French authors

10 Questions On Reading Émile Zola

Somehow I managed to missed the announcement of Zoladdiction month hosted by Fanda @ClassicLit. It’s probably too late for me to join in now — Money (L’Argent) which is the title in the Rougon-Macquart series I’m due to read next, will just have to wait until later in the year.

But I didn’t want to let Zolaaddiction month slip by entirely unrecognised. So I’m going to take a stab at the questionnaire set by our host

1. What was your first introduction to Émile Zola?

My first experience of Zola’s work came via The Open University. I foolishly enrolled for their literature degree thinking “it would be fun”, never anticipating how much work would be involved. So many people think the OU qualifications are inferior to those awarded by bricks and mortar universities in the UK but I tell you, I worked harder on the Open University programme than I did for the degree I did as a full-time student.

My second module was on the Realist Novel, with Germinal as one of the set texts. I was hooked right from the start. It’s unrelentingly gloomy in its depiction of a coal miner’s strike in northern France in the 1860s and the abject poverty in which the families live. Coming from a coal mining community with relatives who worked in the mines, the details about harsh conditions and the way the miners were treated, struck a nerve.

Germinal remains my favourite Émile Zola novel.

2. Do you read Zola’ novels randomly, or do you follow a certain, or even your own, order?

i started the Rougon-Macquart series randomly — Germinal is 13th in publication order. I can’t recall what come next but it was either The Human Beast (La Bête Humaine) or The Dram Shop (L’Assommoir). It wasn’t until 2015 that I decided to start at the beginning and read the books in the reading order recommended by Zola himself. Somewhere along the line I read Therese Raquin which isn’t part of the series. This sinister tale of adultery and murder took my breath away.

3. What do you like and/or dislike about Zola? It can be his works, views, or personality.

I love the realism of his novels. They are often grim, sometimes sordid because he never holds back from showing people in an unflattering light, whether they come from the working class or the educated, monied strata of society. But without fail, they are people who feel real; they think, speak and act in such an authentic way you can believe they really exist.

It’s the character of Émile Zola himself that I’m not too keen on. In 1888, Henry Vizetelly who was the head of Zola’s publishers in London, was prosecuted in London for obscene libel. It was claimed that the company’s English translations of three books by Zola were “vile” because they featured rapes, pregnancies, menstruation, nudity and women’s sexuality.  Vizetelly was sent to prison and his company almost collapsed.

Zola didn’t lift a finger to defend the publisher who had brought his work to readers in the UK. He actually told a journalist that he would be pleased if the case went against Vizetelly because he wanted people to read the books in the original French. This despite the fact that he had profited financially from the translations.

4. If you must spend a day with one character from Zola’s books, who would you rather be with? And what would both of you would do? (This is hard, I know! Zola didn’t create many loveable characters)

I’m drawn to Denise Baudu, the young woman who features in The Ladies’ Paradise. She’s a saleswoman in “Au Bonheur des Dames”, a shop intended by its ambitious owner Octave Mouret to be the finest department store that Paris, and indeed the whole of France, has ever seen. The novel takes us behind the scenes of the store, showing a gleaming glass and metal edifice designed for one purpose — to persuade women to part with their money.

Mouret treats women like the commodities he sells in his shop. Baudu is not like his other conquests however, and refuses to play his game. So she gets my vote just on that basis.

How would we spend our time together? he prospect of a whole day scrutinising merchandise in a vast department store holds little appeal despite the magnificence of the decor of Au Bonheur des Dames. An hour would be enough for me before adjourning to the buffet for the free fresh fruit and cordials.

The room was square, with a large marble counter; at either end silver-plated fountains flowed with a thin trickle of water; behind on small shelves , rows of bottles were lined up.

Baudu and I would head next to to the writing and reading room ” a colossal gallery decorated with excessive luxury” , a sanctuary from the heaving masses of shoppers on the floors below.

The dome of the long room was laden with gilding; at either end monumental fireplaces faced each other; mediocre picures very ornately framed covered the walls and between the pillars, in front of the arched bays were tall green plants in majolica pots. A crowd of silent people surrounded the tabel which was littered with magazines and newspapers and furnished with stationery and ink pots.

5. Name one of Zola’s books you would recommend others to read! Or if you haven’t read him, which book would you like to start with?

As a gentle introduction to Émile Zola’s work I’d suggest The Ladies Paradise because though it is part of the Rougon-Maquart series, it can be read as a stand alone. It also has multiple strands which could appeal to different interests. You could read it as a romance; a relationship between a lowly shop girl and a successful wealthy businessman. Or you could focus on how it shows Paris as a city of change and the creation of grandiose boulevards and open spaces. Or you could find the theme of social change interesting, particularly the rise of consumerism and new practices in retailing that are still in use today (sales, advertising, goods returns etc).

For something more meaty i would go with The Dram Shop (L’Assommoir); a stark novel about the effects of alcoholism and poverty in the working-class districts of Paris. In Gervais Macquart, a washerwoman whose attempts to improve her life are continually thwarted, Zola has created an unforgettable character. The novel also has some of Zola’s best set pieces.

6. You are invited in one of Zola’s soirees (Zola’s famous literary dinners of Naturalism writers) at Médan tonight. You may listen to all the conversation/discussion, but you’re only allowed to suggest one topic – what would that be?

