A Life of Zola

MR. VIZETELLY’S method in his life of Zola is in some respects that of an advocate rather than a judge; but it may be fairly claimed that the way to a right opinion of Zola lies just now through advocacy. The sub-title of this book prepares us for a pretty energetic defense of the man and his work from the ethical point of view. Readers of the Atlantic are, so far as his work is concerned, already acquainted with a more discriminating apologia at the hand of Mr. Henry James.2 The light shed upon the novelist’s private character will be a new light to most of us, and does not seem to be unduly colored by optimism or by discipular prejudice. The single irregularity which marked Zola’s later life is noted with proper frankness, and the knowledge of it will not, unless among the unco’ guid, fatally compromise the great Frenchman’s authority as a moral teacher. The total narrative, accepted at its face value, presents Zola not at all as that figure of personal grossness, that harsh impersonation of the bourgeoisie, that wallowing monster of indecent realism, which he is pictured in current AngloSaxon fable, but as a sturdy, intelligent, and (though in spite of himself) inspired reporter of life as he found it, — French life, French decadent life, if one chooses, but the only life to any contact with which he was exposed. That contact was, as Mr. James has suggested, not always close; he employed exactly the method of “getting up " subjects which in other hands has proved least fruitful; and his success in employing this got-up material, if not to the end of art, at least to the end of tremendously effective “human documents,” constitutes his chief claim to greatness.

There were dramatic, even melodramatic, accessories to that sudden publicity of his last days, whose flavor the Western palate can hardly relish. He was, nevertheless, a man in many respects after our own heart, as his conduct in the Dreyfus affair sufficiently showed. Mr. Vizetelly’s account of the incident is clear, and as full as it could well be under the circumstances. The task of exploring the Dreyfus affair in all its ramifications remains to be completed; and it is in excellent hands. The principles involved, we already agree, were of more than local or momentary importance; and Zola’s defense of them was more than an exploit in grandiloquence. An approximation of justice was all that he lived to see. “Dreyfus is free,” he mourned, while mere Dreyfusites wished to rejoice, “but France remains ill, feeling that she has not strength enough to bear the splendour of truth and justice. And yet I am hopeful, for I believe in her labour, in the power of her genius.” Such courage, such faith, belonged to this notorious pessimist, this brutal groveler of common report. Mr. Vizetelly does not note, as Mr. James has noted, the strange failure of the novelist’s genius to respond to the spur of this experience. The memory of it haunted but did not inspire him. Indeed, some virtue had gone out of him in the struggle; and his later novels, his Cities and his Evangels, are sadly inferior to Les RougonMacquart. The novelist had, indeed, consciously succumbed to the reformer. “I have no intention,” he wrote, apropos of certain English criticisms of Travail, “ of trying to amuse people or thrill them with excitement. I am merely placing certain problems before them, and suggesting in some respects certain solutions, showing what I hold to be wrong and what I think would be right. When I have finished these ‘Evangiles,’ when Vérité and Justice are written, it is quite possible that I shall write shorter and livelier books. Personally I should have everything to gain by doing so.” Mr. Vizetelly apparently does not see how seriously this attitude compromised the value of Zola’s later work. He is indulgent even toward Vérité, that monumentally dull work upon which the Dreyfus experience had a more than negative influence for ill. The great novelist’s death does not seem to have been, all things considered, untimely.

The critical portions of the book are of value, though not of conclusive value. It might be expected that the English translator of Zola would have his texts somewhat too closely at his fingers’ ends for the formation of a clear critical opinion of them. Mr. Vizetelly possesses such an opinion. His analysis of the RougonMacquart series is especially distinct and reasonable. About Zola’s short stories he has an admirable and quotable passage: “Placed beside the tales of Guy de Maupassant, those of Zola, in spite of all their naturalism, of their details, strike one as being more romantic, more imaginative; and this is as it should be, for Zola was largely a child of the sun, whereas Maupassant, however passionate his temperament, was always a Norman, deficient in the purely imaginative faculty, but possessed of great shrewdness — intuition, so to say — which assisted his powers of observation and his superb craftsmanship.” The biographer does not claim too much for Zola as an artist; but one must think that if the word can be applied in no sense to the author of L’Assommoir and La Débâcle, it is become a trifling word to conjure with.

H. W. B.

  1. Émile Zola: Novelist and Reformer. By ERNEST ALFRED VIZETELLY. Illustrated by Portraits, Views, and Facsimiles. London and New York: John Lane. 1904.
  2. Émile Zola. By HENRY JAMES. The Atlantic Monthly, August, 1903.