Zola: A Life
by Frederick Brown
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 888 pp. $37.50
Anatole France gave the eulogy at Emile Zola’s graveside in 1902. “Let us envy him,” France said. “He has honored his country and the world with an immense body of work and one great act.” The body of work consisted primarily of the twenty “Rougon-Macquart” novels—including Germinal, L’Assommoir, Nana, and La Bête Humaine—which survey 19th-century France through the eyes of one devious and degenerate extended family. The great act was Zola’s dramatic intervention in the Dreyfus affair with “J’accuse,” the most important journalistic polemic in European history.
Zola’s political virtue has been seen by some as a product of his artistic inspiration; to others, his literary value is a function of his political commitments. It is one of Frederick Brown’s achievements in Zola that he disentangles these categories, allowing a more multifaceted picture of the man to emerge.
Zola’s writing career was remarkable for its perseverance. He envisioned the Rougon-Macquart series as a ten-volume indictment of the Second Empire of Louis Napoleon, France’s “democratic despot.” Unfortunately for Zola, in 1870, before the first volume went to press, Louis Napoleon was taken prisoner at the battle of Sedan—and Zola, who had envisioned a racy chronicle of the foibles of his age, was suddenly transformed into a historical novelist. He did not give up the project. A decade on, he realized it would take him not ten but twenty novels to complete the cycle, and not until the middle of 1893 would he reach the end, a quarter-century after outlining the entire Rougon-Macquart family tree on paper.
Zola’s most salient trait as a writer was ambition, which early on appeared as sycophancy. “As I detect within myself a faint echo of the sublime voice that inspires you,” he wrote to Victor Hugo, “I sometimes let my thoughts break into song. . . .” But sycophancy would soon give way to cheek. Just weeks into a low-level job at Hachette publishers, he sent a memo to the director urging him to fund a Bibliothèque des Débutants to promote such young writers as . . . Emile Zola. And cheek would give way to conniving. He became advertising manager at Hachette, and set to work with the assiduity of a party hack to forge a network of connections, pushing books by the authors he most wanted to meet and brown-nosing them shamelessly by operating as a kind of one-man clipping service. He bartered review copies with cunning, in such a way that even before his own books made it to market, he was possibly as well-connected with literary reviewers as anyone in France.
He also used his position as a springboard into journalism, where he negotiated away his objectivity, promising Jules and Edmond Goncourt a favorable review of their next novel if they would leak him a publishable piece of gossip about it. His early journalistic work was annoyingly boastful: “People marvel at my candor and free speech,” he wrote in 1866. “Well, so be it. I am one who believes that highways are more direct than pathways and I shall continue to follow my own road.” In an article written shortly thereafter, he wrote, “Ever since I burned my poems I have given myself over to reality with such passion that I can no longer swallow lies, however sweetly rhymed.” Brown notes that Zola had, in fact, not burned his poems. This, moreover, was around the time that he was staging a fake argument with his publisher in order to publicize his early novel, Madeleine Férat.
But unlike most self-promoters, Zola was also capable of great honesty and self-abnegation. His poetry, he acknowledged, was wretched. Self-serving though his reviews may have been, 110 of them appeared in one newspaper over nine months in 1866. His persistence amounted to a species of courage, in which, as Brown writes, “every hour spent on literature was time stolen from sleep.”
Which of these Zolas—the self-interested cynic or the honorable craftsman—was at work in the Dreyfus affair? Zola was certainly not outraged in 1894 when Dreyfus was first arrested and dishonored. No one was.
Even as evidence of Dreyfus’s innocence emerged, only an infinitesimal minority in France held that his case should be reopened. Among intellectuals, Bernard Lezarde, Maurice Maeterlinck, Anatole France, Charles Péguy, Claude Monet, Julien Benda, Léon Blum, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Marcel Proust were Dreyfusards, but the anti-Dreyfusards included Jules Lemaître, Daudets père (Alphonse) et fils (Léon), Paul Valéry, Pierre Louÿs, and Joris-Karl Huysmans. The hitherto respected novelist Maurice Barrès was consumed with such blinding hatred for Dreyfus that he succeeded in dissociating himself not merely from French literature but from the family of man. André Gide and Romain Rolland vacillated between the two camps.
It was only in late 1897, when the Alsatian senator Auguste Scheurer-Kestner approached Zola with irrefutable proof of Dreyfus’s innocence, that Zola threw himself into the fray, with several articles culminating, on January 13, 1898, in his open letter to president Felix Faure.
