Zola's English Exile

by Ben Leubner

It’s 2017, and 1984 is selling as well as it ever has. A colleague of mine recently published a short essay on what David Foster Wallace can teach us under our new Presidential administration, the likes of which his 1996 novel Infinite Jest anticipated. Another colleague has written about ‘reading Yeats in the Age of Trump.’ In a recent department meeting, my department’s Victorianist/Modernist (we’re a small department) said that he was drawn less to any relatively contemporary author than he was to Dante when it came to finding an appropriate literary context for the present political circumstances. Upton Sinclair’s It Can’t Happen Here was recently discussed in the London Review of Books, and there has even been a dramatic spike in sales of Hannah Arendt’s massive The Origins of Totalitarianism. In the midst of this newly discovered fervour for pertinent political literature, though, I have yet to hear anyone say anything about Émile Zola.

It seems we might profitably read and reread Zola’s 1898 broadside, ‘J’Accuse…!' just now. Jean France called it ‘a monument worthy of taking its place in the memory of mankind alongside the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen,’ the founding document of the French Revolution. It is no doubt one of the most incendiary pieces of journalism ever written. ‘What petty whims of a few higher-ups trampling the nation under their boots, ramming back down their throats the people’s cries for truth and justice, with the travesty of state security as a pretext.’ The entire front page of a popular Paris newspaper was given over to Zola’s letter to President Félix Faure, in which the famous novelist demanded that the national leader no longer ignore the political corruption that was practically oozing out of the state over the Dreyfus Affair. ‘In one fell blow,’ writes Zola biographer Alan Schom, ‘Zola had stung the public, the government, the Army, and the Church.’ ‘What a nest of vile intrigues, gossip, and destruction that sacred sanctuary that decides the nation’s fate has become!’ Zola levelled accusation after accusation against people whom he knew were in positions of power from which they could and almost certainly would come after him, which of course they did, forcing him into exile not unlike Dante, though Zola would return. ‘It is a crime to lie to the public,’ he wrote, ‘to twist public opinion to insane lengths.’ In the annals of one person standing up in the face of political corruption and calling to account those who are guilty, Zola can indeed claim pride of place with the likes of Dante himself. ‘It is a crime to exploit patriotism in the service of hatred,’ he insisted, words that perhaps ought to be on our lips on a daily basis 119 years later.

In the English speaking world, though, Zola has largely been forgotten; he is overshadowed by Flaubert on one side and Proust on the other. ‘Outside of France,’ writes Michael Rosen in The Disappearance of Émile Zola, ‘people tend to know little of Émile Zola’s life,’ or his work, it must be added. (The present reviewer does not wholly exclude himself from this defect, having read but two of the twenty novels that make up Zola’s naturalist Rougon-Macquart cycle, an exacting chronicle of French life at all levels, particularly the lower classes, though, during and just after the Second Empire.) But Zola was something of a prophet whose voice we might have good reason to heed presently. He foresaw things the very suggestion of which in Belle Époque France would have produced scoffs in many quarters. In fin de siècle Paris, in the midst of rampant and for the most part sanctioned anti-Semitism, Zola, Rosen notes, looked into the future and ‘foresaw, in the century to come, something terrible.’ ‘They will begin the century,’ Zola himself said, ‘by massacring all the Jews.’

It is common to read in studies of the World Wars that the Second World War really began just six months after the First one ended, in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, or even that the two wars were, in fact, one, with a generation-long cold spell between bouts of hot activity. It might also be argued, however, that the Second World War began some time before the First, with the Dreyfus Affair, at the heart of which lies ‘J’Accuse…!'

‘There had been some pretty shameful farces in nineteenth-century French legal history,’ writes Schom, ‘but the combined courtroom illegalities carried out by the Ministry of Justice and the French Army throughout the Dreyfus Affair and the Zola trial astounded the world and brought scorn upon France for years to come.’ Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer on the French Army’s general staff, was convicted of treason in January 1895 and sent to Devil’s Island, off the coast of South America, to serve a life sentence. As the months and then years went by, however, it became more and more evident that Dreyfus in all likelihood was innocent, and that he had been framed by a number of prominent figures within the French military. By the time Zola got involved, the affair had already divided France in half. One was either for Dreyfus or against him, and there was no middle ground; it was partisanship par excellence, and with the publication of ‘J’Accuse…!' the violence escalated exponentially, in both the press and the streets. ‘For France,’ notes Schom, ‘the years 1898 and 1899 stand out as among the most unpleasant and divisive since the Hundred Years’ War’ of the 14th and 15th centuries – so much for La Belle Époque.

