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- A Zola Dictionary - 4/54 -
copies on hand-made paper and ten on Japanese vellum.
A charge not unfrequently brought against Zola is that he was a somewhat ignorant person, who required to get up from textbooks every subject upon which he wrote. Now there seems to be little doubt that it was in the first instance due to the indiscretion of his biographer, M. Paul Alexis, that this charge has arisen. Impressed by the vast industry of his friend, M. Alexis said so much about "research" and "documents" that less friendly critics seized the opportunity of exaggerating the importance of these. Every novelist of any consequence has found it necessary to "cram" his subjects, but says little about the fact. James Payn, for instance, could not have written his admirable descriptions of China in /By Proxy/ without much reading of many books, and Mr. Rudyard Kipling has not been blamed for studying the technicalities of engineering before he wrote /The Ship that found Herself/. It is open to question even whether Mr. Robert Hichens acquired his intimate knowledge of the conditions of life in Southern Europe and Northern Africa entirely without the assistance of Herr Baedeker. Zola undoubtedly studied his subjects, but far too much has been made of the necessity for his doing so. His equipment for the task he undertook was not less complete than that of many another novelist, and, like Dickens, he studied life in that school of a "stony-hearted stepmother," the streets of a great city.
Zola's literary method may be described as a piling up of detail upon detail till there is attained an effect portentous, overwhelming. He lacked, however, a sense of proportion; he became so carried away by his visions of human depravity, that his characters developed powers of wickedness beyond mortal strength; he lay under an obsession regarding the iniquities of mankind. In dealing with this it was unfortunately his method to leave nothing to the imagination, and herein lies the most serious blemish on his work. There is undoubtedly much coarseness in some of his books, and the regrettable feature is that it is not only unnecessary, but in some cases actually lessens the effect at which he aimed. It is doubtful whether he was possessed of any sense of humour. Mr. Andrew Lang says that his lack of it was absolute, a darkness that can be felt; Mr. R. H. Sherrard, on the other hand, indicates that his work "teems with quiet fun." On the whole, truth seems to lie with Mr. Lang. M. and Madame Charles Badeuil, in /La Terre/ may seem Dickensian to an English reader, but there is always the Gallic point of view to be reckoned with, and it is doubtful if Zola did not regard these persons merely as types of a virtuous bourgeoisie.
It was in the treatment of crowds in motion that Zola chiefly excelled; there is nothing finer in literature than the march of the strikers in /Germinal/ or the charges of the troops in /La Debacle/. Contrast him with such a master of prose as George Meredith, and we see how immensely strong the battle scenes in /La Debacle/ are when compared with those in /Vittoria/; it is here that his method of piling detail on detail and horror on horror is most effectual. "To make his characters swarm," said Mr. Henry James in a critical article in the /Atlantic Monthly/ (August, 1903), "was the task he set himself very nearly from the first, that was the secret he triumphantly mastered."
"Naturalism" as a school had a comparatively brief existence--Zola himself departed largely from its principles after the conclusion of the Rougon-Macquart series--but its effects have been far-reaching on the literature of many countries. In England the limits of literary convention have been extended, and pathways have been opened up along which later writers have not hesitated to travel, even while denying the influence of the craftsman who had cleared the way. It is safe to say that had /L'Assommoir/ never been written there would have been no /Jude the Obscure/, and the same remark applies to much of the best modern fiction. In America, Frank Norris, an able writer who unfortunately died before the full fruition of his genius had obviously accepted Zola as his master, and the same influence is also apparent in the work of George Douglas, a brilliant young Scotsman whose premature death left only one book, /The House with the Green Shutters/, as an indication of what might have sprung from the methods of modified naturalism. M. Edouard Rod, an able critic, writing in the /Contemporary Review/ (1902), pointed out that the influence of Zola has transformed novel writing in Italy, and that its effect in Germany has been not less pronounced. The virtue of this influence on German letters was undoubtedly great. It made an end of sentimentality, it shook literature out of the sleepy rut into which it had fallen and forced it to face universal problems.
One must regret for his own sake that Zola was unable to avoid offending those prejudices which were so powerful in his time. The novelist who adopts the method of the surgeon finds it necessary to expose many painful sores, and is open to the taunt that he finds pleasure in the task. On no one did this personal obloquy fall more hardly than on Zola, and never with less reason. It may be that he accumulated unseemly details and risky situations too readily; but he was an earnest man with a definite aim in view, and had formulated for himself a system which he allowed to work itself out with relentless fatality. The unredeemed baseness and profligacy of the period with which he had to deal must also be borne in mind. As to his personal character, it has been fitly described by M. Anatole France, himself a distinguished novelist. Zola, said he, "had the candour and sincerity of great souls. He was profoundly moral. He has depicted vice with a rough and vigorous hand. His apparent pessimism ill conceals a real optimism, a persistent faith in the progress of intelligence and justice. In his romances, which are social studies, he attacks with vigorous hatred an idle, frivolous society, a base and noxious aristocracy. He combated social evil wherever he encountered it. His work is comparable only in greatness with that of Tolstoi. At the two extremities of European thought the lyre has raised two vast cities. Both are generous and pacific; but whereas Tolstoi's is the city of resignation, Zola's is the city of work."
