Frederick Brown’s Zola: A Life is a massive work. The product of almost two decades of research, it discusses each of the author’s novels in some detail and pro- vides a vivid account of intellectual life in France from the Second Empire through the Third Republic. Where Brown proves to be especially informative is in his account of Zola’s relationships with other major authors of his day, including Gustave Flaubert, Alphonse Daudet, Ivan Turgenev, Joris Karl Huysmans, and the Goncourt brothers, Edmond and Jules. The public support and mutual criticism that these authors provided to one another (not infrequently accompanied by private jealousies and secret contempt) gave rise to a burst of creative activity that forever altered the shape of the modern novel.
Brown’s approach consists of both historical analysis and traditional literary criticism. He avoids the temptation to practice Zola’s own “naturalism” upon his subject, dissecting the author in terms of heredity and psychological peculiarities. Nevertheless, Brown does occasionally speculate about psychological factors that may have affected Zola’s idiosyncrasies or his writing. Invariably when this happens, the result is less than convincing and seems somehow incongruous in this otherwise well documented biography. Brown wonders, for example, whether the death of Zola’s father may have brought about the novelist’s compulsive work habits: perhaps, he continues, Zola harbored an unconscious fear that his talent might vanish as suddenly and inexplicably as his father. Elsewhere, Brown speculates that Zola became involved in the Dreyfus affair—writing an angry newspaper piece accusing the government of conspiracy—in a belated attempt to seek revenge against the same social class that had robbed his mother of her annuity. Fortunately, these arguments, while relatively weak, are also relatively rare. For the most part, Brown presents his readers with a portrait of Zola that is neither tendentious nor simplistic. Brown’s Zola is an individual who earns his reputation as a great author but who is also recognizable as a flawed human being.
One of the most useful features of Brown’s biography is his summary of nearly every one of Zola’s novels. Brown provides an outline of the Rougon-Macquart cycle—much of which was planned by Zola before he even began writing the series—with great attention to detail. The twenty volumes of the Rougon-Macquart novels remained surprisingly faithful to the novelist’s initial vision while still permitting his perspective to develop over time. Zola was not above making use of fortuitous situations that had piqued his audience’s interest in particular professions or social classes. From these he adapted the subjects for several of his novels. Brown also traces the origin of each of the Rougon-Macquart novels and untangles the complex relationships of Zola’s fictitious family. Readers who know this cycle only from selected works in the series will find these portions of Brown’s biography to be invaluable.
Brown presents Zola’s development of literary “naturalism” as influenced by three major factors. First of all, there were the political upheavals of the mid-nineteenth century, which set republicans and supporters of universal human rights at odds with those who defended religious and social conservatism. The rise of “new ideas” among the political left suggested to Zola that the world needed a new type of fiction, a style of writing that would embody modern, “scientific” views of the human condition. Zola thus placed himself in opposition both to Alexandre Dumas père, whose romanticized novels about the aristocracy seemed to champion social conservatism, and to Victor Hugo, who idealized the poor and created sentimental novels about human suffering that ended up doing little to relieve it. In contrast to these authors, Zola envisioned a literature that would embody gritty realism, depicting even human depravity with unflinching candor. If the frothy operettas of Jacques Offenbach represented “gay Paris” at one extreme, Zola chose to reflect the other side of Parisian life, creating in the process a literature that was sober, realistic, and utterly nonjudgmental.
In painting as in literature, Zola preferred truth over beauty. He was among the first supporters of the Impressionistic school, whose focus upon ordinary scenes and everyday people stood in sharp contrast to the academic school of Jean Léon Gérôme, Jean (Louis Ernest) Meissonier, and Adolphe William...
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