By Bill Marx
Published in August of 2020, Oxford University Press’s English translation of Doctor Pascal marked the first time that Émile Zola’s 20-book Les Rougon-Macquart series was available in print under one publisher.
Émile Zola was faced with an enormous intellectual and artistic challenge when it came time to work on the conclusion to his monumental Rougon-Macquart series (1871-1893). His nineteen previous novels had excoriated a rapidly modernizing French society through the tragicomic lives of a single family beset by hereditary ills. Give the clan an apocalyptic finale, with its intimations of an endless cycle of decay? Put a Darwinian curse on the ravages of industrial capitalism? Of course, that was just the kind of sensationalized gloom and doom that made Zola anathema to his critics, who accused him of using science as an excuse to push an agenda of secular nihilism. Or might the capstone to the saga preach something very different, even suggest optimism for the future? Of course, that meant that some readers would accuse Zola of a failure of nerve, of stepping back from his determination to dramatize the unappetizing truth. Throughout the series, Zola had been fascinated by the concept of fate and its interactions with chance. Could there be a way to come up with the proper Aristotelian wrap up, one that felt surprising yet inevitable?
1893’s Doctor Pascal was Zola’s intriguingly Janus-faced response, a May-December romance that revolves around the fate of the scientific studies undertaken by its aging title character, a stalwart doctor and experimental geneticist who for years has been researching the rancid gene pool of his family, the Rougon-Macquart clan. Pascal keeps his files on the hereditary infirmities of his grandmother’s thirty descendants, along with a family tree (annotated with his diagnoses), locked away from hostile forces. Initially, three women around Pascal want to destroy the material: his ultra-religious but loyal servant, Martine, condemns it as blasphemy, his artistically inclined niece, Clotilde, rejects the project’s materialism, and his grandmother sees the manuscripts as a threat — they must be eradicated if the family’s reputation is going to be properly air-brushed for the future.
Complications arise when Clotilde and Pascal fall into an incestuous passion and financial shortfalls force them, tragically, to part. As Zola scholar and translator Brian Nelson points out in Émile Zola, A Very Short Introduction, the writer is playing a metafictional game here: “Zola makes Pascal his double by turning him into an image (and symbolic affirmation) of himself as a novelist.” Zola was fantasizing an impossibility: the destruction of what was already a published reality, the Les Rougon-Macquart cycle. Pascal is also an autobiographical double. When Zola wrote Doctor Pascal he had already taken a young mistress, Jeanne Rozerot, who had given him two children. The erotic fervor of their relationship takes command of much of Doctor Pascal, which becomes as much about dealing with the traumas of love and loss as it is about forecasting the course of evolution. In his final volume, Zola remains our contemporary, a writer fighting for the persistence of humanity (and the indispensable value of science) in a world that is progressively becoming more brutal and uninhibited in its efforts at negation.
Over the past 25 years, Oxford University Press’s World Classics series has been releasing new English translations of Les Rougon-Macquart. Published in August 0f 2020, Doctor Pascal marked the first time that the 20-book cycle was available in print under one publisher. I spoke to Nelson, who contributed thoughtful introductions and notes to all the volumes, about the ways these new translations deepen our appreciation of Zola’s artistic power and subversive vision.
I had never read Doctor Pascal before, and I enjoyed it immensely. The plot reminded me of Ibsen, particularly his Enemy of the People (scientific reality pitted against delusions of respectability) and The Master Builder (an intense relationship between an older man and an adoring younger woman). I emailed some questions to translator Julie Rose about what the challenges were in coming up with an English version of Doctor Pascal, her feelings about Zola’s attitudes to women, and how the final volume stacks up against other entries in the Rougon-Macquart cycle.
Arts Fuse: Doctor Pascal is the final volume in Zola’s twenty-novel sequence. There are acknowledged masterpieces among them, including one that you have translated (as a two-hander with Brian Nelson) for Oxford University Press, Earth. Pascal has been considered by many critics to be one of the weaker entries, even anticlimactic. Do you agree?
Julie Rose: No, I strongly disagree. I’m not au fait with what the critics say as I haven’t read them. I don’t read commentary when I’m doing a translation: I don’t want any external influence to interfere with my personal response to the work and possibly block off creative choices. It’s just me and the original, locked in friendly combat.
