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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.