Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 16, 2018

The Art of Book Introductions, and why you should always buy the Oxford World’s Classics editions of Zola

I like Book Introductions. I find them very helpful when I’m reading classic literature, especially if the book is from a less familiar culture or an historical period I don’t know much about. I like it when an expert puts the work in context for me, and draws my attention to aspects of the novel that I might otherwise miss. But it is always a matter of judgement whether to read the Introduction before reading the book, or afterwards.  And if I decide that the work merits reading it with some understanding of its context and features, I get very snaky indeed if the Introduction reveals spoilers.

One could argue that anyone who reads an Introduction beforehand does so at their peril.  But I think that the best writers of Introductions don’t ruin things for their readers, and if they must reveal some crucial plot point in order to discuss the novel, they signal it properly in time for the reader to decide whether to continue or not.

At the beginning of the Brian Nelson’s Introduction in the Oxford World’s Classic edition of his translation of Zola’s The Fortune of the Rougons, there is this clear warning:

Readers who do not wish to learn details of the plot will prefer to read the Introduction as an Afterword.

Yes, this brings me to the Introductions in Oxford World’s Classics.  My Zola Project took me two years to complete, and I read a variety of editions to achieve it.  I read some Elek editions with their lurid covers from the 1950s, a couple of American editions with unfortunate translation issues, a dog-eared old Penguin, and – worst of all –  a couple of archaic self-censored editions from the 19th century publisher Vizetelly (who was scared of being locked up for obscenity that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow now).  When I could get my hands on them, I read modern Oxford World’s Classic editions but alas, at the time I was reading my way through The Rougon-Maquart Cycle, OUP hadn’t issued editions of the whole series.  As time went by, however, my reading coincided with the release of new editions, and OUP kindly sent these new editions to me as they were published.  One (La Débacle) was a welcome reissue of an edition that had gone out-of-print (and all I’d been able to get hold of was an ancient library copy), but the others were beaut new translations which enhanced my reading of Zola enormously.  But even when I’d already read the novel in some other edition, I kept the OUPs to read the Introductions, with the intent of also re-reading the novel in due course.

Reading Brian Nelson’s Introduction to The Fortune of the Rougons is a real treat.  Nelson is Emeritus Professor of French Studies and Translation Studies at Monash University, and he is IMHO the best translator of Zola, effortlessly capturing the nuances of dialogue amongst the different classes as the Americans don’t seem to be able to do.   I never imagined that one day I would become a fangirl of a translator, but it is such a pleasure to read Nelson’s translations that I find it difficult not to gush when I meet him at Translation events with AALITRA (the Australian Association for translators, who put on occasional events that are of interest to readers of translations like me).  And he is so knowledgeable about French culture and history of the 19th century that his Introductions are gems, as I first discovered when I read The Ladies’ Paradise.

Nelson’s Introduction to The Fortune of the Rougons  begins with a general introduction to Zola as the Balzac of his era and includes a helpful summary of the way the characters of this novel all become protagonists of novels in the rest of the series.  If you can’t remember where Angélique Rougon ends up, page viii tells you that her story is The Dream and lists all the others as well. There is also an explanation of Zola’s ‘scientific observation’ and his poetic vision, which is important to understand when you encounter the criticism that his naturalism was considered ‘putrid’ by some of his contemporaries. There is a warning not to skip Zola’s celebrated physical descriptions [despite the occasional temptation to do so] because they express the very meaning, and ideological tendencies of his narratives.

… the originality of Zola’s fiction lies in its remarkable symbolising effects.  Emblematic features of contemporary life – the market, the machine, the tenement building, the laundry, the mine, the apartment house, the department store, the stock exchange, the theatre, the city itself – are used as giant symbols of the society of his day. Zola sees allegories of contemporary life everywhere. (The Fortune of the Rougons, translated by Brian Nelson, Oxford World’s Classics, 2012, p.xi)

I wish I’d realised this right at the beginning of my Zola Project when I read my first Zola, Germinal!

There’s also a very helpful section on the historical and political themes in the series, and in The Fortune of the Rougons in particular.  French history in this era is very complicated yet in a masterful page and a bit, Nelson manages to explain how Louis-Napoleon’s seizure of power was achieved by fraud, duress and murder, but it had the overwhelming backing of the French people. With respect for Nelson’s warning about spoilers, I shall say no more, except to note that reading this Intro four years after reading the book brings it to life again before my eyes.  And as it happens I have a spare copy of this edition, and for readers with an Australian postcode who have read thus far, a giveaway copy is available and all you need to do is say that you want it in the comments and it will be yours.  (First in, best dressed, as we say!)

