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Letters from Zola

Correspondance d’Émile Zola, Volume I: 1858-1867

edited under the direction of B.H. Bakker, edited by Colette Becker
Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal, Volume I, 600 pp., $40.00

Correspondance d’Émile Zola, Volume II: 1868-mai 1877

edited under the direction of B.H. Bakker, edited by Colette Becker
Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal, Volume II, 648 pp., $48.00

Correspondance d’Émile Zola, Volume III: juin 1877-mai 1880

edited under the direction of B.H. Bakker, edited by Albert J. Salvan, by Alain Pagès
Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal, Volume III, 548 pp., $50.00

Thirty years ago, when Angus Wilson published an excellent short book on Émile Zola, Lionel Trilling, who shared his enthusiasm for the Rougon-Macquart novels, wrote a review in which he took issue with Wilson’s prediction of a Zola revival. Revivals, he observed, call into play an artist’s life as well as his work, and this to such an extent that the new honor conferred upon his work is often the epiphenomenon of a personal legend that the age finds especially congenial. Where Stendhal and Flaubert created legends “which serve as the ambience in which we read their work and by which we gloss it,” Zola’s oeuvre stands aloof from him. He was, wrote Trilling, “without the ambiguities and ambivalences which we most happily respond to, which we are inclined to believe are the only signs of authentic spiritual and artistic activity.” While Zola may have known adversity at an early age and undergone neurotic ordeals, his neurosis, far from crippling him, was of a kind that reinforced his stolid regime. Three pages a day kept the doctor away.

It could be said that in some degree the Dreyfus affair cost Zola his secular biography, that the legend he created as a public figure, during the last half-decade of his life had the effect of censoring his past and ironing out those wrinkles which posterity has come increasingly to value in great men. There is no denying that even before Alfred Dreyfus entered his life Zola seldom wrote about himself in any very intimate way. But after J’accuse, when anti-Dreyfusards scavenged about for information that might damage his moral authority, exposure invited graver consequences. The need to defend what he represented did not end with his death (which may or may not have been an accident). It became, indeed, the family imperative, a form of reverence for the eponymous hero, who was seen as being ineligible for the frailties that other, merely private, writers could afford.

Zola’s widow, Alexandrine, proved a zealous custodian of his image, withholding documents that did not argue perfect respectability, and editing what she relinquished to the public—two small volumes of correspondence—all the more freely for having justice behind her. Zola’s children, who were not only Zolas but Zolistes, inherited her custodianship. Only now, nearly three generations later, have the bonds between the living and the dead loosened enough for scholars to take up the slack, and one result is a collective effort, directed by Professor B.H. Bakker of York University in Canada, along with Professor Colette Becker of the Sorbonne, to assemble Zola’s correspondence (from libraries and in private hands throughout the world). Three volumes have appeared so far, spanning the period between 1858 and 1880, or Zola’s life between eighteen and forty. At least seven more will follow.

To begin with, letter writing for Zola was an outgrowth of traumatic separation. Until 1858 he had lived in Aix-en-Provence. His father, an Italian engineer of great ambition named François (originally Francesco), settled there after the government authorized him to form a company for building the dam and canal that still supply Aix with water from the Infernet gorges. Work on this huge project had hardly begun when François suddenly died. In due course his widow fell victim to the machinations of a swindler who acquired the canal company, leaving her as her main resource the stubborn belief that justice must eventually prevail, if only she pleaded long enough. Zola grew up in a strange atmosphere of Bleak House litigation. While life was stripping them bare, his mother was encouraging him to picture himself as an heir whose patrimony would be restored to him by the consummation of her marriage to the French legal system. Everything waited upon this suit, so that when Madame Zola decided to press it before a Paris tribunal, the court in Aix having declared itself incompetent to render judgment, Émile followed her north. What he lost all at once was the secure world of school, friends, and small-town life which had helped to heal the wound inflicted ten years earlier by his father’s death.

Zola would seldom again write letters as copious as those he sent between 1858 and 1862 to the two young men who had been his inseparable companions since they were twelve or thirteen: Jean-Baptistin Baille and Paul Cézanne. Alone in a city whose immensity bewildered him, he defended himself through this correspondence against a fear of sudden extinction or of anonymity which he would never altogether conquer. “I the isolated, I the disdained cling to your friendship like a desperate man,” he wrote Cézanne in March 1860, when it seemed as if gossamer threads of memory were all that kept him from dropping into a potter’s grave. “Man is alone, alone on the earth…. Each day shows me more clearly the vast desert in which each of us lives,” he lamented on another occasion.1

His early letters are by no means a circumstantial record of the life he led during his late teens and early twenties. More often, they offered him the opportunity to belittle those circumstances while continuing, in a preachy, high-minded tone that announces the future chef de mouvement, discussions on love and literature for which the Provençal countryside had once provided an idyllic environment. Frequent changes of address indicate how perilously near the edge he stood as their dwindling resources obliged him and his mother to seek ever cheaper accommodations on the Left Bank. “My mother finds herself in a state just this side of indigence,” he wrote in enlisting the help of a lawyer who had formerly befriended François.

