Book Note: The Attack on the Mill and Other Stories by Emile Zola

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My suspicions about the reliability of this translation were raised when the phrase “higgeldy-piggeldy” was used not once, but twice. My French language skills are far removed from my college days of studying in Paris, but this particular English phrase just doesn’t conjure a sense of French sophistication. Nevertheless, I entered it into the Google Translator and came up with a French equivalent. Clearly, but not surprisingly, my French was at fault so I put my wariness aside.

This collection of short stories by Emile Zola includes entries from various points of his career. Their subject matter is diverse and the tools that he uses to make his point are equally varied. Some are serious, some are farcical, others are ironic. Despite the breadth of topic and writing strategies, I felt that his tone was consistently detached and distant in his pieces. The stories read as though he wrote them as a journalist relating a string of events with just a bit more detail and meaning than usual. And indeed, Zola did spend much of his career as a journalist and financial necessity prompted some of his works.

In the introduction, the translator, Douglas Parmée, wrote:

For Zola the novelist, ambition and fame are the spur and the epic tone clearly forms part of the grand manner which will enable him to challenge a giant such as Balzac; but the charm of the shorts tories springs from the more urgent spur of economic ne essity, the need to survive. The majority of these stories, in fact, form an important part of Zola’s considerable and sometimes feverish production as a journalist, most of which falls between 1864 and 1880.

This almost made me want to read one of Zola’s novels because I couldn’t believe that his tone varied so differently between his short stories and his novels that comparisons to Balzac had been made – based on the short stories, the two are nowhere close. But his observation that Zola did write these pieces as a way to generate income helped to put them in perspective and perhaps give a little wiggle room to the tone that unmistakably held journalistic tendencies.

So what were the stories?

There was a story about a clever businessman who noticed that fashionable women always looked more beautiful if their comrade was not attractive. He set out to collect ugly women and rent them as “accessories” to attractive women who wanted to highlight their beauty even more.

Another story, the title story, “The Attack on the Mill,” follows a much-hyped and closely watched love story that ultimately ends in complete carnage on the couple’s scheduled wedding day. The ironic ending is dramatic and obvious when the victorious French army captain enters the decimated mill and waves his sword gallantly declaring “We’ve won! We’ve won!” as the young lover is left holding her dead fiancé’s hand and mourning her father’s death as well.

One story started with a hint of a Romeo and Juliet-type set-up but ended with the entire town getting drunk on a daily basis with mysterious barrels of wine that they found just out to sea where a vessel had recently capsized. By the end, feuds were reconciled and everyone was sprawled on the beach in a stupor.

The story “Death by Advertising” provided a particularly memorable writing lesson. “Don’t use clichés” seems to be accepted advice in writing classrooms everywhere. When can you get away with it? When you follow the cliché with a memorable description. Where these trite expressions are often accused of wreaking havoc on another staid lesson, “show don’t tell,” Zola’s description after using “…to make his life a hell on earth” provided so much “showing” that I couldn’t think of another suitable way to summarize the situation other than “hell on earth.” Here’s the description:

He had bought a plot of filled-in swampland into which his house slowly sank. The house itself had been built according to the latest modern principles; when the wind blew, it shook and when rainstorms came, it gently crumbled. The fireplaces, equipped with ingenious smokeless hoods, belched forth asphyxiating fumes; the electric bells remained obstinately silent; the carefully planned modern lavatories turned out to be noisome cesspits; cupboards provided with special mechanical locks would neither open nor shut properly.

It was the last line, the cupboards that wouldn’t open or close properly, that sealed the description for me. Anything that doesn’t work correctly for an extended period of time causes great weeping and gnashing of teeth in our house.

In total, this book includes 16 short stories and not one of them hinted at being similar to another in scope, character, or storyline. They only lacked an emotional punch.

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