priest who is so in love with the Virgin that he hates women. The intensity of his devotion to the mother of God causes him to shiver and shake at the very idea of a woman’s unclean mortal form. He has an epileptic fit (a hereditary trait) and develops amnesia. He then spends the long middle section of the novel recovering in the arms of a feral girl-child who takes him into a secret wild Eden that Zola describes with recursive frenzy. Eventually, the priest remembers that he is a priest and hates women, but only after they have consummated their union, and then the girl dies because she misses him. The novel is silly and insistent in the same desperate key as The Dream. I think I spent three months unable to pick up a book while reading The Dream, and I spent about six months utterly incapacitated by The Sin of Abbé Mouret. Then I was fine, moving along at a reasonable clip, enjoying life again, and I passed from the brilliance of Germinal to Nana, which is the favourite of some friends of mine. Oh good, I thought, now it’s all the masterpieces in a row.

Wrong. Nana and Germinal are the novels on which Zola’s current Anglophone reputation rests. If you know Zola, it’s probably because you’ve heard of Germinal or Nana. People talk about Nana as if it’s a piece of naughty genius, behind whose swagged curtains a secret profundity lurks. It tells the story of Anna Coupeau, also known as Nana, who runs away from home at the end of The Assommoir and becomes first a prostitute and then an actress and then a kind of prostitute again. The novel deals with the suffocating world of theatre politics, but is more concerned with the traffic into and out of Nana’s bedchamber. It insists again and again that her appetite is not for love. She doesn’t even particularly like men. She just wants to consume them. She is a man-eater of the purest type. She will swallow fortune, home and fame. I found it very boring, and the moral impossible to bear. Perhaps Nana seems like a brilliant novel if you haven’t read Germinal or La Débâcle or even Pot Luck. For me, it ranks among the middling entries in Les Rougon-Macquart. I wasn’t moved. I was ready for it to be over when Nana finally died of some horrible disease all alone, already forgotten by the men who once loved her.

You will probably never read all twenty of Les Rougon-Macquart. I know that. You know that. Let us accept this truth between us. If I had to send you on your way with some minimally sufficient quantity of Zola, let me propose the following, which to me are the greatest examples of Zola’s art: The Assommoir, Germinal, Earth, La Débâcle.

In The Assommoir, we encounter Gervaise, a disabled laundrywoman, who has just been abandoned by her lover Lantier. She toils to support herself and her children while facing the humiliation of knowing that her lover has taken up with a rival. There is an unforgettable scene in which she beats the sister of Lantier’s new lover while singing a washerwoman’s song. Eventually, she marries a roofer, Coupeau; they have a daughter, and things seem precariously close to working out. Then Coupeau has an accident and starts drinking, and the family slowly comes under the weight of terrible alcoholism and poverty. Soon, Gervaise is sending her mother-in-law, Maman Coupeau, to pawn everything in the house in order to pay for food, because no one is working and because they are drinking all their money away:

Maman Coupeau was always to be seen ambling along the pavements with parcels tucked under her apron, heading for the pawn shop in the rue Polonceau. She walked with her shoulders hunched, wearing the self-righteous, oily expression of a devout churchgoer on her way to mass: for she didn’t dislike the task, scratching around for money amused her, and haggling with old clothes dealers was right up the street of an old gossip like her. The assistants in the rue Polonceau knew her well; they called her Mother ‘Four Francs’ because she always asked for four francs when they offered her three, for parcels the size of a knob of butter. Gervaise would have borrowed on the house itself; her mania for pawning things was so great she’d have shaved her head if they’d been willing to lend her something on her hair. It was too easy, how could you resist going there for cash when you needed a four-pound loaf. The whole caboodle found its way to uncle, their linen, their clothes, even the tools and furniture. At first, if she had a good week, she’d take the opportunity to redeem her stuff, although back it’d go the following week. But later she got that she didn’t give a damn and just let things go, and sold the pawn tickets.

My mother once pawned my Nintendo 64 in order to buy more booze. She pawned everything in the house that wasn’t furniture: televisions, phones, my Game Boy, her wedding rings, jewellery my father had bought her, the shoes she had bought me for school. It all went. The Assommoir is the most accurate, brutal depiction of the reality of alcoholism I have ever read, capturing too the strange, evil joviality that warps all the relationships in such a household. I found the book eerie and painful, and I wept at the end when Gervaise started to show physical symptoms similar to those I saw in my mother and father: the clumsiness, the persistent lack of memory, the tremors at all hours of the day.

There’s another stunning sequence deep into the novel. Gervaise has been wandering the streets begging for almost 24 hours. She is tired, hungry, cold, but also experiencing alcohol withdrawal:

Then she found she’d been automatically reading the posters stuck on the parapet. They were in every colour. A pretty little blue one offered a reward of fifty francs for a lost dog. Now there was an animal that must have been loved!

