An Anniversary Appreciation of Emile Zola

Emile Zola, as painted by Edouard Manet in 1868.

The almost-over 2021 is the 150th anniversary of the first of the 20 novels in Emile Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle. So, I’m writing this appreciation of the French author just in time. 🙂

Zola is nowhere near the best-known novelist of the 19th-century, but he’s in the top couple dozen — and I’m a big fan. 

While Zola had some writing success before 1871, notably with the 1868 potboiler Therese Raquin, it’s the Rougon-Macquart cycle for which he’s most remembered. Those vivid novels are considered “naturalist” and realistic, with each heavily researched book focusing on a specific theme — art, trains, laborers, retailing, alcoholism, prostitution, etc., in 19th-century France — while also offering gripping plots and compelling three-dimensional characters. The Rougons and Macquarts are two family branches, the first more upper class and the second more working class, whose members share various hereditary tendencies that tend to be on the negative side. In a number of cases, each of those women and men are secondary characters in some of the 20 books and get a star turn in others.

A major inspiration for Zola was earlier French novelist Honore de Balzac, whose “The Human Comedy” cycle also took a societal approach and also included characters who turned up more than once.

Zola’s 20-book series began with The Fortune of the Rougons in 1871, started to hit its stride with the third novel — The Belly of Paris (1873) — and then entered masterful mode with the seventh entry: The Drinking Den (1877), about an admirable, hardworking woman slammed by circumstances. The mature, riveting works that followed included Nana (1880), about a prostitute; The Ladies’ Paradise (1883), about a big department store that, a la Walmart, overwhelms mom-and-pop shops; Germinal (1885), which depicts a mining strike and is almost universally considered Zola’s crowning achievement; The Masterpiece (1886), about a struggling painter; and The Beast in Man (1890), featuring a breathtaking railroad theme. 

Interestingly, Zola might be best-known to some readers as the writer of the newspaper-published “J’Accuse” open letter defending Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer wrongly accused of treason by the French army. Zola’s courageous 1898 public stand against anti-Semitism resulted in plenty of critical and legal pushback — even forcing him to flee France for a time. So much pushback, in fact, that Zola’s 1902 death at age 62 by asphyxiation from a blocked chimney is considered a possible murder.

Yet many people admired Zola for his principles and his writing, and he would eventually be honored with burial in France’s Pantheon building, where I took this photo of his crypt during a 2018 visit to Paris:

I have one other slight connection with the author, having heard a talk by his scholar great-granddaughter 14 years ago in Aix-en-Provence, the city in the south of France where my French professor wife Laurel was also giving a paper at an Emile Zola-themed academic conference. One memorable part of the 2007 Aix visit was a long conference-attendee hike up beautiful Mont Saint-Victoire to see the dam Zola’s father was involved in building.

If you’ve read any of Zola’s work, any thoughts about it?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about my town’s township attorney belatedly resigning after making a racist remark — is here.

55 thoughts on “An Anniversary Appreciation of Emile Zola

    • Thank you, Esther! Well said!

      Yes, sometimes being assigned a book results in…magic. I remember being kind of annoyed when “Jane Eyre” was assigned in high school, and, many years later, it remains my favorite novel ever.

      Glad you liked “Germinal” and “Persuasion”! They’re my favorite novels by their respective authors. Two GREAT books. Of course, very different books, as Zola and Austen were very different authors.

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  2. I have read naught of his books.
    I am humiliated.
    Nonetheless, what I have learned of him from your brilliant post is a wonderful thing. He sounds like an intellectual hero to me.
    Now, I want to read at least one of his works.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Resa!

      Well, none of us can read everything. 🙂 There are many excellent authors I’ve yet to try.

      Zola was indeed more of an intellectual hero than many novelists. I guess I’d most recommend his “Germinal.” Compellingly wrestles with major things in a very readable way.

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  4. Hi Dave,

    I’ve only read Germinal at this stage, but I loved it so much that I will probably go back for more. A twenty book series is a heck of a commitment though.

    I vividly remember the miners finally getting fed up enough to demand more from the owners. The juxtaposition of the poverty that they’d come from and the beautifully maintained home with too much food was so wonderfully done. And of course, the rich guys still wanted more because deep down they knew they could lose their riches in a heartbeat too. Thank goodness that kind of wealth inequality is a thing of the past.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Susan!

      I totally hear you. I don’t think I’ll ever read all 20 novels in Zola’s series, but one or two more will put me at the halfway mark. 🙂

      Glad you read and liked “Germinal”! It IS very compelling. And the way you put things in your eloquent second paragraph shows how relevant that novel is today. Loved your ironic final line. 😂 😦

      Liked by 1 person

  5. HI Dave, thank you for sharing about this author and his books. I have not read any and can’t think I’ve ever heard about his books before. How lovely that your wife got to present at a conference with his great-granddaughter. I never take pictures of graves because my older son believes it is disrespectful to the dead and I don’t want to disrespect his views and feelings. I was a little sad not to take a picture of Robert Burns’ grave, but I didn’t.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Robbie!

      Emile Zola is kind of underrated in a way — not as well-known as other top 19th-century authors such as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Austen, the Bronte sisters, Dickens, Eliot, Hugo, Dumas, Twain, Melville, Hawthorne, etc.

