Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Way We Live Now

Over the weekend I finished reading Emile Zola's The Belly of Paris, which deals with revolution and bourgeois morality against the backdrop of the gargantuan Paris food markets. The main character is Florent, a former tutor who got caught up in the fighting in Paris during Napoleon III's coup which began the Second Empire (1851) and was (despite his basic harmlessness) transported to Devils Island. As the novel begins, he has escaped after many years imprisonment and returned to Paris. He's found, fainting with hunger on the road, by a market gardener as she drives her produce in to sell at the markets in Paris, and in that neighborhood of the markets he finds his younger brother, who is now married and runs a pork butcher shop. An acquaintance who is a poultry dealer with revolutionary leanings helps Florent get a job as a substitute inspector in the markets, but the who of them also become involved in plotting revolution with a group of fellow political dissidents who meet every night at a wine shop.

Reading a bit about Zola's overall project, of which this novel is a part, I'm fascinated by the scope of it. The Rougon-Macquart novels are a loosely connected set of twenty that Zola wrote from 1871 to 1893. His goal with the series was to provide a portrait of life during the Second Empire through the experiences of one family tree -- a project undeterred by the fact that the Empire was felled by the Franco-Prussian War, and replaced by the Third Republic, just as Zola was writing the first novel. Thus, what was intended to be a novel cycle portraying the present ended up being a sort of historical piece, though of very recent history. The 19th novel deals with the Franco-Prussian war itself.

I'm fascinated by the scope and ambition of the project of writing a set of novels to the social experience of an entire country throughout an era. Is any current writer attempting such a thing? I'm not aware of any. There's the temptation to say that our society is too big and too fragmented, but then, French society was pretty diverse in the middle of the 19th century and Zola was, after all, taking twenty novels to complete his project.


Enbrethiliel said...


F. Sionil Jose did something similar with his five Rosales novels. They cover Philippine history from the Spanish colonial era to the Marcos regime in the 1970s.

Josiah Neeley said...

The closest equivalent today would be not to novels but to television and/or movies. TV shows like The Wire or Mad Men do attempt something similar to what you describe Zola doing, and I suppose one could describe the films of Woody Allen or Eric Rohmer that way as well.

Darwin said...

I suppose it underlines how disconnected I am from TV culture that I had to go read the Wikipedia entry on The Wire, but based on this I really see your point:

Each season of The Wire introduces a different facet of the city of Baltimore. In chronological order they are: the illegal drug trade, the seaport system, the city government and bureaucracy, the school system, and the print news media. The large cast consists mainly of character actors who are little known for their other roles. Simon has said that despite its presentation as a crime drama, the show is "really about the American city, and about how we live together. It's about how institutions have an effect on individuals. Whether one is a cop, a longshoreman, a drug dealer, a politician, a judge or a lawyer, all are ultimately compromised and must contend with whatever institution to which they are committed."

Now, I think there could still be a value in doing this kind of thing with a series of novels as opposed to a TV show. The two have very different strengths, and just as there are a lot of things that a TV show could do which a novel can't, there are a lot of things a novel can do narrative wise that a TV show can't. I'm not even sure that the public which actually read Zola novels in the 1880s and '90s was necessarily a larger percentage of the population than reads novels now.

Interesting, though, that some of the high end TV shows are trying to do this kind of thing.

John Beegle said...

I think the Wire is the best TV series ever--although I would warn you that it's very violent.