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.

To begin with, he did in fact compose some Romantic verse and prose tales. However, in his early twenties, under the influence of Hippolyte Taine and other materialists and positivists, and also perhaps because of his first sordid experiences in the capital, he switched from Romanticism to what he was eventually to call Naturalism and to publicize in polemical articles distinguished by great verve but often quite shaky reasoning. Naturalism involved the rejection of religion—in any case, there is no evidence to suggest that Zola was ever at all pious—and the acceptance of the scientific view of the universe. The memory of his father, the engineer, that is, a practical scientist, may conceivably have had something to do with the change. At that time, science meant in the first place the Darwinian theory of evolution, a great recent breakthrough. The major effect of Darwinism was to revive, and strongly reinforce, the intuition of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment that man is essentially an animal, a “higher” one of course, but with no greater claim to any transcendental connection than the other animals.

Now scientific humanism, which is what Naturalism was in effect, has to face the issue that, if man is an animal, the basic drives running through “civilization” and underlying the infinitely complex intellectual and “spiritual” superstructure of social organization, religion, and art must be the same as those in the animal world: the need for food, the compulsion toward sex and reproduction, and the lust for power, in the form of the territorial imperative and the establishment of a pecking order. The nonhuman animal world is a cannibalistic system, an amoral combination of power struggle and food chain; the human animal world, for some unfathomable reason, tries to pull itself up by its own bootstraps above the cannibalistic system (“eating people is wrong” has a metaphorical as well as a literal meaning) to create a moral order, but is always threatened by a relapse into the brutish state, that is, by a return to the fundamental bête humaine. Or perhaps it would be truer to say that la bête humaine is there all the time, and is only precariously held in check. One of Zola’s great virtues, I think, is that he sensed this human kinship with the nonhuman animal world and applied it to a considerable extent in his novels, although he never formulates it clearly in writing and perhaps never admitted it to himself in his heart of hearts.

Food, sex, and power are themes running through the greater part of his work. His first experience of Paris had been to starve in a garret, and ever afterward the spectacle of hunger was unbearable to him, and, to use Dr. Johnson’s phrase, he always minded what he put in his belly. La gourmandise was the one weakness he confessed to in real life. The frequency of menus in his novels confirms this; a particularly revelatory instance is the banquet that Sandoz, the character representing Zola himself, provides for his friends in L’Oeuvre; it is at once excessive, vulgar, and touching. And what is Le Ventre de Paris, apart from the political intrigue surrounding the thin, famished hero, Florent, if not a hymn to food, with Lise, the pork-butcher’s wife, as the sleek goddess of happy digestion?

As for sex, it is everywhere, not only in the characters themselves but also in the surrounding atmosphere. Sometimes the whole landscape is vibrant with it; the plow rending the soil is a phallic instrument through which the peasants (some of whom might be surprised to learn this) fornicate with their land. Piled-up vegetables can assume sexual shapes, and are evidence of the earth in travail. But sex, unlike food, can have both a positive and a negative aspect; as the central motor of evolution, it operates mysteriously, creating anarchy and difformity as well as wholesome reproduction. The great erotic symbol of Nana is both good and bad; she is a robust, alluring Venus, but she is also a man-eater and an incarnation of Second Empire France as “the brothel of Europe.” Zola punishes her, rather gratuitously it must be said, by making her die of smallpox; she could very well have lived on, like Colette’s retired demimondaines, into a comfortable, ironical old age.

The love of power is similarly ubiquitous and, more often than not in the case of the male characters, is linked with sex. Zola is particularly good at showing the workings of power in the struggle for social eminence and the possession of land, in political maneuvering, financial speculation, the creation of large-scale business, and so on. His description is realistic in its details but romantic in spirit, and so is true to the nature of the quest for power, which always seems to be a mixture of Realpolitik and dream.

It is perhaps worth pointing out in this connection that Zola, while deservedly famous as the first French novelist to deal on such a scale with the social problems of the masses—the Parisian lower class in L’Assommoir, the miners in Germinal, and the peasants in La Terre—is not to be seen simply as a campaigner for social reform, at least not in his best works. He painted vivid, sordid pictures and aroused pity for the poor and oppressed, but in the central volumes of Les Rougon-Macquart he offers no ready, political solution for the tragedy of life. While he criticizes the bourgeois in many contexts, they are not mere essences of wickedness, as Sartre for instance tends to portray them. The mine manager in Germinal is doing his best in impossible circumstances. Gervaise’s decline in L’Assommoir is not really an effect of social deprivation—she was once prosperous—but of fate and personal weakness. Jean, the hero of La Terre, finally despairs of the peasants’ ever changing and takes refuge in a sort of pantheistic belief in the beauty of the earth itself as an amoral womb of life. The novels contain various passages of rather coarse but effective prose poetry, in which Zola celebrates the sheer vitality of the human animal without reference to good or evil. It is not that he wants to go beyond good and evil, in the silly, hysterical Nietzschean way, but rather that he remains on the hither side, in the animal magma of humanity where morality is struggling, or not struggling, to clarify out.

