Emile Zola: Blood, Sex, Money 2.4

Carlos Schwabe's symbolist frontispiece for Zola's La Rêve (1892)

The 4th episode of Season 2 of Emile Zola Blood Sex and Money (Radio 4)

Émile Zola's novel Le Rêve (1888) is the sixteenth novel in the Rougon-Macquart sequence. It is sandwiched between two of the most brutal novels in the series: La Terre (1887) and La Bête Humaine (1890). Unlike those, it is a much gentler book, on the surface anyway. It tells the story of Angelique, the daughter of Sidonie Rougon, the fourth child of Felicity and Pierre, Pierre being the eldest son of Tante Dide, the founder of the whole dynasty. Angelique is, then, her great-granddaughter.

SHORT VERSION OF THE PLOT: Angelique is adopted by the religious Hubertine and her head is filled with religion. She falls in love with a local boy and discovers he is a handsome and wealthy aristocrat. They plan to marry but on her wedding day, Angelique dies. Long version here.

La Rêve is not one of the better-known books in the series. It's also often one of the rather more deprecated books. Two accusations are made against it. The first is that it's a piece of literary social climbing. Zola is, at this moment, preparing his candidacy for the Académie Française and, it is suggested, he thinks he's chances of being accepted would be enhanced if he writes a book that is not a grim, brutal, realist fiction like L'Assommoir or La Terre but is instead a delicate, spiritual fairy story about love and faith. The second is that he is writing this book at precisely the moment that the fashion for Naturalism is being seriously challenged by that for Symbolism: maybe Zola is pusillanimously trading in Reality and the Contemporary for a modish interest in the Invisible and the Beyond?

Of course, neither of these things is true. For one thing, Zola would have to be very dumb to think that the Académie would let one book would wipe out twenty others and, in addition, if this really were his strategy, it would even dumber to write La Bête Humaine as his next book, a novel about murder, lust and psychopathy. We should also note that, although the dark and brutal books are the more famous of the Rougon Macquart sequence, there is a huge variety of styles in the sequence. The tone of Un Page d'amour is entirely different from La Curée and Le Doctor Pascal is almost unrecognisable as the work of the man who had written Le Débâcle a year earlier. 

But, more important, these arguments simply misread the book. It is in no sense a capitulation to the daft spiritual mumbo-jumbo of the Symbolists. The book is, in fact, a brutal critique of religion. Zola's view, I think, is that religion is entirely incompatible with the present day. Indeed, to be religious is, to some extent, to be locked into a medieval mentality. In this, ironically, this he is very much a man of his time; the nineteenth century is shot through with the Hegelian notion of history as the orderly progress of ideas, from primitive superstition to mysticism to religion to science. Le Reve is set in the 1860s but frankly there's almost nothing stopping the book unfolding in the 1660s. The town of Beaumont, accordingly, is dominated by its cathedral, its scenes feast days and processions, stained glass and washing days.

More significantly than the historical dismissal of religion as a medieval relic is a pre-Freudian notion of religion as an unhealthy sublimation of sexual instincts. It is clear early in the book that Angelique has achieved puberty. When she reads the Golden Record, Zola - but, by implication, Angelique - lingers on the brutal celebration of physical suffering, which might be merely an expression of the irrelevance of the flesh or might also be an expression of a deep masochism, a sexualising of this anti-corporeal theology (or a suggestion that it was always sexual in origin). Indeed Angelique's entire interest in religion seems animated by desire:

Angélique avait quatorze ans et devenait femme. Quand elle lisait la Légende, ses oreille boudonnaient, le sang battait dans les petites veines bleues de ses temps; et, maintenant, elle se prenait d'une tendresse fraternelle pour les vierges. (Zola, Émile. Le Rêve. Edited by Henri Mitterand. Folio Classique.  Paris: Gallimard, 1986, p. 66).
[Angelique was fourteen and becoming a woman. As she read The Golden Legend, her ears throbbed and blood pulsed in the fine blue veins in her temples; she also developed a sisterly sympathy for the virgins.]

Reading the book for the first time, I was particularly struck by the ethereal atmosphere he constructs. The title of the book describes the frequently oneiric tone in which you continually wonder if the events taking place are real or not. In particular the scene (chapter 7) in which Felicien comes to her at night seems like a dream, a fantasy, or even a hallucination. The Bishop's repentance too. But this, to me, does not create the atmosphere of a fairy story but of dangerous delusion. It is a book that begins and ends with death. Angelique dies or nearly dies three times in this book. (The fact that the book begins and ends with Angelique dying in the snow in the doorway of the church might even suggest to some that the whole book is a fantasy taking place in the scrambled mind of a dying girl.) The precise cause of her death is extremely unclear. The absurd childish fantasy of a handsome wealthy prince climbing a balcony to declare his love is so ostentatiously clichéd and ridiculous that I think Zola is trying to draw our attention to the subjective nature of the reality being described.

This is, of course, perfectly compatible with Naturalism. People really do have delusional experiences. What Zola has invented here is a kind of fallible objective narrator, or a development of the Flaubertian 'discours indirect libre' to encompass not just a blurring between narrative and speech but between narrative and subjective experience. And through this method, he presents an analysis of Christianity.

I was particularly keen to work on this book. I think the blurring and blending of realities with subjective experience works particularly well on the radio. It is very easy to blur and blend scenes there - the cuts are somehow smoother than tv or film (and definitely more than stage. I think there's something interesting about trying to talk about 'the invisible' in a non-visible medium). 

I also really liked the idea of having two such contrasting books to write one after another that would be broadcast one after another. Is season 2, we go from Family, my adaptation of La Curée [The Kill] to Le Rêve, from one of the most brutal, urban, contemporary, angry, shocking and sexual books to this small-town, spiritual, psychological book about love (at least, as I say, on the surface).

Although I think the story will be very recognisable to anyone who has read the book, I've decided to change a great deal. For the flow of the series and trying to keep control of the number of characters, Angelique is now Renée's daughter, rather than Sidonie. Because of the way we've done La Curée in 2.3 (which is the book Sidonie is mostly in), Sidonie's disappeared. It felt a good way to intensify the shock of 2.3 to have Renée and Maxime conceive a child together. This has one effect which I think won't be noticeable in the adaptation but, technically, if my version of La Curée takes place in 1864ish, this adaptation takes place in 1878 (Angelique is 14) and is therefore much later than any other novel and after the fall of the Second Empire. But since the thing is so ahistorical anyway, I don't think it matters very much. It also means that when (as in Ch 2), Hubert goes to find Sidonie, in my version it's Hubertine visiting Renée. In La Curée, indeed in the last line, Zola kills off Renée, but in my version she survives, initially having retreated, Miss Havisham-like, to the family home, sitting in the nursery she played in as a child (which Zola describes and, coincidentally, provides a nice parallel with Angelique's bedroom at the top of the house). Though, following a suggestion from the production team, I've placed her in Les Tulettes with Didi.

I've made Hubertine a single mother. In the book she is married to Hubert and are sadly childless after an earlier traumatic failed pregnancy. I have taken him out of the picture. First, he adds very little to the narrative drive. Second, I think there's something very interesting about focusing on the mother-daughter relationships in the book (of which there are several) but also thinking about the dominance of the Virgin Mary image as mother of us all in this kind of Catholicism. Third, I quite wanted to make this, as far as possible, all female. Finally, it keeps the adaptation more focused to limit the characters.

Yes, making it all-female. Family is a very male play; it's three men and a woman and the men mostly dominate. It's about matriarchy, capitalism and swagger. It's blokey, deliberately so. Also the form in which I've tried to write it is the mainstream theatre narrative style of the period, the 'well-made play' (the adaptation is all entrances and exits, secrets and revelations) which feels to me part of the official culture of the period. I wanted this to feel much more fluid and - without wanting to essentialise women's experience at all - given the move from the foursquare carpentry of Family to this much more open and ambiguous style, I think it will help to have mainly women's voices holding the story. (In fact, there is one male voice in the production. I wonder if you'll spot it. And whether you'll identify it.) 

