Emile Zola as a Critic

ST. PETERSBURG is somewhat far afield to look for the latest sensation in the literary world, but so it is that the breeze which has set all Paris rustling and quivering blows from that distant north. During the last three years, Emile Zola has contributed a series of letters “ upon literature and life” to the Messenger of Europe, the leading periodical of Russia. Some of his subjects have had but a relative or momentary interest, though treated with all his strong and vivid individuality, while others, like the study of “ the French youth of to-day.” are precious mémoires pour servir for the future historian. But the real importance and significance of the correspondence are to be found in the masterly reviews and frank criticisms of contemporary French literature. More even than this, it includes an estimate of the work of his predecessors as well as of his rivals. It is nothing less than a formal opening of the great plea of realism versus romanticism. Zola has formulated the first deliberate pronunciamento of his party against the romantic school.

He has not only defined the position, the literary creed, of the realists, but he has for the first time clearly expressed their theory of the principles of their opponents, and their estimate of the value and permanence of the work of the romantic school. Hence, the letters, as they have gradually made their way back to Paris, are creating a stir nothing less than that of the days of the old struggle between classic and romantic, and it is not surprising that at this moment the dwellers on the French Parnassus are ranging themselves in two hostile camps. If, on the one side, there is the prestige of tradition, the dignities of the Academy and the Revue, and above all a leader, the doyen of the literary world, of whom not even the most extreme opponent will speak in aught but affectionate reverence, on the other side there is the eager strength of the new generation, and the incontestable and enormous success of such men as Daudet and Zola himself. The attitude of the English world at this moment towards Emile Zola may not inadequately be described as suspense of judgment. No one takes up his books without acknowledging their irresistible power, either to attract or to repel. The questions, then, whether one likes or dislikes his work, whether one believes that the principles upon which it is founded are enduring, are quite apart from the interest one must feel in the judgment of such a man upon his contemporaries. No one is yet ready to accept Zola definitively as a critic; yet equally no one can help listening to his verdict. Words which from another might seem querulous or jealous, the carping of disappointment, are from him but the frank expression of conscientious judgment. The triumph of his own success places him beyond the fear of rivals.

Besides separate sketches of such authors as Balzac, Hugo, Châteaubriand, George Sand, the brothers Goncourt, the letters have born the titles, Our Contemporary Poets, The Novelists of ToDay, Contemporary Drama, Daudet’s Nabob, Taine’s Last Volume.

The brief space of an article can do them no justice, for a criticism depends for its truth and power as much upon total effect as a picture or novel. One needs just as much to feel the atmosphere which no mere extracts can suggest. We shall not even attempt a resumé of his philosophic exposition of the theories of his own school. Of course to him his own “ brothers-in-arms ” are the “kings of romance;” but we turn from their brilliant portraits to names more familiar to most ears, and we choose for our brief extracts rather the bits which will best stand alone, the criticisms which have been most startling, and a few of the direct comments upon the romantic writers. Besides their own interest, they throw a new light upon Zola himself. They show him not as a cold, unsympathetic outsider, the rude exponent of a protesting reaction. He speaks rather as one who looks back upon the dreams outgrown of childhood, He has breathed that air, he has felt that charm.1

