Kapoor on Nelson (2020)

Nelson, Brian. Émile Zola: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford UP, 2020, pp. ix + 140, ISBN: 978-0-19883-756-5

Despite the huge popularity Émile Zola enjoyed as a writer in nineteenth-century France, he is less well known among the contemporary reading public. Therefore, it is apt that Brian Nelson sets out in this book to present Zola as “the quintessential novelist of modernity” (1). He begins by referring to Anita Brookner’s comment that Zola was “the greatest journalist of the nineteenth century,” but seeks instead to highlight Zola’s literary achievements (1). Though Zola downplayed his narrative art in the experimental theories he put forward to elucidate his artistic vision, in Nelson’s view, his narrative skill is illustrated, among other things, by the “visual effects, compositional techniques, and choice of motifs” that he employed in his fictional works. He argues that Zola’s literary style emerged largely as a result of his association with painters who profoundly influenced his own aesthetic (22).

Spread over nine chapters, the book takes on Zola’s fictional works, one by one, from the early days of his youth to his mature years, describing the painstaking planning, research, and fieldwork that went into the making of nearly all of them. Its highlights are the short yet lucid English translations from Zola’s French and vivid plot summaries. The book has a parallel biographical and historical thread. On the one hand, chapter two mentions Zola’s origins (his father who died when Zola was about seven was an Italian engineer, his mother was French and the daughter of a glazier) thus underlining the author’s hybrid sensibility as well as his struggles in France as an outsider. On the other hand, the final chapter reveals the hidden facts surrounding Zola’s mysterious death from carbon monoxide poisoning following his involvement in the sensational Dreyfus case, thus creating a riveting narrative that is partly biography, partly history. En route, it discusses the boldness with which Zola, the art critic, championed the cause of Impressionist painters such as Édouard Manet, who were rejected by the French establishment. Nelson shows that in his Rougon-Macquart series, Zola went on to address social issues like the struggles of ordinary people, while also incorporating into these novels contemporary scientific ideas about man’s relation to heredity and environment. Devoted partly to Zola’s new novel cycles that continue the spirit of the Rougon-Macquart, the final chapter is followed by a useful aide-mémoire that revisits the crucial events in Zola’s life, career, and times.

The book’s contention that Zola was above all an artist is best illustrated by the section in chapter two titled “Manet and the Salon des Refusés” that evokes Zola’s thirty-year friendship with painter Paul Cézanne, who introduced him to landscape painter Antoine Guillemet. Cézanne and Guillemet took Zola “round the studios, introducing him to Frédéric Bazille, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro and Auguste Renoir” (17). Zola is described as listening avidly to the conversations of painters who gathered regularly at the Café Guerbois on the Avenue de Clichy in the Batignolles district of Paris and discussing art as well as the annual Salon. The section examines how Édouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe was rejected by the 1863 Salon, and how Zola went on to defend the unconventional paintings of Impressionist artists such as Manet, appreciating their innovations in depicting contemporary reality by publishing a volume of articles called Mon Salon in 1866. Nelson suggests that just as Manet experimented with visual form by creating “new painting” (22), Zola experimented with fictional representation by adopting an artistic stance based on scientific materialism. In an article entitled “Les réalistes du Salon” Zola wrote that “the wind is blowing in the direction of science; we are driven, despite ourselves, towards the exact study of facts and things” (20).

Chapters three through eight offer glimpses of Zola’s attempt to record the “natural and social history of a family in the Second Empire” in the Rougon Macquart series (27) largely through a highly visual “poetry of fact” (6). For Nelson Le Ventre de Paris “is nothing if not a novel of spectacle”; Claude and Cadine are pleasure-seeking “flâneurs who circulate constantly in and around Les Halles, eagerly soaking up the sights of the markets” (42). Studying L’Assommoir, the novel where Zola made a working-class washerwoman a tragic heroine, Nelson draws our attention to its graphic descriptions of urban squalor, arguing that such depictions are Zola’s way of showing visually that man cannot be separated from his milieu. On the other hand, Nelson’s commentary on Nana, emphasizes the suggestions of “demi-monde,” a term that signifies “a shadowy half-world in which nothing is quite what it seems and the image is frequently taken for the reality” (64). Similarly, in the chapter on Au bonheur des dames, Nelson draws attention to how Zola unveils the truth about nineteenth-century bourgeois women seeking pleasure in the department store. The novel’s women are fragmented entities, seduced by the “pure spectacle” of an “almost orgiastic display of commodities” (74). In Germinal, Zola’s novel about a strike by mine workers, Nelson remarks on Zola’s use of colour. While black represents the darkness of ignorance and misery, red symbolises the awakening of political consciousness and revolution. Throughout, Nelson highlights the picturesque and evocative aspects of Zola’s craftsmanship. 

Despite nineteen attempts, Zola failed to gain membership into the Académie Française. However, more recent academic criticism has been kinder to him, recognizing the creative features of his work and demolishing stereotypes of him as a sensationalist writer, a label that leads readers to misunderstand him. Nelson’s book consolidates this trend. However, as the author’s aim is to privilege the artistic qualities of Zola’s fiction over its realistic aspect, he underestimates the primacy of truth in Zola’s artistic vision. In Zola’s novels, art is not the end; it is the means to an end, the truth. As Nelson himself quotes, in a letter to his disciple Henry Céard dated 22 March 1885, Zola wrote: “We all falsify more or less, but […] I think I falsify in the direction of truth” (7).