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Zola: A Biography

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Few writers have been - simultaneously - political hero, intellectual master, and literary giant. But Emile Zola (1840-1902) was: his monumental cycle of twenty novels extended the reach of fiction for all subsequent generations; he gave new meaning to the cause of brave progressivism; and his work sparked into life what we think of as the modern intelligentsia. This magis Few writers have been - simultaneously - political hero, intellectual master, and literary giant. But Emile Zola (1840-1902) was: his monumental cycle of twenty novels extended the reach of fiction for all subsequent generations; he gave new meaning to the cause of brave progressivism; and his work sparked into life what we think of as the modern intelligentsia. This magisterial biography of a great but strangely private and unknown man is also a superb history of the social, political, and intellectual world through which Zola traveled so unforgettably. Fifteen years in the making, Zola draws on the new edition of Zola's letters, with its hundreds of new documents, to offer unprecedented detail and nuance about Zola's life.


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Few writers have been - simultaneously - political hero, intellectual master, and literary giant. But Emile Zola (1840-1902) was: his monumental cycle of twenty novels extended the reach of fiction for all subsequent generations; he gave new meaning to the cause of brave progressivism; and his work sparked into life what we think of as the modern intelligentsia. This magis Few writers have been - simultaneously - political hero, intellectual master, and literary giant. But Emile Zola (1840-1902) was: his monumental cycle of twenty novels extended the reach of fiction for all subsequent generations; he gave new meaning to the cause of brave progressivism; and his work sparked into life what we think of as the modern intelligentsia. This magisterial biography of a great but strangely private and unknown man is also a superb history of the social, political, and intellectual world through which Zola traveled so unforgettably. Fifteen years in the making, Zola draws on the new edition of Zola's letters, with its hundreds of new documents, to offer unprecedented detail and nuance about Zola's life.

30 review for Zola: A Biography

  1. 5 out of 5

    Jan-Maat

    It feels wrong to be critical of an eight hundred page biography. Particularly a biography that feels very thorough from Zola's father's ambitions to Zola's fondness for oysters and the changing circumference of Zola's waist. But maybe the longer the book the more you become aware of what is left out, what might be excusable in a short study begins to look like a fault. As a reader, despite only having read Germinal and La débâcle, I wasn't left with a desire to read other Zola novels and despit It feels wrong to be critical of an eight hundred page biography. Particularly a biography that feels very thorough from Zola's father's ambitions to Zola's fondness for oysters and the changing circumference of Zola's waist. But maybe the longer the book the more you become aware of what is left out, what might be excusable in a short study begins to look like a fault. As a reader, despite only having read Germinal and La débâcle, I wasn't left with a desire to read other Zola novels and despite the invocation of Zola's circle of acquaintances (Poincard, Clemenceau, Manet, Cezanne, Flaubert, Goncourt Bros., Maupassant, Huysmans, Turgenev, Henry James etc) I don't have a sense of who influenced him beyond Hippolate Tain (not that I was left with much of a sense of who Tain was either) or who he influenced. The biography is roughly chronological with some slight overlaps between some chapters. It begins with Zola's engineer father who left Venice to work in Austria and later France, eventually dieing near Aix during the construction of a dam and then runs through Zola's life. Early hardships, first successes, public controversies and private concerns down to his death and funeral (which featured an assassination attempt on Alfred Dreyfus) at the beginning of the 20th century. The material is fascinating but doesn't always seem to have been fully explored for example how Zola structured and provided a framework for his creativity to work on. From the outset Zola intended the Rougon-Macquart (R-M hereafter) novels to be a set of twenty books (a striking commitment from a writer who was just starting out on his career) that would demonstrate the workings out of hereditary and environment on character. Once that was complete Zola decided to write a set of three novels on the theme of faith in contemporary France which was followed by a plan to write four novels each to demonstrate a key virtue in the construction of an ideal France. Zola started the R-M series with a rough family tree and some ideas about the settings and lead characters, which by and large he held to, even though the writing of the novels stretched out over decades. Having decided on the setting - Paris slum, mine, agricultural life etc - that would be researched both through reading and field visits before the book was written in serial form and then finally was published as a book. The discipline and commitment, both of the author and his publishers, comes through strongly. Brown implies that the strength of the R-M series, as opposed to the novels written after, comes from how Zola expressed his own fears, concerns and relationships in those novels. Brown doesn't say that the later works are weak but that seemed to be the implication. The relative strength of the R-M series is particularly interesting given that they were formally set approximately twenty years in the past during the Second Empire of Napoleon III, yet slightly awkwardly dealt with some contemporary issues too. Part of the early success of the R-M series was apparently due to the role of networking to publicise and advance his works. Zola returned the compliment by promoting his friends whenever possible through positive reviews and newspaper articles. The downside to this was that it fed into Zola's taste for spats and squabbles fought out across the newspaper pages in reviews, articles and letters. The reader sees these as a forerunner to the great Dreyfus affair but this isn't something that Brown draws out. No biography would be complete without the awkward if not tortured family lives to be expected when under the Code Napoleon children couldn't marry without the consent of their parents before the age of thirty. Late marriages, parental disapproval, secret mistresses and illegitimate (and apparently secret) children occurred in both Zola and Cezanne's lives with Zola repeating the pattern first with his mother and then with his wife. These triangular relationships fed in repeatedly to the R-M sagas. By the end of this eight hundred page biography I felt a thematic approach would worked better. The author was reduced to adding footnotes in places to remind the reader of some of the reoccurring themes and ideas such as the sexual abuse that Zola may have suffered as a child from an Algerian servant, his relationship with his mother and idealised father or the fear of being buried alive. The descriptions of the novels sit separately in the chronological framework and Brown doesn't point out how different relationships or friendships (except in so far as the research was concerned) impacted on the writing. However the biography is readable, gives a fat slice of political and intellectual life in late 19th century France and is thorough going enough to record the details of the special diet that Zola used to reduce his waist line.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Το Άθχημο γατί του θενιόρ Γκουαναμίρου