And with this novel, ‘combat’ is the right word. I wrestled with the text through six drafts to get the register right and bring out all the lyrical power and emotional force of the original. Many months after finalising the last draft, I’m still haunted by it. There are scenes that are so harrowing, they took my breath away; others are poetic in a way that’s as vivid now to me as when I translated them. There is absolutely nothing weak or anticlimactic about it — if you read it as it should be read and as I hope I’ve reproduced it for a contemporary audience.
Of course, I am aware that, unlike other novels in the sequence, many contemporary Zola readers have not read Doctor Pascal; it’s been neglected by publishers for a seriously long time. There have been three English versions before this, but the last one was published 73 years ago, the first two in 1894 and 1901. That’s a judgement of sorts, and I wonder if those earlier, rather prim, translations themselves weren’t part of the problem.
Whatever the case, I think Pascal is a poignant ending to the whole tremendous saga. The novel’s own end note, coming after all the searing tragedy and destruction, is triumphant, and very moving, all the more so for its suddenly muted tone. Aesthetically, emotionally, intellectually, the final note is one of reconciliation, after this huge orchestration of sex and death and destruction, with Zola fusing the Christian symbolism with a humanist vision of constant renewal, of life going on: a double inheritance. As the conclusion to the conclusion of a swirling saga of blood and inherited legacies, it’s an apt finish.
Doctor Pascal may be harder to define than the acknowledged masterpieces. There are the shifts in focus and style, both from earlier novels in the sequence (though these vary a great deal stylistically), and within its own parameters. The ‘acknowledged masterpieces’ are all-of-a-piece, Earth perhaps most impressively, whereas Doctor Pascal is set in several different keys. The focus shifts in and out from the most intimate situation to the broadest possible context. It has episodes where narrative turns on an almost gothic poetics.
But one of the biggest differences with the previous novels is that the main protagonist is an intellectual, a medical innovator who, until now, has lived his life largely in his laboratory and in his head. His life’s work is a vast proto-genetic thesis on heredity, based on his elaborate documentation of his family, the Rougon-Macquarts’, inherited traits and diseases. The dramas that unfold are driven largely by ideas and their consequences. It’s Zola’s genius to propel ideas, the great debates of his century to center stage, but in such a way that they’re intimate, personal, integral to the action; ideas are all-consuming, maddening, life-changing, and defending them becomes a fight to the death.
And they are so very current. Maybe the strange neglect and lack of critical appreciation is all about timing, in which case, Doctor Pascal’s time has come. I really think this is a book for our time: science versus religiosity, ‘cancel culture’ and religious superstition and coercion, the importance of medical science and innovation versus healing and alternative medicine, truth versus fake news, the burning of the books: it’s all there. So is the overwhelming importance of genetic research, relevant to today’s obsession with family history and genealogical research, partly due to the completion of the genome, making genetic inheritance more easily accessible and understood. Think of all the millions of people drawing up their family trees, and of TV franchises like Who Do You Think You Are? familiar to US viewers, every tear-jerker episode a kind of mini-sub-Rougon-Macquart story. In this year of pandemic, especially, medical doctors and researchers and vaccine developers have shot to the fore. The good doctor would have loved to be alive now and might well have worked for an outfit like the François Jacob Medical Research Institute of Biology.
The pandemic has also underscored the pertinence of an aspect of the doctor’s health and well-being program: a return to the land. It’s a theme that has featured before, especially in Earth, but though it’s given scant attention in Doctor Pascal, it resonates with the current move away from cities, once again seen as insalubrious.
The landscape itself is paramount, in all its rugged, brutal beauty. And the weather operates like the ‘objective correlative’ of the plot’s developments. I don’t think Zola’s famously lyrical descriptive writing has ever been more powerful than it is here, where he’s writing about the South of France he came from.
AF: Stephen Jay Gould observed that “our images of evolution are caught in the web of tale telling. They involve progress, pageant: above all ceaseless motion somewhere.” In Doctor Pascal, Zola makes sweeping statements about where he saw evolution heading. He wanted to defend his Rougon-Macquart saga from charges of amorality. How relevant do you find it? It is interesting that Pascal is conflicted between “healing” nature and letting it take its course.
