Wednesday, 11 July 2018

The Disappearance of Èmile Zola by Michael Rosen

The Content Reader

Paris in July hosted by Tamara at Thyme for tea.

I recently purchased this book in order to read it for the Paris in July challenge. I don't know a lot about Èmile Zola and have not read a lot by him either. I do know that he wrote the J'accuse article in defence of Alfred Dreyfus, but not much else. The subtitle of the book is Love, Literature and the Dreyfus Case, concentrating on the year he spent in exile in London, due to a prison sentence in France, and the very last years of his life.

Since the book covers the last part of his life, you do not get any background on his younger life and struggle to become an acknowledged author. He was at the time a very admired author in France, which partly changed due to the Dreyfus affair. Rosen has researched well his time in London, his feelings of exile, and how he occupied his time. Mostly, it is a rather depressing account. Zola was not happy outside France without friends and colleagues. He did not speak English, although he tried to learn some, and was just waiting to go back to France. He was very interested in photography and used this hobby as a diversion, as well as writing a new book. It was all in all a rather tedious way of living, which was complicated by his personal affairs.

He had a wife, Alexandrine and a mistress, Jeanne. With Jeanne he had two children, a son and a daughter which he loved very much. His wife was not aware of this affair during the first years and was devastated when she found out. Zola could not live without any of them and all of them settled in a sort of 'menage a trois'. The logistics of having them visit him in London was quite a complicated feat. Especially, as he was hiding the relationship with Jeanne from the outside world. As an anecdote; he mentions that Jeanne's letters arrived the day after she posted them. This even before the EU!
"...He told her (Alexandrine) on 2 April that he was delighted to receive them (roses) but it was hard, after nearly nine months of exile, torn from his country, on the end of all the relentless hatred. 'All I wanted was justice, not all these insults they've showered me with. All this comes back and smothers me on a day like this.'"
It was a difficult time for Zola. He had stood up for justice and what he believed in, and received a lot of insults from all sides. After a year in exile he could go back to France and he continued his struggle. In the end Dreyfus was released but not totally acquitted of the crime.

Rosen's biography concentrates on the exile and the few years back in France before Zola died in 1902. The part in exile is well researched and rather detailed, maybe a little bit too detailed. It is not that exciting. What I don't like in a biography is when authors state; "one can presume..." when there is no firm knowledge of situations or thoughts. This happens a couple of times during the London years. I also feel that Rosen worships his subject too much, and puts Zola on a piedestal. The book gives an overview of the Dreyfus case and its aftermath. It certainly has an interesting angle, although it could maybe have been a little bit shorter.

I don't really like the Zola that is described, as regards his relationships. He seems totally egocentric. It is not fare to any of the women and they must both have been very hurt by the situation, although they both seemed to love him. The book does give a private view of a great writer and a few troubled years in his life.

There is revealing information about his death. He died of carbon monoxide poisoning. The investigation could did not find any fault with the chimney. However, in 1953, Libération, received a letter from one M. Hacquin, who claimed he knew that Zola had been murdered.
"I'll tell you how Zola died... Zola was deliberately suffocated. I and my men blocked his chimney while doing the repairs on the roof next door. There was a lot of coming and going and we took advantage of the hubbub to locate Zola's chimney and stop it. We unstopped it the next day, very early. No one noticed us."
What really happen we will never know. In this article in History Today from 2002, you can read more about it.

An extra bonus is found at the end of the book. His short story "The Hunted House" or "Angeline" is printed. He passed by a house where he lived in a suburb of London which had an overgrown garden. He inquired and heard stories that there was a ghost living there. A young girl had been killed. From this he wrote this story. We also find the "J'accuse" article which was very interesting. All in all, a little bit of French history and a side of one of its authors that you seldom see.


  1. This sounds like it has some pros and cons. Maybe a book to get from the library or borrow rather than to buy. But certainly an interesting life.

    Thanks for popping by with your baby congratulations! We're very happy!

    1. Yes, it has its interesting parts, but rather borrow it, I would say.

  2. I am very fond of some of Zola’s novels. I was given a Review copy of this book but never resd it.

  3. Doesn't really sound like a book I would enjoy. Thanks for your review!!

    1. It sounded more interesting that it was. But, it is some few private moments in his life, and since I did not know that much about him, it was at least, partly interesting.