Émile Zola

Émile Zola was born on April 2, 1840, in Paris, France. His father was an Italian engineer. Young Zola studied at the Collége Bourbon in Provence, where his schoolmate and friend was Paul Cezanne. In 1858 Zola returned to Paris and became a student at the Lycée Saint-Louis, from which he graduated in 1862. After working at clerical jobs, he began to write a literary column for a Parisian newspaper. Zola’s main literary work was “Les Rougon-Macquart”, a monumental cycle of twenty novels about Parisian society during the French Second Empire under Napoleon III and after the Franco-Prussian War.

Zola was the founder of the Naturalist movement in 19th-century literature. His medicinal approach in scrupulous description of the lives of ordinary people was based on the contemporary theory of hereditary determinism, which he used to demonstrate how genetic and environmental factors influence human behavior. His most notable novels, “L’assommoir” (1877), “Nana” (1880) and “Germinal” (1885), displayed Zola’s concerns of both scientific and artistic nature, as well as his stances on social reform. His life in the Parisian intellectual elite was that of a statesman and a bon vivant. He lived in a villa in Medan on the Seine and had a home in Paris. He was a political apprentice and follower of Victor Hugo in his stand against the corrupt monarchy of Napoleon III. Zola was among the strongest proponents of the Third Republic and was elected to the Legion of Honour. At the same time he was an important figure in the Parisian cultural milieu. He entered a circle of realist writers such as Edmond de Goncourt, Alphonse Daudet, Ivan Turgenev and Gustave Flaubert, his literary mentor and a close friend. After his novels brought him critical and financial success, Zola himself became surrounded by such followers as Guy de Maupassant and Paul Alexis, among others.

Zola shook the Parisian art world with his novel “L’Oevre” (“The Masterpiece”) in 1886. Its protagonist, named Claude Lantier, was actually an amalgam of several artists including Paul Cezanne, Edouard Manet and Claude Monet. Zola also portrayed himself and his friend and mentor Gustave Flaubert. However, the personality and artistic career of painter Paul Cezanne was shown with a closer resemblance, especially when it came to intimate personal characteristics. Zola and Cezanne were schoolmates and close friends from childhood, which gave the writer a wealth of material for the novel. Cezanne’s reticent personality, his self-doubt, his artistic anxieties and his more hidden sexual anxieties all came out in Zola’s narrative. He revealed Cezanne’s “passion for the physical beauty of women, and insane love for nudity desired but never possessed”, his almost misogynistic perception of the “satanic female beauty”, which affected his sexuality, and sublimated in his brush-strokes that he laid on his paintings. He showed Cezanne’s work on his numerous sketches of nudes and impressionistic bathers as an outlet to artist’s masculinity. He also hinted on Cezanne’s countless depictions of apples as a sublimation and displacement of the artist’s erotic interests. Zola used Cezanne’s inner struggles of artistic and sexual nature and the interdependence of his sexual and artistic anxiety, to show some intricate parts of an eternal conundrum where lies one of the mysterious sources of creativity. In Zola’s novel the artist fails to depict a perfectly beautiful nude, his wife has a baby that has a disfigured head and dies, then artist presents a painting of his dead child to the Salon, then artist commits suicide. In real life Cezanne, as a highly sensitive and refined individual, took Zola’s novel too personally. The book ended their life-long friendship. Even the wise and friendly comments by Claude Monet and Camille Pisarro failed to help their reconciliation. Zola’s powerful literary image had formed a lasting perception of Cezanne among his fellow artists, as well as among critics and public. Cezanne fled from the Parisian art world into a self-imposed isolation.

Zola risked his career in February of 1898, when he defended army Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer who was wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for treason. Zola accused the French government of anti-Semitism in an open letter to François Félix Faure, the President of France. Zola’s “J’Accuse” was published on the front page of the Paris daily “L’Aurore”. Zola declared that Dreyfus’ conviction was based on false accusations and forged “evidence” of espionage, which the court that convicted him knew was false, and was a misrepresentation of justice. Zola was brought to trial for libel for publishing “L’Accuse” and was convicted two weeks later, sentenced to jail, and removed from the Legion of Honour. Zola managed to escape to England. He returned during the collapse of the government and continued defending Dreyfus, who was imprisoned on the hellish penal colony in South America called Devil’s Island. France became deeply divided by the case, known as the Dreyfus affair. Zola stood together with the more liberal commercial society opposite the reactionary army and Catholic church. Zola’s open letter formed a major turning point in the Dreyfus affair. The case was reopened and Dreyfus was acquitted, then convicted again, but ultimately freed and completely exonerated by the French Supreme Court.

Zola’s strange and tragic death from carbon monoxide poisoning was caused by a stopped chimney and remained an unresolved mystery. His enemies were blamed, but nothing was proved. He died on September 29, 1902, in Paris, and was initially laid to rest in the Cimetiere de Montmartre in Paris. On June 4, 1908, Zola’s remains were laid to rest in the Pantheon in Paris, France.

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