The last thing I’d want to talk about is naturalism — far too taxing a topic at a social event. I’m more interested in finding out what happened in 1898 when Émile Zola made an escape from Paris rather than go to prison for his incendiary criticism of the government’s stance in the Dreyfus affair. He and his family were in hiding a London suburb for about eleven months, moving between hotels and houses. All the time Zola fretted about the future of his country and its descent into barbarism and racism.

7. What is your least favourite book from Zola?

So far it has to be His Excellency Eugene Rougon (Son Excellence Eugène Rougon) which follows the ups and downs in the career of an ambitious politician. It has some interesting themes about lobbying and corruption in the political world that would sound familiar to us today. But the novel suffers from a surplus of detailed information about all the different branches of government and too many characters.

8. Have you read any book/work by other authors about Zola? Biography, companion book, essay, historical fiction, etc. Share them, please! (It may inspire others). If you haven’t, would you like to?

Zola and the Victorians by Eileen Horne is a fascinating account of how some of Zola’s most famous titles were put on trial for obscenity in London in 1888.

9. Of the Rougons, the Macquarts, and the Mourets, which family do you like best? Why? (wrong-answers are acceptable 😜)

Definitely not the Rougons — they are too full of their own importance. I don’t know that I can say I *like” the Macquarts but they do capture my interest the most because their lives are so full of drama.

10. Your favourite Zola’s quote(s) ?

This one from L’Assommoir is not the most cheery of quotes but it’s one that catches me in the throat every time I read it:

Death had to take her little by little, bit by bit, dragging her along to the bitter end of the miserable existence she’d made for herself. They never even knew what she did die of. Some spoke of a chill. But the truth was that she died from poverty, from the filth and the weariness of her wretched life.

A Recommendation

I hope I’ve done enough to persuade some of you to give Zola a try, Take care which edition you buy — some are far superior to others. My preference is always for the Oxford World Classics editions. Not only do they have wonderful cover artwork often drawn from paintings, the introductions are insightful, particularly in explaining Zola’s theories of naturalism and self-determination.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

19 thoughts on “10 Questions On Reading Émile Zola

  • I definitely, definitely want to read some (more) Zola (I’ve only read Nana so far). Au Bonheur des Dames and L’Assommoir are on the list as good places to jump back in!

    • I haven’t got to Nana yet. Her mother is the main character in L’Assommoir so that might be a good place to go next Elle

  • The Ladies Paradise is on my radar now, thank you. Heaven knows when I’d get to it, though!

    • I know the feeling. I keep a list of books that I have seen mentioned by other bloggers that I want to read – it gets longer by the day

  • I’ve been working through this series in French with a friend since January 2022. We are currently reading La Terre (The Land I guess is the title in English). We are loving this series so much. It has instructed us superior storytelling and unforgettable descriptions. Since we started reading this seriesI have not stopped talking about this series. I’m so happy to be taking on this reading project in French. We are reading in publication order and that has been just fine for us. I’m so happy to read this post and will do my own version of it. I’m going to follow the person who started this tag as well. I’m also going to read the book about Zola if I can get my hands on a copy or maybe go with a Kindle edition. Thanks for this lovely post. It made my morning. I regularly keep up with your posts. I just don’t comment. This one made me respond.😍

    • Hi Didi, so glad to meet a fellow Zola fan! I haven’t got as far as La Terre yet but I’m led to believe its one of his best.

  • This is great!
    I have read and studied several, but one day, I want to read/listen to them all in order

    • The BBC did a radio dramatisation starring Glenda Jackson a few years ago. Sadly it was an abridged version but the bits I heard were fabulous. You can get it on Audible I think

  • I have never read a word of Zola, so I’m very pleased to have this introduction and the recommendation to start with The Ladies Paradise. Thanks!

    • Hope you enjoy Ladies Paradise Kim. If you find you don’t much care for Zola, don’t worry – he is not to everyone’s taste

  • J’Accuse by Emile Zola was the one I was introduced to while at school; he is too intense for me to continue with. Sorry, and thank you for sharing; have a great week.

    • Zola is a huge and pretty unforgivable gap in my reading education. You’ve piqued my interest, and this gap will start to be filled!

      • any ideas where you might begin? I wouldn’t recommend The Fortune of the Rougons as the starting book even though it is first in reading order and explains the different branches of the family

        • I suspect I may begin with whatever the library offers up. Let’s see …

  • I bought the Oxford World Classics edition of Germinal last year, but haven’t managed to get to it yet. Zola is fairly high on my list of “authors I intend to read when I retire.”

    Retirement comes in September (hopefully).

  • Teresa Chatterton

    Great post! I love Zola but haven’t read him for ages – must revisit soon. For modern naturalism, death and poverty I’d recommend Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver – brilliant!

    • I’ve read The Poisonwood Bible but found it hard to engage with so haven’t been that keen to read more by her- it could just have been the wrong book at the time however and the one you mention is far better

  • I loved reading this! Germinal was my first too, and The Ladies Paradise was next because I saw the BBC series on TV. And then I read (and blogged) them all, over two years or so.

    • Your insights on the books are fabulous as always. You read them all in two years. Wow!


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