The Flood

The Flood by Émile Zola

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Authors: Émile Zola
    It rained non-stop for two weeks in the south of France during the summer of 1875. The Garonne – the 400-mile-long river that springs up in the Pyrenees, running northwest through Toulouse and Bordeaux – burst its banks, killing more than 1,000 people in the towns and villages that it swamped under nearly twelve metres of water. Days later, a newspaper reported that ‘the stench arising from the ruined quarter of Saint-Cyprien at Toulouse leads to the supposition that many bodies are yet lying beneath the stones of the fallen buildings’.
    Zola relished this kind of detail. At the time of the disaster, he was still trying to establish his reputation. ‘Although he works from morning until night and lives extremely modestly, he can hardly make ends meet,’ observed his friend Ivan Turgenev. ‘He stays at home all the time with his wife, never puts his gloves on, and doesn’t have a suit.’ Unlike Turgenev (the son of an heiress) Zola enjoyed no private wealth. His much-needed fees from journalism had dwindled after two of the newspapers for which he wrote were shut down, and the unimagined income from
(1877) – the harrowing novel of drink and debt that gave Zola his first taste of international celebrity – remained some time away. But there was hope. While his recent book
La Conquête de Plassan
s (
The Conquest of Plassans
, 1874) had flopped, with 170 copies sold in the six months since publication , its surprising popularity abroad won Zola a handy gig as the Paris correspondent of
Vestnik Evropy
European Herald)
, a St Petersburg monthly. Among the regular, lucrative ‘
Parizskie Pis’ma
’ (‘Letters from Paris’) that he contributed was ‘ Navod nenie ’ – ‘The Flood’ – ‘a sort of short story’, as Zola told his editor, featuring ‘the most tragic and most affecting incidents’ from ‘the floods that have laid waste to our southern districts’.
    ‘The Flood’ was written within a month of the disaster and possesses, in miniature, the characteristic attributes that animate Zola’s better-known fiction. It is told from the perspective of Louis Roubieu, a wealthy seventy-year-old farmer who lives in a village on the Garonne. The title is the story’s own spoiler. Plot has no role to play, and even if the past-tense narration plays its usual trick – lulling you into forgetting that
it’s already happened
– Louis tells us at the beginning, more or less, what we will have learned by the end. ‘The Flood’ relies on horror, not suspense. Zola revels, as usual, in the gruesome particulars that most of his literary contemporaries prefer to ignore: the water that remorselessly suffocates our narrator’s son-in-law flows from the same pen as the boozy vomit that splatters Coupeau’s bedsheets in
or the weeping sores that pockmark the ruined prostitute heroine of
(1880). As with the final pages of
– when Coupeau’s widow Gervaise is discovered, ‘already green’ – we may feel that Zola is not observing tragedy but instead indulging an appetite for narrative rubbernecking. Yet the story’s afterlife invites us to soften so harsh a judgement. When the Garonne overflowed once again, in 1930, a special edition of ‘The Flood’ raised relief funds for its victims, nearly three decades after Zola’s death. Henry James once said that ‘Zola’s naturalism is ugly and dirty, but he seems to me to be
doing something
’; perhaps the remark contained more truth than James knew.
    ‘Blood’ (‘Le Sang’, 1863), the second story presented here, dates from an earlier phase of Zola’s career, when his reputation was even less certain. In this eerie tale, which is among the first pieces that he succeeded in getting printed, four soldiers embroiled in an unspecified war find themselves haunted by bizarre, quasi-biblical visions. Zola composed it inhis early twenties. He had been living in Paris for four years, working by

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