“ I remember my own youth. We were a few young boys in the heart of Provence, in love with nature and poetry. The dramas of Victor Hugo seemed to us like wonderful visions. After the close of school, I remember, ice-cold from the classic tirades we were obliged to learn by heart, we just warmed ourselves by committing whole scenes from Ernani and Ruy Blas. How often, on the shore of a little stream, after a long bath, we performed among ourselves whole acts! Then we fancied, Ah, if we could only see all that in the theatre! and it seemed to us that the roof rang with the ecstatic applause of the spectators. . . . We remember with what wonderful light shone the verses of Victor Hungo at their first appearance. It was like a new blossoming of our national literature. Lyric poetry was unknown to us. We had only the choruses of Racine and the odes of Rousseau, which now seem to us so cold and stilted. Hence the impression produced on cultivated youth was very deep, and this impression has not yet disappeared. It seems impossible that any new tree should grow in our literary soil within the shadow of the huge oak planted by Victor Hugo. This oak of lyric poetry spreads its branches to all the ends of the earth, covers all the land, fills the sky, and there is not a single poet who would not come to muse beneath and carry away in his ears the song of its birds. They are fated to repeat the music of this all-pervading voice. There is no room for other songs in the air. For the last forty years there is but one poetic language, — the language of Victor Hugo. When any epoch receives so deep and strong an impression, the next generation must suffer, and must make repeated efforts before it can free itself and attain the possibility of developing freely its own creative power.” Yet “ only as lyric poet is Victor Hugo absolute king. In drama and romance his influence was never strong, and now is nothing.” But here something stays the hand of Zola. It is not only the reverent loyalty which every Frenchman bears in his heart, but it is a closer personal feeling, born of those boyhood dreams, that prompts him. “ Obstacles of every kind prevent one’s speaking frankly one’s thought when frankness would be almost rudeness. Victor Hugo is still living, and surrounded by such an aureole of glory, after so long and brilliant a life as literary king, that the truth spoken in the face of that ancient autocrat would seem almost an insult. True, we are far enough from romanticism now. For the drama, at least, we are posterity, and may pronounce our judgment; but I think respect will close our lips while Victor Hugo is alive and can hear us. . . . They have reproached me personally, that I am an ungrateful son of romanticism. No, I am not at all ungrateful. I know that our elder brothers won a glorious victory, and we are bound by enthusiastic gratitude to Victor Hugo. But it angers me, and I begin to rebel, when partisans wish to bind French literature to romanticism. If you have won freedom, then permit us to use it. Romanticism was nothing else than a rebellion: it remains for us now to use the victory. The movement begun by you is continued by us. Is that wonderful? It is the law of humanity. We borrow your soul, but we do not wish your rhetoric.”

Next to Victor Hugo come Musset and Lamartine.

“ Alfred de Musset, still has worshipers. I speak not of readers, but of followers. . . . Of late, the women and young people have, as it were, discovered him anew. The Premières Poèsies and the Poèsies Nouvelles have been sold in great numbers. In the provinces, especially in the very small towns, not a single young woman, not a single youth, is without them. - . . Yet his early followers were few. Victor Hugo, then rising like a giant from his colossal pedestal of the island of Jersey, reigned supreme. Later, the followers of Musset raised their standard against the standard of the followers of Hungo. At the present time the arena is open.”

“ What surprises me is the oblivion now surrounding all Lamartine. He stood first: when the Meditations appeared, it seemed to every one a voice had sounded from heaven. Romantic poetry was popular at that epoch. He was its prophet, its true founder. What ecstasy he awoke ! I have only to turn to my own youthful recollections to find the place which Lamartine held in the heart. He was the universal favorite. It was so sweet to dream with him. We were in raptures over Victor Hugo, but we loved Lamartine. For him were all the women, and they admitted him even to the pension and the convent. He lay under the pillow, and opened to the purest souls the path of ideal love. His very name, so soft, was like a caress. And what! they have ceased to read this man ! ... I know not if he still keeps the love of young girls in the pension and the home, but I suspect he is exiled and gone. He is never mentioned in literary conversations. I do not meet his name once a month in the journals; finally, his works sell very badly. This oblivion is not inexplicable. The poetry of Lamartine was simply and purely music, a melodious phrase. It soothed and charmed. As to its contents, they consisted of lament and of pathetic despair, uttered on the morrow after the great change produced by the Revolution and the wars of the first empire. You feel how much this music must have touched its contemporaries. Times have changed; we have entered the epoch of reality, and it is not surprising that now the indefinite reveries of Lamartine please no one. I am sure, besides, that few understand him. He is too far from us, too much in a cloud ; in a word, he no longer answers to the need of the soul of our time. Hence the silence surrounding his name and his works. . . . He has no successors. There is more talk and more imitation of Racine than of him. ’ ’

“ Alfred de Vigny is surely as forgotten as Lamartine.”