Although Zola was a critic of the Second Empire, one can feel him reveling in the turmoil of greed, lust, and ambition that he describes. Brown quotes one of Zola’s intimates as saying, no doubt rightly, that there was a lot of Zola himself in his power-driven heroes—Eugène Rougon, Aristide Saccard, Octave Mouret, etc. It is also clear from Brown’s account that Zola’s interest in the Dreyfus Affair was not merely humanitarian or anti-establishment, although it was certainly that; he was also fascinated by the sheer instinctive awfulness of the anti-Dreyfus plotters, who might have stepped straight out of one of his own novels.* It could also be said that the power of his famous crowd scenes, whether set in a salon, a department store, an industrial landscape, or on the battlefield, depends on his acute realization of the fact that humans in the mass can regress to the amoral dynamism of the animal herd. It is a pity he is not here to deal with the universal twentieth-century phenomenon of pop music, which is such an unprecedented combination of continuous, youthful, animal saturnalia with moneymaking, i.e., sex plus power.

Zola’s sound sense of the animal nature of man was blurred in practice, on the one hand by his faulty use of the scientific reference and, on the other, by recurrent flights into an impossible angelism, or anti-animalism, which in the end took over completely. The term derives from one of Pascal’s skeptical, non-Christian aphorisms: Qui veut faire l’ange fait la bête. It might be translated as “He who tries to be an angel makes a fool—a beast—of himself,” since bête means both “beast” and “stupid.” Zola, most of the time, was at home with la bête humaine; he was much less successful in dealing with the moral ambition of mankind.

It was after reading certain scientific works that he conceived the grand idea of describing the recent history of France as the working out of heredity within a single family; hence the title Les Rougon-Macquart, L’histoire naturelle et sociale d’une famille sous le Second Empire. He set the action, to begin with, in Plassans (i.e., Aix-en-Provence) so as to use the provincial background he knew so well. He borrowed from a certain Dr. Prosper Lucas the belief that there is a degree of interplay in the individual between inherited characteristics and what is called innéité (the unique core?), so he wasn’t an out-and-out materialist. He also consulted scientific works to satisfy his personal curiosity about pathological tendencies, homicidal urges, nervous disorders, and so on. Then he made the surprisingly illogical claim that he, the Naturalist novelist, in describing reality with its horrors as well as its beauties, was performing the same service as a scientist carrying out an experiment to elucidate a natural phenomenon. (This, strangely enough, is in flat contradiction to another well-known, and excellent, remark of his: “A work of art is a corner of creation seen through a temperament.” His own output is a perfect illustration of the validity of this second statement.)

Evolutionism, of course, is a highly complicated theory, with no easy application to the history of a particular family over two or three generations. Zola attributes certain characteristics, including pathological tendencies, to the “founders” of his dynasty, and shows how these traits are echoed here and there among the various descendants. He seems to overlook the fact that, far from behaving like a scientist, he is playing God the Father. He creates his Adam and Eve, or rather two Adams and one Eve, and controls the nature and the movements of their progeny to suit his novelistic purposes. He puts representatives of the family—sometimes only one or two—into each Second Empire setting he wishes to deal with. Generally speaking, this artificial linking does no harm, because each novel can be judged separately on its merits without reference to the family, but it produces a quite ludicrous result in the last volume, Le Docteur Pascal.

The eponymous hero, a specialist in heredity, who has made it his lifework to plot the Rougon-Macquart family tree so as to illustrate the transmission of characteristics, falls in love in middle life with his twenty-year-old niece, Clotilde, and is happy to have a child by her. Both he and Clotilde are descended from the “founder” grandmother, Adélaïde, an extreme neurotic who in the end went mad. It is true that in a moment of intellectual discouragement—which is also an unrecognized moment of lucidity—Dr. Pascal asks himself: “What do we really know about heredity?” but he continues to cling to his theory without worrying at all about the possible consequences, for the baby, of such close inbreeding, not to say incest. In the tradition of sentimental literature, the newly born is presented as a hope for the future, no doubt because Zola himself had recently become a father. Similar blind spots can be found here and there throughout the Rougon-Macquart series.

It is also a pity that the expression la bête humaine, which, as I have said, can have the genuine scientific meaning: “man is basically an animal,” should be confusingly associated with pathology, since Zola used it as the title of a novel in which the hero is a homicidal maniac with an urge to kill women rather than make love to them. Zola doesn’t throw any light on this pathological phenomenon, which is an as yet unexplained deviation of the sexual instinct, and no doubt has parallels in the nonhuman animal kingdom, where apparently meaningless destruction also occurs; he just uses it as a device, an intensifier, in an already murderous plot—a feature, this time, of sentimental horror literature. This doesn’t prevent the book from having a powerful atmosphere, a super-Simenon chiaroscuro, but it betrays a weakness on Zola’s part for exaggerated, melodramatic extremes. He argues somewhere that his exaggerations offer the best artistic way of conveying the realistic truth, but it is a sad fact that, in his work, there are not only sound magnifications of reality, but others that are facile and much less sound.


