Émile Zola (1840-1902), French author of many works influential in the naturalism literary school including his series of twenty novels written between 1871 and 1893 that follow the Rougon Macquart family starting with The Fortune of the Rougons (1871). From the Author's Preface;
"I wish to explain how a family, a small group of human beings, conducts itself in a given social system after blossoming forth and giving birth to ten or twenty members, who, though they may appear, at the first glance, profoundly dissimilar one from the other, are, as analysis demonstrates, most closely linked together from the point of view of affinity. Heredity, like gravity, has its laws.
By resolving the duplex question of temperament and environment, I shall endeavour to discover and follow the thread of connection which leads mathematically from one man to another. And when I have possession of every thread, and hold a complete social group in my hands, I shall show this group at work, participating in an historical period; I shall depict it in action, with all its varied energies, and I shall analyse both the will power of each member, and the general tendency of the whole."--Emile Zola, Paris, July 1, 1871
Initially borrowing from the romantic movement, Zola became a proponent of French naturalism along with other such notable authors of the time as Stephen Crane Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), George Gissing New Grub Street (1891), and Guy de Maupassant The Maison Tellier (1881). Inspired by Claude Bernard's Introduction to Experimental Medicine (1865) Zola soon found his voice as dispassionate scientific observer of French society, human nature, and moral decay often in painstakingly sordid detail. Set during the tumultuous period of the rise in power of Napoleon Bonaparte III as Emperor to the end of the Franco Prussian war, Zola's ambitious series includes La Conquête de Plassans (The Conquest of Plassans) (1874), and L’Assommoir (The Dram-Shop or The Drunkard) (1877).
Another in the series Nana (1880) represents the underclasses, a prostitute and "devourer of men" who rises among the Parisian elite as a destructive and wholly powerful figure who disrupts conventions and comes to represent the downfall of the Second French Empire. Zola himself descended mineshafts in his methodically intense approach to writing Germinal (1885). Set in the 1860s it deals with the struggle of the proletariat and the inhumane working conditions of striking coal miners in Northern France and inspired numerous film and television adaptations. Other titles in the series are L'Oeuvre (The Masterpiece) (1886) a lightly fictionalised depiction of his friendship with painter Paul Cézanne which later caused a rift in their friendship, La Terre (1887), the psychological thriller La Bête humaine (1890), and ending with Le Docteur Pascal (1893).
Émile Zola was born in Paris, France on 2 April 1840, the son of François Zola, an engineer and his wife Emilie Aubert. He grew up in Aix-en-Provence, attending the (now named) Collège Mignet, then the Lycée Saint Louis in Paris. Under the harsh straits of poverty after his father died Zola worked various clerical jobs. He then moved on to writing literary columns for Cartier de Villemessant's newspapers. A sign of things to come he was harsh and outspoken in his criticism of Napoleon "..my work becomes a picture of a departed reign, of a strange period of human madness and shame." He was also harshly anti-Catholic "Civilization will not attain to its perfection until the last stone from the last church falls on the last priest."
One of Zola's first works published was his autobiographical La Confession de Claude (1865), which attracted many critics and brought negative attention to him including the police. Guilt and shame haunt Thérèse Raquin (1867), another of Zola's works to inspire many film and television adaptations. Madeleine Férat was published a year later. Zola further explores the scientific model in Le Roman Experimental (The Experimental Novel) (1880). He next wrote his Les Trois Villes series consisting of Lourdes (1894), Rome (1896), and Paris (1898).
Perhaps the most sensational and certainly politically influential work of Zola's is "J'accuse" (I Accuse!) (1898), his open letter to then French president Félix Faure. Accusing the French government of anti-semitism it was published on the front page of the Paris newspaper `L'Aurore' (The Dawn) on 13 January 1898 in response to the Dreyfus affair, a scandal that had divided the country in two as the rest of the world watched on uneasily. Captain Alfred Dreyfus was a Jewish military officer in the French army, hastily tried and convicted of treason in 1894. Realising their error in haste and bureaucratic bungling, the government was not willing to back down and release him from imprisonment on Devil's Island till many years later. Zola's article of exposure and ensuing furore led to France's enactment of the law in 1905 that separates church and state; "The Republic neither recognizes, nor salaries, nor subsidizes any religion"."
Zola was convicted of libel and after his internationally covered trial sentenced to a year long jail term but fled to England. He returned to France when the charge against him was dismissed. Dreyfus was exhonerated and regained full honours with the military. Back in France Zola continued writing, including his Les Quatre Évangiles (Four Gospels); Fécondité (Fruitfulness) (1900), Travail (Labor) (1901), Vérité (Truth) (1903), and Justice (unfinished). Émile Zola died on 29 September 1902 at his home in Paris under what some claim to be suspicious circumstances of carbon monoxide poisoning by stopping up his chimney. He was first interred at the Cimetière de Montmartre in Paris, then later moved to The Panthéon in the Latin Quarter of Paris, France.
Biography written by C.D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc. 2006. All Rights Reserved.
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