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The Bright Side of Life
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B+ : much of the basic story too familiar and predictable, but goes just far enough beyond that too
See our review for fuller assessment.
The complete review's Review:
In its outlines, The Bright Side of Life sounds like any of hundreds of other nineteenth century novels, its basic arc and so much of what happens so very predictable.
The set-up already suggests the inevitable: ten-year-old Pauline Quenu is orphaned, and her aunt and uncle, the Chanteaus, are named her guardians; they bring the young girl from Paris to the desolate seaside town of Bonneville where they live with their son, Lazare, who has taken his baccalaureat exams but is uncertain of what to do next.
Pauline brings with her a substantial little fortune -- "one hundred and fifty thousand francs invested in solid stocks and shares" -- and, while the Chanteau family is to get an allowance for her room and board, the money is to be kept in trust until she comes of age -- but the Chanteaus' own financial situation is somewhat precarious, thanks to poor investments .....
It as the vision and feel of money that sparked feverish excitement in Madame Chanteau, sweeping aside Pauline's paltry sixty thousand in her dream of conquering this newcomer with her fortune intact.Yet for all the predictable trajectory of the story, and the expected hurts and tragedies, Lazare's continued incapability of settling on any one thing (much less making a success of it), and Pauline being taken advantage of, again and again, The Bright Side of Life does offer a few surprises, while Zola also manages some aspects of the novel particularly well, allowing the novel to rise beyond the otherwise so familiar family melodrama cum sob-story it sometimes is in danger of bogging down as.
It begins with the locale, hopeless Bonneville, which is battered by the sea: "twice a day with its perpetual swell". The town is literally being washed away and smashed to bits, and over the course of the novel the sea takes back more and more of the land, repeatedly washing away local families' houses. The novel is almost ridiculous in its atmospheric excess, with its use of weather -- there are a lot of storms, beginning with the bad weather when Pauline first arrives -- and this village that is, piece by piece, falling apart and being washed away by the sea -- but for the most part, this works.
The locals themselves are a hopeless lot, too, impoverished and dissolute, with even Abbé Horteur having given up on his parishioners:
For fifteen years he had attempted, in vain, to scare them, so now he asked of them only to have the good manners to walk up to his church on important feast days. The whole of Bonneville did indeed go, out of lingering habit, despite the sinful degeneracy in which the villagers wallowedChanteau is actually the mayor of the village, but, suffering from debilitating and painful gout, he is housebound -- and increasingly immobile as the story progresses, the disease painfully crippling him. The rapacious Madame Chanteau meanwhile becomes increasngly money-crazed, justifying her unethical behavior by her single-minded devotion to her son and her visions of the grandeur due him; her increasing dependence on Pauline also leads her to loathe the girl in an effective portrait of progressive character-distortion (beginning nicely early on, when: "Deep down, Madame Chanteau did feel vague scruples, the apprehension of an ultimate catastrophe that would ruin her ward"). Admirably, Zola only goes so far with Madame Chanteau's abuse of her position and her obsessions -- "a single passion had gradually devoured her being, and driven her insane" -- but even beyond that there is no calm sea in Bonneville.
Pauline is kind-hearted and aims to please, attending to her uncle and doing pretty much whatever is asked of her, including handing over, bit by bit, her fortune. She also tries to help the locals, giving alms and assistance to the local children and families, whose lives become ever more miserable and hopeless. Zola has several extended scenes of her weekly hand-outs, so well-meaning, even if the children are already all degenerates (with one girl giving birth at thirteen, and many youngsters already alcoholics). Constantly trying to do what's best, her help seems only to provide limited and short-lived benefits -- with everyone always wanting more: the local children looking for their hand-outs, Chanteau looking for sympathy, Madame Chanteau always on the lookout for more cash, and Lazare .....
Lazare is almost a comic figure in his flighty haplessness. He has grand dreams and ambitions, but can't see anything through. When Pauline arrives, he sees himself as an artist, ready to devote himself to music -- working on a 'Symphony of Suffering' and a 'March of Death' ("what a subject, what a creative challenge, in which he would sum up his whole philosophy"). Soon enough, he decides to embark on medical studies, but that doesn't last very long either. He does come back from university with a plan for a factory, but that enterprise is a failure (though, ultimately, not for his business partner, as is eventually nicely rubbed in). Eventually, he hatches another plan, nothing less than saving Bonneville from the sea -- this, too, fails spectacularly, a failure very nicely presented by Zola, down to the timing of it as well as the glee of the locals at it, even as it means their possible salvation is washed out to sea. And ultimately, of course, Lazare even wants to write a novel .....
