Saturday, 5 December 2015

Priests and Sinners by Émile Zola.

Émile Zola
by Ernst Friedrich von Liphart (1877). 
Priests and Sinners by Émile Zola is my final short story title from my Deal Me In list. It was first published in January 1877 in Vestnik Evropy (Вестник Европы), a Russian magazine in circulation between 1866 to 1918. It was written the same year as L'Assommoir, and had followed The Conquest of Plassans (La Conquête de Plassans, 1874) and The Sin of Abbé Mouret (La Faute de l'Abbé Mouret, 1875), Zola's 'clerical' novels.

Priests and Sinners (which never had a title in Zola's lifetime) is divided into five chapters or vignettes (could they be called that?). In the first tale, we meet Father Pintoux, a priest in a small countryside village. Zola describes him -
He was now a little old man of seventy, dried up by his open-air life; with his brick-red, weather-beaten face and his shabby, threadbare old cassock he looked like a peasant in his smock.
His faith is strong and unquestioning; "He believed everything hid teachers told him, and, never very bright, he avoided the need for thought by telling himself that God would do his thinking for him". In this tale we see his reaction to the illness and death of young Catherine Roussel. His unsophisticated approach is clumsy and dogmatic: despite being told she has a severe chill from walking in the rain, he clutches at straws to 'prove' that she has somehow offended God. He is not a bad man, simply, as Zola notes, he is not "very bright".

In the second tale we see Father Michelin of Faubourg Saint Germain, caught up between the affair of Countess de Marizy and Monsieur de Mauroy. As Zola writes,
... Father Michelin could congratulate himself on having risen from his father's china shop to the choir stall from which he was now able to look down on these reverently bowed aristocratic foreheads. But there was one thought which tempered his elation: he knew that in his church religion was above all a matter of pomp and ceremony and that although these pious attitudes were his to command, he had little power over the souls of his congregation.
The third tale turns from these aristocrats to the middle class bourgeoisie. Father Gérard, a fifty year old priest, like (from what I remember) Abbé Faujas of The Conquest of Plassans, knows that in order to get what he wants it is the women he needs to pressure:
Not only did he reign over that flock of wives walking along in the procession with downcast eyes and clasped hands; his power even extended to the husbands of Voltairean persuasion who in the privacy of their homes continually made fun of religion. No doubt the reverend father was too intelligent to cherish any hopes of converting them but it was sufficient satisfaction for him to see them paying lip service to Catholicism. When churches are growing emptier every day, you need to bring every possible means into play to fill them.
The fourth tale is set in the working class district of Paris (Faubourg Saint Antoine). Father de Villeneuve meets Lisa, an unemployed, lazy woman in a tempestuous relationship with Lambert, a bricklayer (similar to L'Assommoir). Perhaps a precursor to Zola's later novel Paris (part of the 'Three Cities' trilogy, 1896). Father de Villeneuve lives in hope of reviving faith in the area, but the downtrodden, cynical inhabitants prove too much:
His dream of reviving the faith of ordinary people and building a new society on it lay shattered. Dear God, were these the modern times that had already come? Would he have to look elsewhere for the truth than in Catholic dogma, where he had always tried to find it hitherto? As his doubts increased, his inner struggle grew fiercer. He felt himself already launched on that slippery slope with other fervid and intelligent priests beset by religious scruples and unable to become Christian soldiers supporting the onward march of progress. And so, bruised and bleeding from their struggle, they eat out their hearts in pain and sorrow.
The Monsignor of the fifth tale is an entirely different kettle of fish. He is a theologian, a writer, who is more interested that abstract thought than practicality. When he is confronted with a priest whose church's roof is in dire need of repair he claims to be buried under bureaucracy. The poor priest is left to walk the sixteen miles back to his village with no solution (having been told "Our dear Lord won't melt in the rain"), whilst the Monsignor is left congratulating himself for having finished a paper. In his pride, he almost forgets to thank Christ.

These tales are typically cynical Zola, though they aren't as harsh as some of his Rougon Macquart novels. Zola said of them he wasn't attempting to moralise, simply these were his observations. It paints a picture of Catholicism falling apart under the weight of modernity, and each priest represents a reaction to the crisis within the different classes of society. They are at times funny, very entertaining tales, but seem to have very little sympathy with any of the priests, which is as we may expect from Zola.


  1. my brainpan has perhaps been too long Zolaless; you're peroration may lead me to try some of his stuff. tx.


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