Emile Zola, a Very Short Introduction, by Brian Nelson

There are good reasons to read this book: if you know nothing about Émile Zola, Brian Nelson’s Very Short Introduction will convince you to add Zola to your TBR; and if you’ve read Zola in a general reader’s kind of way, the VSI enhances your knowledge of the author and his books, making you want to read or re-read more of this author.

This VSI also explains why you might not want to read the Rougon-Macquart cycle in the chronological order that I used, because themes reveal themselves differently if you read the novels in publication order.  The VSI also provides the historical context for the novels in a way that you might not have understood if you don’t have the OUP editions with their excellent introductions.  (Some of the novels were not available in OUP editions when I first started reading Zola, a problem since rectified.  See my post ‘The Art of Book Introductions, or Why You Should Always Buy the Oxford Editions of Zola’.)

Brian Nelson, Emeritus Professor of French Studies and Translation Studies at Monash University here in Melbourne, translated some of the recent editions of the Rougon-Macquart cycle, and wrote the introductions.  His style, as you will know if you have read the OUP editions that he translated, is clear, free of pedantry and academic jargon, and easy for a general reader to enjoy.  I was really pleased to add this edition to my collections of VSIs.

Zola, (1840-1902) like his predecessor Balzac (1799-1850), used storytelling to examine his society, but Zola’s focus was the changing cultural landscapes of the late 19th century.  He was a novelist of modernity driven by industrial capitalism.  He was interested in the new shapes of the city, new forms of social practice and economic organisation, and the heightened political pressures of the era.  One of the innovative features of his novels is the portrayal of crowds, a feature of the emerging mass society.

Committed to a literature of truth, and to a new freedom of expression, he introduced a new realm of subjects: urban poverty and the working class; class consciousness and class relations; sexuality and gender.  Truth, for him, was not just a matter of personal integrity, but also an aesthetic principle.  He believed in telling it like it is, with no aspect of human experience out of bounds.  He believed [and I do too] that a writer plays a social role.  What Zola shows is the lives of ordinary people but within the context of change: how they were affected by the growth of the city, by the abuse of power, by the growth of consumer culture, by banking, crime, poverty and prostitution.

His style was not documentary but ironic and satiric.  Zola was provocative, combative, critical and subversive.  He was the most criticised and maligned writer of his day, but also the most popular.  Today he is recognised as a narrative artist, a craftsman, a storyteller and a fabulist.

Chapter One delves into Zola’s research methods and his narrative genius.  His best works, says Nelson, are visionary.  They employ poetic character with movement, colour and intensity.  His descriptions are more than just that—they eclipse human beings to express a vision and magnify the material world.  An example from The Ladies Paradise is the cascading images and rising pitch in the description of the department store sales which suggest loss of control, the female shopper’s quasi-sexual abandonment to consumer dreams while mirroring the perpetual expansion that defines the economic principles of consumerism. [And it’s still very relevant today.  Reading this novel and Brian Nelson’s introduction to it redefined my understanding of the way marketing works and I am a cannier shopper for that.]

The predominant feature is Zola’s oeuvre is the machine, in entities that function like one: the department store, the mine, the stock exchange.  He also uses his theme of heredity selectively to create a sense of doom, like an ancient curse.  But running through all his works is a mythopoeic vision, not just parallels between his characters and figures from classical mythology, but also influencing the narrative patterns of his novels.

There is the origin myth of the first novel of the series, The Fortunes of the Rougons; the myths of hell and the universal flood in Germinal; the myth of the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Knowledge in The Sin of Father Mouret (La Faute de Abbé Mouret, 1875); the myth of Man’s lost majesty in The Sin of Father Mouret and L’Assommoir; the myth of the Eternal Return in Earth; the myths of Catastrophe and renewal in the later novels of Les Rougons-Macquart, from Nana onwards. (p.9) [I’ve reviewed all these, see here, but I didn’t recognise this aspect of the oeuvre.)

Chapter Two traces Zola’s career as a writer before he began the Rougons—I was interested to see that he learned the art of self-promotion at Hachette but he over-stepped the mark with Claude’s Confession, his second novel about a prostitute.  As an art critic he made himself notorious in the art world stoush over Impressionism v classical painting, but he also learned from Manet his guiding aesthetic, i.e. to look at life like a modern painter.

Novels which are discussed in detail in the VSI include

  • The Belly of Paris (Chapter 3) from his ‘angry young man’ period;
  • L’Assommoir (Chapter 4), the scandalous first great novel of working-class life;
  • Nana (Chapter 5), about a prostitute whose life span symbolises the disfigurement of French society from the coup d’état in 1852 to the declaration of war against Russia which signalled the collapse of Empire;
  • The Ladies Paradise (Chapter 6): a transitional novel, from the private lives of the bourgeoisie in Pot Luck to a new optimistic focus on progress which depicts the Darwinian struggle between small business retailers and the new new phenomenon of the department store;
  • Germinal (Chapter 7) is about class conflict and the struggle between capital and labour, which Zola foresaw would be the most important question of the 20th century. But it’s also a novel about the importance of working-class leadership: Zola was well aware of the risks of muddled thinking and patchy reading and the consequences for demagoguery;
  • Earth which Nelson thinks is one of Zola’s finest achievements, demolishing the myth of the inherent goodness of peasants and depicting them as they really were, primitive and insular in a harsh environment.  Their savage, sometimes murderous attachment to land is an anti-pastoral.