Slowly, Gervaise set off again. Gaslights were being lit as the foggy, smoke-laden darkness fell; and the long avenues that had been gradually disappearing into the engulfing blackness were re-emerging aglow with light, stretching out and streaking through the night as far as the dimly shadowed horizon. You could feel a great breath of life as the neighbourhood staked out its increased size with cordons of little flames, under the huge moonless sky. It was now that the line of bars, sleazy dancehalls and bawdy-houses stretching from end to end of the boulevards blazed brightly, lighting up the good cheer of the first drinks and the first dances. The fortnightly payday filled the pavement with jostling groups of idlers looking for a good time. There was a feeling in the air that made you think of binges, terrific binges, but nothing nasty yet, just getting a bit lit up, nothing more. In the small cafés people were sitting stuffing; through the lighted windows you could see them eating their supper, their mouths full, laughing without even bothering to swallow.

The passage recalls an earlier scene when Gervaise and Coupeau throw a party, and she notices men flowing by in the street after a change of shifts. There’s a moment when she spots a beggar man. Here, at the end of the novel, the roles have been reversed, and it’s Gervaise who is moving like a spectre through the streets, laughing quietly and inwardly at her own jokes, just wishing she had ten sous. There are people who might say that it’s too much, too bleak. That it’s poverty porn. I don’t think so. In fact, the moments when Gervaise begins to beg and is turned away because people believe she will only waste the money, or when she submits herself to inspection because her sister-in-law thinks she might be guilty of theft, seemed to me as far from titillation as you can imagine. The book is so deeply and thoroughly observed, so honest about the desperation of alcoholism and poverty. I was stunned to see so many scenes from my own life depicted in this 19th-century French novel. I can easily understand why The Assommoir turned Zola into a superstar. He is at his finest and his most unsparing.

Germinal follows Gervaise’s son Étienne, who has come to a mining town in rural France to cause a little trouble. He is broke, and he doesn’t know a soul. He eventually gets a job at a mine and takes a bed with one of the mining families. His first encounter with the machinery establishes the tone and theme that will define the novel. The mine isn’t an inert lump of soil, but a living, devouring thing:

He liked to think he was tough, and yet he felt an unpleasant sensation grip him by the throat, amid all these rumbling tubs, the dull thudding of the signal rapper, the stifled bellowing of the loudhailers, and the unceasing flight of the cables nearby, as they were wound and unwound at full speed by the drums driven by the engine. The cages slid up to the surface and then fell smoothly back down again like some nocturnal beast, swallowing more and more men, drinking them down the dark abyss of its throat.

The conditions described in the mining village are brutal – there’s no other word for it. Eventually, the miners go on strike, spurred on by Étienne, who has adopted socialist politics. Some of my favourite moments occur when Étienne and the miners argue about socialism and the tension between theory and practice, gradualism and anarchy.

Étienne waxed lyrical. His whole rebellious temperament tempted him to embrace the struggle of labour against capital, in the first flush of his ignorant enthusiasm. It was the Workers’ International Association, the famous ‘International’, that had just been founded in London. Wasn’t it a superb achievement, to have launched this campaign through which justice would at last triumph? With no more frontiers, the workers of the whole world would rise up and unite, to make sure that the worker kept the fruits of his labour … In another six months they would have conquered the earth, and they would impose new laws on the bosses, if they tried to turn nasty.

‘Rubbish!’ Souvarine repeated. ‘Your Karl Marx still believes in letting natural forces take their course. No politics, no conspiracies, am I right? Everything out in the open, and nothing to fight for but wage rises … To hell with you and your gradual evolution! Set fire to every town and city, cut the populace to shreds, raze everything to the ground, and when there’s nothing left of this whole, vile world, maybe a better one will grow up in its place.’

The long middle section of the novel, which describes the grinding poverty that sets in with the strike, is among the greatest passages in literature. Not for its rhetorical heights, but because of the cold, hard light Zola shines on the bind these people find themselves in, and on the evil tactics of the owners. It all comes to a violent and bloody climax as soldiers break the strike with gunfire and many die before the miners are forced back to work. And that’s not even the ending. It’s a novel of tremendous force and great beauty, desolate and bare and maddening.