The most difficult male character to remove is Felicien. I've narrated all his appearances. At first I hope this won't be noticeable; then I guess some people will think 'oh couldn't they afford another actor'; then I hope it adds to the ambiguity about whether he even exists. I've slightly adjusted Felicien's story, too. In the book I think there is some ambiguity about him, but Zola begins with the statement that the Bishop's son is the last of a long noble line. The Bishop himself began as an international playboy but later repented and converted after the death of his wife. I've removed the Bishop's backstory. At first I suggested that Felicien is a foundling and had  Angelique hear the story of the Hautecoeur family and herself guess that the Bishop's son might be the scion of a lost noble line. This made it easier to understand how her romance with Felicien is a delusion. In the book, it is clear that the Bishop had chosen another, more high-born, woman for Felicien. I've removed that suggestion, for clarity. But in fact, in the final draft, I've pretty much removed the whole noble line story; all that really matters is that Felicien is a sexy young man. The rest, as a result, is all in her head.

Angelique's death is not explained in the book. I've put in a suggestion through the book, still pretty between the lines, that she has a brain tumour, which also explains her growing lack of contact with reality. In the book, the wedding is fully fleshed out. I still think it might be happening in Angelique's head but it is possible to read the book as if Angelique really is married when she dies. In my version she has been given the last rites and wakes up in a delusional state, close to death, hears the church music and thinks it is her wedding day, goes out in the snow and dies in the doorway.

I've emphasised the dream motif with an opening that takes us through three dreams. We begin where we ended 'Family', with Renée imagining/hallucinating/dayreaming the future of her abandoned daughter; then it changes and we realise this has been Didi dreaming; but then that changes and we realise Angelique has been dreaming of Didi. By this point the listener may spend a while wondering if we'll come out of yet another dream (Inception-style) which will help the mood, I think. I've given the play the title Lovesick, partly because 'Dream' would be a bit obvious, also because lovesick suggests the theme of pathology and ties it to the 'sex' motif running through the week, and also because of the Bob Dylan song that I adore.

The saints are a fascinating element in the book. Zola fills the book and Angelique's imagination with images of the early Christian martyrs. I read a couple of recent translations of The Golden Legend (Christopher Stace's translation for Penguin and William Granger Ryan's translation for Princeton UP). Following my desire to keep this pretty female, I limited my references to the female saints, which would also emphasise her buddingly sexual identification with their sufferings. After having made my copious notes, I discovered, to my sheer delight, that the Bibliothèque National de France have put online a transcription of Zola's own preparatory notes for Le Rêve which include a transcription of his own notes on The Golden Legend and that we had often made the same notes on the same passages. Throughout the novel there are hallucinatory moments: in Ch 4, for instance, Angelique feels the Cathedral, the stones, the water, the grass are speaking to her in places. I thought it would be a really interesting idea to bring the saints into the story, perhaps for just one section, to make the statues and carvings in the Cathedral speak, hallucinatorily, to Angelique. In this, I'm drawing, of course, on the first scene of Caryl Churchill's Top Girls, which my scene (scene 17) recalls in the flat tones, the supernatural juxtapositions, the theological banter, and the overlapping dialogue.

There are of course numerous further changes, tweaks, adjustments, sections missing. Fans of the book (of which I can't believe there are more than a handful) may miss the competition between Angelique and Felicien in doing charitable works in the town. The washing day scene is much more extensive in the book but felt to me repetitive in terms of a 45-minute narrative.

For the title, we've been all told to come up with one-word titles for each episode. For this one, I wanted to focus on the play's sense of desire being twisted by religion. The choice of Lovesick actually came consciously from the Bob Dylan song of that name, but I'd forgotten that Caryl Churchill wrote a radio play in 1967 with the same name. Dylan and Churchill are good company to have though.

The cast of this play was a delight to work with. Glenda Jackson of course returns as Dide (with much more to do in this one than in Family). But Robyn Skeete is making her radio debut with this (as, I think, is Lucy Moss). Robyn brings a lovely shy, awkward, innocence to the part of Angelique - though it's entirely acted, a set of smart acting choices from the talented young woman. Mina Anwar brings a lovely mixture of maternal joy and gravity to the part of Hubertine. And the multi-talented Yusra Warsama is spellbinding in various small roles, but particularly as Saint Catherine. Anna Maxwell Martin returns for a haunting cameo.

This is the moment in the week, where we plunge from Paris, urban life, metropolitan sophistication, modernity and brutality to the rural, the imaginary, the dream and fantasy, the spiritual and hallucinatory. As we discussed it as writers, it's the middle act of Shakespeare's comedies: into the woods where identities slip and change, desires and fantasies are expressed, before we return at the end of the week to Paris and the slowly collapsing decadent culture of the Second Empire...