Emile Zola

Emile Zola

Emile Zola

Emile Zola

Excerpt

It must be counted among the odder ironies of literary history that the first work of Zola's to be set up in print was an innocent little trifle about the metamorphosis of two medieval lovers into sprigs of marjoram by a nursery fairy 'with wings of flame, a crown of forget-me-nots and a long green robe, of the colour of hope'.

The gulf between Zola in his early twenties, in a very real sense the poet starving in the garret, and Zola only a few years later, the bustling, prosperous pressman, gapes so wide that it hardly seems possible to bridge it by any logically interlocking sections. An indefinite number of paradoxical confrontations can be made. In 1860 Zola's philosophy of life consisted in ignoring workaday reality and feeding on day-dreams -- 'I turn my eyes away from the dung-heap to rest them on the roses, . . . because I prefer roses, useless though they are'; seven years later a prudish critic accused him of writing 'putrid literature', of wallowing in that very dungheap he had not been able to set his eyes on. In 1860 again, three years after the appearance of Madame Bovary , Zola protested that 'the novel should not aim merely at painting, it should be edifying too'; yet six years later he is ironical about a moral ending that he finds in a novel of Louis Ulbach's: Ulbach wants to 'ally art and morality. I can only applaud these excellent intentions. My own ideas are diametrically opposed . . .'. The letters he wrote just after leaving school are rapturous about Chénier, Ronsard, Dante, and the French Romantic poets; in an age of materialism, the poet has 'a sacred mission -- to show, always and everywhere, the soul to those who think only of the body, and God to those whose faith has been destroyed by science'. In 1866 he professes impatience at having to read a packet of poetry books (even though, among them, was the first issue of Le Parnasse contemporain ); he has no time now for poets -- 'poor fellows who torture their brains to nail words into the tight frame of verse'. From a window in his lodgings in the Rue Saint-Victor he used to exchange polite smiles with a florist's assistant who passed by morning and evening: 'It's far less tiring to love like that; I wait for her, the girl I worship, puffing at my pipe. Then, what fine dreams I have! Not knowing her, I can . . .

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