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(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Frederick Brown’s ZOLA: A LIFE is a sprawling work that provides rich detail about the founder of literary naturalism and his intellectual circle. In nearly 900 pages, Brown traces Zola from his childhood in Aix-en-Provence to the height of his career during the Dreyfus Affair nearly sixty years later. In addition to providing biographical information about Zola, Brown summarizes and discusses nearly every one of his novels. This information permits the reader to untangle the complex family relationships of characters in the Rougon-Macquart cycle and to appreciate its overall plan.

Brown presents Zola’s development of literary “naturalism” as influenced by three major factors: the political and social upheavals of the mid-nineteenth century; Zola’s journalistic background; and the novelist’s compulsive need to write. The irony of Zola’s naturalism, Brown suggests, is that it was never really “natural.” It was a studied approach to the world and, in its own way, a highly artificial one. All of the information that Zola’s novels contain about railroads, department stores, courtesans, parliament, the mining industry, the Catholic church, the stock exchange, and the like came, not from the author’s own experiences, but from his reading or, even more frequently, from the recollections of his friends and acquaintances. On those occasions when Zola actually visited the locations that would be featured prominently in his novels, he toured them in a day or two, absorbing only the “flavor” of the sites, without taking the time to understand their true character or importance. Zola’s novels, Brown concludes, did not embody the life that their author had led but the information that he had taken pains to gather.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCI, May 1, 1995, p. 1547.

Commentary. C, November, 1995, p. 124.

Journal of the History of Ideas. LVI, July, 1995, p. 523.

Library Journal. CXX, June 15, 1995, p. 69.

The New Republic. CCXIII, July 31, 1995, p. 36.

The New York Times Book Review. C, June 4, 1995, p. 10.

The New Yorker. LXXI, June 19, 1995, p. 96.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, March 13, 1995, p. 52.

The Wall Street Journal. May 9, 1995, p. A18.

The Washington Post Book World. XXV, June 11, 1995, p. 5.