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.