Chapter 9 introduced me to novels I haven’t read: the more mythic Three Cities trilogy (about a priest who loses his faith) and the unfinished quartet of the Four Gospel novels (exploring a secular replacement for Christianity). In this later period—amid the ideological shifts in la fin de siécle—Zola’s themes were life and death, creation and destruction, degeneration and renewal.  But his signature naturalism began to be rejected, Catholicism was on the rise and there was pessimism about the nation’s future.  Nelson says that some of these are more like tracts.

And then Dreyfus affair overshadowed everything else.  This VSI has one of the best and clearest explanations of this affair and its long-lasting effects on France.  And he also says that it may well have led to the probable poisoning of this genius of French literature.

Author: Brian Nelson
Title: Émile Zola, a Very Short Introduction
Oxford Very Short Introductions Series
Publisher: OUP (Oxford University Press), 2020
ISBN: 9780198837565, pbk., 144 pages including

  • A chronology of Zola’s life and works
  • References
  • Further reading, and
  • Index

Review copy courtesy of Oxford University Press.

Available from Fishpond: Emile Zola: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers

16 comments on “Emile Zola, a Very Short Introduction, by Brian Nelson

  1. Jonathan says:

    Oh, I hadn’t realised this had been published. I recently read the VSI book on French literature but I think these literature VSIs work better when they’re focused on a single author. And who better to write one on Zola.

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  2. My copy arrives on Saturday. I’m so looking forward to its arrival. I really enjoyed the post above. Thank you. This site just goes on thrilling me.

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  3. I look forward to there being more content there. Both are great writers, of whom I’d like to know more.

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    • Lisa Hill says:

      I’ve just found a short story by Maupassant in Zola’s collection Les soirées de Medan, and I’m going to translate it and then review it here.

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      • Oh brilliant I’ll look forward to that. My German is up to reading books but not my French unfortunately. The lockdown has given me time to study German and Latin again.

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        • Lisa Hill says:

          I’m doing Latin too, I love it.
          My French is still a bit laborious, it depends a lot on the author. I’m reading The Silence of the Sea at the moment, and that’s not too hard, but La Guerre de Boutons was impossible, so much slang!

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          • What course are you doing? I did the Duolingo Latin as a refresher, but the German was dreck so I have a set of books, a big dictionary, and do
            The Babbel German course. I’ve been looking for a slightly more advanced Latin course, but not much luck yet. At least reading and study keeps me from the discontent and boredom so many in UK are experiencing with lockdown.

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            • Lisa Hill says:

              I did the Duolingo Latin one, but it peters out too early and comes to a full stop too soon.
              I’m now learning it f2f at U3A. (Do you have U3A in the UK? It’s the University of the 3rd Age, where all the students and teachers are retirees. There are branches all over Melbourne, offering all kinds of courses depending on the interests and expertise of their members. (I myself taught Indonesian for Travellers the year before last). My husband is currently doing a year long course in Australian History.)
              Of course when I wrote ‘learning it f2f’, that’s not what happened last year during Lockdown. My U3A teacher is a technophobe only just coming to grips with using SMS on a smartphone and a newbie at reading email with the mysteries of sending it still to learn, so there was no Zoom for us as there was with French. Instead we did it by correspondence, which makes me think that you could very easily do what we did if you use the same book. It’s called Latin for Common Entrance by N R R Oulton, 9781471867378 and I bought Books One, Two and Three from the Book Depository. Book One covers what I had learned at school and goes on to the 3rd, 4th and mixed conjugations, plus the first two declensions. It doesn’t have the answers so you have to buy those separately.
              I agree entirely about keeping the mind active. The media discourse is all about people not coping, but having been through months of very strict lockdown, I can tell you that those in my network got through it by adapting to reality and finding satisfying ways to use our inner resources. I made a routine of doing Latin: I did 20-30 minutes every day except at weekends. The people in my Latin group not only had work to do and something to look forward to, they also had a sense of accomplishing something they had wanted to do for a long time, and had a real sense of achievement by the end of the year. This year, we’re doing a quick bit of revision and then starting Book Two!

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              • Dead right about Duolingo Latin, the German course was terrible no explanation of Grammar, bad translations, arbitrary use of colloquialisms, without explanation etc. Babbel mixes Grammar and vocabulary in each lesson,but Latin isn’t available. I’m very self motivational and have various research texts to study, archaeology, medieval and Tudor history. Latin is useful not only for Roman history but also for medieval history, as I’m sure you know. I’ll look for the bookyou entitled, it sounds useful. We do have U3A in Torquay, but as it’s a town of only 150,000 there are less groups. I helped a friend to organise a music group. She also does Italian and German groups. The Italian group has used Zoom to keep going but the German set are tech opno es too.However, the group isn’t interested in the Classics, so no Latin or Greek. I’m 74 and my school cohort were amongst the last to need Latin for university. The teaching of Latin has been in decline ever since, sadly. Thanks for your very useful suggestions.

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