Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Book Review - The Disappearance of Émile Zola

[From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter #61 Summer 2017]


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The Disappearance of Émile Zola 
by Michael Rosen
Faber & Faber, London, 2017
£16.99, 302pp ISBN 978-0-571-31201-6

The low points of journalism are all too familiar, the Guardian’s vile vendetta against Jeremy Corbyn being just one more instance. But political journalism has its high points too, and one of the finest examples, still remembered and cited more than a hundred years later, is Émile Zola’s J’Accuse of 1898, a passionate polemic against army corruption and anti-Semitism and in defence of the wrongfully imprisoned Alfred Dreyfus.

Much has been written on the Dreyfus case (and this book contains a valuable bibliography) but Michael Rosen’s new book offers an interesting perspective by giving an account of the time Zola spent in England. After being found guilty of libel, Zola was advised by friends to evade prison by escaping to England where he spent ten and a half months living incognito. Rosen has reconstructed this period of exile using a range of sources, including Zola’s correspondence and accounts by his daughter and his friend and translator Ernest Vizetelly.

In many ways Zola found his stay disconcerting; he did not think much of English food. He had to deal with a complicated family life. For many years he had been married to Alexandrine, but their union had been childless. More recently he had embarked on a relationship with Jeanne Rozerot, with whom he had two children.

Though Zola was an enlightened and progressive thinker, he did not escape the assumptions of his time about gender, as shown by his comments on the children: as he wrote to Jeanne: “I really want my little Denise not to do much at all and that later she will be happy to be a good little wife. But I would be very sad if our Jacques was just lazy and ignorant.”

Zola was a remarkably prolific writer and he did not allow exile to disrupt his productivity. He had a rule of writing five pages every day. During his time in England he produced some 1006 handwritten pages, which became a 751-page novel. This was Fécondité (Fertility), the first volume of his final novel cycle, entitled without undue modesty The Four Gospels. This strange and little read volume is a prolonged polemic against abortion, sterilisation, birth control and all attempts to limit population. As Rosen points out, this had clear implications of colonialism; if everyone were to turn out children at the rate Zola advocated, then the French population would have to spill over into the rest of the world. And as Rosen also notes, Zola was working in exactly the opposite direction to some of his British contemporaries like Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant, who were campaigning in favour of birth control.

Some of the most interesting fruits of Rosen’s research are quotations from the British left press of the time, showing the support given to Dreyfus by the labour movement. He quotes an article from the periodical of the Social Democratic Federation, contrasting Zola and the defenders of Dreyfus to the absence of opposition to the Boer War; Fabian News commended both Zola’s literary work and his intervention in the Dreyfus case. He has also looked at the often ephemeral Yiddish-language socialist press. Thus the Yiddisher Express analysed Zola’s role as leader of the defence of Dreyfus. And in 1902 a leaflet in Yiddish issued by the East London Jewish branch of the Social Democratic Federation urged Jews in Dublin to support James Connolly in an election; it invoked Dreyfus in support of the proposition that “The Socialists are the only ones who stand always and everywhere against every national oppression”.

The significance of Zola’s intervention in the Dreyfus case must be understood in the context of the initial failure of the French left to take up the issue. French socialists and syndicalists were not free of anti-Semitism, and often lapsed into a crude class analysis which argued that Dreyfus did not merit support because he was a wealthy army officer. Rosen traces the rather slow evolution of leading Socialist Jean Jaurès – often treated as a near saint – who initially claimed that Dreyfus escaped the death penalty thanks to the “prodigious deployment of Jewish power”, before becoming one of Dreyfus's most persuasive supporters.

Rosen believes the defence of Dreyfus helped to create “a new kind of politics … combining ideas that were internationalist, against poverty, against injustice and against what we now call racial discrimination”. But perhaps he is too optimistic. The formation of a broad united front in support of Dreyfus was undoubtedly positive, if somewhat belated. But support for Dreyfus did not necessarily imply a commitment to the broader struggle for social justice. Clemenceau, whom Rosen quite correctly presents as being a strong supporter of Zola and Dreyfus, became Minister of the Interior in 1906, and was responsible for sending troops who fired on winegrowers in Southern France. Zola (by then dead), who had depicted the use of soldiers against striking miners in Germinal, would scarcely have approved.

Rosen recognises that Zola could be “egotistical” and “irritating”, but nonetheless sees him as a “hero in my eyes”. Above all Rosen’s account is written with passionate support for Zola’s opposition to anti-Semitism, and there are various references to Rosen’s own family history, including a dedication to relatives who perished in the Holocaust. For Dreyfus was only an episode – Dreyfus’s enemies suffered a temporary defeat but they took their revenge during the German Occupation in 1940-44, when they were among Hitler’s very willing helpers. And though under some mild constraints, their descendants are undoubtedly present in the ranks of Marine Le Pen’s Front National.

Rosen’s book is a powerful account of what a principled and courageous journalist could achieve. It should be compulsory reading for staff at the Guardian.

Ian Birchall

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