Life. Happiness. Depression. Responsibility. Love. Sacrifice. Boredom. Isolation. Charity. Jealousy. Purpose. Disappointment. Resilience. Pain.
Those are the words that came to me when I asked myself what the novel The Bright Side of Life by Émile Zola was about. The original French title is Le Joie de Vivre, and is also commonly known in english as ‘The Joy of Living’. To be honest, I’m not a big fan of the Oxford World’s Classics english title The Bright Side of Life (translated by Andrew Rothwell). It is too close for me to the Monty Python song Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, which I see no relevance to at all with the novel, and only serves to get the song stuck in my head every time I think of those words. But hey, it is what it is, and the translator has every right to name it how they wish.
Published in 1884, it is the 12th novel of Émile Zola’s Les Rougon-Macquart cycle, and is for me the most unique and isolated of the novels I have read so far. It is set in a coastal village in Normandy, and makes very few references to the characters or events in other Rougon-Macquart novels. Zola wanted his Rougon-Macquart novels to be a study of french life during the Second Empire (1852-1870), but whilst this novel is definitely a study, there is little to connect it to the Second Empire. But more on that later.
So, The Bright Side of Life, this is going to be a cheery book, hey? Keep me fuzzy and warm during the increasingly depressing events of 2020, surely? Well………how do I break this to you? No. Not really. Or…..it’s complicated. Yes, it’s complicated. That’s probably more accurate.
Joy definitely creeps up every now and then throughout the novel, and there are some lovely thoughts on joy and happiness, but the novel runs through a sea of disappointment, struggle and despair, again and again. I deliberately said ‘sea’ there because the sea is a key character and feature of the novel. Life in the novel takes place right next to the sea. Set in the fictitious town called Bonneville (‘Goodtown’ – Zola is definitely messing with us), the sea helps the characters create lasting bonds, provides joy, and destroys at the same time.
The central character in the novel is Pauline Quenu, previously featured in the 1873 novel The Belly of Paris (Le Ventre de Paris). She is now a 10 year old orphan, who has been adopted by her uncle and auntie, Monsier and Madame Chanteau, and by doing so, leaves Paris for the Normandy coast. She has been left with a sizeable inheritance, which causes jealousy, unrest and scheming within the household.
The Chanteau’s have a son called Lazare, who by my reckoning is 9 years older than Pauline, but they strike up a very profound and deep friendship. They regularly explore the area by the sea together in playful dalliances, and Pauline takes an interest in the many passing schemes and interests of Lazare. From becoming a maestro pianist, to extracting valuable minerals from seaweed, to saving the town from the sea by building coastal defences, Lazare’s interests are many and fleeting at the same time.
Whilst not a thriller in any sense of the word (this is a Zola novel), it is an incredibly charming novel, and in Pauline, has one of Zola’s greatest and most lovable characters to appear in any of the Rougon-Macquart novels. She is always thinking of others before herself (though this may occasionally slip); financing their plans and ambitions, helping the local poverty-stricken children, and being a nurse to Monsier Chanteau, who suffers from regular debilitating bouts of gout, often brought on by his lack of discipline in refraining from foods he knows will bring on an attack. Pauline becomes the only person who can ease Chanteau’s pain, and therefore becomes indispensable to him.
She is not so kindly looked on by Madame Chanteau, who though initially appreciative of Pauline’s positive influence on the household, begins to become irritated and accuses her to others of being selfish. She helps herself to Pauline’s fortune, all the while knowing that Pauline will not fight hard to protect something, she does not give much value to in life.
The final character in the household, is the long serving (and suffering) maid, Véronique. Not delighted at first with Pauline’s presence in the household, she becomes much more appreciative and warm towards Pauline, when she notices how she gets taken advantage of by the others. The treatment of Pauline becomes an increasing frustration to her.
There are regular visitors to the household; Doctor Cazenove, whose frequent and unsocial hours requirements at the Chanteau’s must make him one of the most sleep deprived doctors that can be found, the local priest Abbé Horteur, providing often ignored spiritual guidance, and most importantly, a young girl named Louise who becomes a key factor on the development between the relationship between Pauline and Lazare.
