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 Balzac, his exemplar, he was an almost perpetual worker, mostly seen grinding at his desk, a fat, sedentary, myopic figure. Unlike Balzac he lacks magnetism; he is even dull, respectable, shy, and personally humorless. He certainly makes no attempt to live out his fantasies as Balzac so ruinously did, though he did keep a considerable tonnage of absurd bric-a-brac in the famous house at Médan. Late in middle age, when he broke his long fidelity to his childless wife and took a peasant girl as his mistress, we do indeed see a repressed Zola appear; even so, there is something dogged and planned about the passion. Overeating had made him (and his wife) enormous and hypochondriacal; when he was considering the possibility of love for a young girl, he saw he must prepare for the contingency by going on a diet. As thorough here in self-documentation as he was in his career, he undertook this.

What had Zola repressed? When we turn to the account of Zola’s remarkable and far more attractive father, we can see what haunted the novelist. Zola père was a Venetian of distinguished family, a brilliant, amorous, and adventurous mining engineer and a pioneer among the builders of European railways. Heads of governments listened to him. He was far-seeing and practical, but, at the last moment, men more gifted in raising capital either diddled him or took over his work. In early middle age, he died poor in Aix, where he had married a working-class French woman and thereby established his son’s kinship with the common people. The son’s emotional capital and capacity for living, one would say, had been exhausted by his gifted father, who left him, however, his respect for work and the imaginative intelligence. (One curious connection with his father’s life and career as an engineer can be seen in the peculiar dream of tunneling in Germinal.) Literature would be the young Zola’s science and industry; his knowledge of working-class poverty and the desire to get out of it were the spur. His sexual temperature was low. His emotions would be absorbed by his simple mother first and then by the able and maternal mistress who became his wife. She had also to make her own way as an illegitimate child and is thought to have been a florist.


It is a surprise to find that the vigorous, astute, and apparently very masculine Zola was a frail and sickly, even rather feminine, young man shut in by anxieties. The violent interest in sex and the lusts of the flesh which give a carnal vividness to his novels was the fantasy of a shy man—it seems—of small performance. His continence in a free-living period was a popular joke among French cartoonists. His imagination was sensual to the point of being pornographic; his life was blameless. Men who have known hunger when they were young are likely to become gluttonous later on, and one can see why an imaginative greed and a dramatic sense of all human hungers appear in his novels: a greed for sex, fame, money, and success, for huge novels that are like enormous highly spiced meals. In one of his famous crowd scenes in Germinal, the people are described in terms of their hungry mouths. In L’Assommoir the mouth is the drinker’s mouth. In these scenes there is gaudy poetry which is also visionary.

They have—when we turn to his life—a double source. One can trace this first to his early childhood in Aix where he was a happy and intelligent boy until his spirited Italian father died; secondly to the serious, dreaming, hopeful friendship with the young Cézanne when they talked about their genius as they went swimming. (Zola was at this time a better painter than Cézanne.) After the father’s death and the family’s move to Paris, the struggle against extreme poverty began. The young Zola slaving in a bookshop felt the iron sense of responsibility for the family. This experience and the haunting friendship with Cézanne—their common feeling of the dream of art—formed him. Cézanne was determined on solitude; Zola was cut out for action and publicity. About the latter he was shameless and pushing; when he was savagely attacked he collected the libels as a sort of treasury or capital. The great feeder chewed them over: they added to his energies.

Professor Hemmings is especially suggestive on the subject of Zola and the Impressionists. One can see how important they were to him, of course, from L’Oeuvre, in which Cézanne is one of his models and in the end theatrically dramatized. One can see what the attraction was; they too practiced a scientific Naturalism in their manner. They were also in revolt against authority; and Zola was the man for a cause. He was fighting for his career and their careers. He knew what poverty and obloquy were. When in middle life he turned against Cézanne it was because Cézanne had not succeeded. At the height of his own career Zola could only pity failure—and perhaps feared failure himself. All this is evident from the correspondence between the two men.

Far more interesting is another suggestion: Mr. Hemmings ponders the question of Zola’s bad eyesight. A curious personal vanity made him refuse to wear glasses until late in life, and the suggestion is that his poor vision may have prevented him from really seeing the pictures of the Impressionists; their prismatic light was created by the accumulation of immense detail which, to Zola, would appear as a vague general mist, dreamlike at first, ultimately muddy. Is this the reason for the vagueness in Zola’s crowd scenes, his largescale images and his poster-like symbolism? On the other hand, vagueness in these painters would come to suggest weakness of purpose and lack of social direction to which Zola the storyteller and social moralist was emphatically hostile. Except for its brilliant account of the crowd at the Salon, L’Oeuvre is a naïvely divided book in which Sandoz-Zola presents himself as the truly great artist—successful, responsible, toiling, suffering the agonies of creation: Lantier-Cézanne is the raté, who in a preposterous scene which perhaps discloses the hysteria buried in Zola’s life is raped by his own wife, renounces his art, destroys his last picture, and hangs himself.

It is common for writers, indeed all artists, to sink into depression when they have finished a work, but it is strange that Zola’s pessimism at this time took the form of a fantasy of violence and self-destruction. When the man who scarcely left his desk began his liaison with the gentle seamstress his wife had taken into the bourgeois mansion, his guilt once more led to fears of violence. He was convinced that his wife would murder the girl and the two children she bore. Perhaps the idea was, as we would say, very Italian; his imagination perhaps craved the operatic. In prosaic fact, after frightful scenes, the wife refused divorce for she did not want to throw away her status as the partner of a famous man, and was emotionally won over by the children. She had none of her own.


It is so much in character that Zola, the prophet of modernity and Naturalism, should have been taken by the craze for photography and, before the affair began, used the seamstress as his first model. His preparation via slimming now received the stimulus of a new form of documentation. Yet as Professor Hemmings says, the very nervousness and solicitude with which he approached the young girl were aspects of his solemn decency. His tenderness for human circumstance is the sign of a serious moral nature. If the theme of the guilty secret now appears in his later works, that simply shows that the great novelists have always used every bit of themselves. His guilt enhances his respectability and when we look between the excesses of his novels we see how moving and true he is about the consolations and responsibilities of everyday life in its work and its humble pleasures. When Madame Zola took an interest in his mistress’s children, her husband wrote affectionate letters to her telling her what the children were doing and how once he had tested the little girl on her scripture lessons! Professor Hemmings writes:

It is hard to decide which is stranger: that Zola should have kept his lawful wife informed about the activities of his children by another woman, or that this obdurate freethinker should have displayed such solicitude for their religious education. In a novel he would never have permitted himself such paradoxes….

His melodramas came from another self.

Zola’s intervention in the Dreyfus affair—he did not meet Dreyfus until it was all over and found him dim and disappointing—might seem to have a theatrical and even self-publicizing sound. In fact it was the most disinterested act of Zola’s life. It brought him great popular abuse and indeed exile. Stronger than his hatred of anti-Semitism was his loathing of corrupt authority, the covering up of professional groups, the tricks of the High Command, the judges, the politicians, and a self-serving bureaucracy. Zola was unbendable in his stand for truth-telling and the principles of the law. His tenacity is amazing. He acted as a citizen, not as a novelist, and stood firm against the considerable mass of people who were opposed to him. There is a story that when years later he died of asphyxiation caused by the fumes from the stove in his study, an anti-Semitic workman confessed to having closed the ventilator in the chimney as an act of revenge. The tale has never been confirmed; it sounds too Zola-esque to be true, but it is certainly possible.

This Issue

November 10, 1977