      I totally understand that taking/publishing photos of grave sites is a bit fraught. It sounds like your son has a kind heart, and it’s good of you to respect his wishes. The Pantheon feels more public than the average cemetery; it’s a major tourist site, and photography is allowed. But…

      Liked by 3 people

  6. There was a time when I, too, read Zola and his “La curée”, which showed me the period of the Second Empire with its people, who were very very effient in making money and a lot of escroceries!
    I very much feel like going back in time again to better understand the industrial revolution and consume to see also,why we are in the present situation. Many thanks, Dave, for your advice:)

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thank you, Martina!

      “La Curée” is a Zola novel I’ve never read; I’ve gotten to nearly half of the 20 Rougon-Macquart books, and would like to read more.

      Yes, Zola’s novels really painted a picture of his time — there’s so much about societal events, trends, and norms in addition to the focus on individual characters. Including the Industrial Revolution, as you note. One can definitely learn a lot about history from Zola’s novels and from other authors with similar approaches.

      Liked by 4 people

  7. Do you know I had to go away and think about this one. cos i knew I had read a Zola book but it is SO-OH long ago when I worked in that library and took lots of books home, I could not remember which one. Nana. I think because there was a series on the tv at the time. Great post. IF I had never read any it would certainly encourage me.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Shehanne!

      “Nana” is quite a dramatic book. I read it just after “The Drinking Den,” set a number of years earlier when Nana is a kid and secondary character.

      Very nice to have worked in a library. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Emile Zola is one of my favourite authors! Thanks for this great post about him. I’ve not read nearly enough of his work but ‘Therese Raquin’ is up there in terms of being one of my favourite books – although it’s quite intense. I really enjoy the naturalist writing style of which he is a major proponent of course – I do have quite a fondness for French authors generally.
    What a wonderful opportunity you had to get to that conference at which his great-granddaughter presented – and also to see your wife presenting as well! I’m sure it must have been incredibly memorable.
    I knew he had an early death which was possibly connected with the Dreyfus affair but I didn’t realise there was a query over it being murder! Quite a tragedy.
    I also got to have a bit of a moment with Zola at the Pantheon in February 2020 and have a very similar image in my photo collection. He’s in very good company.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thank you, Sarah!

      Wonderful that you’re also a fan of Zola! His style is indeed very readable — and, as you say, intense. “Therese Raquin” is quite an experience; memorable even though Zola was still a relative novice as a novelist at that point.

      That 2007 trip to France was terrific. 🙂 And literary; we also visited the Chateau d’If off Marseille that was the prison setting of the first part of Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo.”

      Great that you visited the Pantheon — and so recently!

      Liked by 3 people

      • I do love going to places that authors used as inspiration because they visited or lived there…although, some years ago, I read a best seller that was set in a town I used to live in and it was clear the author had never visited….but that’s what fiction is – whatever you want it to be (plus it’s nearly Christmas so I will forgive his oversight in any research 😉 )
        Paris is only a couple of hours for us and so the primary reason for that trip was to see the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition. As travel restrictions were coming into place about then it meant Paris was so very accessible, so we made the most of the few days we were there and got around to places I’d never visited before – the Pantheon included!!
        It sounds like you had an amazing trip taking in lots of beautiful parts of France!

        Liked by 1 person

        • I agree, Sarah — an author aspect to a trip adds to the interest and enjoyment.

          Ouch…it can be a bit off-putting when novelists describe a place in a way that makes it obvious they never visited. I suppose that can be forgiven when sci-fi writers describe a distant planet… 🙂 And, as you say, forgivable because it’s near Christmas. 😂

          Wonderful that you’re relatively close to Paris! It’s a bit of a slog getting there from the U.S., but I’ve visited five times (combining it with other places on each trip). Your 2020 trip does sound fantastic — the da Vinci exhibit, a less-crowded city…

          Liked by 3 people

  9. I have never read any books by Emile Zola, but that will change in 2022 because of this post, Dave. I have just chosen Zola’s book, Therese Raquin, which caused a scandal when it appeared in 1867 and brought Zola, then a 27-years-old. I understand it brought him a notoriety that followed him throughout his life. I have been quoting him for years: “If you ask me what I came into this life to do, I will tell you: I came to live out loud.” And the other: “If you shut up truth, and bury it underground, it will but grow.’ Thank you for this post, Dave. I have been wanting to explore his work based on his portraits – tenacity and honour embedded in the brushstrokes. I am going to have a marvelous 2022 with Leo Tolstoy and Emile Zola! I had read about Zola’s support for Alfred Dreyfus. I am glad that he rests in the Panthéon, where he shares a crypt with Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas.

    Liked by 5 people

  10. Every time I read your literature blog, Dave, I learn things. Thanks. I was aware of the “J’Accuse” document because of the work my co-author and I did on our Holocaust-related book, “They Were Just People.” But you told me much I didn’t know. Marcia and I were in Aix-en-Provence in late 1999 to retrieve her daughter (my stepdaughter) from a semester abroad. We couldn’t possibly have allowed her to come home alone, so we were forced to spend 10 days or so in France. It’s a tactic I recommend.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Bill!

      I appreciate the kind words. 🙂 And I can see how “J’Accuse” would come up while working on “They Were Just People.”

      Nice that you were in Aix! Great place to visit, as is sort-of-near Marseille (which my wife and I also visited in 2007). I enjoyed your elegantly written humor about being “forced” to spend 10 days in France. 😂

      Liked by 1 person

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