Émile Zola: The Influential Journalist Turned Novelist

Émile Zola: The Influential Journalist Turned Novelist
As France celebrates the 150th anniversary of Impressionism, Anne Price looks at Émile Zola’s role in glorifying the art movement Long before Edison, Tesla and the City of Light, Paris was a dark, chaotic mess, with huge tracts of the city being reduced to rubble to accommodate the vision of Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann in a quest to remodel the city. Montmartre, thought to be too hilly to develop, escaped the sledgehammers and watched as the city was systematically razed to the ground around it. At the foot of the hill, the village of Batignolles became the haunt of artists, writers and poets where cafes and bars thrived. It was here that a young writer, whose early Bohemian lifestyle drew him to the artistic community of Paris, met a group of revolutionary, young artists with whom his life became inextricably bound. It was only recently that I realized that Émile Zola’s relationship with this radical group of artists was fundamental to the start of his career in journalism. He is one of the most influential and controversial figures in the history of French literature. His novels, which paint detailed portraits of the dark, desperate conditions of working-class, industrialized France, owe their success to his journalistic approach to research. Frédéric Bazille, L’Atelier de Bazille, 9, rue la Condamine, (1870). Zola is represented on the staircase. Public domain My enduring schoolgirl image of Émile Zola is of a shadowy figure creeping around sewers and brothels in the underbelly of Paris with his notebook, interviewing people on whom he based characters like that of Thérèse Raquin who, together with her lover Lantier, murdered her husband; or Gervaise, the laundry owner of L’Assommoir, who had her eternal optimism crushed by circumstances beyond her control, destined to die alone; and her willful daughter Anna, who became the infamous courtesan Nana, destroying men while accumulating their fortunes and whose death from smallpox is described in the most horrific way. Everyone wanted to read them, even if some of them were read furtively. Nana, one of the 20-volume Rougon-Macquart series, sold out 55,000 copies in one day. They also made him very wealthy. Auguste Renoir, La Loge, (1874). This work illustrated the pocket edition of “Nana” for a long time. Zola was born in Paris to a French mother and Venetian father, who struggled to have his engineering projects accepted. Eventually he succeeded and when Emile was 3, the family moved to Aix-en-Provence where he secured the task of designing the dam which still bears his name today. Flushed with success, his father lived beyond his means, accumulating huge debts in the process. He died suddenly when Zola was 7, leaving his wife struggling to support herself and her son. In 1852, a scholarship allowed Zola to enroll as a boarder at the Collège Bourbon, where he met Paul Cézanne, a banker’s son, who defended the lonely, puny child against the bullying and abuse he suffered from the other boys. Zola grew to become a formidable foe, launching himself into freelance journalism, always championing the underdog. He would use this platform to repay his debt to Cézanne in 1866,  by launching a blistering attack on the then citadel of artistic taste, the Salon, which constantly rejected Cézanne’s work. It became one of the most important friendships of his life — the first step towards introducing Zola to the world of painters. It endured for 30 years, until it is believed that the two friends fell out over Zola’s novel, The Masterpiece, whose main character, presented as a failed genius, appeared to be modeled on Cézanne. This upset the artist and apparently the two friends became estranged.

Lead photo credit : Portrait of Émile Zola. Unknown author. Public Domain

More in Emile Zola, history, Literature, politics

Previous Article Paris Vignettes: People in Crazy Color
Next Article Letter from Paris: May 1, 2024 News Digest

I have spent my life traveling the world with my husband and family, teaching English in places as diverse as Wales, Zambia, Iran, Scotland, the United Arab Emirates, Lesotho, Swaziland, South Africa and Ukraine, meeting many wonderful people along the way. I love words which means I read a lot and talk too much. My earlier studies in Literature, Classics and Art History have at last found an outlet in my writing. I now live with my husband in the beautiful Creuse countryside where we are regularly visited by our children, grandchildren and friends.