Frederick Brown, Zola: A Life


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.




‘Garden of Zola’ by Graham King

Garden of Zola

Garden of Zola

Whilst I was reading the Rougon-Macquart series of books I came across this book, Garden of Zola, by Graham King.  At the time I was having trouble trying to determine which books were unique and which were just different translations or whether they were part of the Rougon-Macquart series at all. For example, when I looked on my library’s catalogue it came up with all sorts of titles; some were obviously variations of those I already knew but others didn’t seem to refer to any of the titles that I was aware of and trying to match some of these up with those available on eBay, Amazon or Project Gutenberg seemed an impossible task. So I was immediately attracted to this book when I noticed that the subtitle was Emile Zola and his Novels for English Readers.

In the introduction, King sets out his aim for writing the book: he wanted to write an accurate, readable book for the general reader, who will be reading the works in English. He declares early on that for such a reader ‘what ought to be a delightful ramble through his novels becomes an obstacle course over treacherous, although occasionally rewarding, terrain.’ Part of the aim of the book, and also this post, is to offer some help over this terrain.

King further remarks that his intention is that the book will be ‘part biography, part criticism, part commentary, and with a number of side journeys into areas I considered to be of special interest.’ And this is basically what we get; the large bulk of the book covers Zola’s life from his childhood in Aix-en-Provence, his move to Paris, his early career in journalism and writing, his breakthrough and fame, right through to his involvement in the Dreyfus Affair and his death by carbon monoxide poisoning. King’s style is certainly readable and at no point does he flag. I initially intended to read the biographical sections after I’d finished the whole series but I started reading parts of it as I was reading the novels and at one point I just decided to carry on and finish it. Apart from a few spoilers I was glad that I did as I found it helped my understanding of the novels, Zola and his times. Though I would like to make it clear that it is not essential to do any preliminary reading before tackling any of Zola’s books.

As promised in the book’s introduction, King also supplies commentary and criticism of the novels as he progresses through Zola’s life. His criticism is approached in a very personable way, mixing critique with personal recollection and providing historical information when required. The only criticism that I had with this part of the book was that at times he just uses great slabs of quotations. For example when discussing L’Assommoir, there is a seven page section that is predominantly filled with quotations.

I haven’t read any other biographies of Zola so far, but I’m sure they will all have to cover the Dreyfus Affair to some extent, as Zola became heavily involved in it. The chapter in this book was an easy, concise overview of the whole affair and I found it fascinating to read and I intend to read more books covering this subject. Zola’s involvement resulted in him fleeing France to England (see also Ernest Vizetelly’s With Zola in England) and possibly his murder, as the circumstances of his death remains suspicious.

The main reason that I bought this book, rather than any other, was that I hoped it would contain information on English translations. Although it’s now dated (published in 1978) it surpassed my expectations on this account. First of all, there is a chapter that covers censorship in Victorian Britain from Thomas Bowdler up to Henry Vizetelly’s court cases in 1888/9. Henry Vizetelly started to publish unabridged versions of Nana and L’Assommoir in 1884 and soon gained the rights to all of Zola’s work in English. But criticism of the ‘obscenities’ in Zola’s books soon forced Vizetelly to abridge the novels to avoid trouble. Problems really began when translators refused to translate sections of La Terre. When it was finally published in an abridged version as The Soil, he incurred the wrath of the National Vigilance Association, who described the book as ‘filth’ – anyone who has read the book can just imagine the impact it must have had on these Victorian prudes. I like to imagine them reading the bit about the donkey puking up all the booze that it’s drank in front of the visiting vicar. Anyway, Henry was tried at the Old Bailey on 31st October 1888. King quotes from the court case and it’s fascinating to read; the argument that the prosecution lawyer uses is that it’s alright for obscene parts to exist in literature by established authors but The Soil is filth from beginning to end and Zola is not a reputable author. Henry ended by pleading guilty and received a £100 fine much to the satisfaction of the press. However, there was confusion over what Vizetelly could now publish; he continued to publish the other Zola novels and was taken to court again on 30th May 1889. Henry was ill and he had a terrible lawyer who advised him to plead guilty – he was then sent to prison for three months. On his release, he retired and he died on 1st January 1894. Chatto & Windus bought the English translation rights and Henry’s son, Ernest, edited the novels so that they could be legally published. King then gives examples of the differences between the two Vizetelly versions. When criticising the Vizetelly translations it’s always worth remembering what conditions the Vizetellys had to work under and that despite everything, they continued to publish Zola in one form or other.

For me, the most useful chapter was titled The Perils of an English Reader, which contains loads of information on English translations of Zola’s works – much of the information relating to the pre-1970 translations on the Translations page was culled from this chapter.  Although the Vizetellys had to publish heavily abridged copies of Zola’s works it is interesting to know that unabridged translations of six of Zola’s novels were produced by The Lutetian Society in 1894/5. These were sold to subscribers in a limited edition and therefore the publishers escaped prosecution. King notes that ‘these texts are uniformly excellent’ and that the translation of La Terre is ‘outstanding’. When interest in Zola resurfaced in the 1950s these translations were used as a basis for new editions.

Until I read this chapter I was unaware that many of the Rougon-Macquart novels were translated in the late 1950s and published by Elek Books. Where a modern (post 1970) version was unavailable I was then able to track down, either from the library or eBay, some of these 1950s translations. King gives examples of some of the differences between these translations and gives a personal view of their merit. In the end I read six Elek translations and the only Vizetelly translation I read was Money (n.b. a new translation of Money is due in March 2014) . I intend to add a separate post with information on these Elek Book versions, but for anyone who is interested there is an example of the difference on the post titled Exceptional Excerpts: Zest for Life by Émile Zola.

There are about forty illustrations included in this book, consisting of photographs of Zola and his family, reproductions of early and pulp editions of his books, political cartoons & caricatures and more.

BTW I’m not sure what to make of the cover…hey it was the ’70s.

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.