Monday, December 31, 2012

Zola: A Life by Frederick Brown

Not an easy read, but worth the effort
I came to this book after having read Zola’s twenty Rougon-Macquart novels. I wanted to read the most comprehensive, authoritative biography of the great writer, and I think this book qualifies. The level of detail is tremendous. Frederick Brown not only provides us with the story of Zola’s life, but also the lives of his many contemporaries (including Cezanne, Flaubert, Turgenev, Goncourt, Manet). In addition Brown puts these lives in valuable perspective by thoroughly examining the events of French history, which, during Zola’s life consisted of a very complicated series of wars, revolutions, and political upheavals. (Before reading this biography, it helps the reader to have a basic preliminary knowledge of French history in order to navigate the serpentine rise and fall of governments.)

Brown also examines Zola’s writings from a critical perspective, and draws a complex web of literary influence to and from the author. For every novel that Zola published, Brown provides a detailed synopsis of the story (spoilers included), a critical analysis of the work, and valuable information on the critical and public reception of the book. Brown seems to grow tired of this, however, as books described in the beginning of Zola’s life are more thoroughly examined than his later works. I myself got a little tired of Brown’s constant Freudian analysis. “Zola did this because of his father. He did this because of his mother.” It’s as if Brown lacks confidence in the intelligence of his readers, and feels the need to relentlessly push his thesis on us.

This book is not an easy read. It is a scholarly work, written for an audience of literature professors, not for the casual reader. The beginning of the book is particularly challenging. When discussing Zola’s education and literary influences, Brown rattles off references to a lot of titles that most readers outside academia probably have not read. In every other sentence he’ll throw in metaphors pertaining to obscure classical literature. Once over this intial hump, the reading goes more smoothly and one becomes accustomed to Brown’s particular wordcraft. (He uses the word “tergiversations” about once in every chapter.)

Another problem with the book is that there is a period of Zola’s life that just isn’t very interesting. Brown’s depiction of Zola’s early hardscrabble career as a journalist, critic, and part-time novelist is particularly fascinating, but once Zola strikes it rich the excitement dies down quite a bit. While seclusion in a country house made it possible for Zola to create some of his greatest masterpieces, it doesn’t make for the most exciting narrative. This is rectified late in Zola’s life, however, by the Dreyfus affair. Brown’s relation of the events surrounding the scandal are rewardingly exhaustive, covering at least 150 pages.

Despite my complaints, I’d have to say that I’m glad I read this book. I wanted to read “Everything You Wanted to Know about Emile Zola”, and that’s what I got. Something else I got from this book is a long wish list of books for future reading, by Zola and other authors discussed in the book.

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