Zola and His Time


Portrait of Zola by Manet

His father would have had a distinguished career and wealth, but his father died young. He was a poor as a boy and often hungry. When successful, he was fat until he became thin. He was faithful to his wife, until he took a mistress. He had many friends, until he had few friends. He wrote but his books did not sell well, until they did sell well. He was Emile Zola, author of Nana and Germinal and tens of other books set in France in the post-Napoleonic era.

I have been reading Matthew Johnson’s 1928 biography Zola and His Time. A poor choice, it turns out, if you want to understand the man behind the books, but it appeared at the book sale just when I wanted to know more about Zola.  Johnson’s account feels too close to the subject, written before World War II and overly devoted to the literary quarrels of Zola’s day. Influenced by Balzac’s novels of the human comedy, Zola set out to create a world in which the members of an extended family exemplify the different aspects of society: labor, prostitution, markets, the church. For some the applied term “Naturalism” was praise; for others, the term itself damned the books as literary offal.

 Heredity, implacable, predetermined, would be for his modern epic the Nemesis of the Greek dramas. Far from becoming slave to a theory, which would turn his books into a mass of clinical observations, he saw with a flash of intuition that the long chain of episodes he visioned, the descent of a vast family, of “a world of agitation” would be completely unified by the force of heredity. Instead of being the victims of the gods’ vengeance, his characters, all members of one vast family, would be victims of heredity. It was simply more “modern,” more scientific”; it was no different.

To the extent that I understand what Johnson is saying here, it does little help me to appreciate Zola’s novels. I read my first Zolas, Nana and then The Belly of Paris, last year unburdened by interpretation. I found in the Paris’ Les Halles of Zola a humane vision of human suffering overlaid with a delicate sensual appreciation of all that life has to offer in a market replete with cheese, fish, vegetables and the vendors thereof.

There is a last chapter in Zola’s life. I’ll comment on J’Accuse and the Dreyfus Affair in a separate post.


6 comments on “Zola and His Time

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    Hello Nancy
    You’ve given me an idea for another page here on this blog: Recommended biographies!


  2. […] last part of Matthew Josephson’s biography of Emile Zola, Zola and His Time, is devoted to the Dreyfus Affair and the important part Zola played in it. Zola at first wrote […]


  3. SilverSeason says:

    Yes, except that I can’t recommend the Josephson book. Your time is better spent elsewhere. I do see that William Dean Howells wrote about Zola and I will pursue that because I have liked several of Howells’ books very much, although he is out of fashion just now.

    As I suggested some place, maybe a page on Zola the Man or Zola and His World to take in comments about him and his times.


  4. Jonathan says:

    I found it difficult, at first, to find a biography of Zola but once I started digging I found loads; though they all looked quite old like this one.

    I’ve only read one so far – ‘Garden of Zola’ by Graham King but I found it excellent. It includes lots of info on English translations, the Vizetellys, the Dreyfus Affair and of course a lot of biographical info. It was written in 1978 though, so it’s a bit dated. I aim to put up a post on it soon.


  5. […] to know more about Zola, both as a writer and as a man, I read Mathew Johnson’s 1928 biography, Zola and His Time, and found it disappointing, with too much literary squabbling in Paris and not enough about Zola […]


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