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WITH the present work M. Zola completes the "Trilogy of the Three
Cities," which he began with "Lourdes" and continued with "Rome"; and
thus the adventures and experiences of Abbe Pierre Froment, the doubting
Catholic priest who failed to find faith at the miraculous grotto by the
Cave, and hope amidst the crumbling theocracy of the Vatican, are here
brought to what, from M. Zola's point of view, is their logical
conclusion. From the first pages of "Lourdes," many readers will have
divined that Abbe Froment was bound to finish as he does, for, frankly,
no other finish was possible from a writer of M. Zola's opinions.
Taking the Trilogy as a whole, one will find that it is essentially
symbolical. Abbe Froment is Man, and his struggles are the struggles
between Religion, as personified by the Roman Catholic Church, on the one
hand, and Reason and Life on the other. In the Abbe's case the victory
ultimately rests with the latter; and we may take it as being M. Zola's
opinion that the same will eventually be the case with the great bulk of
mankind. English writers are often accused of treating subjects from an
insular point of view, and certainly there may be good ground for such a
charge. But they are not the only writers guilty of the practice. The
purview of French authors is often quite as limited: they regard French
opinion as the only good opinion, and judge the rest of the world by
their own standard. In the present case, if we leave the world and
mankind generally on one side, and apply M. Zola's facts and theories to
France alone, it will be found, I think, that he has made out a
remarkably good case for himself. For it is certain that Catholicism, I
may say Christianity, is fast crumbling in France. There may be revivals
in certain limited circles, efforts of the greatest energy to prop up the
tottering edifice by a "rallying" of believers to the democratic cause,
and by a kindling of the most bitter anti-Semitic warfare; but all these
revivals and efforts, although they are extremely well-advertised and
create no little stir, produce very little impression on the bulk of the
population. So far as France is concerned, the policy of Leo XIII. seems
to have come too late. The French masses regard Catholicism or
Christianity, whichever one pleases, as a religion of death,--a religion
which, taking its stand on the text "There shall always be poor among
you," condemns them to toil and moil in poverty and distress their whole
life long, with no other consolation than the promise of happiness in
heaven. And, on the other hand, they see the ministers of the Deity,
"whose kingdom is not of this world," supporting the wealthy and
powerful, and striving to secure wealth and power for themselves. Charity
exists, of course, but the masses declare that it is no remedy; they do
not ask for doles, they ask for Justice. It is largely by reason of all
this that Socialism and Anarchism have made such great strides in France
of recent years. Robespierre, as will be remembered, once tried to
suppress Christianity altogether, and for a time certainly there was a
virtually general cessation of religious observances in France. But no
such Reign of Terror prevails there to-day. Men are perfectly free to
believe if they are inclined to do so; and yet never were there fewer
religious marriages, fewer baptisms or smaller congregations in the
French churches. I refer not merely to Paris and other large cities, but
to the smaller towns, and even the little hamlets of many parts. Old
village priests, men practising what they teach and possessed of the most
loving, benevolent hearts, have told me with tears in their eyes of the
growing infidelity of their parishioners.
I have been studying this matter for some years, and write without
prejudice, merely setting down what I believe to be the truth. Of course
we are all aware that the most stupendous efforts are being made by the
Catholic clergy and zealous believers to bring about a revival of the
faith, and certainly in some circles there has been a measure of success.
But the reconversion of a nation is the most formidable of tasks; and, in
my own opinion, as in M. Zola's, France as a whole is lost to the
Christian religion. On this proposition, combined with a second one,
namely, that even as France as a nation will be the first to discard
Christianity, so she will be the first to promulgate a new faith based on
reason, science and the teachings of life, is founded the whole argument
of M. Zola's Trilogy.
