La terre – Earth Day

I finished Zola’s La Terre yesterday, and by happenstance, today is Earth Day.

The epic tale of farting, murderous, avaricious, randy, bestial peasants who live by tending the great Mother Earth ends on a positive note. Images of the Earth receiving her seed bookend the similar opening of the novel. Jean, the townsman turned farmer, who was ejected from the local peasant community as a human body will reject an organ transplant, is signing up to fight the Prussians. Meanwhile, far away in Paris, in another novel, Nana lies dead in palatial bedroom, a suppurating mass of flesh killed by smallpox, while outside, the crowds, in a patriotic frenzy, rally and march to the cry of “To Berlin!” The Debacle will tell what comes next, with Jean at the center of it. After the loosing fight, he will return to the earth, not the town.

In our society, awash in sentimental and falsely nostalgic images of the more “green” days of the past, celebrants of Earth Day would do well to read La Terre (The Earth). Living “in tune” with the natural cycles of the the earth is not all daisies and recycling. It is more like being clasped in a crushing embrace by forces beyond your control, barely understood, that are beautiful and mysterious, but terrifying at times as well.  The peasants adore Mother Earth, and have little use for God, the one the priest talks about, but they curse her too when she destroys their crops with hail or fails to bring forth a good harvest.

Today, we hang calendars on our walls with reproductions of paintings by Jean Francois Millet, The Gleaners being ever popular. He intended this as a realistic depicition of the poverty and back-breaking labor of women who scour harvested fields for the leavings with which to feed their families, but we find it beautfiul, bucolic, even romantic. According to The Discovery of France by Graham Robb, even his images are a mild presentation of the reality of peasant life.

7 Responses to La terre – Earth Day

  1. Ducky's here says:

    Yeah, the Millet is a pretty good example of form defeating meaning, or form being meaning if you will.

    His palette is calm, his brushwork also and you’d mistake the work for another simple pastoral. All that’s missing is the lovesick shepard.

    But as you say, his intent was considerably more populist.

  2. Ducky's here says:

    Odd you mention Nana, I was watching Godard’s “Vivre sa Vie” the other night and his Nana has an interesting time trying to live her life.
    Renoir also appropriated Zola’s “Nana”.

    As fallen women goes, I think Nana is second only to Lola.

    • lichanos says:

      Well, I mentioned Nana because it struck me that both novels end with the start of the Franco-Prussian War.

      Is the Godard film an adaptation? And just which Lola were you thinking of?

      Can’t say I think of Nana as a “fallen” woman. She was on the low road from birth, part of Zola’s motivating idea for his R-M cycle. Her mother was a main character in that tale of working class desparation and corruption, L’Assomoir.

      Regarding Millet, so many mixed messages! When he exhibited, he was shocked to find that he was regarded as a populist or socialist agitator. The Parisian salon crowd found his figures offensive, crude, and disconcerting. So it would seem that they grasped his meaning better than we do now. Prettified images of country folk, e.g. Bouguereau’s, were perfectly acceptable to them. Millet wasn’t politically engaged, but he was of peasant stock, and painted what he knew and lived among.

  3. Ducky's here says:

    No, the Godard isn’t an adaptation but his lead, Nana, is a reference to Zola.

    As for Lola, well the obvious place to start is a trip to the Blue Angel.

  4. Curious to know your opinion on La Terre in comparison to the other Zolas you’ve read.

    • lichanos says:

      I thought it was great. With Germinal, it’s a terrific one-two punch at the low end of the social scale. Achieves his epic ambition.

      L’Assomoir was powerful, but less universal in its feel for me. Didn’t do for the slums what La Terre did for the country. Others, like Ladies’ Delight, Money, The Kill, are also great, but I think these two are special among the ones I’ve read. I love Nana, of course, but it seemed like a slice of life from a very specific time and place, while The Debacle is unapologetically an historical novel – a great one though.

  5. troutsky says:

    Lots of city kids come to a large organic farm here where they can “intern” ie. work hard all day bent over, sleep in tents , eat soups and stews.
    I find a few hours in the garden relaxing but appreciate what a daily grind would be like.Still, it has a mythical, mystical narrative of wisdom, simplicity,directness that has some truth in it.

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