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- A Zola Dictionary - 3/54 -

In order to heighten the effect, Zola deliberately wrote the whole of /L'Assommoir/ in the argot of the streets, sparing nothing of its coarseness and nothing of its force. For this alone he was attacked by many critics, and from its publication onwards an unexampled controversy arose regarding the author and his methods. Looking backwards it is difficult to see why such an outcry should have arisen about such a masterpiece of literature, but water has flowed beneath many bridges since 1877, and, largely by the influence of Zola's own work, the limits of convention have been widely extended. At the time, however, the work was savagely attacked, and to the author the basest motives were assigned, while libels on his own personal character were freely circulated. Zola replied to these attacks in a manner so calm and so convincing that quotation may be permitted. "It would be well," he said, "to read my novels, to understand them, to see them clearly in their entirety, before bringing forward the ready-made opinions, ridiculous and odious, which are circulated concerning myself and my works. Ah! if people only knew how my friends laugh at the appalling legend which amuses the crowd! If they only knew how the blood-thirsty wretch, the formidable novelist, is simply a respectable bourgeois, a man devoted to study and to art, living quietly in his corner, whose sole ambition is to leave as large and living a work as he can. I contradict no reports, I work on, and I rely on time, and on the good faith of the public, to discover me at last under the accumulation of nonsense that has been heaped upon me." This statement is absolutely in accordance with fact, and when it is realized that the writer of the Rougon-Macquart novels was merely a hard-working, earnest man, filled with a determination to complete the vast task which he had planned, and not to be turned from his ideas by praise or blame, it will go far to promote a better understanding of his aims and methods. It is necessary too, as has already been said, that the various novels forming the Rougon-Macquart series be considered not as separate entities, but as chapters of one vast whole.

/L'Assommoir/ was an immediate success with the public, and the sales were unusually large for the time, while now (1912) they amount to one hundred and sixty-two thousand copies in the original French alone.

In 1878 Zola published /Une Page d'Amour/, the next volume of the series, a simple love story containing some very beautiful and romantic descriptions of Paris. Then followed /Nana/, to which /L'Assommoir/ was the prelude. /Nana/ dealt with the vast demimonde of Paris, and while it was his greatest popular success, was in every sense his worst book. Of no subject on which he wrote was Zola more ignorant than of this, and the result is a laboured collection of scandals acquired at second-hand. Mr. Arthur Symons, in his /Studies in Prose and Verse/, recounts how an English paper once reported an interview in which the author of /Nana/, indiscreetly questioned as to the amount of personal observation he had put into the book, replied that he had once lunched with an actress of the Varietes. "The reply was generally taken for a joke," says Mr. Symons, "but the lunch was a reality, and it was assuredly a rare experience in the life of a solitary diligence to which we owe so many impersonal studies in life." The sales of the book were, however, enormous, and Zola's financial position was now assured.

Publication of the Rougon-Macquart series went steadily on. /Pot- Bouille/ a story of middle-class life, was followed by its sequel /Au Bonheur des Dames/, a study of life in one of the great emporiums which were beginning to crush out the small shopkeepers of Paris. /La Joie de Vivre/, that drab story of hypochondria and self-sacrifice, was succeeded by /Germinal/, the greatest, if not the only really great, novel of labour that has ever been written in any language. After /Germinal/ came /L'Oeuvre/, which deals with art life in Paris, and is in part an autobiography of the author. We now come to /La Terre/ around which the greatest controversy has raged. In parts the book is Shakespearian in its strength and insight, but it has to be admitted at once that the artistic quality of the work has been destroyed in large measure by the gratuitous coarseness which the author has thought necessary to put into it. Even allowing for the fact that the subject is the brutishness and animality of French peasant life, and admitting that the picture drawn may be a true one, the effect had been lessened by the fact that nothing has been left to the imagination. On the other hand there has, since Shakespeare, been nothing so fine as the treatment of Pere Fouan, that peasant King Lear, by his ungrateful family. It has been urged that Zola overdid the horrors of the situation and that no parent would have been so treated by his children. By a singular chance a complete answer to this objection may be found in a paragraph which appeared in the /Daily Mail/ of 18th April, 1911. A few days before, a peasant woman in France had entered her father's bedroom and struck him nine times on the head with an axe, afterwards going home to bed. The reason for the crime was that the old man two years previously had divided his property between his two daughters on condition that they paid him a monthly allowance. His elder daughter was always in arrear with her share of the pension, and, after constant altercations between father and daughter, the latter extinguished her liability in the manner indicated. Now this tragedy in real life is the actual plot of /La Terre/, which was written twenty-four years before it occurred.

In accordance with the author's usual plan, whereby a heavy book was followed by a light one, /La Terre/ was succeeded by /Le Reve/, a work at the other extreme of the literary gamut. As /La Terre/ is of the earth, earthy, so is /Le Reve/ spiritual and idyllic, the work of a man enamoured of the refined and the beautiful. It has indeed been described as the most beautiful work written in France during the whole of the nineteenth century.

