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 and 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…

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