Rose: That’s a lovely quote from Stephen Jay Gould, whose work on time’s arrow I admire. Progress and pageant are at work in DP on several levels. There’s the treatment of the age-old notion of inheritance that precedes modern scientific theory. That directly involves pageant and a sense of an eternal God-given right: royalty. Not for nothing is the depraved and brain damaged little Charles seen constantly as a page or a prince or a little king, the end of a long line so corrupt it’s doomed to die out. He is the exact counterpoint to that other victim of the equally ancient notion of inheritance, the crooked low life, Uncle Macquart, caught in repetition. One dies in a pool of ‘royal’ blood, the other fizzes to death as fat.
Contrasting with that notion of inheritance is the shiny new model of cutting-edge science, which Pascal pioneers (it doesn’t matter how convincing the science is), and hopes to promote. It’s worth noting that his view of evolution, which starts as a sort of theological conviction, itself evolves… along with everything else about him. It would sound trite if the struggle wasn’t so painful, but the ultimate revelation he moves towards is that ‘to love and be loved’ is the greatest ‘health’ of all, just as Georges Sand claimed, and as the old song goes. So the notion of evolution itself evolves, finally toning down Pascal’s more zealous messianism. Healing starts to mean acceptance, though not of suffering, which remains something a healer must try to relieve. Some of Pascal’s ideas on modern therapeutics, like the use of electric current and health resorts, are amazingly prescient.
What’s interesting is that we see Pascal as a scientist at work, evolving theories and experimenting with treatments and moving on. That feels very modern. Heredity is the great narrative that ‘explains’ even the most degenerate of the Rougon-Macqart tribe, but science itself is recognised as a narrative art. As Pascal says, in a sentence that anticipates the findings of, say, a Thomas Kuhn on scientific ‘paradigms’, ideas of what’s scientifically valid will inevitably change, it provides stories about reality that we tell ourselves are true, until we write new ones.
The ending is the last word on evolution, which has been redefined as constant renewal, not constant improvement. It’s a maternal vision and though full of love, it allows, a little chillingly, for the return of the inherited depravities, and even the coming of the Beast. You can’t dispose of ‘amorality’ quite so easily.
AF: Talk a bit about Zola’s depiction of women. The valiant physician scientist is the protagonist, but he is somewhat overshadowed by his elderly mother, who is obsessed with erasing his life’s work (research into the hereditary basis for the family’s crimes and illnesses) to protect the family’s reputation and his 25-year-old niece, who falls in love with Pascal once she overcomes her religious objections to his empiricism. And then there is a loyal female servant who is caring but also destructive. Three conflicting visions of femininity and nurturing.
Rose: The valiant physician scientist is the main protagonist, but he is surrounded by women, ruled by the three women in his life. Zola does all three women well. They are real, in sharper focus at times than Pascal, who is a sort of eternal innocent, a man who ‘hasn’t lived’. When we meet up with him here, he’s living in relative harmony with his devoted long-term maid Martine and his niece Clotilde, who has been in his care since she was 7 and has become his able assistant and disciple, in a way. His domineering mother Félicité lives not far away and is always popping in, itching to get her hands on Pascal’s work, as you say.
When the novel opens we see a scene of quiet domesticity that is about to change. The note of disharmony is quickly introduced: science vs religion, scientific truth vs the promise of eternal bliss – or social prestige, Félicité’s secularised idea of heaven and eternal life on earth. The three woman form a battlefront against him, they are the enemy within, and it’s a convincingly brutal war. I love the way Zola portrays Pascal’s descent into hell, and madness, and the horribly plausible way the awful Félicité manipulates Martine and Clotilde into furthering her aims.
Zola was largely brought up by his mother, after her husband, Zola’s father, died when Emile was 7. There’s no suggestion Félicité was based on her, but Emile certainly understands the suffocating power of a toxic maternal relationship.
And the pious Martine, exhausted by looking after him for 30 years and soon eaten up with jealousy in her unacknowledged love, is a gem, too. The portrait is done with subtlety, and sympathy, filled out with her miserliness and hardness and the absoluteness of her final rejection of Clotilde, despite nurturing her as a mother all those years. Martine’s shrewdness with money and devotion to it is a nice foil for Pascal’s hopeless, and emotionally costly, financial ineptitude.