    Αυτό το βιβλίο μου το έκαναν δώρο δυο αγαπημένοι μου φίλοι τον Ιούνιο του 2014. Και μάλιστα μου το χάρισαν αφού πρώτα το έφτιαξαν σε βιβλιοδέτη, μια κόπια μοναδική, κατάδική μου, διότι γνωρίζουν καλά την πετριά που έχω με τον συγκεκριμένο συγγραφέα. Το τελείωσα τις προάλλες καθώς το διάβαζα παράλληλα, από ένα σημείο κι έπειτα, με όσα μυθιστορήματα του Ζολά μου είχαν απομείνει. Κάποιοι αναγνώστες δεν θέλουν να γνωρίζουν πολλές λεπτομέρειες για τους αγαπημένους του συγγραφείς. Πιστεύουν ίσως πως θ Αυτό το βιβλίο μου το έκαναν δώρο δυο αγαπημένοι μου φίλοι τον Ιούνιο του 2014. Και μάλιστα μου το χάρισαν αφού πρώτα το έφτιαξαν σε βιβλιοδέτη, μια κόπια μοναδική, κατάδική μου, διότι γνωρίζουν καλά την πετριά που έχω με τον συγκεκριμένο συγγραφέα. Το τελείωσα τις προάλλες καθώς το διάβαζα παράλληλα, από ένα σημείο κι έπειτα, με όσα μυθιστορήματα του Ζολά μου είχαν απομείνει. Κάποιοι αναγνώστες δεν θέλουν να γνωρίζουν πολλές λεπτομέρειες για τους αγαπημένους του συγγραφείς. Πιστεύουν ίσως πως θα χάσουν κάτι εστιάζοντας σε περιττές λεπτομέρειες, αντί να κρίνουν τον δημιουργό μέσα από το έργο του. Αυτό ως ένα σημείο είναι σωστό, ειδικά αν πρόκειται για έναν σύχρονο συγγραφέα, όπου χρειάζεται να τηρηθεί μια διακριτική στάση απέναντι στη ζωή του και την προσωπικότητά του. Αλλά κακά τα ψέματα, για έναν καλλιτέχνη η εξέλιξη του έργου του ακολουθεί την πορεία της ζωής του και η βιογραφία του Ζολά με διαφώτισε για πολλές πτυχές του έργου του. Κι ο Brown κάνει εξαιρετική δουλειά, αν και κατανοώ πως μόνο για κάποιον που κάνει κάποια εργασία επάνω στον συγκεκριμένο συγγραφέα, αυτό το έργο θα ήταν πραγματικά αναγκαίο. Δυστυχώς στην Ελλάδα δεν έχω βρει ακόμα σε καμία βιβλιοθήκη κάποια κριτική έκδοση των απάντων του Ζολά, οι οποίες είναι πανάκριβες και αδυνατώ να τις αποκτήσω μονοκοπανιά. Ευτυχώς ωστόσο ένα μεγάλο κομμάτι του έργου του κυκλοφορεί ελεύθερα στο διαδίκτυο, γιατί είναι public domain. Εκεί που συναντώ την μεγαλύτερη δυσκολία είναι στην αλληλογραφία του, στα θεατρικά του και σε όσα έργα έχει κάνει για το μουσικό θέατρο κυρίως σε συνεργασία με τον συνθέτη Alfred Bruneau. Ειδικά αυτό το μουσικό κομμάτι του έργου του, με γοητεύει ιδιαίτερα και ελπίζω στο μέλλον να συγκεντρώσω περισσότερο υλικό. Ο Brown καταφέρνει να δέσει με πολύ ωραίον τρόπο την προσωπική ιστορία του συγγραφέα με τα ιστορικά γεγονότα της εποχής του, παρουσιάζει ολοκληρωμένα το κάθε έργο του, παραδίδοντας χρησιμότατες βιβλιογραφικές πληροφορίες και παράλληλα δίνει στοιχεία και για άλλους καλλιτέχνες που έζησαν την ίδια εποχή. Ο αγώνας και η εξυπνάδα ενός νεαρού που, γεννημένος από Ιταλό πατέρα, δεν απέκτησε την γαλλική υπηκοότητα παρά μόνο κάποια χρόνια μετά την ενηλικίωσή του, όπου δεν σπούδασε ποτέ στο πανεπιστήμιο και δεν κατόρθωσε να γίνει ακαδημαϊκός (αν και το προσπάθησε πολύ, πάντα έχανε για μια δυο ψήφους) που αξιοποίησε στο έπακρο τη δημοσιογραφική του εμπειρία για να εμπλουτίσει αλλά και να προωθήσει το έργο του, που ξεκίνησε ορφανός και πάμφωχος παρακαλώντας για μια θέση ως υπαλληλίσκος σε έναν εκδοτικό οίκο και που αγαπούσε να κάνει βόλτες με το ποδήλατο στην εξοχή και να τραβάει φωτογραφίες, είναι ένα κομμάτι της ιστορίας του Εμίλ Ζολά. Μια ζωή που θα μπορούσε κατά κάποιο τρόπο να αποτελεί κομμάτι ενός ευρύτερου νατουραλιστικού μυθιστορήματος. Θυμάμαι πώς ανακάλυψα τον συγγραφέα αυτόν. Μου είχε δώσει η αδερφή μου μια κόπια της “Ταβέρνας” την οποία είχε ανακαλύψει στο πατάρι του σπιτιού που νοικιάζαμε κάποια εποχή ως φοιτήτριες. Προσπαθούσε να τραβήξει κάτι σανίδες για ένα κρεβάτι από εκεί πάνω, και μέσα στη σαβούρα της ήρθε στο κεφάλι κι εκείνο το βιβλίο, που έμελλε να είναι το πρώτο της συλλογής μου, αν και δεν το έχω πια, γιατί το δώρισα στη βιβλιοθήκη της περιοχής μου.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth (Alaska)

