Tuesday, July 24, 2018

The Disappearance of Émile Zola by Michael Rosen

Alfred Dreyfus was a Jewish army officer who was falsely accused of treason (passing secrets to Germany). Perhaps it was the fact that he was a Jewish, that blew out the case into anti-semitic issue, which then torn France into two bitter sides.

At that time, Zola has established himself as a successful writer, having just finished his ambitious literary project: the Rougon-Macquart series. He could have stayed at home with families, enjoying his wealth and comfort while, perhaps, preparing for his new novel. But no, Zola, who was not a politician, plunged himself into the war with his open letter: J'accuse!, defending the innocent Dreyfus. Then Zola—who loved his country, and has put huge efforts in creating the Rougon-Macquart for the sake of his beloved France, and even risked his life and reputation by taking side with a Jewish—was now found guilty of libel. His friends decided that he must flee from Paris.

Michael Rosen compiled old notes, journals, letters, and newspapers on the events around Zola's exile, and then recreated them into this interesting story. This book does not only record the whole episode from the night Zola fled to England to after his death, but also reveals a different side of Zola's personal life which was rarely exposed: his intimate life with his wife and his mistress. Let's unwrap it all here...

Zola's English was zero, and he was 'forced' to leave France at night by train, bringing only a pack of nightshirt and a piece of paper with the name of the hotel written in it. Imagine... forced to leave your beloved country, snatched from the warmth of family and loved ones, and arrive in a foreign country where you couldn't speak the language; alone, wretched, and abandoned. No wonder that Zola suffered at least two nervous breakdowns during the exile.

There are several new and interesting facts around Zola's exile I got from this book. First is his intricate love life. I already knew about Zola's childless marriage with Alexandrine, and about his much younger mistress: Jeanne Rozerot, who gave him two children: Jacques and Denise. But that Alexandrine, when she learned about the affair, rushed to Jeanne's house with rage; or how the two families always stayed not far from each other (either in Paris, or Zola's house in Médan, or in Verneuil); that Jeanne and the children always stayed nearby—that, I had no idea. And from this account, I suddenly had a high admiration for Madame Zola. That, I thought, is the true wonder woman. It was not uncommon in 19th century for a gentleman to have mistress(es), but it was usually kept discreet. That the wife accepted the mistress into the family (though lived separately) and 'shared' the husband (stayed with the wife in the nights and the mistress in the afternoons)—that was really unconventional.

left: Mme. Zola, right: Zola with Jeanne Rozerot
and the children: Jacques & Denise

I began to imagine Alexandrine—strong willed and respectable woman, but with tender heart too. She must have lived desperately through rage, shame, and jealousy, but she loved her husband so much (otherwise she wouldn't sacrifice that much) and knew that she must save his reputation; that he needed peace and comfort of a home and surrounded with hid children to produce his masterpieces, so that in the end she finally accepted the bizarre arrangement. I imagined it was she who has found a small quiet house round the corner for Jeanne and the children, and she perhaps also managed to provide household needs for the 'other' house, all for the convenience of dear Zola. How she endured questions from the neighbors? Or maybe it was so common that people didn't talk about it? How she must have felt when Zola went there? Knowing that Zola felt more at home there than at her own house? That Zola did not love her as a woman (I think he respected her and treated her like a best friend—someone that always understood him), and how he always looked happier when he was there. Well... it must have been terribly hard to endure!

But I was rambling here... Another interesting point I have also learned from this book is 'Zolaism'. Around that time, writers who dared to write about sex scenes or other vulgarities were accused of Zolaism. Zola's influence was widespread later and can be found in the works of Henry James, Thomas Hardy, George Bernard Shaw, and many more. But before, his books were banned and rejected. His translator and publisher Henry Vizetelly was imprisoned and fined for translating and publishing Zola's La Terre, and finally died following his ruin. Why La Terre? Only if you have read it, you would know why. But the funny thing is, they particularly questioned the passage where a farm girl (I forgot her name) assists, with her hands, her bull to mate with a cow. That passage they found vulgar, but not the rape scene?? Strange…

There is also Zola's photography. I came to know in detail how Zola was obsessed with his new hobby. I haven't related it with his extraordinary writing method at first, but this passage intrigued me:

In relation to his writing, Zola claimed that his visual memory was equipped with an ‘extraordinary vividness’ and that he could evoke objects he had seen in ways that meant he could see them again as they really were. Photography supplemented and enlarged this for him and is linked to what he thought of as the scientific approach to writing.

Remarkable, is he not? It made me quite interested in his photographer side now. In fact, I have ordered a book on it: Zola - Photographer (edited by Massin), a compilation of about 200 photographs by Zola.

In his later work: Travail, and in educating his children, Zola interestingly viewed work as something pleasant, satisfying, and the source of happiness, instead of as obligation or labour. Travail is the third of the Gospels series. I loved this part because it reflected my personal view. Work has become my second hobby, besides reading (obviously), and my life feels complete only when these two fields are balanced.

There are so many things you might find in this book that I can’t share here lest this post becomes tedious (and I have not yet talked much about his disappearance!). Anyway, my admiration grew higher still for Zola, after reading this book. He is not only a great author, but also a very brave man to stand (almost alone but a few supporters) against injustice and to fight for the truth, by sacrificing a lot in the process (his career, his happiness, and almost certainly, his life—it’s never officially approved, but I’m almost sure that he was really poisoned to death by his opponents)! To me, he is a hero.

Rosen has done his job very well, but for inserting his own short story in the end. What was the purpose? It really ruined his efforts in bringing the inside story of one of the greatest authors that France (if not the world) has owned. Therefore…

4 / 5 is my final verdict.

Paris, look what I’ve done for you! And yet this is how you treat me!” ~ Émile Zola


  1. I have not yet read Zola but I really want to. I have heard many fascinating things about his life. This book seems to delve into many of those things. As good as this sounds, I would want to read some of Zola’s fiction before I read this.

    Great commentary on this book.

    1. Agree, Brian. I think the best approach is to read 1 or 2 piece of work of a writer before reading about his life. After that we can read the rest of his with a new knowledge of why he feels this way or writes that way. It only sharpen our understanding.

  2. Your review was more thoughtful, entertaining and engaging than I found this book (as you know!)
    I really didn’t get into Rosen’s writing style at all.

    And I really wanted to like the book.

    Zola’s writing is amazing & his private life was complicated to say the least! Perhaps I will have to search out another bio written by someone else? Or perhaps I was just having a bad month when I tried to read this!

    1. I still don't get why you so disliked this book. During my reading, I have searched everywhere, but didn't get any hint. I think this book is not really great or poignant, but still nice. What I loved from Rosen is how he compiled letters, notes, journals, etc. and suggested the circumstances to be built into fiction-like prose. Anyway, the bad month was perhaps all that was behind your one star.. :)

      For Zola's bio, I have only read (and loved) F.W.c. Hemmings' The Life and Time of Emile Zola. Maybe you can start form it too.


What do you think?