As you suggest, nurturing issues are critical, the notion of motherhood is critical. Clotilde will turn out to be the good mother, or the promise of a good mother, but she will be left to raise her child alone in a future we won’t see. Meanwhile, the relationship with Clotilde is key to the novel and this translation. She is portrayed as Pascal’s equal, the other half of his brain, his other self. This is 1873, the back of beyond, so Clotilde is not a doctor, not on the same social and professional footing. But she has been educated by him, and has educated herself in the natural sciences. And she’s a gifted artist. This is important. In that opening scene, we are introduced to her abilities as an artist in the form of a dichotomy: the faithful, painstaking reproductions of real flowers, to serve as colorplates for Pascal’s work, and the imaginative creations of flowers that don’t exist. Pascal derides these as absurd, but he’s proud and impressed, and they go on the wall. What might have been a facile opposition between art and science becomes a study of creativity in all forms – art and science.
She’s already in love with Pascal, but has to undergo her own troubled evolution, spurred by Pascal, to see it and act on it. She is the one who initiates their love affair. The science vs religion debate that triggers that development is like torrid foreplay. Despite being sapped a little by the incantatory Biblical references, the sex is unbridled.
But her role in the narrative doesn’t stop with the development of her relationship with Pascal. The vision of life, of the place of art and mysticism, that forms the long final meditation, is hers. It feels like the most contemporary vision of all. I just read about the Vatican health conference that will take place in May this year. Clotilde could have been a keynote speaker.
AF: One way in which Doctor Pascal is modern is in its meta-fictional elements. Pascal’s ‘research’ is made up of his looks into the lives (particularly the heredity strengths and weaknesses) of the Rougon-Macquart family members in Zola’s novels. Is this the portrait of the artist as a diagnostician?
Rose: That’s exactly it. It’s quite a radical innovation, and the reason this is such an apt finish to the cycle, which, in Zola’s stated view, it ‘sums up’. The summing up is the new tool. Pascal’s records consist of everything the doctor can get his hands on: stories, gossip, newspaper reports, personal observations, applied theory, medical histories, scientific studies: it’s all grist for the mill.
AF: Doctor Pascal is autobiographical: like his hero, Zola fell in love with a much younger woman. Is Pascal an idealized portrait of the author?
Rose: Zola seems to have thought so. He referred to Jeanne as ‘my Clotilde’ in the copy of the novel he gave her. When he fled to London for a year in 1898, he signed in to his hotel as Pascal. We can see that there might be an element of self-idealisation in the insistence on Pascal’s goodness. Zola was a married man when he fell in love with Jeanne, who was hired by his wife as domestic help. They had an affair and two children together, which must have been particularly hard for his wife, as the Zolas were childless (although Madame Zola did have a child out of wedlock before she married Zola: she had been a lesssiveuse, a boiler of clothes, which carried an implication of sexual availability, like many other working-class jobs for women). A good man can be forgiven anything, and Zola eventually was forgiven by his wife.
There is certainly an insistence on the age gap: 35 years in the novel. Zola turns Pascal’s age into a sign of moral venerability, and a potent aspect of his sexual attractiveness, with Clotilde being given to declaring that she loves him because he’s old.
AF: What are the challenges for translating Zola today? How different was it to translate Pascal than Earth? They are very different novels.
Rose: For me, translating is a physical exercise, as much as anything else. The effort to master the author’s voice is visceral, it involves a deep level of physical and sensory response, as well as emotional and intellectual intelligence. There’s an issue, always, of clarity, which in Zola means unravelling sentences that can be knotty and complex, and yet coming up with something that isn’t misrepresentative. You have to be sensitive to cadence, to the music, and the tension and energy of the original.
This takes a lot of stamina, as well as inventiveness. As I say in my Translator’s Note, there are scenes in Pascal that are so harrowing, I had to get up and walk away – just as its first translator, Ernest Vizetelly reported doing in 1894. It didn’t help that a beloved brother-in-law died suddenly of a heart attack, just as I reached that particular point in the first draft. He was the same age – old for the day, young for us. That’s on a personal level, but that’s where literature and language engage us most. Zola does the stillness and majesty of Pascal’s death beautifully, and it makes the destruction of his work – his offspring – all the uglier.
The poetic moments involved a lot of creative gusto that was exhilarating. But one of the things that, I hope, makes my translation fresh and new is the portrayal of Clotilde. I took particular care in my choice of words, here. There is nothing I’ve superimposed or made up: all the words I chose are available in the group of synonyms for the terms Zola uses to describe her or refer to her. But what a difference it makes, to decide ‘dutiful’ might best be translated in a particular context as ‘biddable’ or ‘supportive’ or ‘responsive’. Or that ‘la chimérique’ might best be translated as ‘the visionary’, to give an idea of the strength of her originality. She is radical, rebellious and intense – not off with the fairies.
