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Between Animal and Angel

Zola: A Life

by Frederick Brown
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 888 pp., $37.50


This eight-hundred-page volume must be the most monumental account of Zola that has so far appeared in either French or English. It is some five hundred pages longer than an earlier notable English study—Emile Zola by F.W.J. Hemmings (second edition, 1966). The basic story told in both volumes can be summarized in a few sentences. Zola, Parisian-born but brought up in Aix-en-Provence, came back to Paris at eighteen with the typical young Frenchman’s ambition to “conquer” the capital. The fatherless orphan, through a tremendous exercise of willpower combined with a remarkable flair for publicity, became a best-selling author and the satirical chronicler of Second Empire France. He was probably the first French author to earn a great deal of money from his books, and the first to set himself up as a landed gentleman.

At every stage in his life he was involved in controversy; as a journalist he championed the Impressionists against the upholders of academicism, and as a novelist he founded the Naturalist school in opposition to “polite” literature. He crowned his already brilliant literary career with a political act, the famous open letter to the President of the Republic, J’accuse, in defense of Alfred Dreyfus. Then, sudden extinction: death from carbon monoxide poisoning because of a blocked chimney, perhaps deliberately sabotaged by an anti-Dreyfusard workman.

It is this skeleton that Brown fleshes out with a wealth of detailed information that has not so far been available in any single volume. He has drawn liberally on the vast legacy of Zola’s notebooks and letters, some of which are still in the process of publication. The novelist was both an indefatigable correspondent and a methodical worker; he planned his output carefully, stage by stage, and he was blessed with a wife who looked after his manuscripts. Brown is thus able to describe the genesis of each novel, the research that went into its composition, and its probable relationship to the outer and inner events of the author’s life. He also gives many sidelights on the private Zola; behind the aggressive, self-confident polemicist and novelist was a more complex personality, often uncertain and depressed.

He has taken the trouble to chart contemporary critical reaction to each phase of the writer’s output. By his late twenties Zola was already a controversial figure, but his real literary celebrity and first financial success came with the big “scandalous” novels of the Rougon-Macquart series: L’Assommoir, Nana, Germinal, and La Terre, which were condemned as filth by some readers and hailed as masterpieces by others. It is interesting to see that, in the early days, Zola was attacked almost as much by the humanitarian left as by the conservative right, on the grounds that he painted too black a picture of the lower classes.

As time went on, some critics changed sides: two fellow writers, Anatole France and Paul Bourget, who at first had doubts about him, later hailed him as a genius; Anatole France, in fact, was later to deliver his funeral oration. And it is surely one of the oddities of literary history that the ultra-refined, hermetic poet Stéphane Mallarmé, who distilled his precious poetry drop by drop, should have addressed admiring letters to Zola, a combative, campaigning writer, flooding the world with words in the manner of Balzac or Victor Hugo. Admittedly, Mallarmé wrote tactfully encouraging letters to a number of people, particularly young poets, but those he sent to Zola seem to be genuine in feeling, as if he sensed a poetic quality in the novels, however different they might be from his own kind of literature.

For the benefit of the general reader, Brown also fills in the nineteenth-century background with ample asides on the various prominent figures who come into the Zola story: the painters Cézanne, Pissarro, Monet, the writers Flaubert, Turgenev, Edmond Goncourt, Huysmans, Maupassant, and the political personalities Napoleon III, MacMahon, General Boulanger, etc. He does justice to the several minor figures, now largely forgotten, who clustered around Zola as disciples, and were pleased to help with the composition of the novels—apparently free of charge—by gathering information and verifying technical details. They testify to a charismatic quality in the tubby, unimpressive-looking little man in pince-nez who appears in so many photographs.

Finally, again for the general reader, Brown summarizes the plots of all the novels and gives a particularly full account of the each of the twenty volumes of the Rougon-Macquart series.

All this is excellent, but having got to the end of the book, I am left with an awkward feeling of blankness. Brown has quoted at length the critical opinions of Zola’s contemporaries, but he doesn’t raise the important issue of the novelist’s present status. Nor does he tell us at any point what he himself really thinks of Zola. One can guess that, like most people, he sees the Rougon-Macquart family saga as the central achievement and would relegate the very early novels, as well as the moralizing concoctions of Zola’s last phase, Les Trois Villes and Les Quatre Evangiles, to an inferior position, but he doesn’t say so explicitly.

