I have now read more than half a dozen of the twenty novels which make up Emile Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle. Wanting 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 himself. The last portion of the book, dealing with The Dreyfus Affair, was the most satisfactory. Writing before World War II, however, Johnson had no vision of the eventual outcome of virulent antisemitism.
I looked for something more recent and more comprehensive and found Frederick Brown’s Zola: A Life. More recent (1995) and more comprehensive (803 pages of text, plus notes, etc.), it is neither a quick nor an easy read. Sometimes with a work this massive, it helps to comment at intervals, but it is too late for that now. Still, it does break into three main sections: boyhood and the apprentice years, the Rougon-Macquart cycle, and the years after Rougon-Macquart, including The Dreyfus Affair. The information presented throughout is so wide-ranging, however, that I see these possible divisions only in retrospect.
What does Frederick Brown give us in this “life”?
- A complete description of the Zola family, including his father’s career and his mother’s struggles.
- French politics and conflicts before and during his long life. Zola turns out to have been very politically aware, even as a young man, so his later involvement with Dreyfus was far from an aberration.
- All Zola’s literary and artistic acquaintances – their lives, their struggles, their off-and-on relationships with him. We hear about Cezanne, Flaubert, Maupassant, the Goncourts, Manet, Daudet, Hugo, Balzac and many more. These are not passing references, but full accounts with ample quotations from articles and letters.
- The regime of Napoleon III, as it played out in reality and in Zola’s novels set in the period.
- Zola’s writing and research methods, with the sources used for all his works.
- Detailed synopses and interpretations of all Zola’s major writings, with critical commentary by his contemporaries.
- Description and examples of Zola’s other writing, including journalism and plays.
- The ins and outs of Zola marriage; his mistress and children; his houses.
Did all this information change my perception of Zola? I think not, since my perceptions come from his novels. In The Belly of Paris, I find sensitivity to both social justice and the delights of a sensual life. In L’Argent I discover an understanding of greed and how it warps the moral standards of even “good” people. In Germinal I find a willingness to grapple with the dirty details of how things get done in this world, as well as a recognition of the difficulties of achieving social change. In L’Debacle I learn that Zola knows the best and the worst that men will do in trying circumstances and how they justify these actions. Zola’s careful research into military maneuvers or mining techniques or the layout of Les Halles provided him with necessary detail for his novels, but his understanding of human nature and his moral judgment could only come from the man itself.
Some of Brown’s psychological interpretations I found intrusive. Explaining Zola’s turn from gauzy poetry to naturalist fiction, he says,
Nurtured on romantic literature, his mind found easy purchase at extremes, and it leapt from quaking reverence for magical forces to a belief in science holding sway over the universe. This is to say that Zola wavered between superstition and rationalism, between feelings of impotence and fantasies of omnipotence. What made him conceive the progenitor who masters virgin nature also made him sire those children, prisoners of heredity, who would soon crowd his novels.
He sees patterns in Zola’s plots, and these patterns he relates to Zola’s own obsessions.
Zola, whose recurrent nightmare was of himself buried alive, could hardly conceive drama without a sacrificial victim or denouement that expunges some character from humankind. Identity and enclosure, the self and an abode standing islandlike on the margin of some larger settlement are linked again and again in disaster.
Reading a chapter every day or so provided me with a chronological narrative of his Zola’s life, but it was too much information to digest. Zola: A Life would work very well as a reference work, to look up Zola’s sources, as well as the activities of his colleagues and critics. There is a great deal of solid information here, worth pondering, whether or not you agree with Brown’s analyses. The pictures are good also. Here is one example: