Emile Francois Zola was born in Paris in 1840. His father died when he was 3 leaving his mother on a small pension. She wanted Zola to have a law career but he failed his Baccalaureate exam.
Zola started writing in his teens and whilst working in the sales department of a publisher his autobiographical novel ‘La Confession de Claude’ was published (1865). This resulted in getting him sacked due to the police interest in the novel.
At the age of only 28 he began planning a series of novels which he described as “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 all 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.” These 20 novels (known as the Rougon-Macquart novels) contain over 300 major characters.
With the publication of his 9th novel in 1877 he became wealthy, and a figurehead amongst the literary bourgeoisie of Paris. He socialized with other writers at his luxurious home and famously criticised the French Government over their handling of The Dreyfus affair.
He died at the age of 62 from carbon dioxide poisoning (blamed on a chimney at his home) in 1902, leaving behind 27 novels, 3 plays and various short stories. Years later a Parisian roofer claimed that he had closed the chimney for political reasons.
Critics have accused Zola of not having the power to create lifelike and memorable characters, but it was important to him that his characters did not appear larger than life. He had an unshakeable belief in human progress, science and optimism. All of which are prevalent in his work.
“If I cannot overwhelm with my quality, I will overwhelm with my quantity.”
“If you ask me what I came to do in this world, I, an artist, will answer you: I am here to live out loud.”
“From the moment I start a new novel, life’s just one endless torture. The first few chapters may go fairly well and I may feel there’s still a chance to prove my worth, but that feeling soon disappears and every day I feel less and less satisfied. I begin to say the book’s no good, far inferior to my earlier ones, until I’ve wrung torture out of every page, every sentence, every word, and the very commas begin to look excruciatingly ugly. Then, when it’s finished, what a relief! Not the blissful delight of the gentleman who goes into ecstasies over his own production, but the resentful relief of a porter dropping a burden that’s nearly broken his back . . . Then it starts all over again, and it’ll go on starting all over again till it grinds the life out of me, and I shall end my days furious with myself for lacking talent, for not leaving behind a more finished work, a bigger pile of books, and lie on my death-bed filled with awful doubts about the task I’ve done, wondering whether it was as it ought to have been, whether I ought not to have done this or that, expressing my last dying breath the wish that I might do it all over again!”
“Nothing is more irritating than to hear honest writers protest about depravity when one is quite certain that they make these noises without knowing what they are protesting about.”
Trailer for the 1937 film on Zola
I’m ashamed to say that the only novel I’d heard of that was written by Zola was ‘Germinal’ until I researched him for the challenge. I didn’t realise he had written so many novels!
I love the fact that Zola, even after all his success, 29 published novels, and critical acclaim, still felt that his writing was crap! I can really relate to that…Can you?