The Disappearance of Emile Zola

by Michael Rosen

Well, I haven’t finished reading this book, but have stalled somewhat and started reading other things.  So I think I had better review it anyway.

I bought this when it caught me eye in Blandford Books in Broadway – a nice little bookshop that I pop into on my frequent visits to Broadway in the Cotswolds (about 20 minutes from my home).  The bookseller reduced the price of the hardback, as the book was about to appear in paperback.  How could I refuse?

I am not sorry that I bought this book, despite struggling to finish it.  Rosen’s style is engaging, his comments affectionate and entertaining, and it is an aspect of Zola’s life that I had been completely ignorant about.  But there just doesn’t seem to be enough material in this brief episode in Zola’s life to warrant a whole book.  Much of the narrative reads like a list of the contents of letters to and from the great writer, as well as excerpts from diaries, in strict chronological order.  “On 16 February ….  On 18 February ….”.  Which, of course, reflects Rosen’s sources.  But he doesn’t seem to build on the material or even reflect on it very much.  Having recently read Claire Tomalin’s biography of a near-contemporary of Zola’s, Thomas Hardy, I felt that the Zola coming out of these pages is much less accessible than the Hardy portrayed in Tomalin’s book.  Of course, that was a whole life story (of a long life) whereas this book just depicts one year.

I have read only one of Zola’s works, Germinal, which I studied for A level.  I was also aware of Zola’s passionate involvement in the Dreyfus case.  Of the consequences – Zola’s decision to leave France after being convicted of libel – I had been completely ignorant, as I was of the fact that he chose to live his ‘exile’ in Britain.  Germinal left a lasting impression, but I suspect that this mini-biography will not.

Addendum – 8 September 2017

Well, I have finished the book and I have to admit, it gets better.  The last few chapters, and the postscript, made for fascinating reading, as Rosen examines Zola’s reception in Britain and the fallout from the Dreyfus case.  Shockingly, he has never yet been found innocent by a military court, though he was pardoned by the French president in December 1899.  Rosen convincingly makes the case that the Dreyfus affair has influenced the course of anti-semitism through the 20th century.  Zola’s response to it must also have influenced the engagement of other artists with current affairs in the succeeding years.

And finally, some 45 years after I first learned of it in a history lesson, I have read the text of the famous Zola article J’accuse, given in English translation as an Appendix to this book.  It is powerful and deliberately provocative, and fills me with a much greater admiration for Zola.