Having thus dealt with the Trilogy's religious aspects, I would now speak
of "Paris," its concluding volume. This is very different from "Lourdes"
and "Rome." Whilst recounting the struggles and fate of Abbe Froment and
his brother Guillaume, and entering largely into the problem of Capital
and Labour, which problem has done so much to turn the masses away from
Christianity, it contains many an interesting and valuable picture of the
Parisian world at the close of the nineteenth century. It is no
guide-book to Paris; but it paints the city's social life, its rich and
poor, its scandals and crimes, its work and its pleasures. Among the
households to which the reader is introduced are those of a banker, an
aged Countess of the old /noblesse/, a cosmopolitan Princess, of a kind
that Paris knows only too well, a scientist, a manufacturer, a working
mechanician, a priest, an Anarchist, a petty clerk and an actress of a
class that so often dishonours the French stage. Science and art and
learning and religion, all have their representatives. Then, too, the
political world is well to the front. There are honest and unscrupulous
Ministers of State, upright and venal deputies, enthusiastic and cautious
candidates for power, together with social theoreticians of various
schools. And the /blase/, weak-minded man of fashion is here, as well as
the young "symbolist" of perverted, degraded mind. The women are of all
types, from the most loathsome to the most lovable. Then, too, the
journalists are portrayed in such life-like fashion that I might give
each of them his real name. And journalism, Parisian journalism, is
flagellated, shown as it really is,--if just a few well-conducted organs
be excepted,--that is, venal and impudent, mendacious and even petty.
The actual scenes depicted are quite as kaleidoscopic as are the
characters in their variety. We enter the banker's gilded saloon and the
hovel of the pauper, the busy factory, the priest's retired home and the
laboratory of the scientist. We wait in the lobbies of the Chamber of
Deputies, and afterwards witness "a great debate"; we penetrate into the
private sanctum of a Minister of the Interior; we attend a fashionable
wedding at the Madeleine and a first performance at the Comedie
Francaise; we dine at the Cafe Anglais and listen to a notorious vocalist
in a low music hall at Montmartre; we pursue an Anarchist through the
Bois de Boulogne; we slip into the Assize Court and see that Anarchist
tried there; we afterwards gaze upon his execution by the guillotine; we
are also on the boulevards when the lamps are lighted for a long night of
revelry, and we stroll along the quiet streets in the small hours of the
morning, when crime and homeless want are prowling round.
And ever the scene changes; the whole world of Paris passes before one.
Yet the book, to my thinking, is far less descriptive than analytical.
The souls of the principal characters are probed to their lowest depths.
Many of the scenes, too, are intensely dramatic, admirably adapted for
the stage; as, for instance, Baroness Duvillard's interview with her
daughter in the chapter which I have called "The Rivals." And side by
side with baseness there is heroism, while beauty of the flesh finds its
counterpart in beauty of the mind. M. Zola has often been reproached for
showing us the vileness of human nature; and no doubt such vileness may
be found in "Paris," but there are contrasting pictures. If some of M.
Zola's characters horrify the reader, there are others that the latter
can but admire. Life is compounded of good and evil, and unfortunately it
is usually the evil that makes the most noise and attracts the most
attention. Moreover, in M. Zola's case, it has always been his purpose to
expose the evils from which society suffers in the hope of directing
attention to them and thereby hastening a remedy, and thus, in the course
of his works, he could not do otherwise than drag the whole frightful
mass of human villany and degradation into the full light of day. But if
there are, again, black pages in "Paris," others, bright and comforting,
will be found near them. And the book ends in no pessimist strain.
Whatever may be thought of the writer's views on religion, most readers
will, I imagine, agree with his opinion that, despite much social
injustice, much crime, vice, cupidity and baseness, we are ever marching
on to better things.
In the making of the coming, though still far-away, era of truth and
justice, Paris, he thinks, will play the leading part, for whatever the
stains upon her, they are but surface-deep; her heart remains good and
sound; she has genius and courage and energy and wit and fancy. She can
be generous, too, when she chooses, and more than once her ideas have
irradiated the world. Thus M. Zola hopes much from her, and who will
gainsay him? Not I, who can apply to her the words which Byron addressed
to the home of my own and M. Zola's forefathers:--
"I loved her from my boyhood; she to me
Was as a fairy city of the heart."
Thus I can but hope that Paris, where I learnt the little I know, where I
struggled and found love and happiness, whose every woe and disaster and
triumph I have shared for over thirty years, may, however dark the clouds
that still pass over her, some day fully justify M. Zola's confidence,
and bring to pass his splendid dream of perfect truth and perfect
E. A. V.
MERTON, SURREY, ENGLAND,
Feb. 5, 1898.
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