BOOKS LIVES: Engineer of human souls

ZOLA: A Life by Frederick Brown, Macmillan pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
"IF I undertake a literary career," wrote mile Zola at the age of 20, "I want to follow my motto: 'All or Nothing!'" What Zola eventually achieved makes "all" sound distinctly modest. By the time he died at the age of 62 in 1902, he had become perhaps the world's best- known contemporary writer, the author of 46 books, many of them masterpieces, written at extraordinary speed and tackling head-on a range of the most vital and often contentious issues of his age.

It seems appropriate that this gigantic literary figure should have given rise to a gigantic biography. Frederick Brown's masterful, 800-page work may be long, but it is never tiring. It guides us elegantly through everything there is to know about Zola, and does so with novelistic energy and drive.

What emerges from Brown's account is that Zola's success as a writer was in part the result of his dissatisfaction with many of the traditional requirements for being one. For a start, he did not like the idea of being poor, and worked hard, and without qualms, at making himself rich. Having been employed in the publicity department of Hachette in his youth, he was an expert at self-promotion, often asking friends to write articles for papers attacking his work ineptly, so that he could reply with brilliant counter-attacks. He wrote prodigiously for newspapers, covering every area of French life, from the mores of youth to the delights of springtime: "I regard journalism as a very powerful lever and do not in the least mind having to produce myself on an appointed day before a considerable number of readers," he asserted. As a result, he was able to set himself up in bourgeois comfort in a house outside Paris, surrounded by monumental gilded furniture (according to one witness, the fireplace in his study was "big enough for roasting a whole sheep").

Brown also draws our attention to Zola's dislike of the sheltered artistic life unfolding in a metaphoric ivory towers. The new age of railways and factories, of iron and steel required a new kind of writer, a writer who would be akin to a scientist. The truths that science had not yet uncovered, literature would sketch out. At the age of 28, Zola announced a plan for a series of books rivalling Balzac's monumental Comedie humaine, one which would, in quasi-scientific form, chart the whole of French society via the fortunes of one family. The outcome was the 20 volumes which Zola completed over the next 25 years, the famous "Rougon-Macquart" series which included his masterpieces, Germinal, Nana and L'assommoir.

Zola loved machines. His idea of the most beautiful object imaginable was a locomotive made out of diamonds, and he saw society as a giant engine, which he, the writer-scientist, would take apart and study. Each novel tackled a new area: he chewed off the railways, prostitution, the stock market, the mines, religion, the countryside, these subjects treated only after lengthy, detailed research which required trips down mines, interviews with shop girls, prostitutes and bankers. Asked in a questionnaire what he hated most in life, Zola answered, "Not to know" - and the results of this hatred are clear.

Brown traces the degree to which Zola was influenced by Hippolyte Taine's dictum that no great novelist should lack a philosophy or system: and Zola's, broadly speaking, was "realism". In his journalism, he fought bitterly against esca- pist entertainment, which in his day meant the boulevard theatres of Offenbach and Alexandre Dumas. Zola wanted literature unflinchingly to reflect contemporary realities. In a preface to L'assommoir, he announced, with his customary lack of modesty: "This is a work of truth, the first novel about the people which does not lie and which carries the smell of the people." His defence of the Impressionist painters was partly based on his enthusiasm for their subject matter, for they were painting everyday subjects representative of the brave new world: the cafes, boulevards and railway stations of Baron Haussmann's Paris. There was a certain machismo to Zola's realistic ambition. "You know what effect Monsieur Manet's canvases produce at the Salon?" asked Zola. "They punch holes in the wall." He called Manet a "man among eunuchs", which was what Flaubert was soon calling Zola. When Zola's book Une page d'amour came out, Flaubert wrote to congratulate him: "Several times while reading it, I stopped to envy you and reflect sadly on my own novel [Bouvard et Pecuchet] - my pedantic novel! which will not entertain as yours does. You're very much a male, but that's not news to me."

It is one of the pleasures of Brown's biography that he sets Zola in context; he gives us accounts of the careers of his acquaintances, Turgenev, Flaubert and the Goncourt brothers, and brings to life successive political upheavals, not only the legendary Dreyfus case, but also the Seige of Paris and the Commune.

Early in his career, Zola had declared that he had no interest in writing moralising tracts: literature for him should be scientific, and not a branch of ethics. Nevertheless, his work reflected only too clearly his anger at corruption and injustice. He had briefly considered a career in politics, but, as he was shy and a terrible public speaker, the energies that might have gone into a political life were diverted into books which bore certain of the moralising, world-changing ambitions of the politician. His defence of Captain Dreyfus in 1898 was not an isolated departure into the political sphere, but merely a continuation of a lifetime spent defending the causes of the poor and down-trodden (with whom he sympathised so much that it was often hard to tell whether he did not sometimes confuse his own plight with theirs: during the Dreyfus furore, Zola declared: "May my works perish if Dreyfus is innocent").

As ever in biographies, in Brown's work, we risk being surprised by what lay behind Zola's public mask. "You are doubtless aware that for 30 years I have been portrayed as an oaf, a plough horse with thick hide and coarse senses ponderously furrowing a straight line," Zola wrote to a doctor in later life, but explained that in reality he was "a flayed man affected by every passing breeze, who never undertakes his daily task except in anguish and accomplishes it only after waging constant war against self- doubt". Zola had an impressive range of tics and neuroses, which Brown much enjoys detailing. He couldn't enter his study without first touching a particular tabletop, or hail a cab without checking its licence number. He confessed to the Goncourt brothers that he wanted to sleep with "a young girl - not a child, but a girl who is not yet a woman"; middle-aged and married, he found a 21-year-old chambermaid to bear him two children.

As a literary figure, Zola induces a certain nostalgia. He had ambitions for the novel which now seem almost crude or impossibly bold. He conceived of it as the supreme medium in which to investigate human concerns, and combined this with a faith that the giant machine of society could handily be taken apart by him and investigated with appropriate scientific rigour. After Zola, after Freud, Proust, Musil and a few others, the ambition seems somewhat trickier.

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