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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.

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