An American Writer Looks at Émile Zola

Until I picked up this book about the life and writings of Émile Zola, I did not realize how little I knew about French authors. The book is part of the Twayne World of Authors Series and had been discarded from a university library.  My reading of the book was slow and deliberate and I marked phrases I liked, had to look up and research French words,  historical events, and places–some of which I made marginal notes about.

  My research revealed that there are many websites, detailed books, and fine videos concerning Zola. Elliott M. Grant, the author/editor, spent many years researching Zola. The book is not intended to be an exhaustive biography, but it does include enough to help the reader to understand Zola and appreciate his literary work, which includes novels, short stories, poems, journal and newspaper articles, and dramatic works. The book includes chapter notes and references, a selected bibliography, and an index. My feeling is that the book is an easy reference and useful tool for one wanting to explore Zola and his world.

Zola’s oeuvre is enormous and would require years to fully read and write about. His life is a tale of a writer who goes from hard years as a starving artist to fame and wealth. He is known as a prominent early promoter of the literary theory of naturalism. As a writer, he documented meticulously the details he included and visited the locations in his novels. Zola was ambitious, disciplined (he wrote every day for thirty years), methodical in his planning, a compulsive reader, and a writer who believed in observation and experiment. In fact, he once said, “The novelist is part observer, part experimenter.” Zola often charmed an audience with the reading aloud of pages of his writing.

Zola, who could unite the physical and the psychological, could write well about the working class, as well as the educated bourgeois and the ruling classes who obviously resemble the elite of our own Washington elite, the rich, liberal rulers of our country. France too had its own swamp that needed draining, and Zola made many enemies by his descriptions of how he thought the bourgeois were inferior to the working class. He also pictured France, under the rule of Napolean III, as a train rushing to disaster, much like our own nation is under our current leadership.