But Baille and Cézanne, although Zola did not always conceal his predicament from them, were more likely to receive lectures inspired by Michelet, reflections on George Sand, and—in Cézanne’s case—advice and encouragement the giving of which must have made Zola feel rather better equipped to cope with his own hazardous future. “If I don’t tell you about my private life, if I don’t set before you my domestic situation, it’s because such material details could neither increase nor lessen our friendship…,” he explained to Baille (who later became a distinguished scientist).

This reticence extended to the physical scene outside and may be taken as a measure of his unwillingness to risk estrangement by admitting a world in which his Aixois friends couldn’t participate. Were it not for an occasional passage about the Mardi Gras festivities, city boys at the lycée Saint-Louis who made him feel hopelessly maladroit, a shopgirl he ogled, the allowance Cézanne would need to survive in Paris, or the view from his garret, one would not know for certain where such otherwise disembodied letters had originated.

How the exile writing weak, elegiac verse descended from his garret to become, in a very few years, a saboteur of literary and artistic pieties upheld by the bourgeoisie is one thing these volumes enable us to see more clearly. Zola always had a conviction that he would make his mark on the age. Certainly, he was often visited by fears of becoming impotent as an artist overnight and ultimately devised strategies to reassure himself that he could pick up tomorrow where he left off today (the elaborate preparation of dossiers for each novel, an invariable routine, stopping the day’s work in mid-sentence, like Ibsen). But even before that power had manifested itself, there is in his letters a sense of diffused energy only wanting the right vehicle to harness it. “The struggle will be long, but it doesn’t frighten me; I feel something in myself, and if this something really exists, then sooner or later it will out,” he declared to Baille in 1861. Becoming famous was bound up in Zola with the idea of avenging a Zola cheated of fame. His identification with the father whom he had come to glorify as a demi-urge (but an evanescent one) made him feel, on some level, destined to accomplish a great, interrupted project.

Paris opened up for him in 1862 and, after his confidants came north, Cézanne to paint, Baille to study at the Polytechnic Institute, Aix receded from the forefront of his imagination. In that year, Zola found employment at Louis Hachette and Company, the book publisher whose list included many of the most liberal, positivist writers to emerge during the Second Empire: Jules Simon, Émile Littré, Hippolyte Taine, Émile Deschanel. Hired as a clerk, he soon established himself as Hachette’s publicity director, with connections that let him reach into newspapers, magazines, and other publishing houses throughout France.

What effect this had may be judged from letters he wrote to several young Aixois friends, in which “fever,” “haste,” “virility,” “struggle,” and “marching” form the essential vocabulary of a convert whose enthusiasm for the capital verged on Jacobinism. Where Paris had formerly been a prison-house, now he argued that “to live far from Paris in these times of fever and struggle” was “a crime.”

Working ten hours a day at Hachette did not hinder him from working another three or four on his own account as the discovery that he felt infinitely more comfortable in prose than in poetry released him from the fetters of an adolescent illusion. By 1867 he had attracted attention with a volume of short stories, two novels (La Confession de Claude and Thérèse Raquin), and several hundred newspaper articles of which the most significant were devoted to Édouard Manet, on whose behalf he mounted his first assault on officialdom. “Today I am known, people fear and malign me; today I am classed among the writers whose work one reads with fright,” he boasted to a young friend in 1866. “That takes skill.”

Thérèse Raquin in particular caused an uproar. Those critics who denounced the Impressionists for producing work that lacked the finished glaze of academic tableaux were appalled by his socalled “physiological novel,” in which people are depicted as the sport of instinctual forces. In their view, the harsh punishment Zola meted out to his characters did not compensate for the prestige he accorded an underworld of sex and violence. To put ordinary people onstage and show a bête humaine behind their civil masks, or—as later in L’Assommoir, which made him notorious—have them speak in the argot of working-class Parisians, was to threaten the social order.

His correspondence attests to his skill. It is remarkable for what it tells us about the young writer who, during years at Hachette and on Grub Street, became thoroughly familiar with the ways of the world, of the new society in which machines were creating a communications industry poised to wield far more influence than had hitherto been imaginable. Edmond de Goncourt might profess disdain for him, or for the satisfaction he took in the hurly-burly of a good, tactical campaign. But Goncourt was among Zola’s main beneficiaries, as we learn from these letters, and this should be cautionary to literary histories of the kind that show movements and reputations being born in immaculate sequence, without a midwife’s helping hand. “Skill consists—once the work has been completed—in not awaiting the public, but in making advances and forcing it either to caress or insult you,” he wrote when still Hachette’s publicity director. “I am well aware that indifference would be loftier and more dignified, but as I told you, we are children of an impatient age, we stand on tip-toe in our fury to grow up, and if we don’t trod others underfoot, rest assured that they will stride over our prone bodies.”

Although Zola couldn’t re-read himself, and finishing a novel was invariably accompanied by bitter disappointments in the results, he never withdrew his affection so completely as to make his clumsy offspring fend for themselves. Here we find a chronicle of all he did in their behalf—the polemics he waged, the notices he planted, the favors he exchanged, the bargains he drove with newspaper editors who published him in feuilletons, or serial form. Not for nothing did his colleagues elect him president of the Société des Gens de Lettres in 1891.

