Fasting (Le Jeûne) is a short story by Émile Zola that first appeared in 1870, just before the first of the Rougon-Macquart series, The Fortune of the Rougons. Anyone who is familiar with Zola will know that the Catholic church was frequently a target of Zola's, and he criticised them in novels such as The Conquest of Plassans (1874), The Sin of Abbé Mouret (1875), and the 'Three Cities trilogy': Lourdes (1894), Rome (1896), Paris (1898), even going as far as wish to establish a new and better religion in his 'Four Gospels' series (which begins with Fruitfulness; I've still not read the others yet).
Fasting is no exception to Zola's stinging pen. It's very short indeed and tells the story of a priest who is full of the right words, preaching on self-denial and, as the title suggests, fasting. It beings,
When the curate went up into the pulpit, wearing his broad surplice - angelic in its whiteness - the little baroness was sitting blissfully in her customary place, near a hot-air vent next to the chapel of the Holy Angels.
After the usual moment of recollection, the curate delicately passed a fine cambric handkerchief over his lips; then, he opened his arms, like a seraph about to take flight, bent his head, and spoke. His voice was at first, in the vast nave, like a distant murmur of running water, like the amorous plaint of the wind amid the foliage. And, little by little, the low sounds grew louder, the breeze turned into a tempest, the voice rolled round the vaults with the majestic rumble of thunder. But now and again, even in the midst of his most formidable thunderbolts, the curate's voice would keep growing suddenly gentle, shedding a clear ray of sunlight across the dark hurricane of his eloquence.
A formidable speaker, but it is not enough to reach the little baroness, who is lost in sensual and erotic dreams inspired by the imagery within the church. And, as it turns out, the curate's speech is meaningless anyway: he is a hypocrite who preaches the importance of fasting whilst being quite the gourmet.
As in The Dream, Zola's 1888 novel, Fasting is full of Roman Catholic imagery and the decadence of it is a stark contrast with the message of the preacher, which fails to reach the congregation anyway. It's ironic tale worthy of Thomas Hardy: strong, powerful, and beautiful, and a hint from Zola to the quality and depth of his writing to come.
And that was my 20th title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week, another Zola - For a Night of Love.