Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Experimental Novel and Other Essays by Emile Zola

The naturalist manifestoes
Emile Zola, by Manet
The Experimental Novel and Other Essays is a collection of French author Emile Zola’s nonfiction writings on literature. It was originally published in 1880, followed by the English translation by Belle M. Sherman published in America in 1893. In a brief introduction, Zola explains that the five lengthiest essays in the book were originally published in Russia, because no literary journal in Paris would accept them. The remaining assortment of seven-to-nine-page pieces, grouped under the headings of “The Novel” and “Criticism,” first ran in the French journals Le Bien Public and Le Voltaire.

Though many consider Zola the father of the naturalist school of literature, in these essays he vehemently shuns such a label, claiming that naturalism is not a school but a method or tendency that has been present throughout the history of literature, even as far back as ancient times. In the 19th century naturalism was overshadowed by romanticism, and Zola merely sees himself as a vocal advocate for its resurgence in the modern era. He repeatedly credits Balzac, Stendhal, and Flaubert with pioneering the naturalist renaissance in French literature, although each sometimes waxed romantic in their turn. Even if Zola isn’t the founder of naturalism, he is clearly its most strident proponent and purist. In the opening essay, “The Experimental Novel,” he likens the writing of a novel to the practicing of medicine and draws upon a medical text from Claude Bernard to back up his argument. For Zola, what separates naturalism from other literary movements is its devotion to science. This manifests itself in the sense of reality established by the author and the refusal to deviate from natural laws for the convenience of telling a story. Man is not an actor on a stage, but an organism subject to environmental and evolutionary forces. “Determinism dominates everything,” asserts Zola.

In addition to pushing his naturalist agenda, Zola also champions the novel as an art form, asserting that it is the literary medium that best speaks to the modern world and its scientific concerns. He avows that the novel’s capacity for realism will eventually win out over the favored vehicles of romanticism: poetry and drama. From today’s perspective, his prediction certainly seems to have come true. He nevertheless hopes that realism will also someday come to inhabit the stage, which certainly did happen in the early 20th century. One might argue that naturalism also triumphed on the silver screen. At the time Zola was writing these essays, however, naturalism was a dirty word, and he its staunchest defender, a freedom fighter liberating literature from the yoke of romanticism.

In the five longer essays, which run about 50 pages each, Zola can get a bit long-winded and repetitive in his arguments, as if he’s writing to fill a word count. Because of the very nature of the collection, which brings articles from different times and venues into one volume, naturally some themes are brought up again and again. Several of the shorter pieces consist of Zola merely railing against a critic who has insulted Balzac. Nevertheless, for anyone who is an enthusiast of Zola’s novels or has an interest in literary naturalism in general, this book provides invaluable insight into Zola’s thought process as a writer and his personal philosophy of art. Such readers will also be interested in a similar volume by America’s foremost Zola disciple, Frank Norris, entitled The Responsibilities of the Novelist. Both books are essential texts in the naturalist canon and fascinating reading for those with a love for this school of literature.
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