In 2017 Oxford World’s Classics published The Sin of Abbé Mouret with an introduction by Valerie Minogue who also did the translation.  Minogue is Emeritus Professor of French at the University of Wales, Swansea, co-founding editor with Brian Nelson of the journal Romance Studies, and co-editor of the Emile Zola Society Bulletin. I had already read the 1969 Prentice-Hall edition translated by Sandy Petrey, (complete with a dustjacket that gives away a good part of the plot) and you can read what I thought about the translation in my review.  But you will also see from that review that I was floundering with the change in Zola’s approach in this novel, and that I did find Petrey’s Afterword helpful.  But Minogue’s Introduction is more expansive.  I was especially interested in the explanation about the research that Zola did for his priest-in-love novel.   

He studied the Bible, the Catholic Missal, and the methods and teachings of the seminaries.  He went to Mass and made detailed notes on clerical dress and accessories, and the whole complicated choreography of the ritual.  He read L’Imitation de Jésus Christ, the fifteenth-century Catholic devotional book generally attributed to Thomas à Kempis, and the accounts of saints and martyrs that were part of the education of would-be priests.  He read the Spanish Jesuits on the cult of Mary, as well as general works on the Church and the priesthood. (The Sin of Abbé Mouret, translated by Valerie Minogue, Oxford World’s Classics, 2017, p. ix).

If that ain’t authorial dedication to research, I don’t know what is!  (I can’t help imagining the disapproving looks of the parishioners as they see Zola scribbling away in his notebooks at Mass!!)

What is also revealing is Minogue’s suggestion that the theorising Zola is overtaken by the creator in this novel and how his interest in contemporary art in the era of the Impressionists influenced his aesthetic.  I hadn’t noticed either, as I read on through the series, that the best of Zola’s priests turn away from the Church and become parents and reformers rather than priests.  Another snippet of interest is that Zola’s disapproval of celibacy came at a time when there was serious concern in France about the declining birth rate.  And I also like the feminist slant on the characterisation of Rosalie as a valuable commodity.  Again the Introduction comes with a warning about spoilers, so again I shall confine myself to saying that this novel is first on my list for re-reading in due course.

Second on my list for re-reading is Germinal, the first Zola that I read, in a battered 1969 reissue of the 1954 Penguin edition, translated by L.W. Tancock.  The reissued 2008 Oxford World’s Classics edition from 1993 is translated by Peter Collier, with an introduction by Robert Lethbridge (who also wrote the splendid Introduction for the OWC edition of La Débâcle.) OUP sent me this one right at the beginning of my Zola Project but I’d already read Germinal and put it to one side to read the others in the series first. I should have paused to read the Introduction anyway because it begins like this:

Germinal is a resonant title, in every sense.  Fifty thousand people followed behind Émile Zola’s funeral procession on 5 October 1902, and among them a delegation of miners from the Denain coalfield rhythmically chanted, ‘Germinal! Germinal!’ through the streets of Paris.  Even today, the novel has a special place in the folklore of the mining communities of France. (Germinal, translated by Peter Collier and an Introduction by Robert Lethbridge, Oxford World’s Classics, 1993, reissued 2008, p.vii)

Can you imagine miners in Australia in procession behind an author’s cortege?  Perhaps that’s because no one has written a novel that speaks to them as Germinal did for the miners of France.  (Has Thomas Keneally done so?  Or maybe David Ireland?)

Lethbridge goes on to explain other resonances that I did not know about from reading Tancock’s somewhat discouraging Introduction in the Penguin edition.  I’m sure Tancock didn’t mean it to be, but after beginning with a quotation from André Gide that says Germinal is one of the ten best novels in the French language, he goes on to devote an entire paragraph to criticism of the novel as unsubtle and crude, oversimplified and melodramatic, psychologically rudimentary and improbable not to mention bestial and insulting to our dignity as human beings, its language coarse and obscene, its style repetitive and emphatic.  And while he goes on to be patronising about the critics who say these things, he seems blissfully unaware that he’s adding to the damage himself! I suspect that Tancock was an old Tory because he’s not happy about Zola’s ‘socialism’ and he rants on about how Zola painted inaccurate pictures of industrial conditions which took no account of things that had ‘been put right’.  Tell that to modern-day miners, still working in perilous conditions and not just in China – as the recent Pike River disaster in New Zealand and the Beaconsfield Mine Collapse in Tasmania show.  Anyway, enough about him… Tancock was a product of his Cold War times.

