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Emile Zola

Born in Paris on April 2, 1840, Emile Zola was the son of an Italian engineer who acquired French citizenship in 1862.  As a youth, Zola lived in Aix-en-Provence in the southeast of France.  When he was seven, his father died, leaving the family in severe financial straits.  His mother relied mostly upon a small pension to survive.

Zola received his education at the College Bourbon.  When he turned 18, he moved back to Paris with his mother.  There, he began writing under the influence of the romantics while befriending painter Paul Cézanne.  Their friendship ended later over Zola's fictionalized depiction of Cezanne and the Bohemian life of painters in his novel, L'Oeuvre (The Masterpiece, 1886).

Before becoming popular as a writer, Zola worked as a clerk in a shipping firm and in the sales department of the publishing house of Louis-Christophe-Francois-Hachette.  He also wrote literary columns and art reviews for the Cartier de Villemessant newspapers.  As a political journalist, he could not hide his distrust of French Emperor Napoleon III, who had used the Second Republic as a springboard to become ruler.

Unique for his time, Zola was one of the first novelists to research his topics as if he were writing a newspaper article instead of a novel.  He interviewed experts and recorded in the smallest detail on the subjects in his books.  When he wrote about a train engineer, he spent days riding in the front car of a train.  When he wrote about miners, he visited the coalmines nearby. 

During his formative years, he wrote several short stories and essays, four plays, and three novels.  Among his early books was Contes a Ninon, published in 1864.  When his sordid autobiographical novel, La Confession de Claude  (The Confessions of Claude, 1865), was published and attracted the attention of the police, Zola was fired from Hachette.

After his first major novel, Therese Raquin (1867), Zola began work on a long series called Les Rougon Macquart, the natural and social history of a family under the Second Empire.  "I want to portray, at the outset of a century of liberty and truth, a family that cannot restrain itself in its rush to possess all the good things that progress is making available and is derailed by its own momentum, the fatal convulsions that accompany the birth of a new world."

The family had two branches.  The Rougons were small shopkeepers from a low social class, while the Marquarts were poachers and smugglers who had problems with alcohol.  Some members of the family would rise during the story to the highest levels of society while others fell victim to societal evils or heredity.  Zola presented the idea to his publisher in 1868.

"The Rougon-Macquart - the group, the family, whom I propose to study - has as its prime characteristic the overflow of appetite, the broad upthrust of our age, which flings itself into enjoyments.  Physiologically the members of this family are the slow working-out of accidents to the blood and nervous system which occur in a race after a first organic lesion, according to the environment determining in each of the individuals of this race sentiments, desires, passions, all the natural and instinctive human manifestations whose products take on the conventional names of virtues and vices."

Zola said, "I'm not very concerned with beauty or perfection.... All I care about is life, struggle, intensity."

He achieved all that and more when, in 1998, the Paris daily, L'Aurore, published Zola's J'accuse on the front page.  It ran in the form of an open letter to the President, Félix Faure.  The piece accused the French government of anti-Semitism and wrongfully jailing Jewish army captain Alfred Dreyfus.  In a case that quickly commanded international attention, Dreyfus had been convicted of espionage and sent to Devil's Island. 

Zola's publication marked a turning point in the Dreyfus Affair, causing the captain's case to be reopened, resulting in his acquittal.  In the course of events, however, Zola was convicted of libel and sentenced to prison, himself.  Instead of surrendering to the authorities, he fled to England.  He was eventually allowed to return to France in time to see the government fall.  Dreyfus was convicted again in a new trial but was ultimately freed, in large part due to the moral force of Zola's arguments. 

Zola said "The truth is on the march, and nothing shall stop it."  In 1906, Dreyfus was entirely exonerated by the Supreme Court.

Emile Zola was not so fortunate.  On September 28, 1902, he was overcome by carbon monoxide fumes while he slept.  According to some speculations, his political enemies had blocked the chimney of his apartment, causing poisonous fumes to build up and kill him.  At Zola's funeral, Anatole France declared, "He was a moment of the human conscience." 

In 1908, Zola's remains were transported to the Panthéon.  Although naturalism as a literary influence fell out of favor after his death, Zola's integrity and intensity had a profound influence on writers such as Theodore Dreiser, August Strindberg, and Emilia Pardo-Bazan.


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