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Émile Zola was a man who escaped definition. A writer, activist, philosopher of some renown, he even ceased living in a memorable manner. Bloody overachievers.
Happy almost-birthday to Émile Zola, born 2 April 1840. One of the great French men of letters, he wrote fiction, criticism, essays, poetry, articles and led the so-called “naturalist” movement, based on a scientific approach to characterisation and literary forms. Yet, he’s probably best remembered for his bold political and humanitarian stance in the infamous Dreyfus Affair, and for the way he died.
Zola started his literary life penning criticism and essays for Parisian periodicals. His first novel, Claude’s Confession (1865) about a young man in love with a prostitute, was banned, but far from being discouraged, Zola continued writing novels, including Thérèse Raquin (1867) and Madeleine Férat (1868).
He also came up with the idea of a series of novels, each featuring various members of a large family during the time of Napoleon III. Published between 1871 and 1893, Zola wrote 20 volumes of the Rougon-Macquart series, which were as much a commentary on life and society as they were chronicles of people’s experiences. Among the most popular in the series are Nana (1880) and Germinal (1885). A “naturalist” author, Zola believed our characters and personalities are determined by heredity coupled with our environment, and this philosophy comes across in the Rougon-Macquart series.
He further explained and espoused his naturalist theories in the non-fiction works The Experimental Novel/The Roman Experimental (1880) and The Naturalist Novelists (1881).
Zola also long championed the Impressionist painters, praising them in journal articles at a time when they were trying to defend themselves from the outrage of the art establishment. He counted Cézanne and Manet among his closest friends. Indeed, one enduring image we of Zola is Manet’s 1868 portrait.
However, Zola’s 1886 novel L’Oeuvre brought Zola’s long friendship with Cézanne to an abrupt end. Cézanne felt that the protagonist – a painter frustrated with his output and by a massive creative block and who hangs himself in his studio – was based on him.
Zola had in fact based his characterisation on a mix of artists, although it’s true to say that Cézanne’s artistic and personal anxieties and misgivings were certainly a major part of the protagonist’s personality. Unfortunately for the artist, a man already racked with doubt, Zola’s portrayal dogged Cézanne for the rest of his life.
Now to “J’accuse”.
A recent article on The Times of Israel, reproduced in Plus61J, credits Zola with almost single-handedly changing the way Europeans thought about Jewish people. At the time, it wasn’t considered wrong to demonise Jews, in fact it was pretty much part of mainstream society. J’accuse, Zola’s famous open letter to the French president in 1898 in defence of Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus, caused a ruckus of almighty proportion, and brought discussions of antisemitism into everyone’s living rooms.
Dreyfus had been accused of being in cahoots with the Germans and convicted of treason in 1894. Zola believed Dreyfus innocent of the charges, declaring he was a victim of antisemitism and a massive coverup by the army. Zola wasn’t Jewish himself and hadn’t been overtly political, but the Dreyfus case outraged him and he railed against the army’s and the government’s flouting of the hard-won French ideals of freedom and equality.
Zola’s defence of the truth was a bombshell. Many re-thought their positions on discrimination, but others hurled hatred and bile at Zola for his stance. He received abuse, insults and even death threats. He was tried and convicted of libel and his “Legion of Honour” award was taken away. Things became so unbearable that he went to England for a time to escape the appalling treatment he received for standing up for justice.
Yet ultimately, the letter had its desired effect. The Dreyfus case was re-opened and the officer was eventually exonerated. Zola was known as a defender of truth, a man of principle and honour. What a high price he paid for this reputation.
In September 1902, Zola, then aged 62, returned to Paris after a short trip away with his wife Alexandrine. They had married in 1870. Zola also had a long-term lover Jeanne Rozerot, the mother of his two children. She wasn’t happy about the situation, but Alexandrine, unable to have children of her own, accepted Jeanne and the children.
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Because Zola still regularly received death threats following the fallout from the Dreyfus Affair, he always kept his apartment windows and doors locked. The night was cold and a coal fire warmed the room. Unbeknownst to the Zolas, however, the chimney flue was blocked. As the oxygen depleted during the night, Zola succumbed to carbon monoxide fumes. Alexandrine was luckier and was saved in the morning when the door was forced open by the housekeeper.
She sent word to Jeanne who immediately suspected that Zola had been murdered. The inquest found no evidence of foul play, but interestingly in 1927 just before his death, a chimney-sweep admitted to covering the top of Zola’s chimney with a thick rug which he removed the next day. So perhaps the great novelist was indeed murdered for defending the wrongly convicted Jewish officer. Or perhaps the chimney-sweep was making up the story, in hopes of achieving notoriety for being responsible for the death of one of France’s eminent writers. We may never know for sure.
Six years after his death, Émile Zola’s remains were moved to the Pantheon, final resting place of some of France’s most distinguished minds, including Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Alexandre Dumas.
It’s a fitting tribute to a man whose legacy is not only literature. By challenging the status quo and denouncing false testimony against an innocent man, even at risk to own safety, Zola became a real force for social change, change that went beyond French borders into Europe and beyond.