In the current culture, a male artist with a distasteful event in his life is someone whose books or films or pictures shouldn’t be seen or read any more. I wonder, then, how our culture ought to judge a writer like Emile Zola.
If you’ve heard of Zola, the chances are it’s because of the Dreyfus Affair. Alfred Dreyfus was a French Jewish artillery officer who was convicted of treason in 1895 after a brief and secret court martial. He was forced to endure a ‘formal degradation ceremony’ in front of all his officers and then sent to Devil’s Island for solitary life imprisonment on what amounted to a very hot rock in the middle of the ocean. It was a terrible punishment, excessive at the least, full of needlessly cruel humiliations and deprivations. In the years that followed, and after a change at the head of the French military intelligence, Lt Col. Georges Picquart discovered that Dreyfus had been condemned on forged evidence, and found proof that the real spy in the army had been a Major Esterhazy. The thing was, Dreyfus was Jewish; he was already an outsider and an easy target of prejudice. He had solved the problem of a traitor in the ranks so admirably that the army authorities closed ranks and refused to listen to Picquart, exiling him to Tunisia and even trying to send him on what would have been a suicide mission. With terrific integrity, Picquart resisted all attempts to gag him. He travelled secretly back to France and met with a group of Dreyfus sympathisers, among them Emile Zola, and told them everything he had discovered.
Zola was so outraged by all he heard that he decided to risk his career and his freedom for the cause. He wrote an open letter to the President of France for the daily paper, L’Aurore in January 1898 entitled J’Accuse, in which he accused the highest levels of the military of conspiracy and anti-semitism. He knew he would be taken to court for defamation, but actively encouraged this, knowing that his trial would force the army to show its hand to the nation. No longer could they keep the truth of the ‘evidence’ behind Dreyfus’ conviction out of the public domain.
Zola was really taking his chances. The French nation was deeply divided between the nationalistic right and the Catholic church, and a rising tide of more liberal thought. But what he was also taking on was the entitlement of the patriarchy to be unquestioningly right. The army was absolutely determined not to admit its mistake, nor the full extent of the efforts they had made to convict an innocent man, and on the whole, the state and the legal system were inclined to support them. If it became public knowledge that the army could be so wrong, where would the rot stop? Other great institutions might be challenged too. Antisemitism was a normal way of life, not a monstrous injustice. Jews were perceived in this era as being either rich, and therefore fair game (Dreyfus came from a wealthy family), or a part of those damned hard-working immigrant band attempting to take bread from the mouths of native French people. It was okay to hate them because they were thought to have powers – of wealth through banking, of intelligence, ability and assiduity. For Zola to speak out so loudly and publicly against ingrained prejudice was an extremely courageous act – it was a great deal more than anyone else had been prepared to do. And for this he was stripped of his Legion d’Honneur and sentenced to a year in prison.
But he made a difference. It was the turning point of the Dreyfus affair and although it would drag on for many more years (it was 1906 before Dreyfus received a full pardon), the crack in France’s armour of antisemitism had been broken open by Zola. Anatole France would later say of him: ‘he was a moment in the history of human conscience.’
But here’s the thing. Zola didn’t go to prison. Instead he chose exile, fleeing to London where he lived unhappily until the situation in France improved. And when he went to England, he arranged to bring not just his wife with him, but his mistress and their two children.
Oh yes, here we come to it, Zola was no saint among men. He had married a poor seamstress who couldn’t give him the children he so longed for. When Alexandrine confessed to him that she’d had a child before he married her, but had had to give her up, Zola tried to track the child down, only to find she had died several years before. Then, he fell in love with a servant in his household who gave him a son and a daughter. When his wife found out, it brought them to the brink of divorce.
Zola’s wife forgave him, and she allowed the situation to work. She was not thrilled about it, but she couldn’t part her husband from the children he loved. They remained married tor the rest of their lives, and nearly died together in 1902 when they were overcome during the night by carbon monoxide poisoning. Alexandrine survived the incident, her husband did not. It was always considered something of a mystery as no one could figure out how the carbon monoxide fumes had been trapped in their bedroom that night. After Dreyfus, Zola was the subject of death threats for the rest of his life and there were some concerns that his death had not been an accident. Meanwhile, his enemies maliciously (and doggedly) suggested that he had committed suicide, after realising that Dreyfus was guilty after all.
It wasn’t until 1953 that the French newspaper, Liberation, published an account of a death-bed confession dating back to 1927. A builder and staunch far-right nationalist claimed that he had killed Zola. He had been mending the roof of the next door house and taken the opportunity deliberately to block Zola’s chimney. The truth of this account remains under some uncertainty, due to the years that had elapsed before it was published. Some believe it to be proof that Zola was killed for his actions, some do not. We will probably never know.
So what are we to do with Zola? Where do we find the real man – in his messy private life, or in his courageous public stand? Here’s a few more considerations for you. Zola opened up some of the silenced, suffering parts of women’s lives, writing about prostitution, menstruation and childbirth, but didn’t really approve of women reading his novels. He fell out with his friend, Paul Cezanne, when he took offence at Zola’s novel, L’Oeuvre depicting a struggling artist in delicate mental health and his super-successful novelist friend. He did more than any other author for raising consciousness about the lives of the poor, who had up until then been viewed as figures of charming simplicity in bucolic landscapes by most literary authors. Zola showed their lives as they really were – brutal, ugly, short and thankless. And he made himself a wealthy man thanks to the enormous success of his work. So what do we think of him now, good guy or bad guy? Worth reading or cast into outer darkness?
Here’s the only thing I’m sure of: if that builder really did block Zola’s chimney, causing his death, then he just goes to show that in any national debate, intensity of feeling does not make a person right, or justify the means they take to eliminate points of view that feel intolerable.