Though hard to determine exactly how long, the novel takes place over a period of at least 15 years. This would mean the timeline of the novel runs from about 1863 to well into the 1870’s, years after the french defeat in the Franco-Prussian war, and long after the end of the Second Empire.
This is important, because these events are not referred to in the novel at all, as they are in Nana and The Debacle. Therefore, I believe isolation is a key theme of this novel, as world events seem to take place, without any knowledge or care by this coastal community. The novel easily could have been set either 40 years earlier or after, and it still could be the same.
The characters all struggle to break free from this isolated household and community, and often the ones that manage to, always end up coming back. It indeeds seems that death is the only way out…..
Mental health also seems to be a key theme of the novel, long before it was a term and concern in modern society. It shows to me, as with other classic books, that often the struggles we have today have actually always been around and reflected upon by great minds.
Lazare is a particular focus of mental well-being, and from reading the descriptions of his behaviour, it seems clear that he suffers from anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and almost certainly bipolar disorder as well. This manifests in his increasing boredom with the world and his terrible fear of death (thanatophobia). He is a cynical and hopeless character, but is often distracted by his latest scheme and plan for his life, as brief as it may turn out.
I have to admit that I did see some of myself in Lazare’s character. Not his awful depression or fear of death, but in his struggle to stay focussed on one particular purpose in life, and his constant shifting of ideas and projects to stay stimulated. I’m not nihilistic like Lazare, but I find myself questioning the meaning of life a great deal.
I found solace in the knowledge that Zola wrote later in life that Lazare is a semi-autobiographical character of himself (particularly in his younger days), and in that sense, it shows that purpose and direction can be found in life, despite whatever personalities are handed down to us by nature and/or God.
I said that there is a lot of depression and despair in the novel, but it is a pleasure to read. Perhaps a slow burner, it nevertheless builds the characters and the emotions between them really well, and despite not being a thriller, there are passages that are indeed gripping. Pauline is a character you can’t help but root for throughout the novel, and her story is both tragic and inspiring at the same time.
It is often said that Zola’s novels in the Rougon-Macquart cycle can be read as stand-alone novels. I’m not sure I agree with this sentiment. I mean, of course you can read them how you like, but for me, a lot of the novels work especially well, and are further enhanced, because of their relationship and connection with other novels in the series.
Having said that, I believe The Bright Side of Life can be read as a stand-alone novel, as there are very few references to other characters and events in other novels. The few that there are do not need further background reading to understand this novel.
I’d highly recommend reading other titles in the Les Rougon-Macquart series as well, but if you are looking for a Zola novel, that can be read without prior knowledge of the other novels, involving a deep study of an isolated community, and in particular the tensions, frustrations and joy within a specific household, then The Bright Side of Life will fit nicely into your summer reading plan.
Quotes from The Bright Side of Life
“Evil and poverty went together, and she was never repelled by suffering, even when it seemed to be the consequence of vice. She simply expressed, with an expansive gesture of protest, her charitable tolerance.”
“Why should such an abomination as pain exist? Was not all such bodily torture, such twisting and burning of the muscles, monstrously pointless, when it was a poor girl’s body, so white and delicate, that the disease was attacking?”
“Suddenly she felt a sense of release, accompanied by deep pity for that unhappy woman, so consumed by fear and hatred.”
“Anyhow, he was one of those who never complain, whose ambition is satisfied when they have bread to eat and water to drink.”
“Why can’t you just live? Isn’t it enough to be alive? Joy comes from action.”
“From now on, this became Pauline’s great endeavour. She applied all her energy and ingenuity to making the household happy around her.”
“And a fine life that will be, for a woman like me! A real prison, without even the chance of going out and seeing anyone; and that stupid sea wherever you look, which seems to make the place even more boring….Oh! If only I’d known, if only!”
“What would there be left for her to do, if the household became too happy?”
Songs that will always remind me of reading The Bright Side of Life
Winter Song by Chris Rea
Sing a Song of Love to Me by Chris Rea
Mary Anne by Marshall Crenshaw