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

‘The Disappearance of Émile Zola’ by Michael Rosen

I haven’t posted much in the last month what with being busy at work, the World Cup occupying much of my time and the warm summer weather not being favourable for sitting at a computer screen. So blogging has taken a bit of a back-seat, but I have been reading quite a bit. One of the books I read recently was Frederick Brown’s book on the belle epoque era in French history, For the Soul of France, which has the subtitle Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus. That book covers significant events such as the rise and fall of General Boulanger, the crash of the Union Générale, the Panama Scandal and of course the Dreyfus Affair as well as others. The Dreyfus Affair becomes more fascinating the more I read of it and Brown’s book was especially useful as it helped put the events into context. I would recommend the book for anyone who would like an introduction to the period. Frederick Brown has also written a book covering the 1914-1940 period called The Embrace of Unreason, a huge biography of Zola that I have yet to read and a biography of Flaubert which I have started to read.

As I was reading For the Soul of France I spotted The Disappearance of Émile Zola by Michael Rosen in my local library and so I felt it would be a good idea to follow the Brown book with this one. It covers Zola’s period of exile in England during the Dreyfus Affair. I had previously read Ernest Vizetelly’s With Zola in England: A Story of Exile which is a great first-hand account of events by Zola’s English publisher and was published in 1899 while the Dreyfus Affair was still raging. Michael Rosen is able to add to that account by referring to Zola’s correspondence and more recent works on Zola.

On the evening of Monday, 18 July 1898, Émile Zola disappeared.

Zola had been convicted for criminal libel following the publication in January 1898 of his explosive article J’accuse. In this article Zola claimed that Dreyfus had been falsely convicted of espionage by the army, that evidence had been fabricated and kept secret from the defence, that the guilty person, Major Esterhazy, was protected by the army and that Dreyfus was convicted because of anti-Semitism in the army. All of this was true but that did not stop Zola from being prosecuted. Zola had hoped that his trial would result in a re-trial of Dreyfus but this failed as the military and judiciary closed ranks. Zola faced a year in prison but was persuaded by his lawyer to flee to England instead.

As we read this book we discover that Zola had a hard time in England. His home affairs were complicated as he shared his life with his wife of nearly thirty years, Alexandrine, and his mistress, Jeanne, with whom he had two children, Denise and Jacques. Zola could speak very little English and now, although a famous author, he found himself alone and in a foreign land having to hide away in damp, cramped houses and having to cope with English weather and food. He wasn’t totally alone of course as Vizetelly and others were there to help him find a place to stay and to direct his correspondence back home. Zola managed to stay hidden away despite attempts by the press to track him down. Amusingly Zola was spotted almost straight away by some French actresses on tour in London but luckily this didn’t get leaked to the press and he managed to remain hidden away for the whole period.

Zola wasn’t to return to France until 5th June 1899, over a year since he decided to leave France. During this year he was compelled to move house several times but he managed to continue his work on the first of his novels from the Four Gospels series, Fruitfulness (Fécondité), which was published whilst he was still in England. Zola’s Four Gospels were to concentrate on influencing French society rather than just documenting it. Strangely, Zola seems to be more positive than ever before. Here he is recorded by a reporter as saying:

Ah! how this crisis has done me good! How it’s made me forget the self-glorifying vanity to which I—like many others—become attached! And how it’s opened up my life, along with problems and profundities that I didn’t ever suspect! I want to devote all my efforts to the liberation of man. I wish that we could all put ourselves up for the test that our group of humanity might come out of this being braver and more fraternal…

Once he’d moved out of London both Alexandrine and Jeanne were able to visit Zola during this period, albeit at separate times. As he became more settled he was able to enjoy his new passions of cycling and photography and included in this book are several of Zola’s photographs of England and of his visiting family. Rosen’s book also includes many extracts from Zola’s correspondence with Alexandrine, Jeanne and his children. These letters help us to understand his unorthodox homelife and how he tried to please everyone. Alexandrine must have found the situation very difficult but she and Zola were still in love and she continued to adminster his affairs in Paris. Zola’s letters to Alexandrine and Jeanne show that he cared for them both.

This is a very interesting book for the Zola enthusiast and even if you’ve read Vizetelly’s book you will find it fascinating to read. It also includes the short story that Zola wrote whilst in England called Angeline or The Haunted House which is a sort of ‘non-ghost story’ and the text of J’accuse is reproduced in full. I suppose the only criticism is that the Dreyfus Affair is only explained very briefly so it would be best to read up beforehand on the scandal that instigated the events laid out in this book.

This was cross-posted on The Intermittencies of the Mind.

