‘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.

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Frederick Brown, Zola: A Life

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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.