If his inability to stick to any one thing is Lazare's fatal flaw, he also suffers from another that contributes to his life of aimless paralysis punctured only by brief intense flurries of enthusiasm: an absolute terror of death. Zola captures this fear of mortality -- and Lazare's general fascination with Schopenhauer -- well, too, including Pauline's awareness of it, and inability to really understand it. At times, it isn't too much of an issue -- and occasionally Lazare can admirably look beyond it to focus on the welfare of others, as when he nurses a gravely ill Pauline, or, in one of the book's odder scenes, bravely and with no fuss goes into a burning building to save an infant. At its worst, his fear becomes ridiculously near all-consuming:
Convinced that the end was imminent, he could not leave a room, or close a book, or use an object without believing it was his final act, that he would never see the object, book, or room again; so he had developed a constant habit of bidding farewell to things, and a morbid need to touch and see them one more time.Zola does allow Lazare some self-awareness -- and late in their story Lazare himself warns Pauline that even a brief sense of awareness on his part, and determination to do better, is unlikely to last:
'Learnt my lesson, perhaps ! I'm saying these things now because there are times when the truth will out, come what may. But tomorrow I shall slide back into all my old torments. Do we ever really change ? ... No, all won't be well, on the contrary, it'll get worse and worse. You know that as much as I do ... It's my own stupidity that infuriates me !Secondary characters, too, are well handled and utilized in the story, including the household dogs, as well as a long-lived and fecund cat (among the routines that carry through most of the story is the regular ritual of the drowning of her latest litter -- which the cat is so used to she doesn't even complain; even this creature is philosophical about the inevitable fate of her offspring). The doctor who can't stand up to Madame Chanteau, Cazenove, is helpful but only capable of so much; he's also surprisingly realistic and philosophical about the limits of modern medicine -- as perhaps he should be, as he is also described as having led quite a life before settling down in this quiet outback: "he had killed men of every colour, studied the effects of poison on Chinese people, and risked the lives of negroes in delicate vivisection experiments". Effective, too, is the other major presence in the household, taciturn and moody servant Véronique, devoted to Madame Chanteau, but also horrified at the treatment of Pauline, frequently complaining, but also a family-mainstay. The one constant presence in the household for the duration, beside her master, Pauline, and the cat, it is her final gesture of despair with which the book closes -- all the more effective because of her hardy, steadfast presence until that final point.
Lazare proves, in every respect, flighty. Pauline makes the greatest sacrifices for him, but he is unable to make anything of them. Drawn to each other, they both seem to realize they are not meant for each other either -- but then who could Lazare ever be satisfied with ? He can have his fun with Louise, but even here settling down proves quickly unsettling; amusingly enough, his catastrophic business sense see him shrink Louise's fortune alarmingly quickly, too.
Endlessly forbearing Pauline, on the other hand -- "Each morning she awoke with a smile on her lips, determined to hide her own troubles in order not to add to those of others" --, finds herself stuck, unable to free herself of the situation she finds herself in, even when opportunities offer themselves, and even as she knows it would be best for her. So even at the very end: "Every week for the last three months, she had been intending to leave on the following Monday", and yet she never can break free. Several times over the years she is on the verge, but, often at the very last minute, something always holds her back -- or rather someone, and her sense of duty. From whining old Chanteau up and down, the accommodating Pauline is easily guilted into staying on just a bit longer, sacrificing her own possible happiness for that of others. She always tries to make the best of things, but there's no question that she'd be better off elsewhere, and that she's stuck not just in a rut but an abyss. As Doctor Cazenove recognizes -- but is unable to do enough about --:
'Oh, that child is quite impossible ! And what a hornets' nest she's got herself into ! She'll never escape from it now.'Just how deep she's fallen becomes clear even to her when Lazare professes his lasting feelings to her: "You are the best and wisest of women ... and I still love you. I love you as I loved my mother" -- pretty much the last thing she wants to hear. And yet her reaction is simply:
She found the strength to reply:But the only one who is settling is Pauline, and that in all the wrong ways.