Earth​ and La Débâcle follow Jean Macquart, a former soldier who has become a farmhand. The action of Earth mostly concerns a family of landowners, the Fouans, whose intense resentment of one another threatens to set the book on fire. At the start, old Fouan is about to divide his land between his children, because he can no longer work as he once did. It doesn’t go well:

Haltingly, in broken sentences full of digressions and asides, he explained his reasons. But something he did not say, though it came through in the emotion he could barely conceal, was his immense grief, his deep resentment and heartache at giving up this land which he had so coveted before his father’s death and then cultivated with a passion that can only be described as lust, and added to, with a little strip of earth here and there at the cost of the most squalid avarice. Each single piece of land represented months of a bread-and-cheese existence, whole winters without a fire, summers of endless toil in the scorching heat, with no respite beyond a few mouthfuls of water. He had loved his land like a woman who might kill you and for whom a man will commit murder. No love for wife or children, nothing human: just the land! And now he had grown old and, like his father before him, would have to hand over this mistress to his sons, furious at his own impotence.

Poor Jean gets dragged into their family conflict, but finds a bit of sweetness: he falls in love with a young woman and they marry. But tragedy strikes when the family conflict boils over and Jean’s wife is raped by her brother-in-law while her sister restrains her, and is then murdered. Her death is excruciatingly detailed. At moments, you wish Zola would look away, to give these people a little peace and privacy. But he is undeterred. His narration doesn’t spare the reader because to do so would be immoral, because false.

The other major theme of Earth is the impact of automation and technology on agriculture and on agrarian society. The differences between the bourgeoisie and the workers in rural France are tracked in arguments over whether the farmers should send their children to school. The poor farmers see no point, viewing education as an interference and a threat to their way of life, while the wealthier members of the community see it as a means of advancement. One of my favourite moments is a long soliloquy that uses the figure Jacques Bonhomme as a French everyman, mostly as a stand-in for the farmer, who has been exploited and had his earnings taken away:

So, when his suffering became unbearable, Jacques Bonhomme would rise in revolt. He had centuries of fear and submission behind him, his shoulders had become hardened to blows, his soul so crushed that he did not realise his own servility. You could beat him senseless, starve him, and rob him of everything, before he would abandon his caution and stupidity, his mind filled with all sorts of muddled ideas which he could not properly understand; and this would go on until one supreme injustice, one last pang of suffering, threw him at his master’s throat like an infuriated domestic animal who had been beaten once too often.

Earth could be taken as a magnificent depiction of the way of life among rural Black people in the American South in the late 20th century. I was struck again and again by the shared concerns: land ownership, crop yields, unpredictable weather, wild hunger, not enough money soon enough and the viciousness of family squabbles. It is an unvarnished portrait of rural life. There are no heroes – just wolves in waiting.

La Débâcle is Zola’s chronicle of the mistakes and foolishness that led to the end of the Second Empire. The first section is mostly just Jean and his men marching to various places, only to be told to turn around and go the other way. This has some basis in fact – the French army was horribly organised during the Franco-Prussian War, and the mobilisation was ineffective, to say the least. This section is long and perhaps confusing. But once the siege of Paris sets in, you’re never quite the same. Here, a soldier has just had a close call with some shells and climbed up to get a higher view:

The fighting was taking place to the north of the town, and the German batteries on La Marfée and at Frénois were sending their fire right over the houses to sweep across the Plateau d’Algérie; and he even watched the flight of the shells with interest, and the immense curves of light-coloured smoke which they left above Sedan, like invisible birds leaving fine trails of grey feathers. At first, it seemed obvious to him that the shells which had crashed through the roofs around him had been missiles which had strayed off course. They were not yet bombarding the town.

The comfort is shortlived. A moment later, ‘it gave him the melancholy impression of enormity and yet, at the same time, childishness. What good was it now, confronted by these cannon, whose missiles flew so effortlessly from one edge of the sky to the other?’ The shelling gets underway, supervised by the king of Prussia, whom Zola slyly leaves as something of a cipher even as the narration circles him:

With a single word, the king asked a question. He wanted to know every particle of this human dust under his command on the giant chessboard, he wanted to hold it in the palm of his hand. To his right, a flight of swallows, taking fright at the noise of the cannon, wheeled and went climbing high into the sky, vanishing south.

The conditions on the ground are bleak. Zola captures the surreal horror of watching your home be destroyed by an enemy for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with you:

‘Ah! Well then, Françoise,’ he said, ‘I’d like to embrace your little Auguste … But he’s not as poorly as all that, just give him another couple of days, and he’ll be out of danger … Keep your spirits up, and above all get back inside quick, and keep yourself out of sight.’

Finally, the two men left.

‘Goodbye, Françoise.’

‘Goodbye, gentlemen.’

And at that very moment, there was a terrifying crash. It was a shell, which destroyed the chimney on Weiss’s house, then fell onto the pavement, where it exploded with such a bang that all the windows nearby were shattered. Thick dust and heavy smoke at first obscured their vision. Then the front of the building reappeared, gutted; and there lay Françoise, sprawled across the threshold, dead, her body broken and her head all mangled, a human rag, all red and horrible.