Of course translating Earth involved the same processes. The parricide scene was hard for me to do. It is so violent, so relentlessly and graphically brutal, that I could only do it in short bursts. This is Zola at his most savage. It really is breathtakingly horrible. On the other hand, the beautifully boisterous and vulgar farting scene was a joy to translate.
With both Earth and Pascal, I had the feeling that the people were real; that there were ways to renew their vitality, refresh the energy and vigor of the writing, remove the tarnish of age, produce something that made the real thing available to readers. That’s what retranslation aims to do.
There is a crucial element of trust in translating anything, a twin pact: you have a pact with the author to rewrite their work in another language as closely and sensitively as you can, without anything being lost in translation. This means producing the same impact on your audience as the original had on its. And that’s the second pact: to give your audience an experience that honors their trust in the translation.
AF: Mortality is very much on Zola’s mind in Doctor Pascal. Its death scenes are powerful and cover an amazing range, from sensational horror sendoffs to clinical depictions. What was it like to translate them?
Rose: Mortality is a meta-theme and an element of the plot in Pascal. We’ve got the five generations of the Rougon-Macquarts that form Pascal’s closest family, including him. This is his special field of research, from the decrepit Tante Dide to the decadent young Charles. The meta-story requires the demise of the diseased branch. I really relished the ‘peripheral’ death scenes of Charles and Uncle Macquart: fabulous writing. Charles’ death is appropriately exquisite; Uncle Macquart’s both disturbing and zestful. Zola enjoyed every minute of it, and so do we. But the sensational thing is that he makes all the death scenes work, emotionally and metaphysically, without actual melodrama. The trick is in the muscularity of the cadences and the pungency of the verbs.
I’ve mentioned the very powerful depiction of Pascal’s death and its aftermath, the death of his ideas, Clotilde’s bereavement…
There’s another death I should mention, as one ‘left inconsolable with grief’ after the death of an ‘adored dog’. That’s the death of Bonhomme, the poor old family horse, who dies of old age. It’s done in the quiet mode reserved for animals, but the fact that it’s there is progressive. It’s a moving passage, on the importance of animals as blood and kin. Blood is the reigning metaphor, but this is also an intuition borne out by epigenetics in our day. Bravo, Zola.
AF: How has the reception been to OUP’s re-translations of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series? It seems to me that Zola’s championing of scientific truth over superstition and lies would make Doctor Pascal particularly compelling — but do you think its love story holds up?
Rose: You’re right that the championing of scientific truth over superstition and lies resonates with readers of Pascal at this point in time. Narrow-minded religiosity persists, such attitudes keep being recycled, keep cropping up, shift church and affiliation and steam on. We also debate the role of science and vested interests in that debate. These issues are ongoing.
I think the love story holds up. The passion feels real, the love is convincing. But what might be more hauntingly memorable now is the sadness of its ending, the awful absoluteness of loss, no matter how ‘positive’ the final rallying note.
This translation is new. It’s had some positive reviews and a glowing one, by poet Peter Boyle. There has also been fan mail. One reader, who has read all the translations in the RM retranslation project, writes that he ‘can hear Zola’s voice’ in this translation and in all the others; and he has expressed appreciation for the translator’s notes and and explanatory notes that accompany the texts as being ‘useful in providing context as to the translator’s philosophy and explaining specific translation decisions’. That seems to have been a shared response to the series, as is his gratitude to OUP and its team of gifted scholars.
Julie Rose is an internationally renowned translator of French, who has translated over 40 books and plays, and numerous essays, including works by some of France’s most highly-prized writers, both classical and contemporary: Racine, Molière, Victor Hugo (with the world’s first fully original, unexpurgated English translation of Les Misérables), Emile Zola, Alexandre Dumas père, André Schwarz-Bart, André Gorz of Letter to D: A Love Story fame, foremost cultural critic Paul Virilio, Jacques Rancière, Chantal Thomas, Hubert Damisch, Bruno Latour and many more.
She was made a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des arts et des lettres by the French government in 2016, and elected an Honorary Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities in 2019. Her most recently won prize was the Australian Academy of the Humanities 2018 Medal for Excellence in Translation for her translation of Philippe Paquet, Simon Leys. Navigator Between Worlds.