‘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.