Lethbridge explains that

‘Germinal’ was the name given to the month of April in the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution, when those convinced that 1789 marked a new beginning had recast the calendar, starting with year 1.  More precisely, it was on 12 Germinal year III that starving Parisians staged a famous uprising against the government of the Convention. (ibid, p.vii)

Perhaps this is information known to every French schoolboy but it was news to me, and of course it adds immeasurably to understanding the novel.  (BTW this edition doesn’t come with a spoiler warning).  Lethbridge tells us also that Zola knew it was prophetic of ‘the twentieth century’s most important question’, namely the conflict between the forces of modern Capitalism and the interests of the human beings necessary to its advance.  (As it turns out, that question is just as relevant in the 21st century, if not more so, given that there’s no socialist alternative to offset unbridled capitalism and many people are finding that their working conditions are bearing the brunt of it.) And far from being inaccurate about mining conditions, Zola had visited industrial unrest in the Valenciennes area in 1884, and found himself struck not so much by the violence he’d read about in the press, but by chilling resignation and despair.  What Zola found in the region close to the Belgian border was human suffering in contemporary form.

Zola’s stance is ultimately to be located between compassion and an awareness of fatalities which combine to render almost insignificant the vicissitudes of individual lives (on both sides of the class struggle). (ibid p. viii)

Lethbridge goes on to discuss the debate about whether Germinal is a reactionary or a revolutionary work but he says it is a timeless work and one of the finest novels ever written in French. 

I like the way Lethbridge clarifies Zola’s problematic interest in biological imperatives, (something I have sometimes mocked in my reviews).

By tracing the destiny of a single family and its descendants, Zola felt he could give due weight to biological imperatives lent intellectual credibility in France by the 1865 translation of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. That is to suggest neither that Zola uncritically subscribed to theories of heredity being popularised at the time, nor that these are systematically illustrated in his Rougon-Maquart novels.  Preliminary notes for the series as a whole, drawn up in 1868-9, make it clear that he considered heredity a conveniently scientific substitute for the outmoded concept of Fate. (ibid p.ix)

The sections that outline Zola’s thinking as he worked his way through the Rougon-Maquart cycle are fascinating, showing that rather than being circumscribed by its origins in specific events of 1869 or 1884 [the Anzin miners’ strike which Zola also observed first-hand], the novel accommodates the conflicts of the century extended, by a process of repetition, from 1789 onwards. Lethbridge says that in this way this novel of the working class brought together his reflections on two decades of militant socialism neither checked by, nor limited to, a failed revolution. 

Lethbridge’s is such a very good Introduction that I am not surprised that OUP felt no need to commission a new one for their reissue.

I do hope that I have convinced would-be readers of Zola’s Rougon-Maquart Cycle that the OUP editions are the ones to read, not only because the translations are infinitely better than anything else I found, but also because the Introductions will add to your enjoyment of the novels and the series.

Cross-posted at The Works of Émile Zola.




  1. […] Cross-posted at ANZLitlovers. […]


  2. Yes, well, I agree with you but I will still only read the introductions AFTER reading the book. I would rather in fact that they gave away the ending and wrote an AFTERWORD because sometimes discussing the ending is important to discussing the book. I find it frustrating, sometimes, that I can’t discuss the ending in a review. However, it’s not to avoid having the ending given away that makes me read introductions afterwards, its having my reading of the book guided by someone else’s perception. I agree that an introduction to classics can provide insights to an era that I don’t know, but I’m prepared to take the risk of missing some nuances in order to read the book as freshly as possible. I love it when books have “professional” commentary and I always read them – but not until I’ve read the book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah yes, we’ve differed on this before:)
      But we are agreed that a good Intro/Afterword can definitely enhance a book!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I would love the extra copy Lisa. Loved reading Zola in my youth and your posts have enticed me to revisit.


    • It’s yours, Mary:)
      Please email your postal address to anzlitloversATbigpondDOTcom and I’ll put it in the mail for you on Monday.


  4. Really useful of you to focus on the apparatus of the editions; as was said above, I think I’d prefer an Afterword which considers the novel as a whole. What about the Notes: do you rate these in OWC? My experience of them is ok; Penguin tend to ‘explain’ what doesn’t need explaining in their notes, I tend to find. As for Zola; I’ve read six or seven over the years and do need to revisit him. Wonder if he’d read some of the industrial unrest novels of England when he wrote Germinal – likes of N and South and Hard Times…Btw, the OWC covers are wonderful, too!


