Émile Zola: A Very Short Introduction | Brian Nelson #LiteraryCompanion

Émile Zola: A Very Short Introduction is part of the very excellent Oxford University Press Very Short Introduction series. There are over 700 titles in the series covering everything from author biographies, religions and philosophers, medicine and health topics, periods of history, cultural and social issues, to science and maths. If you’re on the brink of becoming obsessed interested in a topic, then an OUP Very Short Introduction is the perfect place to start.

As often happens in blogger land, not long after I purchased this book, in preparation for Zoladdiction in April, I spotted a review for it on Lisa @ANZ LitLovers blog. She has written a very thorough account and I urge you to check it out if you would like a deeper dive into this book than I am going to provide right now.

For me, Émile Zola: A Very Short Introduction will be a reference book that reveals its gems going forward.

As many of you know, I am planning to read ALL the Zola Rougon-Macquart books in chronological order, so this will be a book for me to refer to with each read. A number of sections I skimmed, as I haven’t read that book yet, and I was reluctant to read too closely in case there were spoilers! Therefore it was the biographical details that I found most interesting at this point.

First up, these books may say they are a very short introduction, but they pack a LOT into a very slim volume.

I’ve covered in previous posts, how Zola set out to write a series of books designed to examine the society of his time. Mid to late nineteenth century Europe was a time of dramatic change and Zola was duly fascinated by it. He observed the effects of industrialism, urbanisation, capitalism on different classes and genders. He believed that no aspect of the human condition was out of bounds for the writer and that it was the writer’s job to tell it how it is. He named this type of realism ‘naturalism‘.

He wished to represent the sorts of things that impinged on the lives of ordinary people, such as the growth of the city, the abuse of power, the birth of consumer culture, the workings of the banking system, crime, poverty, prostitution.

His plan was to write about the five ‘worlds’ – bourgeoise, lower classes, commercial class, upper classes, and the marginal world of prostitutes, criminals, artists and priests. Emulating Balzac’s human comedy was his aim, but instead of using recurring characters to link his series, Zola decided to create one family whose fortunes could be followed through several generations. This gave Zola the opportunity to put one his pet theories into practice – ‘the ways in which human behaviour is determined by heredity and environment.’

He uses this interest in heredity ‘selectively, to serve his aesthetic purposes, evoking it to create a sense of doom, like an ancient curse’.

In a previous post, I collated a brief timeline to help me get my head around all the French Empires and Republics. Zola was a critic of the Second Empire in particular.

  • Kingdom of France 987 – 1872
  • First Republic 1872 – 1804
    • Napoléon Bonaparte
  • First Empire 1804 – 1815
    • Napoléon I
  • Bourbon Restoration 1815 – 1830
    • Louis XVIII (1814-1824)
    • Charles X (1824-1830)
  • July Monarchy 1830 – 1848
    • Louis Philippe I
  • Second Republic 1848 – 1852
    • President Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte
  • Second French Empire 1852 – 1870 
    • Napoleon III
  • Third Republic 1870 – 1940
  • Vichy Government 1940 – 1944
    • Philippe Pétain
  • Provisional Government of the French Republic 1944 – 1946
    • Charles de Gaulle
  • Fourth Republic 1946 – 1958
  • Fifth Republic 1958 – present

One of the many reasons why I enjoy Zola’s work is the methodical approach he took to writing. Preparation and research were key ingredients to his success. For each book he accumulated an impressive ‘dossiers prèparatoires‘ which included an outline, preliminary notes on themes, plot, setting and main characters. He then built up a character file for each one containing their biography, physical and psychological traits. Chapter descriptions and basic narratives came next followed by his reading notes, documentation, interviews and field notes. According to Nelson, he combined the ‘approach of the investigative reporter with that of the sociologist’.

It is clear from these notes that Zola began with the story and characters before moving onto the documentation and that ‘documentary research was generally dictated by the needs of the fiction…he already knew what he was looking for and to what end’.

It is also clear that Nelson is a pretty big fan. He waxed lyrical about Zola’s,

  • visionary power
  • mythic resonance
  • compositional skill
  • control of narrative rhythm
  • brilliant treatment of physical settings
  • remarkable use of metaphor
  • expressive value of his descriptions

Zola’s use of symbols, allegory and myths comes in for special mention. Zola himself saw it as a ‘desire for authentic detail [where the] truth wings its way to the symbol’.

Machines, or places that operate like a machine (food markets, stock exchange) are his central symbol of industrial modernity. The rebuilding of Paris becomes an allegory for Second Empire corruption and dynamism; a department store demonstrates ‘changes in sexual attitudes and class relations’.

Classical and biblical myths occur not only within certain characters but they also ‘inform the basic narrative patterns of his novels’. Origin myths, myths of hell, the universal flood, the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Knowledge, Man’s lost majesty, the Eternal Return and Catastrophe and Renewal can be found throughout the series.

