The Passions of Emile Zola

The Life and Times of Emile Zola

by F.W.J. Hemmings
Scribner's, 192 pp., $10.00

Emile Zola
Emile Zola; drawing by David Levine

Following an earlier study of Zola’s novels, Professor Hemmings has now turned to Zola himself. He sits in his time, the latter half of the French nineteenth century, when the energies of industrialism and social change fermented, a time above all of awakened appetites for power. Zola, as we see him from the outside, is Appetite in person, an enormous consumer. Like some powerful locomotive, he eats up facts and lives as if they were so much coal, choking us with enormous clouds of smoke which were both dream and nightmare. This was what his public, on which he kept a close eye, looked for. Their lives were drab. They were looking for dramas of escape, the satisfactions of desires which had been repressed by the work ethic and, being the children of “Get Rich” Guizot and his educational reforms, they were new to literacy and a little leisure. The scientific pretensions of Zola’s Naturalism, his social concern and his half-poetic violence and melodrama, were exactly their meat.

It is Professor Hemmings’s first point that Zola was a powerful artist in a century which had turned to the novel for its emotions and instruction very much in the way our own mass public turns to the cinema, television, and radio. The novel was the medium. Like Dickens of an earlier generation, he went after his public. He was an excellent storyteller with a strong sense of fatality. The mills of Reason grind more dramatically than the mills of God: the fantasies of Zola depend on documentation and a deep concern for Truth and Justice. There are comic passages in Zola’s novels, but our main impression is of the efficient pistons of the locomotive’s seriousness. Yet, L’Assommoir (The Dram Shop), La Terre (The Land), and Germinal are probably great novels, and Thérèse Raquin is the work of an unflinching moralist. What can be held against him is that his subjects become vaguer as they become larger and larger at the end of his career.

Professor Hemmings’s Life is the first biography in English for twenty-five years. He has collated the new material now available to scholars and his book is a thoughtful, inquiring, and well-written book and commands a very necessary perspective. It puts the light and shade on a complex character whom we had seen only in black and white. Professor Hemmings is careful to see Zola’s sensationalism against the background of his passionate liberal beliefs; Zola was no intellectual but he was the bitter enemy of authoritarianism, obscurantism, and racial prejudice; he was the forceful man of reason who believed absolutely in the benefits of science; he can be called “a true heir of the encyclopédistes of the eighteenth century…. He sought to consolidate the achievements of the Enlightenment.” Truth and Justice are his slogans.

But unlike the immensely marketable believer, the man is not all of a piece. Like…

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