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The Earth (1980)

The Earth (1980)

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4.07 of 5 Votes: 1
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0140443878 (ISBN13: 9780140443875)
penguin classics

About book The Earth (1980)

The EarthEmile ZolaAccording to the book's back cover, Zola regarded this as his greatest novel. As a humble reader of Zola, I'd put it behind Germinal, Nana, Debacle, Ladies' Paradise and Belly of Paris. But, being a work of Zola, it's still a gritty and thought-provoking look at 19th century life in France. Jean Macquart, a former soldier, comes to the farming community of Beauce, looking for a peaceful haven and honest work after his life in the army. By book's end, Macquart's attitude had changed: “To think that he had been so blissfully happy the day he left the army after the Italian campaign, because he wouldn't be a sabre-rattler or a killer any more! And ever since then he had been living amongst savages surrounded by foul play of every sort!”Macquart stumbles into a blood feud between the elderly Fouan, his three grown children and Fouan's bitter elderly sister who only lives to create strife within the family. Fouan had inherited land from his father, who had inherited it from his father. Down through the generations, peasant families would assemble tiny plots of land until they had modest holdings which became the centre of their lives. For Fouan “he adored his land like a woman who will kill you and for whom your will commit murder.” Yet, the land also tore some families apart, as offspring would circle their elders like jackals and turn on one another to gain control of the land. The book is essentially the story of the elder Fouan being destroyed by his children as they fought him and one another. While Zola often lionized the working class, he had little respect for the rural peasantry, who are portrayed as largely ignorant and hanging on to obviously inefficient and self-defeating ways of working the land and earning a living.As in other Zola novels, you discover that many “modern” social and political issues have been with us for centuries. Several of his characters engage in debates about free trade vs. protectionism. One character laments: “Everything is going to buggery – the next generation will see the land go bankrupt. Did you know that these days our small farmers, who used to pinch and scrape to save enough to buy a bit of land that they had had their eye on for years, now invest in stocks and shares, Spanish or Portuguese or even Mexican?” Hmmm...and this more than 100 years before the development of mutual funds.

This is one of the weaker volumes in Les Rougon-Macquart and, oddly, Zola's personal favorite. I'd place it somewhere in the middle tier of these novels, for while the narrative can become pretty tedious and the story bone-thin, it's the striking nature of the characters and their often grim and psychotic machinations that keep the novel worth reading. Forget any assocation with the other novels, they're tenuous at best. Zola had soured on the ideas of inheritance of psychological traits by this point and the Macquart here, Jean, brother of Gervaise, is one of the shallower characters. The real story is of the collapse of the Fouan family's land holdings as the elder Fouan divvies up his farmlands between his three kids, all shitty people to varying degress. The main focus is on Buteau, the youngest, who is quite the shitass, who covets the land to a psychotic degree and is constantly trying to rape the crap out of his youthful sister-in-law. The latter, Francoise, is one of the more memorable characters, through her ambiguity and her uniqueness. The story of her and Jean is the most tumultuous and dark parts of the story. Buteau's brother Jesus Christ (as he's nicknamed because of his appearance) is another great character for his violent, eruptive, at-will farting (no shit, half his time in the book concerns his talented anus) and carousing. With some characters, Zola really went to the wall to flesh them out, others suffer grandly and are mostly superfluous, but the novel, especially the last quarter, has some great, dastardly moments that defy the reader. Probably best for the completist only.

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Zola begins telling a pastoral tale of farming, which ends in a rape double-homicide. Zola's world is populated by believable, intriguing characters. The scoundrel Jesus Christ (only named so because of the way he looks), shrewd and greedy La Grande (so spiteful that she creates her will so that her 'beneficiaries' will tear each other apart suing each other over it. So thrifty that she goes to a neighbor's house at night, to spare herself the cost of a candle.) And Fouan who divides his land am
—Chase Better

I read the free Kindle version from Amazon (translated as 'The Soil'). It had been scanned in and none of the scanning mistakes had been corrected, so at times you had to guess what a word was! But, hey, it was free!It was subtitled 'a realistic novel' - which would have offended most country folk at the time since in one small village we find murder, incest, sexual harrassment, rape of a pregnant woman, abortion, someone burning their father alive, self-mutilation to avoid conscription, and a wonderful assortment of adulteries, deceits, robbery and other crookedness.In one chapter I kept laughing out loud, which hasn't happened while reading Zola before. I think he probably wrote more about farting in just one chapter than I've ever read in any entire book.
—Nick Park

Pretty different take on the countryside than La Faute... Similarities include beasty sex, the enduringness of green, the poverty of the church. This one's more about the people: a wider scope of catching the automatons at work and at play.I guess the cruelty and small-mindedness of the peasants got tiring after a while. It seems like a fairly easy book for Z to put together. But a fairly wide variety of rural 'types' sketched out.I like that it doesn't just end with everybody starving, which would have been an even easier way out. Disaster looms (industrialists, invincible American fields), and that's enough for me.

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