“ A still more characteristic silence reigns around the name of Beranger. If ever there were a popular poet, it was he. In the time of my youth, in the last days of the reign of Louis Philippe, I remember, his songs were sung everywhere.” With the second empire they grew old-fashioned, and are now completely gone. It must be so, since they were written for special time and place. “ But what is more surprising is that he has left no followers. In our day, the songs are from the authors of the vaude. villes, a wretched set, not even knowing what good spelling is. This explains the indecencies which are sung in the streets. All the stupidity of Paris has found a place in these silly verses.”

Théophile Gautier and Charles Baudelaire were “ the own sons of the men of 1830.”

“Gautier’s Emaux et Camées are a series of short poems, polished like precious stones, and showing the crystal transparency of agates and amethysts. . . . He died ten years ago, and indifference is already shown toward his books. . . . He had not, I repeat, enough original and strong notes.”

“ Baudelaire is a very dangerous model. He has even to this time a crowd of imitators.... In him one must see romanticism diabolic. Leconte de Lisle turned to stone in the classic pose. To Baudelaire remained the rôle of one possessed with a devil. And he began to seek beauty in evil, and, according to the expression of Hugo,’revealed a new shiver.’ ... I shall not speak of the affected eccentricities of his life; he became at the final end the victim of his own demoniac possession; he died young, of a nervous disease which deprived him of the memory of words. . . . All this is the same romanticism, only seasoned with satanic pepper.”

The group of young poets of to-day have known the romantic leaders through Gautier and Baudelaire. “ They are the grandsons of Hugo and Lamartine. We have reached the third generation. ... It is self-evident that these young men stand by themselves. Living at an epoch strongly opposed to poetry, which regards them with indifference and ridicule, they were obliged to separate themselves from every one, and to make of poetry an actual religion. . . . They were a band of illuminati, recognizing each other by masonic signs.” Like the Indian fakirs, the “ Parnassiens ” (as they were called) shut their eyes, in order not to be confused by the life around them. “ So they turned for subjects to mythical times, to the most remote regions. Each of them chose for himself a specialty. Some betook themselves to the Northern regions, some traveled to the East, a few went to Greece; at last, some even preëmpted the stars. Not one at the beginning, apparently, suspected that Paris exists; that in the streets are passing fiacres and omnibuses ; that the contemporary world, broad and mighty, is hurrying along the sidewalks with them.”

“ In poetry no creative talent has appeared since Lamartine, Musset, and Hugo. All our poets, without exception, are inspired by these three predecessors. Apart from them nothing is done. . . . Wherefore it seems to me that the great poet of the future must sweep away all the æsthetics of the present moment. I think that he will be thoroughly of the time; that he will develop the realistic idea in all its purity. He will express our age in a new language, which he himself will create. And without being a prophet, I trust we have not long to wait for him, for the efforts which our young poets are making to leave the wornout forms prove the profound revolution which is preparing. We see in them the harbingers. It may be the master is in the midst of them, but he is still unknown. Be that as it may, we are ready to receive him with honor.”

Zola is more upon his own ground with the novelists than with the poets. Of course, the realists take all the honors; but it is remarkable that from all these pages one cannot infer his own personal career, his own individual work. With all his boldness, there is nothing of aggressive egotism.

“ Champfleury is still living, but alas, he is a leader without an army; and saying that he still lives, I ought to add that for literature he is dead, for it is long since he has written a single romance.” The realistic movement undertaken by Champfleury in 1848 was the first protest against triumphant romanticism. “ Unluckily, Champfleury, in spite of his undoubted talent, was not strong enough to carry the campaign to the end. The movement was destined to fail. It made a stir, but then the public went over to Flaubert and the brothers Goncourt, the true heirs of Balzac. Worse than all, Champfleury himself lost heart, seeing that his readers abandoned him. He ceased to write, and now lingers in veritable literary death, that terrible death — the worst of tortures for an author — of the aged and the forgotten.”

Of the group of writers who may be called followers of George Sand and Lamartine, Jules Sandeau is “ the veteran. He is one of the two novelists whom the Academy counts. Long since he gave up writing. He has altogether separated himself from active literary life. You meet him sometimes near the Academy, walking slowly, flânant, like a good bourgeois, with the air of a man not of this world. He is the sort of writer who pleases more than all women and young girls.”