He provides no preface to explain why he undertook such an enormous labor of scholarship; he just starts straight in with an account of Zola’s father, a Venetian engineer, a political émigré from his native city, who died an untimely death in Aix-en-Provence at a point when professional and financial success seemed to be imminent; and he carries on from there, chronologically. Nor does he provide a conclusion; only an epilogue to explain what happened, after Zola’s death, to his wife, his mistress, and his two illegitimate children.

Brown could retort that his book is subtitled “A Life,” and so doesn’t claim to be a critical biography. But in the case of an author such as Zola, who was so committed to writing, his works were his life, or at least a parallel imaginative existence—perhaps, even, the more vital part of his being—and so they have to be taken fully into account in any appreciation of the man as a whole, especially since they are so fraught with elemental tensions. Straightforward summaries of the plots, however careful, do not bring out the interesting qualities and defects of the novels. Generally speaking, to try to understand Zola, we have to attempt an evaluation of the conflicting ideas and emotions which run through his output as a whole.

It would be wrong to say that Brown avoids explanation altogether, but he tends to leave it tantalizingly unfinished. For instance, he makes some use of Freudian notions to explain Zola’s close relationship with his mother and his fierce and complicated obsession with sex. Zola père died suddenly, of pleurisy, when Emile was only seven, leaving his widow and son in penury; the engineering firm he had founded collapsed, and there was some sharp practice on the part of one of his partners. As Brown puts it, rather luridly:

A death having occurred, death married them both [i.e., mother and son] to hysteria. For Emile it prepared ambushes, it loosed lightning bolts, it filled the world with consternation.

Since Zola, an only child, grew up not only under the protection of his mother but with a strong urge to protect her, we are invited to see him as an example of the Freudian mother-complex:

The mother gave the child his life and it is not easy to replace this unique gift with anything of equal value….he gives her back another life, that of a child as like himself as possible. The son shows his gratitude by wishing to have a son by his mother that shall be like himself; in the rescue fantasy, that is, he identifies himself completely with the father. All the instincts, the loving, the grateful, the sensual, the defiant, the self-assertive and independent—all are gratified in the wish to be the father of himself.

On the basis of the theory, Brown sees this ambiguous, fluctuating relationship of father-mother-son recurring in transposed or disguised forms in different novels, and in particular in the eighth volume of the Rougon-Macquart series, Une Page d’amour. However, not only is the Freudian theory itself highly speculative—other French writers, for instance, Baudelaire, Flaubert, and Proust, were deeply attached to their mothers, apparently without wishing to become the fathers of themselves—but also, if Zola is simply exemplifying the theory, this calls into question the quality of the novels in which he does so, since he is following an obsessive pattern which is not necessarily in keeping with the overt theme of the particular work. Brown doesn’t seem to consider this possibility.

There can be no doubt that Zola was an obsessive and that, in particular, he had an intense interest in sex. He was not, of course, a pathological maniac like the Marquis de Sade but rather, like D.H. Lawrence, someone who felt compelled to stress the obvious, but in those days often avoided, truth that sex is a primordial part of what makes the world go round. Why he should have had this compulsion may be inexplicable except as a genetic accident, which would be no explanation at all. Perhaps he was affected by a childhood trauma; an Algerian servant was accused of trying to abuse him, and he himself hints at unpleasant sexual experiences during his school days. But at least we can surmise, without reference to Freudian theory, that his initial quandary as an impoverished orphan, who remembered better times and nourished a burning grievance against the bourgeoisie because of the above-mentioned sharp practice he and his mother had suffered from, helps to account for the ambitious drive which resulted in his remarkable, if uneven, achievement. The problem is: Why was the achievement so uneven, and what does that tell us about the man?

Some answer can be suggested, I think, by considering the makeshift philosophy Zola improvised for himself in the course of his career. He is a curious instance of a writer whose conscious ideas were at variance in some respects with his literary genius, so that the best and the worst of his output is sometimes present in one and the same book. His uncertainties center around his conception of science and the ambiguity of his presentation of la bête humaine.

When he first arrived in Paris in 1858 at the age of eighteen, his ambition was to be a Romantic poet in the style of Musset or Hugo. The marvelously articulate letters he wrote to his school friends Paul Cézanne and Jean-Baptistin Baille, who had remained behind in Aix, show that his Romanticism in no way softened his innate power complex. He expected Cézanne and Baille to join him eventually in Paris, where the three of them would dominate the scene in literature, painting, and intellectual speculation. This assumption, that life is essentially a battle, to be waged openly and in alliance with one’s friends, was to remain with him all his life.

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