    I started this in 2014, read 50+ pages and set it aside. I knew I would come back to it, but didn't at that time want to give the attention this required. Here I am six years later. I picked it up in early June of this year and read it piece meal through the summer. I was more motivated as I have the prospect of a couple of rereads this fall in newer translations. This is academic nonfiction, not narrative nonfiction. It covers Zola's life from birth to death. It is dense and foot-noted. His earl I started this in 2014, read 50+ pages and set it aside. I knew I would come back to it, but didn't at that time want to give the attention this required. Here I am six years later. I picked it up in early June of this year and read it piece meal through the summer. I was more motivated as I have the prospect of a couple of rereads this fall in newer translations. This is academic nonfiction, not narrative nonfiction. It covers Zola's life from birth to death. It is dense and foot-noted. His early years as a journalist are covered. Each of his novels is given attention with a plot overview and analysis. His friends of long-standing get much more than a passing mention and there is also the politics of his life as well. I was much more interested in his relationships with his friends than in the politics where I struggled with both the unfamiliar names and the 19th Century terms. As I have read all of his 20-volume series and a few of the standalone novels, I was happy to see the analysis. I will surely use this for future reference. I think the best of it, though, are the close to 60 pages dedicated to the Dreyfus Affair and Zola's involvement. Reading An Officer and a Spy, I did not understand the impact of Zola's J'accuse!. Further, Harris' novel was centered on Picquart, the head of French Intelligence. In no way was I given to understand the depth and breadth of Zola's persecution for having stood up to government corruption and defending a Jew. The amount and venom of the antisemites at the time was a real eye-opener. I'm so very glad to have seen an opportunity to read this and to fit it into my reading time accordingly. I cannot pretend that I enjoyed even most of it, but I do so appreciate having read it. Some books happen at just the right time - 2014 was wrong and 2020 was right for me. Can I give it 5-stars? It enlightened me in so many ways and yet parts were a slog. It must sit right at the dividing line and because it held so many important pieces of information I'll let it leap over the line. But just barely.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Sam Jasper