“ The second novelist-Academician. Octave Feuillet, produced an actual furore. Twelve, fifteen years ago, in the full bloom of the empire, his romances reached the thirtieth thousand. He was then the fashionable novelist in the aristocratic world. He was honored at the Tuileries; the empress regarded him with great favor, and consulted him as to the choice of books for reading. . . . All his originality consisted in making himself the advocate of duty and morality, where De Musset and George Sand defended passion. He was called, maliciously enough and truly enough, ' Le Musset des families.’ Now, it is true, he ventures to show that he does not shrink from hazardous pictures, and he writes books which mothers would not place in the hands of their daughters. But I have my own view about the so-called morality of fashionable novels. I believe that this morality is all woven from immorality, and that nothing can be more hurtful to heart and mind than the hypocritical distortion of truth and the jesuitical treatment of passions restrained by the sense of propriety. . . . Latterly, his success is materially less. France has experienced a shock, the times have changed, and the favorite author of the Empress Eugénie has been thrown off the track. . . . None the less Octave Feuillet remains the stay of the Revue des Deux Mondes, and the sole representative of French romance in it.

. . . The Revue finds itself in a strange position, not choosing, or not being able, to draw to itself the novelists of the natural school; and in view of the undoubted success of these latter preferring to remain outside the literary movement, and to put forward second and third rate novelists. I venture the comparison. Only the pale setting sun of Octave Feuillet illumines it.” . . .

“ The Academy counts but two novelists, while there are four dramatists. This is an unfair proportion, for the theatre in our time is absolutely nothing. On the other hand, the romance holds the first place in literature. All the mind of our time is concentrated upon the romance, and this form will remain the characteristic of the literature of the nineteenth century, as tragedy and high comedy characterize the seventeenth.

. . . Ought not Flaubert, ought not Edmond de Goncourt, to have been long, long ago Academicians? . . . The Academy wiil be forever blamed that it did not admit Balzac, and it is preparing to repeat its mistake. Like the Revue, it is gradually withdrawing itself from the literary movement. . . . But I fear much lest on the day when the Academy chooses a novelist, it will choose Cherbuliez, the immediate pupil of George Sand. Cherbuliez is the second stay of the Revue, and it is notorious that this journal makes a specialty of manufacturing Academicians. Buloz paid his contributors poorly, but he flattered them with the perspective of an academic fauteuil where they might sit in their old age. Cherbuliez has not produced such a furore as Feuillet, still he is much beloved of ladies. . . . All his heroines are angels going through hell or through purgatory, — ill-fated dames or incomprehensible damsels, whose virtues finally triumph over all. Of course, the intrigue is of the most romantic sort; nature serves only as a background with poetic shadows.”

“André Theuriet is the last idealist, and his work is modeled after George Sand; but I gladly forgive him, for the sake of the delicate, graceful fancy of his sketches. Neither he nor Perret have an extensive sale for their books, notwithstanding their connection with the Revue. What becomes, then, of the pretensions of the Revue that it assures the success of the romances which it prints? The truth is the Revue never brings a writer into favor with the public. It is necessary to make conquest of the public itself by one’s own talent.”

“ So the idealists at present have one gentle recruit and two lame generals like Feuillet and Cherbuliez. I do not mention Victor Hugo. One must always make a special place for him. Besides, he does not write romances; he writes poems in prose. His influence counts for nothing in the present movement in literature. So the idealistic romance is crumbling and falling to dust. One can foresee the day when it will die an actual death for want of romanciers. I do not see among the rising generation a single writer who is worthy to wear the mantle of George Sand. I see, on the contrary, a whole train of young writers ready to follow in the path marked out by Balzac. For them there is a future, for them life. Not ten years will pass before their position will be clearly defined, and nothing left but to acknowledge the complete success of the naturalistic school.”

