By Victoria Best
Penguin’s decision to publish some of the novels of Émile Zola that have not been in translation for more than a hundred years begs an introduction to this iconic writer of the working classes. When Zola came on the scene with his racy, sordid novels, he brought new life to the genre of realism that had dominated French literature over the past fifty years. Zola’s imagination sought to rehabilitate it with an injection of hyperreality. Influenced by the advances made in science and medicine, he thought that it was possible for a novelist who gathered information carefully and analytically to bring himself into the field of science, to be more than a mere artist and to become instead a kind of Cassandra in a white coat: a soothsayer of the future, but one shored up by unimpeachable scientific fact.
Zola wrote Le Roman expérimental (1880) in which he described what his intentions were: he intended to create a whole new genre, and he called it ‘naturalism’. It was to be as real to the reader as if he or she were walking through the slum areas of Paris. It would be a stencil off the world, and authors would be sensory recorders of everything about their environment, the dilapidated buildings, the pungent, slangy speech of the working classes, the taste of the absinthe that was the anesthetic of the poor. Zola truly believed that literature could be a kind of laboratory. You could set up the context for any situation, and it would play out in a scientific kind of way, showing you exactly what would happen in reality. The thing was, Zola had a pretty good idea of what he wanted to prove, before he began writing. He argued that we are all inevitably determined by the twin factors of genetic inheritance and environment, which, struggle as we might, we cannot possibly transcend. His novels set out to prove how the stain of ‘bad blood’, particularly when linked with poor living conditions, would cause despair and catastrophe through countless generations.
Zola’s series of novels about the Rougon-Marquart family is the outcome of this inspiration. The family’s two branches represent two dominant strands in lower class Parisian life – the Rougons were small shopkeepers and petty bourgeois, and the Marquarts were petty criminals who had problems with alcohol. The point of the series was to merge the genetic lines of grafters with the line of transgressors and see what catastrophes resulted, particularly in the tough working conditions of post-revolution Paris, a place of massive opportunity, but also of great hardship and poverty
The books were completely shocking, depicting vice in literature for the first time. People swore and used colourful slang, they had what was considered graphic sex (not to our jaded eyes now, of course), and Zola plumbed the depths and dregs of society, vividly depicting a world of whores, drunkards, laundry workers, miners and shop girls that the polite reading folk barely knew existed. He was, in this way, one of the first authors not to romanticise or sentimentalise poverty and the brutal, relentless toil of the working classes. And his range of society was immense; the novels did not only represent the lower levels of society, but the higher ones too. One of Zola’s great skills was to show how they interacted, how the life of the rich was dependent and even sometimes threatened, by the lives of the poor.
But although Zola is undeniably correct in his privileging of genetic inheritance as a determinant of behaviour, it’s the part of his novels that I admire the least. What he most certainly refuses to countenance is a way out of the genetic deadlock and instead embraces the endless loop of historical repetition. Zola is determined to show us that we are condemned to live and relive the faults of our ancestors, and our actions and responses will always be inevitable.
This isn’t the only problem with his theory of naturalism, the first and most important being that Zola never stuck to his own rules. Far from being a no-frills realist writer, Zola drew heavily on myth, symbolism, the supernatural and metaphor in his writing. Zola’s idea of literature as a laboratory is sheer nonsense; no fictional narrative can be said to ‘prove’ what would happen in a similar real life set-up. And often Zola had to intervene quite heavily in his own novels to pull his determinist theories off. In Nana (a fabulous book, by the way), the slovenly courtesan of the same name rises to great heights in society and has the world at her feet. Zola creates a character of such power and charisma that you get the sense he scares the living daylights out of himself with his own creation, and in a last-ditch attempt to exert his control over the narrative he kills her off with a bizarre foreign illness. There’s no causal necessity to any of this. Zola just didn’t write narratives that conformed to the principles he was endorsing, although he was pretty confident that he had shown other novelists the way to embrace the doctrine of naturalism.
Gritty realism was the speciality of Zola, and it opened the way for many twentieth century writers, including Theodore Dreiser, John Steinbeck and all manner of ‘kitchen sink’ dramas that are still popular today. But what many writers have since abandoned is the magnificence with which he endowed the hustle of social warfare, the sumptuous descriptions of almost cinematic vividness, and the excruciating glimmer of hope that keeps the reader glued to the page exactly at the time that the knife is twisted in their hearts. This is what keeps Zola in a class of his own.
Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.