Brown sees a stronger element of self-interest in Zola’s intervention than most sympathetic biographers, noting that his novels of the five previous years had not been as well received critically as the Rougon-Macquart series. “Did the Affair present itself as, among much else, an elixir for the played-out creator? No doubt.” Tellingly, j’accuse ends with Zola, not Dreyfus, at center stage:
I am aware that these accusations expose me to prosecution under Articles 30 and 31 of the press law of July 29, 1881, which deal with slander. And I run the risk willingly. . . . The act I accomplish here is but a revolutionary means of hastening the explosion of truth and justice.
I have only one passion, a passion for the knowledge that will alleviate human woe and bring mankind the happiness to which it is entitled. My burning protest comes from deep down. Let those who would dare do so try me at assize court and let the inquest take place openly, in broad daylight.
I shall wait.
As brown notes, “there can be no doubt that [Zola] saw this as his opportunity to play a historic role”—precisely the charge his detractors leveled at him—but such a reading is also, as Brown shows, woefully incomplete. Zola may have sought and got publicity, but he did so at great personal risk, and at a time when appeals to reason and justice would avail nothing and when only publicity could save Alfred Dreyfus. Zola, moreover, was nearly ruined by the affair: so anti-Dreyfusard was the French reading public that Zola’s novel Rome, which sold 100,000 copies in 1896-97, sold only 6,000 more between j’accuse and the author’s death four years later. Finally, there is considerable—though not conclusive—evidence that Zola’s death by asphyxiation was an assassination ordered by anti-Dreyfusards who directed a team of stonemasons to seal off his chimney flue.
What resonance does Zola’s heroic act have in our own era when intellectual activists rush to defend the likes of Jack Abbott and Mumia Abu-Jamal, and what were the political ideas from which it sprang? Zola has been seen simple-mindedly as a run-of-the-mill socialist with the courage of his convictions, but that may be because he is read now only as the author of j’accuse and Germinal. While Germinal, which is about striking workers in a mining town, is by most reckonings his masterpiece, it is by no means a typical effort, and the class struggle was not in fact his preoccupation. Asked during the serialization of Germinal if he would side with a group of striking miners, he replied, “Neither with them nor against them.”
Nor is that all. Zola ferociously attacked the Paris Commune, and so deep was his dislike of the Left-Republican government of Léon Gambetta in 1880-81 that he accepted a job as a columnist for the Catholic, royalist Figaro. Brown seems altogether correct in his verdict that Zola “found socialist dogmatism even more obnoxious than bourgeois conformism.”
Only in French terms would Zola be thought of as more radical than reactionary. What moved him most was a belief in French exceptionalism, an exceptdonalism that derived from the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Yet while he saw France as the cradle of universalist ideas, and vaguely approved a universal brotherhood, there was nothing internationalist about him. Neither his visits to Italy, which so thrilled his wife that she returned every year, nor his brief exile in England in the wake of j’accuse made any impact on him. During his early days in England, he wrote:
I lack the faculty for enjoying myself abroad. . . . Worst of all are the first hours I spend in a foreign land. I rebel at not grasping what people say and feel terribly distressed. Some compatriots, to insult me, have called me “the foreigner.” Good Lord, . . . how little they know me.
We know Zola much more intimately as a result of Brown’s Life. We had better: the biography is a half-million words long. Brown is deeply read, snappy in his prose, and addicted to detail. Not all of it is about Zola: we are given punctilious discussions of Flaubert’s finances, the development of the serial novel in France, the reception in Lyon of Frédérick Lemaître’s play Robert Macaire (a kind of gangsta rap de ses jours), the importance of the new “chassepot” rifle in sowing French military overconfidence in the late 1860’s, the color scheme (red and tan) on first-class trains between Provence and Paris, Huysmans’s writings on naturalism, and syphilis rates in Aix-en-Provence.
Still, to say that it could be cut in half is not to say that would make Zola a better book. To non-lovers of Zola it may be a long slog, but devotees will find in it precisely what is most appealing in the novels, with their picayune details and their endless unravelings of personal threads and emotional etiologies. And Brown’s portrait of the age is pertinent as well, for Zola—like Talleyrand, Hugo, Clemenceau, de Gaulle—led one of those capacious French lives that stretch from crisis to crisis and stand as symbols for not only one episode in the country’s history but a handful.