    • I have to confess that I’ve never read a bio of Zola to know anything definitive about what he’d read and was influenced by, (though I do have a copy of Zola and the Victorians which came out a year or so ago. It’s on my Kindle, that’s why I’ve forgotten to read it.)
      As to the notes, I think they became less useful as I went along because I had gradually learned elements of French history from the books. Someone coming new to the novels and totally ignorant of French history and culture (as Australians tend to be, until they’ve saved up the plane fare and visited the country) would find them helpful in the beginning, I am sure.
      And yes, I love the covers. If you look up my review of The Belly of Paris ( you can see a slide show of paintings by Victor Gabriel-Gilbert of the market, the source of the OWC cover. Just beautiful:)


  5. Thank you. I am reminded to resume my project to read all the series. I am a little more than half way through and am guilty of having read a few bad translations early on. Now I know better and like Brian Nelson in particular.


    • Hello Nancy, how nice to hear from you – I hope you are keeping well?
      You have exactly the same experience as me with the translations – there is no one better than Zola for teaching us how much the translator’s art contributes to whether we love the novel or not, because there is a whole oeuvre for us to get to know his style.


  6. Good heavens, what a comprehensive piece. Thank you for writing this!


  7. I’m convinced that I should read Zola in the Oxford editions – but I might well wait until after reading the book to go back to the introduction. I *have* had issues of spoilers in the past….


    • Yes, me too. I got caught out with Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, the first time it had ever happened to me, and I’ve been much more careful since then.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Fascinating post Lisa. And timely. I have never read Zola. A few weeks back a friend told me he had and thought Germinal a masterpiece. A few days later I found a 2nd hand copy in a Lifeline bargain bin for $1! This is the Penguin edition from 2004 translated by Roger Pearson. I have a flight to the UK in July and wondered if you or your readers thought it a good choice.


    • No argument from me 4ZZZ! Germinal is the one I started with, and it’s a great introduction to Zola:)


  9. I agree with Elle! But not with Sue, sorry. I always read Introductions first and often buy second and third copies of loved books, My Brilliant Career for example, just for their different Introductions. Or will stand around in bookshops sneak reading the Introductions in the Classics section (as a kid I would get kicked out of newsagents for sneak reading comics, which we never had at home)


    • Sneak reading! I love it!!


    • Haha Bill, no need to apologise. I’m use to your not agreeing with me!! We do agree though on buying second and third copies of books for their introductions. Many in my JA group, including me, do this.


  10. I spent about a decade collecting the 20 Rougon Macquart novels. I now feel like each copy is an old friend – especially the ones which were happy and unexpected finds! I love the OUP editions because, you’re right, they *are* the best, but I also have a lot of fondness for the sensational Elek editions. You’re right about Vizetelly though. Four of my books are his translations simply for lack of anything better. I hadn’t realised the progress OUP was making with these and I can’t wait to read these novels again in a translation that does them real justice (and also doesn’t miss out random details).


  11. […] As well as extensive notes at the back of the book, there is also a highly readable introduction by Adam Watt, Professor of French and comparative literature at the University of Exeter.  He has published widely on the life and works of Marcel Proust.  Brian Nelson is Emeritus Professor (French Studies and Translation Studies) at Monash University in Melbourne, and is a fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.  (He is also my favourite translator of Zola titles. See here). […]


  12. Great post, thankyou! I am now on the 11th of 20 (The Ladies Paradise) in the Oxford editions, and couldn’t agree more.
    I have heard on the grapevine that the final volume, Doctor Pascal, is currently being translated by Oxford, so hopefully the set will be complete in the near future. What a marvellous, fully-realised world exists across these volumes.


    • HI Sammy, it’s nice to meet another enthusiast! That’s good news about Dr Pascal, I’ll be looking forward to that.
      Do you know about the Reading Zola site for all things Zola? It’s at and there’s a team of us who contribute to it:)


  13. […] This VSI also explains why you might not want to read the Rougon-Macquart cycle in the chronological order that I used, because themes reveal themselves differently if you read the novels in publication order.  The VSI also provides the historical context for the novels in a way that you might not have understood if you don’t have the OUP editions with their excellent introductions.  (Some of the novels were not available in OUP editions when I first started reading Zola, a problem since rectified.  See my post ‘The Art of Book Introductions, or Why You Should Always Buy the Oxford Editions of Zola&#8217….) […]


  14. […] This VSI also explains why you might not want to read the Rougon-Macquart cycle in the chronological order that I used, because themes reveal themselves differently if you read the novels in publication order.  The VSI also provides the historical context for the novels in a way that you might not have understood if you don’t have the OUP editions with their excellent introductions.  (Some of the novels were not available in OUP editions when I first started reading Zola, a problem since rectified.  See my post ‘The Art of Book Introductions, or Why You Should Always Buy the Oxford Editions of Zola&#8217….) […]


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