Coqueville on the Spree by Émile Zola.

Coqueville on the Spree (La fête à Coqueville) is a novella by Émile Zola and was first published in Vestnik Evropy (Вестник Европы; Herald of Europe or Messenger of Europe) in August 1879, around the time of the publications of L'Assommoir (1877), A Love Episode (1878), and Nana (1880). Having spent some years now reading Émile Zola's works, I'd have to say this was the most surprising.

It begins,
Coqueville is a little village snuggling down in a rocky inlet five miles from Grandport. A fine broad sandy beach stretches out at the foot of the ramshackle old cottages stuck halfway up the cliff-face like shells left high and dry by the tide. When you climb to the left, up on the heights of Grandport, you can see the yellow expanse of beach very plainly to the west, looking like a tide of gold dust flowing out of the gaping slit in the rock, and if you have good eyes, you can even make out the tumbledown cottages standing out, rust-coloured against the stone, with the bluish smoke from their chimneys drifting upwards to the crest of the enormous ridge blocking the horizon.
Coqueville, Zola goes on, has less than 200 inhabitants and is largely cut off from the rest of the world, only really accessible via the sea. The men are almost all fishermen and did business with Dufeu's widow's assistant M. Mouchel and, as Zola writes, "Monsieur Mouchel was the only link between Coqueville and the civilised world." 

Following the geography, a history of the place. Founded in the Dark Ages by the Mahés, it grew from intermarriage until a man, Floche, appeared during the reign of Louis XIII (1610 - 1643), and married a Mahés. Coqueville is now full (bar just a few) of descendants of either the Mahés, the Floches, or indeed both (though not necessarily with those names: ancient nicknames developed into surnames), but it is the Floches side that is the most dominant in power and the two families (or two halves of the island as it works out) hate each other: "centuries of loathing seethed between them". Petty squabbling, as expected, raged for years but what occupies Coqueville the most at present is the love between Delphin and Margot, youths of two rival families, and the inhabitants take their sides.

One day following storms it seems one of the ships, the Whale, is lost, but it finally appears on the horizon, only to disappear and re-appear. There is concern at to whether the ship is manned, and a rowing boat goes out to rescue them. On the ship's floor lies Rouget, Fouasse, and Delphin, drunk and asleep. The three had been unable to catch any fish but what they did find was numerous casks of some of the best alcohol ever to be found, presumably from the other ship mentioned during the storm, and what that alcohol is is fiercely debated. Over the days more barrels are found, leading to races between the two families, and eventually there's enough of this golden, almost flowery liquid to go around. Soon everyone is drinking it, and all the liqueurs they find bobbing around the sea: old scores are settled, arguments are forgotten about, and the whole village and its two rival factions finally find peace after their week "on the spree".

It's a fun, silly, and warmhearted tale, very different indeed from the Zola stories and novels I've come across (and this is the 37th story by Zola I've reviewed!), with the contrasting message we see in the likes of L'Assommoir, The Fortune of the Rougons, and Doctor Pascal to name a few. It's such a nice surprise to see the lighthearted side of Émile Zola.

And this was my second short story from the Deal Me In "Full Moon Fever Version". Next month, 12th March - The Paradise of Cats by Émile Zola.

Comments

  1. this sounds delightful; maybe a way for me to sidle into Zola... tx

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    Replies
    1. Perhaps :) See, we think Zola can be dark and humourless but now we can say with confidence: he was funny at least once in August 1879 ;)

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  2. I'm glad you enjoyed it. It's one of my favourite short stories. I wonder if Compton Mackenzie was aware of it before he wrote Whisky Galore.

    “Here’s to alcohol: the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.” - Homer Simpson

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    Replies
    1. I haven't come across Whisky Galore - I'll have to look out for that one, at least to compare the two!

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