    Many years ago I set out to read the entire Rougon Macquart series before I keeled over. But with only (only?) 20 books in the series, I rationed them, reading some twice. I have now set out to read them in the order written and am almost finished, a feat I am delighted by as a few of them had yet to be translated into English when I started out. I was given this biography by a friend as a birthday gift. It's huge book and I did love reading it. It was, however, very much a literary biography. Mr Many years ago I set out to read the entire Rougon Macquart series before I keeled over. But with only (only?) 20 books in the series, I rationed them, reading some twice. I have now set out to read them in the order written and am almost finished, a feat I am delighted by as a few of them had yet to be translated into English when I started out. I was given this biography by a friend as a birthday gift. It's huge book and I did love reading it. It was, however, very much a literary biography. Mr. Brown did an astonishing job in compiling and analyzing so many pieces of information, as Zola was a complicated person and a prolific writer of not only books, but reviews, editorials and letters. What I felt was missing, or touched on too lightly was the personal information. It was clear that Zola was conflicted by his dual life as husband to one woman and lover to another, but it just seemed that for such an introspective man, there must have been letters or other sources for information on how he felt about that. His relationship with Cezanne was fascinating and we are told there was a falling out, probably due to Zola's inability or unwillingness to stand up to his wife who disliked Cezanne, but we really never hear what he thought about this, except that all communication ceased. My misgivings aside, I loved this book, and I think fans of Zola or people who like that period of French history will enjoy it. But don't try to read it in bed, it's a heavy one!

  5. 4 out of 5

    Sammy

    An exhaustive and exhausting biography, this is an incredible source of information on Zola and his works. This book came out just before Oxford University Press started issuing its (now almost-complete) masterful series of modern translations, so the plot summaries are immensely helpful, although the one area I wish Brown had gone into was English translation of the work. (That subject is covered very strongly in Graham King's older, more plebeian "The Garden of Zola".) Of course, there's a fin An exhaustive and exhausting biography, this is an incredible source of information on Zola and his works. This book came out just before Oxford University Press started issuing its (now almost-complete) masterful series of modern translations, so the plot summaries are immensely helpful, although the one area I wish Brown had gone into was English translation of the work. (That subject is covered very strongly in Graham King's older, more plebeian "The Garden of Zola".) Of course, there's a fine line between erudition and pretention, and I'm not sure Brown always comes down on the right side of it. I could use a few less instances of the word 'ultramontane', and perhaps a bit more translation. When Brown notes Zola's early series of columns, "Mes Haines", he remarks on how the title is inherently aggressive, but he neglects to translate it into "My Hates", so anyone who doesn't have French will be at a loss in that moment. Nevertheless, a powerful biography written from an admirably objective point-of-view. Situating Zola firmly in his time, Brown finds a strong balance between the author's life and career emanating from his own persona, and from the cultural elements that formed him.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Tony

  7. 4 out of 5

    greg

  8. 4 out of 5

    Susan

  9. 4 out of 5

    Anntonette

  10. 5 out of 5

    Alex

  11. 5 out of 5

    Phil

  12. 4 out of 5

    Trish

  13. 5 out of 5

    Autistic Spinoza

  14. 5 out of 5

    bibi

  15. 4 out of 5

    Kelly Korby

  16. 4 out of 5

    Nina

  17. 5 out of 5

    Noelle

  18. 4 out of 5

    Benjamin Icke

  19. 5 out of 5

    Alex

  20. 4 out of 5

    Habaneroman

  21. 5 out of 5

    Tim Mather

  22. 4 out of 5

    Janelle

  23. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth

  24. 5 out of 5

    Felicien

  25. 5 out of 5

    Mathilde Roux

  26. 4 out of 5

    Bill

  27. 4 out of 5

    theancientsandthemoderns

  28. 4 out of 5

    Dagerman

  29. 4 out of 5

    Joel Abend

  30. 4 out of 5

    Kirk McElhearn

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