‘Zola and the Victorians’ by Eileen Horne

Zola-and-the-VictoriansZola and the Victorians: Censorship in the Age of Hypocrisy by Eileen Horne was published in 2015 by Maclehose Press. As soon as I became aware of this book I just had to read it as soon as possible. Ever since I became aware of Zola and the problems over the translations into English I have been fascinated with the story of the Vizetellys. Graham King’s book, Garden of Zola was a fascinating and useful book when I was reading the Rougon-Macquart series and chapter 15 of that book covers much of what appears in Horne’s book. So, Zola and the Victorians tells the story of the Vizetellys, notably Henry and Ernest, and their battles with the censors in late Victorian England. And by the way: I love the cover.

Of course, this book will mostly be of interest to anyone that’s read anything by Zola, but also anyone that’s interested in censorship in the Victorian period. It’s not necessary to have read any of Zola’s books to appreciate this book. The first thing I should mention is that I was expecting a straightforward non-fiction account but instead it consists largely of fictionalised episodes. My guess is that there is very little actual source material, especially about the Vizetellys, and that a lot just has to be inferred. Once I got used to it being largely fiction I was ok with it but it does mean that the reader has to question what is exactly from primary source material and what is made up.

La Terre was published in 1887 and was the fifteenth book in Zola’s series of books, Les Rougon-Macquart, and it concentrates on the French peasantry and farming. It is a truly remarkable book that can still shock the reader today as it depicts the misery that exists in the countryside. The book has a huge number of characters, many of whom are either repellent, grasping, murderous or otherwise sick or mentally unstable. It has scenes of murder, violence and rape together with fart jokes and drunk donkeys puking over priests. But the main theme of the book is the battle over Old Fouan’s land after he leaves it to his offspring when he can no longer work the land himself. Even by today’s standards La Terre is brutal and earthy, so it’s no wonder that it caused a stir when published in France.

Inspired by contemporary French literature Henry Vizetelly had started a publishing company with the aim of selling translations of recent literature. He had bought the rights to translate and publish everything by Zola, beginning with L’Assommoir and Nana. With the translation of La Terre Vizetelly was faced with trouble from the start as Ernest Vizetelly had to finish the translation after the original translator refused to work on it. Ernest made a lot of changes to make the book more acceptable to the English reading public before it was published, as The Soil, in 1888.

Horne’s book begins with chapters depicting Zola at home as he works on his next book, The Dream and a debate in the House of Commons on the spread of ‘demoralising literature’ including Zola’s work. But with chapter three we get to see the Vizetellys at home debating the recent interest that the Pall Mall Gazette is showing in Zola’s ‘immoral’ books. In this chapter Henry comes across as a bit of a dreamer whereas Ernest is more pragmatic, more aware of the potential dangers that lie ahead. Henry is convinced that Victorian society is relaxing its morals whilst Ernest is convinced of the opposite. Ernest’s analysis of their predicament is prescient:

   “Papa, I do not — I have no wish to worry you…but if Nana and L’Assommoir…were at the boundary edge of public taste, it seems to me that this new book, The Soil, is beyond that scale. What is more, it lacks the lesson that those tales of urban degradation carry. I can see how it was possible to argue that those stories were meant as warning bells, by a moralistic author, to dissuade his readers from emulating the sorry and desperate heroines. But I feel that option is not open to us here; frankly, I don’t know where an apologist would begin with The Soil. I have been going over the final proofs today…there is more revision before we can print.”

Ernest is aware of the furore that had erupted in France over the publication of the book and is well aware of how it will be met with in England, even in its sanitised form. But the Vizetelly’s are about to come up against the National Vigilance Association (N.V.A.) an organisation that has political and journalistic support. Horne is fair enough in this section not to caricaturise the members of the N.V.A. as they believe that they are saving the country from such ‘pernicious filth’. They are certainly patronising though, as they treat ‘the masses’ little more than children that need to be protected from such literature.

Part Two covers the trials that took place and is fascinating reading. The N.V.A. initially brought the cae against Henry Vizetelly but the crown subsequently takes over the prosecution. Much to Ernest’s dismay it is apparent that the prosecution aims to concentrate on The Soil. But Vizetelly seems to be plagued with incompetent or uninterested lawyers and over the course of the two trials their defence is largely non-existent despite receiving support from people such as the novelist George Moore and financial support from the journalist Frank Harris. After the second trial ends without the defence lawyer even putting up a fight Henry is sentenced to three months imprisonment. Later on in the book it’s this lack of a defence of the freedom of the press that gnaws at Henry. When Henry is writing his memoirs Ernest asks why he doesn’t write about the trial:

   “But you can set the record right, Papa. You can tell people what happened, and how we were badly misrepresented by our counsel, and in what way you intended to fight the case, for the sake of literary freedom—”
   “Intended. But I did not.”
   “You were ill!”
   “Yes, and I was afraid, which is implicit in my guilty plea. I did nothing for the cause, as you call it, except set it back….”

