Fruitfulness by Émile Zola.

Having completed the celebrated Rougon Macquart series in 1893 and the now admittedly less celebrated Three Cities (Les Trois Villes) trilogy in 1898, Émile Zola embarked on a new series, the Four Gospels (Les Quatre Évangiles): four novels (Fruitfulness, Work, Truth, and Justice, the latter of which would be unfinished due to Zola's sudden death in 1902) that would, in his translator Vizetelly's words, embody the "four cardinal principles of human life".

Before I get into Fruitfulness, I have a few words to say on the translation and editions of these novels. All I can find in English translations are those translated by E. A. Vizetelly, on whom I've expressed my dislike on numerous occasions. Secondly, my edition of Fruitfulness was absolutely fine, however my edition of the second novel Work (Travail; 1901) was a travesty. I really do not see why they bothered: it was virtually unreadable with an astonishing number of typos (about 10 or 12 per page) and I had to give up after 50 pages. Because of this I think it will be a long, long time before I try Zola's Four Gospels again, and if I do I'll have to buy another edition of Work (there's only one on ebay right now and it'll cost around £24, which I'm rather reluctant to do at present). The final thing I have to say: I suspect Zola may have been spent after the amazing Rougon Macquart series: the Three Cities were fine, but as far as I could discern (I wish I could read in French!) the Four Gospels do not promise anything marvellous, and to doggedly pursue them would be to prolong my frustration and disappointment. So, on that note, you'll not be surprised to learn my review of Fruitfulness is going to be tepid, but the extent to which Zola can be blamed for it is uncertain.

Now, Fruitfulness. Fruitfulness (Fécondité) was first published in 1899 and it was written in England: when Zola had robustly defended Captain Alfred Dreyfus in the infamous article J'Accuse (13th January 1898) he was convicted of criminal libel so escaped to England in July 1898 and remained until June 1899 to avoid a prison sentence. Zola, quoted in the 1900 English edition of Fruitfulness wrote of his new novel and series,
Fruitfulness creates the home. Thence springs the city. From the idea of citizenship comes that of the fatherland; and love of country, in minds fed by science, leads to the conception of a wider and vaster fatherland, comprising of all peoples of the earth. Of these three stages in mankind, the fourth still remains to be attained. I have thought then of writing, as it were, a poem in four volumes, in four chants, in which I shall endeavour to sum up the philosophy of all my work. The first of theme volumes is "Fruitfulness"; the second will be called "Work"; the third, "Truth"; the last, "Justice." In "Fruitfulness" the hero's name is Matthew. In the next work it will be Luke; in "Truth", Mark; and in "Justice", John. The children of my brain will, like the four Evangelists preaching the gospel, diffuse the religion of future society, which will be founded on fruitfulness, work, truth, and justice. 
This idea of a new religion follows smoothly on from the Three Cities trilogy in which the disillusioned priest Pierre Froment seeks to establish a new Christianity; in Fruitfulness Zola expands and in doing so writes, as he has almost always done in his novels, on the evils of modern society. One concern was the stagnation of French society. For example, in 1891 the population was said to be 39,946,000; in 1896, 40,158,000; and in 1901, 40,681,000. This slow growth alarmed many, who felt this stagnation would lead to the downfall of France. Zola, therefore, wrote Fruitfulness to portray the inherent good of having children. As Vizetelly writes,
'Fruitfulness' contains charming pictures of homely married life, delightful glimpses of childhood and youth: the first smile, the first step, the first word, followed by the playfulness and flirtations of boyhood, and the happiness which waits on the espousals of those who truly love.
As ever, Zola approached this novel like a journalist, researching population decline from works such as Gonnard's La Dépopulation en France, Nitti's La Population et le système social, and even Spencer's Biology, as well as books on birth control such as Bergeret's Des fraudes dans l'accomplissement des fonctions génétrices and problems associated with these 'unnatural' practices. In Fruitfulness those who use such birth control suffer all kinds of misfortune, whilst Mathieu (the son of Pierre Froment) and his wife Marianne prosper, and in the reviews of the novel Laurent Tailhade likened them to the divine couple Isis and Osiris.

Zola the optimist is very much on show in this novel, and there are plenty of pleasant passages, making it rather remarkable given some of Zola's past works. I did feel it was a little forced, and the idea that one's divine purpose as a woman or as a couple is to procreate is to me a little unfortunate. Zola is never the most subtle of writers and this novel is no different, but somehow that works for him. I'm glad I've read it at last, and if I did have a decent edition of Work, or at least had access to a reasonably priced one, I would go on to read it. As things stand though, it may be quite a while before I complete the Four Gospels series.


  1. I'm not sure if I'll tackle The Four Gospels but I may change my mind and do so one day. The only one that slightly appeals to me at all is Truth which I believe is analogous to the Dreyfus Affair. Completing The Three Cities was enough of a struggle that I'm not sure if I could cope with more: I found Lourdes ok but felt it would have worked better as a journalistic piece; Rome was tedious and embarrasing to read and Paris was sort of ok. I'm not sure if we can put the blame on these post-RM books on Vizetelly as I suspect the fault was more with Zola. I don't think optimism suited his creative powers. :-)

    BTW If you can cope with a digital version then Work is now available on Project Gutenberg here. It's also available in those 'Complete Works Of Zola' thingies from Amazon—all Vizetelly translations though.

    1. Thanks for that link - I think, eventually, I will probably read it online. And I have to agree though it pains me - Zola was not at his best in the Three Cities, and as for Fruitfulness - no, it was not a good novel. But never mind, we can't always love ALL of our favourite author's works!


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