It has to be admitted that Zola is the most patchy of the great French novelists, and certainly the one who declined most spectacularly after middle life. On completion of the Rougon-Macquart series, he might have been expected to relax for a while, but instead he started immediately on a campaign of propagandist writing, roughly disguised as novels, first Les Trois Villes, Lourdes, Rome, Paris; and then Les Quatre Evangiles, Fécondité, Travail, Vérité, and Justice (which remained unwritten). His doctrine is a simplistic version of Enlightenment thought: religion, though sincerely believed in by good people and even by virtuous priests, becomes, in its organized form, a means of oppression in the hands of dogmatic churchmen and unscrupulous politicians. Men of good will, with the help of growing scientific knowledge, will eliminate obscurantism and injustice and so build a golden future.

The sentiments are impeccable, at least for humanists, and it is not surprising that Zola should have felt them so strongly, given the intensity of the battle between humanism and Catholicism in late-nineteenth-century France. What is surprising is that he should have so completely lost his sense of the intractability of human nature in its deep, animal dimension. He produces naive plots, which contrast goodies and bad guys in the most elementary way, and show the goodies winning out of hand. Of Les Trois Villes, two at least, Lourdes and Rome, have some historical value as reportage on the atmosphere in the two towns at the end of the nineteenth century, but nothing can be salvaged from the three completed volumes of Les Quatre Evangiles, although Fécondité can be read as a curiosity, a pure piece of wish fulfillment. It preaches indiscriminate procreation, rewards the père de famille nombreuse with unlikely wealth, and looks forward to the civilized French colonizing the world. Ironically, the only people who might possibly believe in some of this today would be certain Catholic traditionalists.

Brown doesn’t attempt to explain the collapse of Zola’s talent; he merely records the disappointment felt by some of the novelist’s contemporary admirers. I have already suggested that there are hints of angelism—i.e., the assumption that evil can be eliminated from the world—in certain passages of the Rougon-Macquart books. Actually, there is more than a hint in the very strange fifth volume, La Faute de l’abbé Mouret, which sets the human animal and the would-be angel in direct opposition to each other. In the first, powerful part of the book, the young priest, who worships the Virgin Mary as a symbol of chastity, is appalled by the bestial nature of his parishioners and his simple-minded sister’s enthusiasm for breeding hens, ducks, and pigs. He cannot instill any spirituality into his flock, and he thinks of them with horror, reproducing themselves, generation after generation, on a level scarcely higher than that of their farm animals. He suffers a breakdown, loses his memory, and is sent by his doctor to recuperate on a remote, abandoned estate, inhabited only by an old man and a young orphan girl, Albine, a child of Nature.

The estate, Le Paradou (Paradise), is, in effect, the Garden of Eden, where the priest slowly recovers his health, enjoys halcyon days with the adoring and adorable Albine, grows a manly beard, and, still forgetful of his vocation, finally mates with her ineffably on a mossy slope. This part of the book is so bad that it makes H. de Vere Stackpoole’s The Blue Lagoon look sophisticated. Zola wildly overdoes the nature poetry and, whether by mistake or to show that Paradise is outside time, has lilies of the valley and chrysanthemums blooming simultaneously. The idyll, very wearisome for the reader, is suddenly interrupted by the intervention of another priest. Mouret recovers his memory, returns to the faith, but this time he elects to worship not the Virgin Mary but the crucified Christ, as the symbol of suffering. The abandoned Albine covers herself with flowers like Ophelia, takes to her bed, and dies.

The novel seems to indicate that at this stage, aetatis thirty-five, Zola had a sudden urge to purify sex itself of base animality by showing, in the second part, that it can be consonant with paradisal innocence, and then, for some reason, failed to carry the project through. The Faute of the title might almost be taken as an acceptance of the inherently sinful nature of the animal function, and indeed, however scientifically minded Zola may have thought himself to be, he is often richly ambiguous about sex, as he is not about the digestive system or the quest for power.

Up to the age of forty-eight, that is, up to volume 16 of the Rougon-Macquart series, sex seems to have played a more sober part in his life than in his books. He was an apparently faithful husband, and his wife Alexandrine, despite her frequent ailments, managed his household perfectly. From one of her remarks quoted by Brown, we can assume that Zola deliberately refrained from having children when she was of child-bearing age, because he was afraid they might interfere with his all-consuming literary ambition. Then, when he was nearing the end of his task, he suffered the usual midlife crisis and confessed to Goncourt that he had perhaps wasted his existence by producing only books. It was about this time that he was attracted to Jeanne Rozerot, a seamstress employed by his wife, and the liaison produced two children. After some understandable commotion, Alexandrine accepted the situation, and they worked out a modus vivendi.

Thereafter, despite the serious alarms and excursions of the Dreyfus Affair, of which Brown gives a full and lucid account, Zola appears to have entered upon a period of personal euphoria such as he had never known before. He was rich, he was famous, he had an excellent wife-housekeeper, a pretty young mistress, and a daughter and a son, for whom Alexandrine eventually became a sort of grandmother. Could it be that happiness killed his talent by persuading him that he, a European celebrity, had only to spend the rest of his life preaching virtue to the world for it to be cleansed of its bestiality and share in his bliss?

This Issue

March 21, 1996