/La Bete Humaine/, the next of the series, is a work of a different class, and is to the English reader the most fascinating of all Zola's novels. It deals with human passions in their elemental forms, with a background of constant interest in the railway life of Western France. The motives are always obvious and strong, a criticism which can by no means be invariably applied to French fiction.

Next appeared /L'Argent/, which is the sequel to /La Curee/ and deals with financial scandals. It was inspired by the failure of the Union Generale Bank a few years before, and is a powerful indictment of the law affecting joint-stock companies. To /L'Argent/ there succeeded /La Debacle/, that prose epic of modern war, more complete and coherent than even the best of Tolstoi. And to end all came /Le Docteur Pascal/, winding up the series on a note of pure romance.

Regarded as a literary tour de force the work is only comparable to the /Comedie Humaine/. It occupied nearly twenty-five years in writing, consists of twenty volumes containing over twelve hundred characters, and a number of words estimated by Mr. E. A. Vizetelly at two million five hundred thousand.

There can be little doubt that Zola's best work was expended on the Rougon-Macquart series. With its conclusion his zeal as a reformer began to outrun his judgment as an artist, and his later books partake more of the nature of active propaganda than of works of fiction. They comprise two series: /Les Trois Villes/ (Lourdes, Paris, Rome) and /Les Quatre Evangiles/, of which only three (Fecondite, Travail, and Verite) were written before the author's death. Politics had begun to occupy his attention, and from 1896 onwards he increasingly interested himself in the Jewish question which culminated in the Dreyfus case. His sense of justice, always keen, was outraged by the action of the authorities and on 13th January, 1898, he published his famous letter, beginning with the words /J'accuse/, a letter which altered the whole course of events in France. It is difficult now to realize the effect of Zola's action in this matter; he was attacked with a virulence almost unexampled, a virulence which followed him beyond the grave. Four years later, on the day after his death, the Paris correspondent of /The Times/ wrote: "It is evident the passions of two or three years ago are still alive. Many persons expressed their joy with such boisterous gestures as men indulge in on learning of a victory, and some exclaimed savagely, 'It is none too soon.' The unseemliness of this extraordinary spectacle evoked no retort from the passers-by." The feeling of resentment is still alive in France, and it is necessary to take it into account in the consideration of any estimates of his literary work by his own countrymen. It is a mistake to attribute Zola's campaign for the rehabilitation of Dreyfus to mere lust of fame, as has been freely done. He certainly was ambitious, but had he wished to gain the plaudits of the crowd he would not have adopted a cause which was opposed by the majority of the nation. As a result of the agitation, he was obliged to leave France and take refuge in England, till such time as a change of circumstances enabled him to return.

On 29th September, 1902, the world was startled to learn that Emile Zola had been found dead in his bedroom, suffocated by the fumes of a stove, and that his wife had narrowly escaped dying with him. A life of incessant literary labour had been quenched.

The reputation of Zola has suffered, it is to be feared, in no small degree from the indiscretions of his friends. In England he was introduced to the notice of the reading public by Mr. Henry Vizetelly, who between 1884 and 1889 published a number of translations of his novels. The last of these was /The Soil/, a translation of /La Terre/, which aroused such an outcry that a prosecution followed, and Mr. Vizetelly was sentenced to three months' imprisonment. Without raising any question as to the propriety of this prosecution, it is difficult to avoid pointing out that Mr. Vizetelly was singularly ill advised not to have taken into account the essential differences between English and French literature, and not have seen that the publication of this particular book in its entirety was an impossibility under existing conditions. It is regrettable also that Mr. Vizetelly, who though a gentleman of the highest character, was no doubt anxious to make the most possible out of his venture, did not duly appreciate that the word "Realistic," which was blazoned on the covers of the various books issued by him, was in the early eighties invariably interpreted as meaning pornographic. Presumably nothing was further from Mr. Vizetelly's wish--his defence at the trial was that the books were literature of the highest kind--but it is unquestionable that the format was such as to give the impression indicated, an impression deepened by the extremely Gallic freedom of the illustrations. There can be little doubt that had the works been issued in an unobtrusive form, without illustrations, they would have attracted less attention of the undesirable kind which they afterwards received. The use of the term "Realistic" was the more remarkable as Zola had previously invented the word /Naturalisme/ to distinguish his work from that of the Realistic school. But if Zola's reputation in England suffered in this way, it is right to refer here to the debt of gratitude to Mr. E. A. Vizetelly under which the English public now lies. Some time after the prosecution of his father, Mr. Vizetelly began to publish, through Messrs. Chatto & Windus, a series of versions of Zola's works. The translations were admirably done, and while it was found necessary to make certain omissions, the task was so skilfully accomplished that in many cases actual improvement has resulted. These versions are at present the chief translations of Zola's works in circulation in this country; but while their number has been added to from time to time, it has not been found possible to include the whole of the Rougon- Macquart series. In 1894-5, however, the Lutetian Society issued to its members a literal and unabridged translation of six of the novels, made by writers of such eminence as Havelock Ellis, Arthur Symons, and Ernest Dowson. These are the only translations of these works which are of any value to the student, but they are unfortunately almost unobtainable, as the entire edition was restricted to three hundred

A Zola Dictionary - 3/54

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