It is, of course, the celebrity attaching to certain of M. Zola’s literary efforts that has stimulated the demand for his other writings. Among those which are well worthy of being read for their own sakes, I would assign a prominent place to the present volume. Much of the story element in it is admirable, and, further, it shows M. Zola as a genuine satirist and humorist. The Rougons’ yellow drawing-room and its habitues, and many of the scenes between Pierre Rougon and his wife Felicite, are worthy of the pen of Douglas Jerrold. The whole account, indeed, of the town of Plassans, its customs and its notabilities, is satire of the most effective kind, because it is satire true to life, and never degenerates into mere caricature.
It is a rather curious coincidence that, at the time when M. Zola was thus portraying the life of Provence, his great contemporary, bosom friend, and rival for literary fame, the late Alphonse Daudet, should have been producing, under the title of “The Provencal Don Quixote,” that unrivalled presentment of the foibles of the French Southerner, with everyone nowadays knows as “Tartarin of Tarascon.” It is possible that M. Zola, while writing his book, may have read the instalments of “Le Don Quichotte Provencal” published in the Paris “Figaro,” and it may be that this perusal imparted that fillip to his pen to which we owe the many amusing particulars that he gives us of the town of Plassans. Plassans, I may mention, is really the Provencal Aix, which M. Zola’s father provided with water by means of a canal still bearing his name. M. Zola himself, though born in Paris, spent the greater part of his childhood there. Tarascon, as is well known, never forgave Alphonse Daudet for his “Tartarin”; and in a like way M. Zola, who doubtless counts more enemies than any other literary man of the period, has none bitterer than the worthy citizens of Aix. They cannot forget or forgive the rascally Rougon-Macquarts.
The name Rougon-Macquart has to me always suggested that splendid and amusing type of the cynical rogue, Robert Macaire. But, of course, both Rougon and Macquart are genuine French names and not inventions. Indeed, several years ago I came by chance upon them both, in an old French deed which I was examining at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. I there found mention of a Rougon family and a Macquart family dwelling virtually side by side in the same village. This, however, was in Champagne, not in Provence. Both families farmed vineyards for a once famous abbey in the vicinity of Epernay, early in the seventeenth century. To me, personally, this trivial discovery meant a great deal. It somehow aroused my interest in M. Zola and his works. Of the latter I had then only glanced through two or three volumes. With M. Zola himself I was absolutely unacquainted. However, I took the liberty to inform him of my little discovery; and afterwards I read all the books that he had published. Now, as it is fairly well known, I have given the greater part of my time, for several years past, to the task of familiarising English readers with his writings. An old deed, a chance glance, followed by the great friendship of my life and years of patient labour. If I mention this matter, it is solely with the object of endorsing the truth of the saying that the most insignificant incidents frequently influence and even shape our careers.