Weiss hurled himself over to her. All he could do was swear, stammering, ‘Bloody hell! Bloody hell!’

Jean and his fellow soldiers, outmatched and outmanoeuvred, do everything they can just to survive:

Maurice and Jean had been lucky enough to come upon a hedge, behind which they could gallop along without being seen. Even so, a bullet still managed to pierce a hole in the side of one of their comrades’ heads, and he fell down, getting tangled up in their legs.

They had to kick him aside. But the dead no longer counted, there were too many of them. A glimpse of a wounded man, screaming and using both hands to stop his entrails from falling out, a horse which was still hanging on, its hindquarters blown apart, all this horrifying agony, all the horror of the battlefield, ended up no longer having any effect on them. The only thing that bothered them was the midday sun beating down, boring into their shoulders.

I read La Débâcle while bombs fell on Gaza. I turned from videos, photographs and news reports of catastrophic devastation to read about similar suffering in Alsace in 1870. I went from pictures of children bleeding in streets, including one who was holding his little shoe while people tried to get the dust of his destroyed home out of his hair, to reading about men, women and children getting blown apart by shells. I went from reports of innocent civilians being deprived of food, water and shelter to the depiction of captured men forced to stab one another over loaves of bread. I will never forget Zola’s descriptions of horses going mad from hunger, or the way men shot and ate them, only to be shot in turn by the Prussians because they were supposed to be starving. La Débâcle was an overwhelming novel to read during an overwhelming time because it shows with arresting clarity how indefensible the human scheme of conquest is. The novel made me think of something from Earth, the long litany of taxes extracted from the ordinary people of the land:

There were centuries of bloodshed, centuries during which the flatlands, as they were called, resounded with a ceaseless cry of pain, of women raped, children battered, and men hanged. Then, when there was respite from war, the king’s tax collectors were sufficient torment for the poor wretches on the land, because the number and burden of the taxes was nothing compared with the brutal and capricious methods of collecting them.

The real cost of the Franco-Prussian War was not extracted from Napoleon III’s coffers, but from the bodies and the fields of his people. It was paid by the soldiers and the civilians who had to watch as their homes and loved ones and comrades were killed in front of them. In some ways, life in the West increasingly seems like a project whereby we seek to prevent our governments from picking our pockets and using their ill-gotten fortunes to ruin the lives of other people in our name.

For me​ , these four books – The Assommoir, Germinal, Earth and La Débâcle – represent the essence of Zola’s moral argument against war, convention, the petty gods of the bourgeoisie and the complacency of material comfort. For Zola, the greatest moral act is to bear witness. Sometimes when I read novels set in the past, a contemporary smugness sets in. But when the past comes uncomfortably close to the events you’re living through – another example would be my reading of The Fortune of the Rougons, about Napoleon III’s coup d’état, months after the assault on the Capitol – you realise how new so many of our institutions and customs are, and how fragile.

But what moved me most in these novels was not the extra-literary moral dimension necessitated by Zola’s naturalism. It was his literary skill, sometimes most apparent in the novels’ quieter moments. The description of the sky over Paris on a chilly night, or how loud the silence can be when you’re hungry and alone and no one is coming to save you, or the carefully described change in the light in The Bright Side of Life, when Pauline, a young woman brought up by thieves, watches her last chance at romantic love pass out of her hands. Zola is a poet of such silences. There is, too, the tautness of his dramatic structures. There are no loose ends. Everything comes back, in ways both surprising and not, and one has the sense of a master machinist, who has measured his mark exactly. It could be argued that it’s at times too neat. That sometimes it all comes together a little too well. That it’s all pitched rather melodramatically. Zola, for all of his scientific analogising, was something of a romantic at heart; he paints with the same soaring heroism that makes Eugène Boudin’s beach scenes brim with feeling but that can be perverted by lesser hands into triteness.

When I finished Les Rougon-Macquart, I stacked the books up and took a picture. I posted this picture to social media. ‘Is it even good?’ an online stranger asked me. There was a bratty heat to the question, implying as it did that the size of the cycle was somehow an overcompensation on the part of both Zola and me. I tried to think of something funny to say, but just got depressed. If I had answered yes, what would it have meant? That the novels were uniformly excellent? That each gave the same impression with the same intensity? Or would it mean that if I averaged my experience of all the novels (leaving aside the question of how a person would do such a thing), the output would be some positive value indicating worthiness? The question can’t provide a suitable framework for discussing something like Les Rougon-Macquart, whose aim is to capture in panorama the pleiotropic nature of life, the complex matrix of relations that is existence. Les Rougon-Macquart resists reduction, and in the face of the scale of the series, asking ‘Is it even good?’ is like asking if the sun is heavy.

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