The book also covers Zola’s affair with his mistress and mother of his children, Jeanne, which is contemporaneous with the trials, and Zola’s visit to England in 1893, where he is hypocritically fêted by the British establishment, many of whom were intrumental in the Viztelly prosecution.

This book was a fascinating read and is recommended to all the Zola enthusiasts out there. The fictional nature of the book helps bring the protagonists alive and allows us to envisage likely scenes that may or may not have taken place. However, we are then unsure what is actually fact or fiction. For example, how much detail of the trials is actually known about? Referring to the relevant chapter in Graham King’s book I notice that he gives short extracts of the trial but it’s not clear whether these come from transcripts of the trial or from newspaper reports. Still, this is an inherent problem with this approach but should be understood when reading it.

This was cross-posted on my Intermittencies of the Mind blog.

Frederick Brown, Zola: A Life

BrownZola

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:

Emile Zola with his mistress, Jeanne Rozerot, in 1893.

Emile Zola with his mistress, Jeanne Rozerot, in 1893.

 

 

Prudes on the Prowl – Zola and Censorship

Prudes on the Prowl (OUP)

Prudes on the Prowl (OUP)

I was carrying out a bit of a random internet search for information on the Lutetian Society who were responsible for privately publishing several of Zola’s books in the late nineteenth century. I didn’t find much, partly because I got distracted (as I usually do when searching for something online) by this book, Prudes on the Prowl: Fiction and Obscenity in England, 1850 to the Present Day, published by Oxford University Press in 2013 and edited by David Bradshaw and Rachel Potter. It consists of nine essays and although the whole book looks like a good read, the second essay is especially interesting to Zola enthusiasts – its full title is Pernicious Literature: Vigilance in the Age of Zola (1886-1899) and it’s by Katherine Mullin. It covers the emergence of literacy amongst the working class from 1870 and the perceived threat of ‘pernicious literature’, the rise and fall of the National Vigilance Association (NVA), the Vizetelly trials and the effects the Vizetelly trials had on English writers such as Thomas Hardy, George Gissing and George Moore. Oh, it also had a little bit on the Lutetian Society as well.

As it’s an academic book it’s very expensive – £50.00 for the hardback; but the Zola chapter is available on Google Books if anyone’s interested.

William Dean Howells on Emile Zola

Emile Zola, 1840-1902

Emile Zola, 1840-1902

It is too bad that William Dean Howells is out of fashion just now. He was a popular American novelist in the last quarter of the 19th century and, as Editor of the Atlantic Monthly, very influential in literary affairs. Howells was a contemporary of Emile Zola but, so far as I know, never met him. He was well read in his novels, however, and used the occasion of Zola’s death in 1902 to write an appreciation, entitled simply “Emile Zola.”

 Because he believed with his whole soul that fiction should be the representation, and in no measure the misrepresentation, of life, he will live as long as any history of literature survives.

He depicts Zola as a realist rebelling against the romantic approach to literature. Howells says this refutes the concept that Zola’s writings were somehow immoral.

 It is to the glory of the French realists that they broke, one and all, with the tradition of the French romanticists that vice was or might be something graceful, something poetic, something gay, brilliant, something superior almost, and at once boldly presented it in its true figure, its spiritual and social and physical squalor

Howells points out that moralist concerns himself with justice and with truth.

 Zola was an artist, and one of the very greatest, but even before and beyond that he was intensely a moralist, as only the moralists of our true and noble time have been. Not Tolstoy, not Ibsen himself, has more profoundly and indignantly felt the injustice of civilization, or more insistently shown the falsity of its fundamental pretensions. He did not make his books a polemic for one cause or another; he was far too wise and sane for that; but when he began to write them they became alive with his sense of what was wrong and false and bad.

As a novelist himself, Howells knows that a writer never simply reports. Even the most “scientific” or fact-bound journalist must select what facts to report.

 What Zola did was less to import science and its methods into the region of fiction, than journalism and its methods; but in this he had his will only so far as his nature of artist would allow. He was no more a journalist than he was a scientist by nature; and, in spite of his intentions and in spite of his methods, he was essentially imaginative and involuntarily creative.

And finally, he suggests that Zola’s work was epic in nature. He says of the Rougon-Macquart novels,

 He wished to be a sort of historiographer writing the annals of a family, and painting a period; but he was a poet, doing far more than this, and contributing to creative literature as great works of fiction as have been written in the epic form.

If you are unfamiliar with William Dean Howells, I recommend The Rise of Silas Lapham. It has social realism and humor and a very interesting young heroine.

This commentary is also posted at Silver Threads.