About the Author

Portrait of Emile Zola

French novelist and critic, the founder of naturalist movement in literature. Zola redefined Naturalism as "Nature seen through a temperament." Among Zola's most important works is his famous Rougon-Macquart cycle (1871-1893), which included such novels as L'Assommoir (1877), about the suffering of the Parisian working-class, Nana (1880), dealing with prostitution, and Germinal (1885), depicting mining industry. Zola's open letter J'Accuse on January 13, 1898, reopened the case, where the Jewish Captain Alfred Dreyfus was sentenced to Devil's Island.

"I am little concerned with beauty or perfection. I don't care for the great centuries. All I care about is life, struggle, intensity. I am at ease in my generation." (from My Hates, 1866)

Emile Zola was born in Paris. His father was an Italian engineer, who had French the citizenship in 1862. Zola spent his childhood in Aix-en-Provence, southeast France. When he was seven, his father died, leaving the family with money problems - his mother was largely dependent on a tiny pension. In 1858 Zola moved with his mother to Paris. In his youth he became friends with the painter Paul Cézanne and started to write under the influence of the romantics. Zola's widowed mother planned for him a career in law. However, Zola failed his baccalaureate examination - as later did the writer Anatole France who failed several times but finally passed it. According to a story, Zola was sometimes so broke that he eat sparrows that he trapped on his window sill.

Before his breakthrough as a writer, Zola worked as a clerk in a shipping firm and then in sales department of the publishing house of Louis-Christophe-Francois-Hachette. He also wrote literary columns and art critics for the Cartier de Villemessant's newspapers. As a political journalist Zola did not hide his antipathy toward the French Emperor Napoleon III, who used the Second Republic as a springboard to become Emperor.

During his formative years Zola wrote several short stories and essays, 4 plays and 3 novels. Among his early books was Contes á Ninon, which was published in 1864. When his sordid autobiographical novel La Confession de Claude (1865) was published and attracted the attention of the police, Zola was fired from Hachette.

After his first major novel, Thérèse Raquin (1867), Zola started the long series called Les Rougon Macquart, the natural and social history of a family under the Second Empire. "I want to portray, at the outset of a century of liberty and truth, a family that cannot restrain itself in its rush to possess al the good things that progress is making available and is derailed by its own momentum, the fatal convulsions that accompany the birth of a new world." The family had two branches - the Rougons were small shopkeepers and petty bourgeois, and the Marquarts were poachers and smugglers and they had problems with alcohol. Some members of the family would rise during the story to the highest levels of the society, some would fall as victims of social evils and heredity. Zola presented the idea to his publisher in 1868.

"The Rougon-Macquart - the group, the family, whom I propose to study - has as its prime characteristic the overflow of appetite, the broad upthrust of our age, which flings itself into enjoyments. Physiologically the members of this family are the slow working-out of accidents to the blood and nervous system which occur in a race after a first organic lesion, according to the environment determining in each of the individuals of this race sentiments, desires, passions, all the natural and instinctive human manifestations whose products take on the conventional names of virtues and vices."

At first the plan was limited to 10 books, but ultimately the series comprised 20 volumes, ranging in subject from the world of peasants and workers to the imperial court. Zola prepared his novels carefully. The result was a combination of precise documentation, dramatic imagination and accurate portrayals. Zola interviewed experts, wrote thick dossiers based on his research, made thoughtful portrait of his protagonists, and outlined the action of each chapter. He rode in the cab of a locomotive when he was preparing La Bête Humaine (1890, The Beast in Man), and for Germinal he visited coal mines. This was something else than Balzac's volcanic creative writing process, which produced La Comédie humaine, an social saga of nearly 100 novels. The Beast in Man was adapted into screen first time in 1938. The director, Jean Renoir wrote the screenplay with Zola's daughter, Denise Leblond-Zola. In the film Séverine (Simone Simon) wants her lover, the locomotive engineer Lantier (Jean Gabin), to kill her stationmaster husband. Lentier, a honest and proud man, cannot do it, but in a fit anger and frustration he strangles her beloved instead and commits suicide by throwing himself off a fast moving train.

The appearance of L'Assommoir (Drunkard, 1877), a depiction of alcoholism, made Zola the best-known writer in France. He bought an estate at Médan and attracted imitators and disciplines. Inspired by Claude Bernard's Introduction à la médecine expérimentale (1865) Zola tried to adjust scientific principles in the process of observing society and interpreting it in fiction. Thus a novelist, who gathers and analyzes documents and other material, becomes a part of the scientific research. He did not much believe in the possibility of individual freedom but emphasized the importance of external influences on human development. His treatise, Le Roman Expérimental (1880), manifested the author's faith in science and acceptance of scientific determinism.

In 1885 Zola published one of his finest works, Germinal. It was first major work on a strike, based on his research notes on labor conditions in the coal mines. The book was attacked by right-wing political groups as a call to revolution. Nana (1880), another famous work of the author, took the reader to the world of sexual exploitation. Zola's tetralogy, Les Quatre Evangiles, which started from Fécondité (1899), was left unfinished.

Also notable in Zola's career was his involvement in the Dreyfus affair with his open letter J'Accuse. "In making these accusations, I am fully aware that my action comes under Articles 30 and 31 of the law of 29 July 1881 on the press, which makes libel a punishable offense," Zola wrote challenging. Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935) was a French Jewish army officer, who was falsely charged with giving military secrets to the Germans. He was transported to Devil's Island in French Guiana. The case was tried again in 1899 and he was found first guilty and pardoned and later the verdict was reversed. "The truth is on the march, and nothing shall stop it," Zola announced, but during the process he was sentenced in 1898 to imprisonment and removed from the roll of the Legion of Honor. He escaped to England, and returned after Dreyfus had been cleared.

Zola died on September 28, in 1902, under mysterious circumstances, overcame by carbon monoxide fumes in his sleep. According to some speculations, Zola's enemies blocked the chimney of his apartment, causing poisonous fumes to build up and kill him. At Zola's funeral Anatole France declared. 'He was a moment of the human conscience.' In 1908 Zola's remains were transported to the Panthéon. Naturalism as a literary movement fell out of favor after Zola's death, but his integrity influenced deeply such writers as Theodore Dreiser, August Strindberg and Emilia Pardo-Bazan.

Most author biographies courtesy of Author's Calendar. Used with permission.