Pauline is not simply heartlessly taken advantage of; she is, in some ways, complicit, aware of the weaknesses of those around her, and giving in to those weaknesses. She judges it worth the cost: if her money can bring happiness, then she is genuinely happy to give it for whatever cause; when she is younger, her naïveté is readily excusable, but Zola's relentless showing of how all she does does barely any good, a temporary salve -- whether for Lazare's grand ambitions or the local children's hunger -- whose effects are soon entirely gone and forgotten suggests she should have at some point learned the larger lesson. It's all around her, too: the village of Bonneville itself -- what's left of it, after each storm and onrushing tide -- is proof that the power of nature can not be withstood or controlled, beyond temporarily -- a lesson that extends similarly to the Chanteau household that Pauline finds herself trapped in. Zola's vision isn't entirely bleak, but the vast majority of his characters are shallowly self-centered, and a soul like Pauline -- with all her own troubles and uncertainties -- has little chance to influence change, try as she might to assert herself in the positive manner that is her nature; she does her best, and she does good, but the sea as quickly comes and washes most of that away.
The Bright Side of Life is also particularly noteworthy for its treatment of the physical and sexual. As translator Andrew Rothwell notes in his Translator's Note, the earlier Ernest Vizetelly translations bowdlerized the text, and in restoring what had been previously cut this version certainly presents a text much closer to Zola's original intention -- in which the physical plays a significant role. This begins with Pauline being left ignorant of the facts of life as she reaches puberty -- leading to the shock of finding herself bleeding. A sensible girl, however, and with access to Lazare's medical books, she is able to educate herself about what Madame Chanteau couldn't bring herself to explain. She winds up with a somewhat clinical view of things, but Zola clearly means to send a message here, of how unconscionable it is not to make the young aware of these basic facts about their own bodies:
And Pauline now knew why the bloody flow of her puberty had spurted forth as if from ripe grapes trodden at harvest time. This mystery explained filled her with gravity, as she felt the tide of life surging within her. She was puzzled and bitter at her aunt's silence, and the complete ignorance in which she was trying to keep her. Why leave her in such terror ? It wasn't fair, there was nothing wrong with knowing.There's repeatedly physical tension between Pauline and Lazare, and Louise's presence makes for added frisson -- irresistible to Lazare, beginning with the first time when: "They had doubtless started in fun, but the game was ending badly". Separated from Louise, Lazare dreams about what he can not have while finding Pauline, right there in front of him, less and less appealing. At one point, Louise left a glove behind, and Lazare treasures this reminder of her -- he: "inhaled its scent, kissed it, and imagined that he was once more holding her tight in his arms, burying his lip in her neck". Shockingly, the memory-aid also serves as a different kind of helping hand:
This increased his sombre mood, until he even came to behave rudely to his cousin, as if blaming her for his own weakness. She no longer had any physical appeal for him, and he would occasionally flee in the middle of a cheerful conversation they were having, to lock himself away and indulge his vice, wallowing in burning recollections of the other girl.The expression can be stilted, to put it mildly, but Zola's attempts to capture Pauline's sexual frustration by acknowledging the physical are surely an improvement over the usual complete ignoring of it -- even if, for example, a scene of her menstruating leads to her despairing:
Alas, now the red rain of puberty was falling like the futile tears that her virginity wept within her. From now on, each month would bring its fresh flow, like grapes crushed at harvest-time, but never would she be a woman, and she would grow old in sterility !As things come to a head (yet again), Lazare and Pauline are almost overcome by their passions -- another expertly written scene, Pauline torn between giving in ("Oh, to live, to live at last !") and doing the right thing, and barely escaping Lazare's passion-blinded assault.
Impressive, too, is an extended -- very extended -- child-birth scene, in which both the mother and child are in danger of not making it, the midwife won't take responsibility (she's killed too many kids already ...), and Doctor Cazenove is attending ..... "Kill me, kill me now", the labouring mother-to-be stammers, in this raw and realistic depiction of child-birth -- prime Zola.
The Bright Side of Life is an odd novel; if ultimately successful, it is because, despite the familiar story, its central figure, Pauline, is neither completely a victim, nor ultimately a redeemed hero. If some of the characters -- the Chanteau-trio of mother, father, and son, in particular -- are almost too comic in their respective exaggerations, Pauline and also Véronique are realistically complicated -- and realistically flawed -- figures. Beyond that, The Bright Side of Life is impressively atmospheric -- whether the village of Bonneville itself or the intimates scenes between Lazare and Pauline, with all their conflicted feelings, Zola presents a rich backdrop that gives these episodes an impressive heightened intensity.
If annoying in part, such as the way Madame Chanteau takes advantage of her niece or the way over-indulged Lazare is predestined to large-scale failure at whatever he tries, Zola adds enough to this story to make for a vivid, memorable read. Quite worthwhile.
- M.A.Orthofer, 27 February 2019
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French author Émile Zola lived 1840 to 1902.
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