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The Disappearance of Émile Zola. Love, Literature and the Dreyfus Case. Michael Rosen. Review.

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The Disappearance of Émile Zola. Love, Literature and the Dreyfus Case. Michael Rosen. Faber & Faber 2017.

The Dreyfus Affair, which began in 1894, was the supreme battle against a miscarriage of justice. The anti-Semitism of those who opposed the Dreyfusards is seen as the template for hostility to Jews ever since. The public polemics between defenders and opponents of the Jewish officer’s conviction are credited with the origin of the idea of an intellectual.Theodor Herzl said that the Dreyfus case turned him into a Zionist. For the left it was the moment when human rights, not without resistance and ambiguities, became an important issue within the socialist movement. The Affair continues to make its mark within French politics, on both the open-minded and the less tolerant sides of Republican orthodoxy.

There would appear little new to say about Dreyfus, although Ruth Harris’s The Man on Devil’s Island (2010) offers a fresh look alongside rigorous research. Yet Michael Rosen casts new light on an episode familiar to those acquainted with the history. He begins, “on the evening of Monday, 18 July 1898, Émile Zola disappeared”.

J’accuse.

The publication on the 13th of January 1898, in the daily L’aurore, of J’accuse had inflamed opinion. This immortal defence of Dreyfus was met by riots and attacks on Jewish homes and shops, as nationalists and the Ligue antisémitique railed at its author. The Minister for War, General Billot, brought charges of libel against Zola. In a Court, surrounded by hostile crowds and police, he was convicted to 3 years in gaol, and a 3,000 francs fine. Facing an appeal, which the writer felt was certain to fail, he had fled to London.

Over the pages of Disappearance of Émile Zola the writer’s London exile is brought to life with a fine touch. Zola was bemused and far from at ease in the British capital. He did not speak English. Boiled potatoes failed to work their charm on him. The housing, shops and surroundings in the South London suburbs were uneasily different. The houses lacked shutters, which we still seem to able to do without.

With his translated novels enjoying a mass readership Zola was already a celebrity. But this was infamy as much as fame. While religious figures and organisations such as National Vigilance Association had, a more than a decade previously, been hostile to “his odious indecency”. His translator Henry Vizetelly served time in Pentonville prison for publishing his more explicit works. Unabridged versions of books like Nana (1880), the story of the prostitute offspring of the alcoholic couple in l’Assommoir (1877), with its lesbian and sado-masochistic scenes, were only available, at £25 a copy and marked “For Private Distribution”. Rosen justly remarks, that this was not a simple moral or prudish issue; it was about social order “Those who were opposed to Zola’s fiction felt that he undermined that order”. Readers of Germinal, the epic of working class struggle in the Northern French mines, can only agree.

Zola’s Two Households.

Rosen excels in portraying one of the least appealing sides of Zola’s biography His two households, his wife Alexandrine, and the mother of his two children, Denise and Jacques, Jeanne Rozerot. Their correspondence, presence, and, for the latter, visits to England, are warmly and fully described. For many this set-up, like Dickens’s relationship with the Other Woman, Nelly Turnan, is less than attractive, but Zola’s two hearths dominated his life during the exile as much as the campaign for Dreyfus’s innocence.

The Disappearance of Émile Zola recounts that one of the activists for that cause, the Socialist Jean Jaurès, made the voyage to London to see the writer. In Les Preuves (1898) Jaurès had placed the duty of the working class movement to cast aside the questions about the class background of Dreyfus in the name of “humanity” and to take the side of the victim of injustice. In France’s Parliament the Deputy had defended Zola, and attacked a court case brought to defend the “honour” of the army (Discours du 24 Janvier 1898 devant la Chambre des députés).

Truth Will Prevail. 

Rosen signals that readers of the British The Social Democrat would have been aware of the link between left-wing politics, the Dreyfus case, and Zola’s protests. An interview with the British based German socialist, Max Beer, author of the pioneering A History of British Socialism (1919) illustrates Zola’s take on the left and anti-semitism. Held in Paris before the forced London stay, it was not published until 1902. At the start the novelist remarks that previously he had portrayed “despicable” Jewish characters – something that readers of L’argent (1891) with characters such as the swindling financier Gunderman, and Korb’s nose, “en bec d’aigle” (Eagle beaked) indicating his Jewishness, would not hesitate to endorse. Some socialists, he remarks, reproaching him for backing a “rich Jewish captain”. But, “he is for me only a symbol, a victim of terrible forgeries, a witness of the degradation of our republic, which inscribed on its portals the democratic trinity: Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality. But, after all truth is almighty. It will prevail.”

In Britain, a 120, 000 strong petition on behalf of Dreyfus and a demonstration in Hyde Park on 1899 attracting between 50,000 and 80,000 illustrates that the issue was also of burning concern to those in this country who stood by that “democratic trinity”.

Michael Rosen is, I confess, not an author I would have expected to bring new light on one of the important moments in the Dreyfus Affair, or on the life of one of its leading actors. Yet The Disappearance of Émile Zola does exactly that. It does not gloss over the less appealing aspects of Zola’s beliefs – his “natalism”, a wish for the growth of a healthy population, set out in the work he began writing in England, Fécondité, and published in 1899, not to say his fear of ‘hereditary degeneracy’ – once described by Philippe Muray as the idea that the dead are reborn in us. It resists the temptation to make facile comparisons with contemporary politics or 21st Century anti-Semitism. The book covers exactly what the title indicates, “love, literature and the Dreyfus case.” It is is a success and, one hopes, will encourage not just interest in the history but bring new readers to Zola’s path-breaking, and enduring, novels. Congratulations.

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Written by Andrew Coates

June 17, 2017 at 11:51 am

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