As Zola toiled through the 1870s, producing one after another the great novels that constitute his “history of a family under the Second Empire,” the letters he sent Flaubert, Goncourt, and Turgenev reveal how earnestly he played the part of fugleman to the older literary generation in its struggle with a critical establishment dead set against it. Writing and fighting were intimately related activities for Zola. The “bon bourgeois” who prided himself on his voluminousness was also a brawler who might have found in politics or in the theater (he had many projects for the stage) a more gratifying outlet for his need to exercise audiences and for the anger that provided him with an inexhaustible source of creative energy. Among his most interesting letters are those written in 1870-1871 from Bordeaux, where the Government of National Defense had sought refuge during the Franco-Prussian War. Zola went there in the hope that he would come away from the confusion and haggling with an administrative post in the new republic. While his literary aspirations lay dormant, he worked at the fantasy of ruling Aix-en-Provence as a sub-prefect and avenging himself on the local notables who had, he felt, slighted himself and his father. “If I should secure a little power, I guarantee that I shall muzzle the envious and the cowardly,” he wrote to a friend in Aix. It was nearly thirty years until he made good his threat, on a grander scale, with J’accuse.

His letters rarely dwell upon aspects of his life not connected with some immediate purpose, however, for where letter writing was concerned Zola never acquired a disposition to “waste words,” to unwind from his productive labors by indulging in gossip, banter, self-analysis.2 The compulsive nature that made it hard for him to walk without counting street lamps or obsessing over the license numbers painted on hackney carriages protected him against the dangers to be encountered during a slow ramble of correspondence (even in his early letters, he would regularly inform Cézanne or Baille that he had “four pages” to give them).

Then again, epistolary brilliance has not, as a rule, found its most illustrious examples among men anchored in domestic life. The home Alexandrine made for Zola (who would, when he drew near fifty, experience it as rather too enveloping) spared him the loneliness that impelled reclusive personalities like Flaubert and Proust or wanderers like Stendhal and Byron to dilate upon themselves from afar. Sociable discourse took place de vive voix, or hardly at all. His idea of the proper medium for it was the soirée, with friends and disciples gathered around him in a family group.

Having survived all the obscure circumstances that prompted them, the notes Zola dashed off every day are no longer messages but clues and, as such, require the kind of erudition an archaeologist brings to bear upon shards collected form a dig. Reconstituting the intellectual and social setting they originally took for granted is the editor’s task. Without it they would be disjecta membra left along the way. As it is, we are getting a coherent story of Zolesque proportions that contributes greatly to our knowledge of the man and of literary life in Paris during the later nineteenth century.

Each volume, with a preface by Professor Henri Mitterand, furnishes a biographical chapter by the editor responsible for it (Colette Becker in volumes I and II, Albert Salvan and Alain Pagès in volume III), a more general essay by the social historian Jeanne Gaillard, chronological tables, a permanent nineteenth-century calendar—indeed, everything needed to guide a determined tourist through this private country. Above all, there are the footnotes, which bear Zola’s correspondence aloft as they parade before us a wealth of information hidden, or half-hidden, in the letters.

Let us take, for example, a note from Zola to Turgenev, written on May 8, 1876; “My dear friend, I accept, naturally; and Friday evening suits me fine. But have mercy, not an enormous dinner! or I shall burst, I shall not be able to work for three days.” We may know something about nineteenth-century appetites and, from previous letters, the relationship between eating and writing in Zola (whose weight was a particularly good gauge of his emotional state). But this line would remain banal if not for an annotation that conjures up everything the naturalists meant by le milieu: “Turgenev had written to Zola: ‘The bouillabaisse we had the other day made such a profound impression on me that I would not be averse to beginning all over again next Friday at the same place.’ This bouillabaisse had been served on May 5th, during a ‘dinner of booed authors’ in a tavern situated behind the Opéra-Comique, as Edmond de Goncourt indicates in his Journal, that same evening.”

With informed commentary that throws light on issues of aesthetic moment as well as on menus; the editorial team—and Colette Becker deserves special praise—has done scholarship a considerable service. Such fastidious work is the more noteworthy for being so unfashionable in French academic circles, where, more often than not, an author’s life figures as an intruder at the feast, dampening the creative spirit of textual criticism.

  1. 1

    All the translations are mine.

  2. 2

    When Zola did tell on himself, it was usually in the context of a “scientific” program, which impersonalized his revelations. The Rougon-Macquart novels, for which he claimed, though somewhat after the fact, to use the experimental method propounded by the great physiologist Claude Bernard, are filled with his phobic fantasies. And in 1896 he offered details of the most intimate nature to Dr. Edouarde Toulouse, who made him the subject of a treatise entitled Enquète medico-psychologique sur les rapports de la supériorité intellectuelle avec la névropathie. The latter is, or should be, a locus classicus of what Stephen Jay Gould means by “the mismeasure of man.”

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