Of two or three men “ somewhat apart from the strife ” between the two schools, Zola says, —

“ I often think with wonder of Edmond About. As he writes he continually offers the public surprises. We remember his début in the bloom of the empire, his first brilliant appearance as a novelist. Without taking breath, one book followed another: Madelon, to me his best work; two fantasies, provoking bitter criticism, L'Homme à l’Oreille Cassée and Le Cas de M. Guérin; then his endless work in three thick volumes, La Vieille Roche, where all his talent somehow evaporated, and only the dregs were left. And at that the matter ended; the romancier in him suddenly died. Since that work, ten years ago, About, it seems, has given nothing to his publisher. He married, grew stout; for some years nothing was heard of him. It might have been thought he was dead. At present he is the chief editor of the Dix-Neuvième Siècle, and makes a good deal of money out of it. Sometimes it seems that he wields the gallant pen of the old happy time. . . Be that as it may, I know no stranger story in our contemporary literature: a man beginning as a writer so brilliantly, whose chief qualities were activity and productiveness, suddenly ceases to write, as if he had said himself out, and had nothing more to say. I have sought an explanation of this fact, and it seems to me the great misfortune of About is that he does not believe in anything, not even in literature. Besides, the political horizon was dark. It was impossible to guess the future. About, with his liberal tendencies, remained the friend of Prince Napoleon on all occasions. In the storm of 1870 he disappeared from the scene. Now he has reappeared as a republican. But if the polemist has risen again, although a little softened and aged, the romancier has gone down in the confusion irretrievably. Upon him may be made up the final judgment. He was above all a story-teller. It was too plain that he himself did not believe in his heroes; he set them dancing at the end of his pen to amuse others and to amuse himself. You always felt that the author was hidden behind the page, and laughing. This absence of conviction gave great lightness to the work, but it took away from it all depth. The analysis seemed superficial; the work was read lightly and forgotten. About has not left one single type, not one strong and positive page. He was full of ardor. He was a story-teller who, waking once in the morning, set himself to talk and to beguile everybody; afterwards, laying himself down to sleep at evening, he blew out his light forever.”

“Madame Thérése and Le Conserit are pleasant trifles, but nothing more. It was unlucky that Erckmann-Chatrian did not follow the example of About. Unfortunately, success only increased their productiveness.” The later work “is all bad, absolutely nothing.” “ The greater the enthusiasm, the greater the reaction; nobody talks of them now.” “ The last stir made by them was at the production of L’Ami Fritz, at the Théâtre Français. I value the piece highly for the realistic note which it has struck in the theatre.” In line with them is Jules Verne. “ You see his books in the hands of all children, in all family libraries, which explains their large sale. Beyond that they have no significance in contemporary literature. Primers and almanacs are sold in just such immense quantities.”

“ Gustav Droz was the painter of an artificial society playing at graceful vices, in the same fashion as the eighteenth century played at pastorals. The chief merit of the artist is that he has thrown off silhouettes which certainly will remain as the best data for the study of the society of the second empire. They reproach him for dipping his brush in rice-powder. Doubtless so, but still his right to fame is just this: that he alone has presented the picture of an elegant household in 1867.”

The successors of Dumas père and Eugène Sue are the feuilletonists, a class of writers no longer of the first rank, since the naturalistic school will not submit to the inexorable " To be continued.” We have scarcely room for the bare mention of the article on Taine’s last volume of Les Origines. The purely literary criticism is striking, but it is startling to read the outspoken charge that Taine was so terrified by the Commune that he cannot be just to either the motives or the acts of the men of the Revolution.

We close with one paragraph from the review of the Nabob, for the sake of the description of the modern romance: “ Evidently the romance with us has entered upon a period of triumph such as it never knew even in the time of Balzac. It may be said that the two great currents of our age, the scientific research for which Balzac made the beginning, and the artistic rhetoric created by Hugo, have become one. The romantic element has lived its life; history begins. I speak of the universal history of man, of the significant pile of human documents [sic] heaped up at the present time in the realistic romance. What a mass of facts, of observations, of documents of every kind, are scattered, for instance, in the Nabob; with what strong pulse life beats in them! At the present time the romance has become the instrument of the age, the great investigation of man and of nature.”

Clara Barnes Martin.

  1. It will be remembered that the text has undergone translation from French into Russian, and thence into English. The faithfulness of the English may be depended upon, but it would be surprising if the force of the figures and the style of the original suffered nothing in the double translation. Exact corresponding terms cannot always be found. “ Novelist " is not satisfactory for “ romancier,”etc. It is to he hoped that a French edition will appear before long.