The Debacle

Michael Rosen
The Disappearance of Émile Zola: Love, Literature and the Dreyfus Case
Pegasus Books, 2017

If we can’t place the words precisely in time, still many of us remember the electrifying phrase, “J’Accuse…” headlining an old French newspaper and set into facsimile in our high school History textbooks. The man who wrote those famous words and gave them their crucial moral heft was French novelist Émile Zola (1840–1902). As a writer, Zola was distinctive for his naturalism, a mode of fiction-writing he helped pioneer. An atmosphere of empiricism is present, and indeed, occasionally made explicit in his work, as in the subtitle of his Les Rougon-Macquart cycle of novels. The conditions of miners and other laborers is given specificity, undergirded by the latest socio-economic analyses, which Zola devoured. Those facts, and Zola’s hypotheses as to their underlying causes, were in turn represented by the novelist in harrowing situations—pitting capitalists against the working classes, revolutionaries against moderate reformers—as in the disastrous mine collapse in his masterpiece, Germinal. In Michael Rosen’s brisk new book, The Disappearance of Émile Zola, the British poet and professor gives a spirited account of the year of Zola’s life he spent hiding in England, following the publication of “J’Accuse…”

“J’Accuse...,” included as an appendix, is a ferocious, full-throated letter addressed to French President Félix Faure, which was printed in the pages of the socialist newspaper, L’Aurore. In it, Zola accused several prominent generals of miscarriage of justice, and condemned Faure for providing an atmosphere in which such a moral catastrophe could occur. Faure, who would die “in the arms of his mistress” during Zola’s exile, had, in his role as President, been the de facto leader of the “anti-Dreyfusards,” a group that Zola felt to be symptomatic of a greater decay of French culture, morality, and politics. By accusing the government directly of anti-Semitism and xenophobia, and by taking the side of the rich, Jewish, wrongfully-imprisoned Artillery Captain Alfred Dreyfus (it had been alleged he passed French military secrets to the Germans), Zola fomented the major political scandal of the French Third Republic, and in so doing, upturned the equanimity of his personal life. In certain ways, this was characteristic of Zola. Born in Paris to an Italian father, Zola had made a celebrated, internationally-recognized career by bringing to light systemic injustice, forcing these conditions into the public space with compelling words, rich characterization, and high drama. In writing “J’Accuse…,” however, Zola did not employ the mask of fiction. His words were delivered at his own peril. As Rosen writes: 

From a literary point of view, at first glance there doesn’t seem to be much of a correspondence between the Zola of Thérèse Raquin and Germinal, and this new Zola. The old Zola didn’t try to right the wrongs of the world in his novels: he [merely] exposed the plight of the poor and downtrodden.

Following swiftly on the heels of the letter’s publication in January 1898, Zola was convicted of libel and expelled from the Légion D’Honneur. In the summer of that year, he left by night for England, facing myriad uncertainty: personal, political, literary, and legal. It would be an unfathomed exile in England, the hope of his return to France a matter of utter speculation and fancy; and it was dependent wholly on the prosecution of the Dreyfus question. 

Much of the narrative of The Disappearance of Émile Zola consists of a play-by-play of Zola’s exile, reconstructed primarily through Zola’s personal correspondence, with helpful embellishments from newspaper articles. In his letters we discover a mildly superstitious, emotionally needy, and perpetually doting father, who is concerned for his son’s academic rank and his piano lessons, with his daughter’s spelling mistakes and self-care, and crucially, for managing the domestic “ménage,” which, by the time of his exile in England had been in full stride for ten years.

With his legal wife, Alexandrine, Zola had no children. It was with the woman whom Alexandrine had hired as a housekeeper years before, Jeanne Rozerot, that the novelist had created a family and had two children. Wherever Zola and Alexandrine went, Jeanne and the children were kept in lodgings nearby. This arrangement, which for several years had been kept secret from Alexandrine, inevitably came to light, and during Zola’s exile presented serious practical and emotional challenges for the family, not the least of which was keeping it all from the public eye. But along with the attendant embarrassments, heartaches, emotional missteps, in Zola’s non-traditional family, there came opportunities for deep love, mutual and abiding support, and tacit, if real acknowledgement in the happiness they had managed to forge with their “domestic arrangement,” however painful for Alexandrine the reality may have been. 

Zola’s time in England, filled with cankers though it was, had provided him an opportunity to fight against the “tedium and bitterness of exile” by conceiving and beginning to execute on a new series of novels, with a distinctly spiritual, even utopian, flavor. This dovetailed naturally with the prevailing political discourse that the Dreyfus Affair had called into being. As Rosen writes:

This new politics [influenced by Zola] was combining ideas that were internationalist, against poverty, against injustice and against what we now call racial discrimination—four ideas that hadn’t always sat together in one worldview.

What Rosen’s account lacks in outright suspense, it makes up for in diligence. Rosen includes Zola’s photography (he was an early and technically-proficient acolyte), and many letters to family, close friends, lawyers, and his literary cohort. Readers will find a portrait of a father who was doting and often generous, if stern and exacting; a voice for the public conscience who sought continually to act with moral bravery, who yet had many cankers in his mind, some of which were truly menacing, and others, like the “triangular arrangement” between himself, Alexandrine, and Jeanne, which were in no small measure a product of his own behavior and choices. This is not a hagiography, of course, but the story of a man in full; four years after Zola died, it should be mentioned, Alfred Dreyfus was fully exonerated, and returned to his military career, with a promotion. Michael Rosen’s handsomely-written new book depicts with candor and vivacity the lengths at which one great artist fought for moral clarity, to “dare to tell the truth, as I have pledged to tell it, in full,” (as he had written in “J’Accuse…”) against the tides of racism and xenophobia that had swept the French society from the bourgeoisie to those who held the levers of power directly.

Contributor

Allen Guy Wilcox

ALLEN GUY WILCOX was born in Cooperstown, NY, and grew up on his parents’ farm in the Mohawk Valley. He has lived in Brooklyn since 2005.

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