It is still too soon to form an opinion as to the permanent value of Zola's writings, for posterity has set aside many well-considered judgments; but their influence has been, and will continue to be, far reaching. They have opened up new avenues in literature, and have made possible to others much that was formerly unattainable.
THE ROUGON-MACQUART GENEALOGICAL TREE.
1. ADELAIDE FOUQUE, called AUNT DIDE, born in 1768, married in 1786 to Rougon, a placid, lubberly gardener; bears him a son in 1787; loses her husband in 1788; takes in 1789 a lover, Macquart, a smuggler, addicted to drink and half crazed; bears him a son in 1789, and a daughter in 1791; goes mad, and is sent to the Asylum of Les Tulettes in 1851; dies there of cerebral congestion in 1873 at 105 years of age. Supplies the original neurosis.
2. PIERRE ROUGON, born in 1787, married in 1810 to Felicite Puech, an intelligent, active and healthy woman; has five children by her; dies in 1870, on the morrow of Sedan, from cerebral congestion due to overfeeding. An equilibrious blending of characteristics, the moral average of his father and mother, resembles them physically. An oil merchant, afterwards receiver of taxes.
3. ANTOINE MACQUART, born in 1789; a soldier in 1809; married in 1829 to a market dealer, Josephine Gavaudan, a vigorous, industrious, but intemperate woman; has three children by her; loses her in 1851; dies himself in 1873 from spontaneous combustion, brought about by alcoholism. A fusion of characteristics. Moral prepotency of and physical likeness to his father. A soldier, then a basket-maker, afterwards lives idle on his income.
4. URSULE MACQUART, born in 1791; married in 1810 to a journeyman- hatter, Mouret, a healthy man with a well-balanced mind. Bears him three children, dies of consumption in 1840. An adjunction of characteristics, her mother predominating morally and physically.
5. EUGENE ROUGON, born in 1811, married in 1857 to Veronique Beulin d'Orcheres, by whom he has no children. A fusion of characteristics. Prepotency and ambition of his mother. Physical likeness to his father. A politician, at one time Cabinet Minister. Still alive in Paris, a deputy.
6. PASCAL ROUGON, born in 1813, never marries, has a posthumous child by Clotilde Rougon in 1874; dies of heart disease on November 7, 1873. Innateness, a combination in which the physical and moral characteristics of the parents are so blended that nothing of them appears manifest in the offspring. A doctor.
7. ARISTIDE ROUGON, alias SACCARD, born in 1815, married in 1836 to Angele Sicardot, the calm, dreamy-minded daughter of an officer; has by her a son in 1840, a daughter in 1847; loses his wife in 1854; has a natural son in 1853 by a work-girl, Rosalie Chavaille, counting consumptives and epileptics among her forerunners; remarried in 1855 to Renee Beraud Du Chatel, who dies childless in 1864. An adjunction of characteristics, moral prepotency of his father, physical likeness to his mother. Her ambition, modified by his father's appetites. A clerk, then a speculator. Still alive in Paris, directing a newspaper.
8. SIDONIE ROUGON, born in 1818, married at Plassans in 1838 to a solicitor's clerk, who dies in Paris in 1850. Has, by a stranger, in 1851, a daughter Angelique, whom she places in the foundling asylum. Prepotency of her father, physical likeness to her mother. A commission agent and procuress, dabbling in every shady calling; but eventually becomes very austere. Still alive in Paris, treasurer to the OEuvre du Sacrement.
9. MARTHE ROUGON, born in 1820, married in 1840 to her cousin Francois Mouret, bears him three children, dies in 1864 from a nervous disease. Reverting heredity, skipping one generation. Hysteria. Moral and physical likeness to Adelaide Fouque. Resembles her husband.
10. FRANCOIS MOURET, born in 1817, married in 1840 to Marthe Rougon, who bears him three children; dies mad in 1864 in a conflagration kindled by himself. Prepotency of his father. Physical likeness to his mother. Resembles his wife. At first a wine-merchant, then lives on his income.
11. HELENE MOURET, born in 1824, married in 1841 to Grandjean, a puny man, inclined to phthisis, who dies in 1853; has a daughter by him in 1842; remarried in 1857 to M. Rambaud, by whom she has no children. Innateness as in Pascal Rougon's case. Still living, at Marseilles, in retirement with her second husband.
12. SILVERE MOURET, born in 1834; shot dead by a gendarme in 1851. Prepotency of his mother. Innateness with regard to physical resemblance.
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