Dreyfusards, those who thought Dreyfus innocent, were painted by the other side as unpatriotic lovers of Jews whose leftist ideologies threatened to unravel the fabric of French national identity. Anti-Dreyfusards, those who thought him guilty, were painted by their counterparts as hyper-conservatives whose anti-Semitism and blind worship of institutions of the state posed a far more severe threat to the integrity of the nation than that which they themselves were accused of. The Dreyfusards had truth on their side; the anti-Dreyfusards had authority and power on theirs. ‘The two sides,’ says Rosen, ‘were far from being united, unanimous, monolithic blocs, though at times it was in the interest of either side to characterise its opponent as precisely that.’

Dreyfus’s conviction was already three years old when Zola joined the fray with ‘J’Accuse…!' in which he demanded that there be a retrial and that those who were guilty of both the framing of Dreyfus and the subsequent cover-up (many of them named in Zola’s article, and all of them high-ranking government and military officials) be brought to justice. Up until this point, the debate surrounding Dreyfus had been a contentious affair; now it became ‘the Affair.’ Zola was a celebrity, one of France’s most well known writers at the time. He was either a ‘purveyor of filth’ or a ‘champion of justice’, depending on whom you asked. These oppositional labels had existed from the late 1860s, when Zola first began publishing fiction, but the publication of ‘J’Accuse…!' reinforced them to the nth degree. ‘Most of the French press’ of the time, says Schom, ‘would crucify anyone who dared attack the army,’ and this was precisely what Zola had done with his broadside. Now, in addition to being notorious as a writer of pornographic literature, he became, also, an accessory to treason, if not a traitor himself. As a result, he himself was tried and convicted of libel in the summer of 1898, and sentenced to a jail term. Not unlike Socrates in Athens, ‘Zola favoured prison,’ writes Rosen, but his friends, those who saw him as a champion of justice not only in literature but also now in politics, convinced him to flee the country. He agreed to this course of action on the grounds that it would better serve not his own cause, but the cause of Dreyfus, and then he disappeared for a year, fleeing to England, returning, in June 1899, only when the tide had finally swung decisively in Dreyfus’s favour. Nevertheless, despite the overwhelming evidence, the verdict levelled at the Rennes retrial that September was that Dreyfus was still guilty, but now with ‘extenuating circumstances’ (one official, notes Rosen, ‘thought he could disprove the statement 'I don’t know if Dreyfus is guilty or not”’ with the statement, ‘All Jews are traitors’). Ten days later, after a series of massive pro-Dreyfus demonstrations both in France and abroad, Dreyfus was pardoned, a gesture that itself was still neither all that satisfying to the Dreyfusards nor all that conclusive – the affair ‘was over but not over,’ in Rosen’s words. In December of the following year, for instance, everyone who had been involved in the affair in any way at all was similarly pardoned. The end result was less a triumph for justice than merely a slightly lesser travesty thereof.

Zola had had much to lose in publishing ‘J’Accuse…!' The article changed his life dramatically, possibly more so than any of his books. Not much more than three years after his return to France in 1899, he was dead, where Rosen gives some credence to the supposition that his death by asphyxiation from a blocked fireplace might in fact have been an Affair-inspired murder. In the meantime, his sales had plummeted; a great deal of strain had been put on both his marriage with his wife, Alexandrine, and the family he had with his mistress, Jeanne; he had been forced to flee the country he loved for eleven months (and Zola was no world traveller; the experience was gruelling for him); and upon return he was subject to both surveillance and attack on a daily basis. The years 1898 and 1899 did to him, in part, what 1896 and 1897 had done to Oscar Wilde, who had admired Zola as an author: they wore him down to a point of weariness and despair from which he never fully recovered.

But Zola felt that, despite the risks he knew he was running when he sent ‘J’Accuse…!' to Georges Clemenceau at L’Aurore, he had more to gain than to lose in making his charges. The fate of his beloved country was on the line. According to Rosen, he felt ‘a sense of outrage and despair that the French ruling class could reject reason and truth’ so bluntly. ‘His country, he thought, had been taken over by a gang of despicable rogues,’ and it was up to him, ‘a novelist and cultural critic, not a politician,’ to a make a decisive stand, to call to account the corrupt and guilty parties, which meant challenging the country’s own most sacred institutions: its government, its army, and its church. The result was a document that Jules Guesde called ‘the greatest revolutionary act of the century,’ in a century that was and remains best known for its many revolutionary acts.