As for Zola’s very own origin story…

  • Émile Édouard Charles Antoine Zola – 2 April 1840 – 29 September 1902.
  • He was an only child.
  • His father died the week before his seventh birthday, leaving him and his mother ‘impoverished’.
  • They lived in Aix, with his maternal grandparents.
  • At school, he became good friends with Paul Cézanne, a friendship that lasted for nearly thirty years.
  • After his grandmother died in 1857, the family moved to Paris, in the Latin Quarter.
  • Zola failed his baccalauréat twice in 1859 & went to work as a copy clerk.
  • After three ‘mind-numbing’ months, Zola gave it up to live a more ‘bohemian existence’.
  • The next couple of years saw him constantly hungry, being evicted several times, but reading voraciously (Michelet, Sand, Montaigne, Molière, Shakespeare & the Romantic poets).
  • In March 1861 he scored a job packing books, at the ‘rapidly expanding’ publishing house, Hachette.
  • After a few months, he sent Louis Hachette a note suggesting a new magazine that would feature the work of ‘young, up-and-coming writers’.
  • Hachette promoted him to head of publicity where he learnt that ‘the art of self-promotion was almost as important as talent’.
  • He resigned in January 1866 after his second novel Claude’s Confession (1865) attracted undesirable attention (according to Hachette).
  • Around this time he met Alexandrine-Gabrielle Meley (they married in 1870).
  • Zola began contributing articles on art and literature to a new newspaper called L’Événement.
  • Cézanne introduced him to Bazille, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir and other artists associated with the Batignolles group (Manet, Sisley & Degas).
  • Zola’s articles in support and appreciation of their work led to Manet painting Zola’s portrait in gratitude.
Édouard Manet, Portrait of Émile Zola 1868 | Image: WikimediaCommons

The bulk of the book is then devoted to discussions on the various novels, which I will save for their individual posts, as I read them (the books that is, not the posts).

Nelson finishes up with the events surrounding the Dreyfus Affair.

For the first time, I felt like I understood what it was about, why it was significant to France and to Zola and what the after-effects were (for both France and Zola). Which, tragically, possibly, includes the nature of Zola’s own death by carbon monoxide poisoning in his home. The official report stated it was an accident, but a lot of doubt and suspicion persevered for years afterwards.

His life may have ended in controversy, but his funeral was HUGE. According to the papers of the time, 50 000 people accompanied his coffin to Montmartre Cemetery. Six years later his remains were transferred to the Panthéon. Zola was only the fourth French writer to be buried there besides Voltaire, Rousseau and Victor Hugo.

Brian Nelson is a zolistes: someone who specialises in all things Zola. And I, for one, am grateful for this passion. His introductions to the Rougon-Macquart books I’ve read so far have been enlightening and helpful. And his Very Short Introduction will provide me with oodles of guidance and conversational starters (or at least blog post starters) in the years to come!

Brian Nelson was born in the UK in 1946, graduating from Cambridge University and completing his postgraduate work of Oxford University. He taught for one year in Paris before moving to the University of Wales Aberystwyth from 1973–86. He was the Professor Emeritus of French at Monash University, Melbourne from 1986 – 2008, when he retired.

My Zola Bibliofile:

Book: Émile Zola: A Very Short Introduction
Author: Brian Nelson
ISBN: 9780198837565
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Date: 2020
Format: paperback
This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are our first storytellers.

9 thoughts on “Émile Zola: A Very Short Introduction | Brian Nelson #LiteraryCompanion

  1. Ah, Brona, you’ve made my day! Sometimes I wonder whether anybody takes any notice of anything I write, and then along comes a post like this one — thank you!
    BTW I am relieved to see that I am not the only one bemused by the French Revolutionary Period… if you can get hold of it A Traveller’s History of Paris (1994) by Robert Cole is a very readable book which made it seem comprehensible to me.


    1. I’m glad I made your day Lisa 🙂

      When I popped the Cole book onto my wishlist on GR, I double-checked the date I finished this book – the 14th May. It has taken me that long to write this post, and a big part of it was having your in-depth review still in my mind! I knew I couldn’t come close to what you achieved, so I had to wait to find the angle that would work best for me.

      Plus I also decided to use the time to make a Zola Reusable block, which meant I had to revisit all my old Zola posts and wordpress-ise them (Sue’s word not mine!) and add the new block to each one and tidy up tags and categories and images…..!

      They are now all done, the reusable block is in operation and a rainy Saturday in Sydney gave me the writing time I needed to finish this. It only took three months!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Having read ALL 20 book in chronological order ( in French…it took me 2,5 years) you are embarking on a wonderful journey. I wish I could do it over again! Tip: Notice as you read in 3 how Zola uses gardens with doors used as a place of communication: . La Fortune des Rougon, La Faute de l’abbé Mouret, Le Rêve and Une page d’amour. It is just fascinating to connect the dots Zola has laid out before us!


    1. My journey will take a little longer than yours, since I’m only reading one a year atm!! If I got the chance, I’d like to reread them in Zola’s preferred order. But I may need an extra lifetime 😆


  3. Brian Nelson’s introductions to the Oxford World Classics edition are outstanding so I’m not surprised to find this is a treasure trove of information and insight. I shall make a note to get a copy. I had a Christmas gift of another book he edited – the Cambridge Guide to Emile Zola. It’s rich in material but the only issue is that the chapters are thematic so I find myself reading about the novels I’ve yet to read personally. Maybe one best left until I finish the whole cycle (not sure when that will be though since I have read only 7 so far)


    1. It was a similar approach in this book.
      I figured my chronological order reading project was going to take so long that I would forget anything I read in here before I got to the book. Will definitely refer to it though with each one I read, although, again, it won’t always be easy to pull out the relevant bits for the book as they are interspersed throughout each chapter…


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