Emile Zola The Novelist They Loved To Hate

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Emile Zola is very much a case for the Marmite test of literature, you either like him or struggle to come to terms with his style and his subject matter.

He is without doubt one of the most important of the French novelists of the late nineteenth century. His work looks in detail at every aspect of French Society, lifting the lid and shining a very bright and sometimes blinding light on the darkest corners of the French psyche.
The son of widowed mother and childhood friend of Paul Cezanne, he starts life very much as a less than successful academic student failing the baccalaureate twice.

His own life was a source of personal tragedy in which his marriage produced no children and his mistress hired as a maidservant, bore him two illegitimate children. His wife was to demonstrate significant generosity after the marriage nearly collapsed, allowing Zola to have access to his children, while she tacitly acknowledged their existence and paid an interest in their welfare.

In many ways this was an outsider looking in. His father was an Italian and Zola does not become a naturalised French Citizen until 1860. As a political journalist he turned a critical eye on the French social and political system. He is regarded as the leader of the “naturalist” school of French Literature in which he extends the scientific theories of Auguste Comte to the development of the characters in his novels. This took his art beyond realism in which each novel was an experiment in the analysis of the human condition. Zola dared to consider and explore those matters which “polite” society shunned, the psychological aspects of human behaviour, Darwinian competition, sexuality and poverty. His work was frequently criticised and regarded as deliberately provocative. He passionately defended his views; “I have….enough courage and activity to produce strong works, carrying within them their defense.”

His novels were undoubtedly the conscience of the French upper Middle and Middle Classes and his intervention in the Dreyfus affair in his iconic piece of journalism “J’accuse” was to split French society in two and some would argue bring about his own death. It also led to his to his brief and unhappy exile in Weybridge.

This talk will trace Zola’s life and his development as a popular novelist, looking closely at the issues he brought to light at the very highest levels of French society to very depths - those who are used and displaced such as prostitutes, shop workers and coalminers. It will also contain illustrative images and readings from his works.

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Jan 18, 2022 07:30pm - 9:00pm

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Frank Vigon

Frank Vigon has been a headteacher of an...

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