Rosen’s The Disappearance of Émile Zola isn’t about the relative disappearance of Zola from the bookshelves of English-speaking readers and the fact that his reappearance there might be beneficial in this day and age. That is perhaps the book I would have liked to have read, though this is by no means to disparage Rosen’s account of the time Zola spent in England between July 1898 and June 1899. His book is, after all, a book in English about Zola – we need more of them. One might have asked for more on the Dreyfus Affair and less on the admonitions Zola made to his children in letters to his mistress (the middle of the book, in particular, sags with repetitive excerpts of this sort), but it seems natural that Rosen, Professor of Children’s Literature at Goldsmith’s, University of London, should be drawn to the effect that Zola’s exile had on his son, Jacques, and his daughter, Denise. And if some of the detail is occasionally thus repetitive and tiresome, much of the rest of it brings Zola’s year of exile to life: his only parcel as he fled France being a newspaper in which Alexandrine had wrapped a nightshirt; his insisting that a cab driver outside Victoria Station drive him to the hotel Grosvenor, a mere hundred yards away (Zola, who didn’t speak English, couldn’t understand the driver’s explanation that surely walking there made more sense); his fascination with the capitalisation of the English ‘I’, on which he wanted to write an essay detailing its likely psychological effects; his conclusion, based on finding hairpins littered about the streets of London and environs, not that the hairpins themselves might be faulty, but that English women must be careless; and so on. Technically, Zola was in exile, but there is also something of the refugee in Rosen’s portrait. Certainly it was refuge he sought in England as France was on the verge of tearing itself apart from within.

In late Victorian England, though, a newspaper could be persecuted for publishing the details concerning a divorce case, so there was certainly a large element of the British population, too, that had no sympathy for Zola, whose novels paved the way for the likes of Joyce and Lawrence when it came to the meticulous detailing of bodily functions. Many of Zola’s novels, in fact, had been banned in England from the moment of their first translation in the 1870s and 1880s. But during the affair, says Rosen, much of England was ‘perplexed as to how France could arrive at this point,’ where somehow the more evidence was presented in favour of Dreyfus, the more reluctant France became to ‘rise up and demand justice.’ Only Zola had done that, and for this many who had condemned his books commended his person. But there could be little personal recognition in this regard, as very few people knew he was in England in the first place. Five years earlier, he had been briefly feted in literary London, where he could count among his supporters, at least to some extent, Henry James, Thomas Hardy, George Bernard Shaw, George Moore, and Arthur Conan Doyle, in addition to Wilde, but now he lived in anonymity and wearisomeness, missing his family and friends and concerned for his country. France was on the brink. ‘How many shock waves,’ writes Schom, ‘could a nation withstand before it began to crumble and disintegrate? How much corruption, fraud, political egotism, selfishness and self-deception? The country was divided against itself and threatened to collapse in a state of anarchy if this continued.’ England had its own problems at this time, of course – the Battle of Omdurman (for which ‘massacre’ would be the more apt word) took place in September 1898, for instance. And one British journalist, looking at the similar atrocities being committed in the Transvaal without there being any significant public outcry against them, was forced to lament, ‘Here we have, alas!, no Zolas.’

Zola was no saint. He could be demeaning to both his wife and the mother of his children; he was a father who was frequently both overbearing and absent; and the novel he wrote while in England, Fécondité, sounds, to this reviewer, anyway, like an unreadable, propagandistic, pro-life harangue. But through his fiction, his journalism, and his activism, as Rosen notes, he helped ‘create a new kind of politics,’ one that combined ‘ideas that were internationalist, against poverty, against injustice and against what we now call racial discrimination—four ideas that hadn’t always sat together in one worldview.’ And ‘it was through Zola’s attachment,’ Rosen says later, ‘first to the Dreyfus case, then through convincing [Jean] Jaurès to join in, that the socialist movement started to argue against anti-Semitism’ instead of in favour of it.

Zola had lamented the fact that ‘a handful of madmen, cunning or idiotic, come and shout in our ears every morning.’ He never gave up his hope, however, that justice would somehow prevail, even if only in a reduced form. ‘In politics and literature,’ he wrote, ‘we can see a great movement amongst young people that gives me hope that the powers of reaction won’t win in any long-lasting way.’ He was both right and wrong. Yes, Dreyfus was brought home, pardoned (which is obviously not the same as being found innocent), and spared a lifetime of imprisonment. And the charges against Zola, too, were dropped, and his remains now lie alongside those of Victor Hugo in the Panthéon. But as Rosen notes, forty years after Zola’s death, ‘events in wartime France were a tragic re-run of the battles that Zola took part in, when the anti-Dreyfus camp and its inheritors found that they had four years or so to show what they could do if they had some real power.’

There was, in other words, something of a direct line between the anti-Dreyfusards of the 1890s and the Vichy Regime that delivered Jews to the Nazis by the thousands in the 1940s. In that instance, too, justice ultimately prevailed, albeit once again in a tardy fashion, this time, though, a tardiness the devastating consequences of which were incalculable. And now, with the recent successes of Brexit and Trump, it seemed as though the pendulum was swinging towards intolerance once more. Will France’s ultimate refusal to vote for Marine Le Pen’s National Front stunt that momentum? And to what extent can that refusal be laid at the feet of Zola and the Dreyfus Affair?

The Disappearance of Émile Zola: Love, Literature and the Dreyfus Case is published by Faber.