The marvelous Classics Circuit has taken the 19th century French writer, Émile Zola as their featured author for this tour. Where would we be without the classics circuit? It’s one of those blogworld inventions that we needed, even though we didn’t know we needed it. Anyway, I said I would discuss the theory behind Zola’s work and the ideas that cohered into the genre of naturalism.
When Zola came on the scene with his racy, sordid novels, the prevailing literary genre of realism had already reached a zenith in France. Writers like Flaubert had undermined it with irony and excess whilst elsewhere, interest in the supernatural was running at an all time high, with up and coming authors like Maupassant and Gauthier busy producing gripping and disturbing tales of the fantastic. Zola’s imagination seemed to go in a different direction, rehabilitating exhausted realism with a new injection of super-reality, but on the quiet, the super-real, as a kind of mystical magic nevertheless sneaked in. Influenced by the advances made in science and medicine, Zola adhered to scientific principles and to the close, sociological observation of society. He thought that it was possible for a novelist who gathered information carefully and analysed documentation to bring himself into the field of science, to be more than a mere artist and to become instead a kind of Cassandra in a white coat, a soothsayer of the future, but one shored up by unimpeachable scientific fact.
Zola wrote Le Roman expérimental (1880) in which he described, carefully and in detail, what his intentions were: he intended to create a whole new genre, and he called it ‘naturalism’. It was to be a kind of lurid, vibrant hyper-realism, as real to the reader as if he or she were walking through the slum areas of Paris. It would be a stencil off the world, and authors would be sensory recorders of everything about their environment, the dilapidated buildings, the pungent, slangy speech of the working classes, the taste of the absinthe that was the anesthetic of the poor. There would be no frills, just the bare, unadulterated truth of life in Second Empire Paris. And Zola wanted to write about this because he truly believed that literature could be a kind of laboratory. You could set up the context for any situation, and it would play out in a scientific kind of way, showing you exactly what would happen in reality. The thing was, Zola had a pretty good idea of what he wanted to prove, before he ever began writing. He argued that we are all inevitably determined by the twin factors of genetic inheritance and environment, which, struggle as we might, we cannot possibly transcend, and his novels set out to prove how the stain of ‘bad blood’, particularly when linked with poor living conditions, would cause despair and catastrophe through countless generations.
Zola’s series of novels about the Rougon-Marquart family is the outcome of this inspiration. The family’s two branches represent two dominant strands in lower class Parisian life – the Rougons were small shopkeepers and petty bourgeois, and the Marquarts were petty criminals who had problems with alcohol. The point of the series was to merge the genetic lines of grafters with the line of transgressors and see what catastrophes resulted, particularly in the tough working conditions of post-revolution Paris, a place of massive opportunity, but also of great hardship and poverty. Zola presented the idea to his publisher in 1868 in these rather pretentious terms. “The Rougon-Macquart – the group, the family, whom I propose to study – has as its prime characteristic the overflow of appetite, the broad upthrust of our age, which flings itself into enjoyments. Physiologically the members of this family are the slow working-out of accidents to the blood and nervous system which occur in a race after a first organic lesion, according to the environment determining in each of the individuals of this race sentiments, desires, passions, all the natural and instinctive human manifestations whose products take on the conventional names of virtues and vices.”
Fortunately, the books were an awful lot less dry than Zola’s leaden description. Instead, they were completely shocking, depicting vice such as the literary milieu had never before seen. People swore and used colourful slang, they had what was considered graphic sex (not to our jaded eyes now, of course), and Zola plumbed the depths and dregs of society, taking his notebook to the brothels and the absinthe houses, interviewing the working classes and vividly depicting a world of whores and drunkards and laundry workers and miners and shop girls that the polite reading folk barely knew existed. He was, in this way, one of the first authors not to romanticise or sentimentalise poverty and the brutal, relentless toil of the working classes. And his range of society was immense; the novels did not only represent the lower levels of society, but the higher ones too, and one of Zola’s great skills was to show how they interacted, how the life of the rich was dependent and even sometimes threatened, by the lives of the poor.
But although Zola is undeniably correct in his privileging of genetic inheritance as a determinant of behaviour, it’s the part of his novels that I admire the least. I remember reading L’Assommoir in a horrified hypnotic trance, following the fortunes of Gervaise with fingers crossed that she might make her small business work, and receiving each step on the route to her downfall (so many caused by her stupid drunken husband) as a body blow. Zola wracks up the misery by having each chapter start on a positive note, and end with his heroine ever nearer destitution. Poor Gervaise was not allowed to move up a class because she was always already damned by genetic weakness and stuck in the slums, her earlier mistake in running away with the feckless Lantier an act with excessive consequences. I don’t believe for a second the line that authors sometimes spin about not having absolute control over what their characters do, and if his protagonists end up dying unloved and alone in a tiny room, their bodies discovered only weeks later by Alsatians (and yes the cliché has its origins here) then it’s because Zola, and the historical absence of a welfare state, has decided to put them there. What he most certainly refuses to countenance is a way out of the genetic deadlock and instead he embraces the endless loop of historical repetition. Zola is determined to show us that we are condemned to live and relive the faults of our ancestors, and our actions and responses will always be inevitable.
This isn’t the only problem with his theory of naturalism, the first and most important being that Zola never stuck to his own rules. Far from being a no-frills realist writer, Zola drew heavily on myth, symbolism, the supernatural and metaphor in his writing. Zola’s idea of literature as a laboratory is sheer nonsense; no fictional narrative can be said to ‘prove’ what would happen in a similar real life set-up. And often Zola had to intervene quite heavily in his own novels to pull his determinist theories off. In Nana (a fabulous book, by the way), the slovenly courtesan of the same name rises to great heights in society and has the world at her feet. Zola creates a character of such power and charisma that you get the sense he scares the living daylights out of himself with his own creation, and in a last-ditch attempt to exert his control over the narrative he kills her off with a bizarre foreign illness. There’s no causal necessity to any of this. Zola just didn’t write narratives that conformed to the principles he was endorsing, although he was pretty confident that he had shown other novelists the way to embrace the doctrine of naturalism.
In this, perhaps, I cannot argue, as naturalism did have a notable influence, particularly in America with the work of novelist and critic Frank Norris (1870–1902), dubbed “the boy Zola” by contemporary critics. And Norris’s work went on to be part of the influences of writers like Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, and John Steinbeck. We can arguably trace its links further to the ‘kitchen sink’ drama of the sixties and seventies, and to all works that seek to force the reader to face unpalatable truths about terrible working conditions, social injustice and the more sordid and depressing parts of life. Gritty realism was the speciality of Zola, but what many writers have since abandoned is the magnificence with which he endowed it, the sumptuous descriptions of almost cinematic vividness, and the excruciating glimmer of hope that keeps the reader glued to the page exactly at the time that the knife is twisted in their hearts. This is what keeps Zola in a class of his own.