1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Zola, Émile Édouard Charles Antoine

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ZOLA, ÉMILE ÉDOUARD CHARLES ANTOINE (1840–1902), French novelist, was born in Paris on the 2nd of April 1840, his father being an engineer, part Italian and part Greek, and his mother a Frenchwoman. The father seems to have been an energetic, visionary man, who, dying while his only son was a little lad, left to his family no better provision than a lawsuit against the municipality of the town of Aix. It was at Aix, which figures as Plassans in so many of his novels, that the boy received the first part of his education. Thence he proceeded, in 1858, to Paris, where, as later at Marseilles, he failed to obtain his bachelor’s degree. Then came a few years of terrible poverty; but at the beginning of 1862 he obtained a clerkship, at the modest salary of a pound a week, in the house of Hachette the publisher. Meanwhile he was writing apace, but nothing of particular merit. His first book, Contes à Ninon, appeared on the 24th of October 1864, and attracted some attention, and in January 1866 he determined to abandon clerking and take to literature. Vigorous and aggressive as a critic, his articles on literature and art in Villemessant’s paper L’Événement created a good deal of interest. So did the gruesome but powerful novel, Thérèse Raquin (1867). Meanwhile, with characteristic energy, Zola was projecting something more important: the creation of a world of his own, like that of Balzac’s Comédie Humaine—the history of a family in its various ramifications during the Second Empire. The history of this family, the Rougon-Macquart, was to be told in a series of novels containing a scientific study of heredity—science was always Zola’s ignis fatuus—and a picture of French life and society. The first novel of the series, La Fortune des Rougon, appeared in book form at the end of 1871. It was followed by La Curée (1874), Le Ventre de Paris (1874), La Conquête de Plassans (1875), La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret (1875), Son Excellence Eugène Rougon (1876)—all books unquestionably of immense ability, and in a measure successful, but not great popular successes. Then came L’Assommoir (1878?), the epic of drink, and the author’s fortune was made. Edition followed edition. He became the most discussed, the most read, the most bought novelist in France—the sale of L’Assommoir being even exceeded by that of Nana (1880) and La Débâcle (1892). From the Fortune des Rougon to the Docteur Pascal (1893) there are some twenty novels in the Rougon-Macquart series, the second half of which includes the powerful novels Germinal (1885) and La Terre (1888). In 1888 Zola departed from his usual vein in the idyllic story of Le Rêve. Zola also wrote a series of three romances on cities, Lourdes, Rome, Paris (1894–98), novels on the “gospels” of population (Fécondité) and work (Travail), a volume of plays, and several volumes of criticism, and other things. These books are based on study and observation; the novels are crowded with characters. The whole is a gigantic opus, the fruit of immense labour, of an admirable tenacity—so many pages written, morning after morning, without intermission, during some thirty years. He prided himself on his motto, Nulla dies sine linea.

Zola, was the apostle of the “realistic” or “naturalistic” school; but he was in truth not a “naturalist” at all, in so far as “naturalism” is to be regarded as a record of fact. He was an idealist, but while other idealists idealize the nobler elements in human nature, so has he, for the most part—the later books, however, show improvement—idealized the elements that are bestial. He saw man’s lust, greed, gluttony, as in a vision, magnified, overwhelming, portentous. And what he saw he presented with tremendous power. His style may lack the classic qualities of French prose—lightness, delicacy, sparkle; it certainly has not Daudet’s colour and felicity of touch. The first impression it produces may be one of heaviness, and the later “gospels” on population and work are distinctly ponderous. But for rendering the gloomy horror of the subjects in which he most delights—detail on detail being accumulated till the result is overwhelming—Zola has no superior. Some of his descriptions of crowds in movement have never been surpassed.

Zola played a very important part in the Dreyfus affair, which convulsed French politics and social life at the end of the 19th century. At an early stage he came to the conclusion that Dreyfus was the innocent victim of a nefarious conspiracy, and on the 13th of January 1898, with his usual intrepidity, he published in the Aurore newspaper, in the form of a letter beginning with the words J'accuse, a terrible denunciation of all those who had had a hand in hounding down that unfortunate officer. Zola’s object was a prosecution for libel, and a judicial inquiry into the whole affaire, and at the trial, which took place in Paris in February, a fierce flood of light was thrown on the case. The chiefs of the army put forth all their power, and Zola was condemned. He appealed. On the 2nd of April the Cour de Cassation quashed the proceedings. A second trial took place at Versailles, on the 18th of July, and without waiting the result Zola, by the advice of his counsel and friends, and for reasons of legal strategy, abruptly left France and took refuge in England. Here he remained in hiding, writing Fécondité, till the 4th of June 1899, when, immediately on hearing that there was to be a revision of the first Dreyfus trial, he returned to Paris. Whatever may be thought of the affaire itself, there can be no question of Zola’s superb courage and disinterestedness.

On the morning of the 29th of September 1902 Zola was found dead in the bedroom of his Paris house, having been accidentally asphyxiated by the fumes from a defective flue. He received a public funeral, at which Captain Dreyfus was present. Anatole France delivered an impassioned oration at the grave. At the time of his death Zola had just completed a novel, Vérité, dealing with the incidents of the Dreyfus trial. A sequel, Justice, had been planned, but not executed. After a life of constant struggle and an obloquy which never relaxed, the sensational close of Zola’s career was the signal for an extraordinary burst of eulogy. The verdict of posterity will probably be kinder than the first, and less unmeasured than the second. Zola’s literary position would have more than qualified him for the French Academy. He was several times a candidate in vain.  (F. T. M.) 

See Émile Zola, Novelist and Reformer (1904), giving a full account of his life and work, by E. A. Vizetelly, who translated and edited many of his works in English; also P. Alexis, Émile Zola, Notes d’un ami; F. Brunetière, Le Roman Naturaliste (1883); vols. iii., v. and vi. of the Journal des Goncourt (1888–92) ; E. Hennequin, Quelques Écrivains français (1890); R. H. Sherard, Émile Zola: a biographical and critical study (1903); A. Laporte, Émile Zola, l’homme et l’œuvre (1894) with a bibliography. A complete report of the proceedings against Zola is printed in Le Procès Zola (2 vols. 1898, Eng. trans. 1898).