Friday, December 20, 2013

Claude’s Confession by Emile Zola

An ambitious but depressing debut
Claude’s Confession, originally published in 1865, is the debut novel of author Émile Zola. Having previously read a few of Zola’s earlier works, I expected this to be another lightweight melodrama along the lines of The Mysteries of Marseilles. On the contrary, Zola’s first effort as a novelist was indeed a serious attempt at literature. Though this book does not exemplify the mature naturalistic style Zola would come to employ in his works from Thérèse Raquin onward, it does exhibit a prototypical stage in the development of the literary naturalism for which he is famous.

In a preface to the book, Zola explains that the novel is autobiographical and that the character of Claude represents himself. He dedicates the book to his childhood friends Paul Cezanne and Jean Baptiste Baille, to whom at times the text speaks directly, as if the chapters were a series of letters addressed to them. Like Zola, Claude is an idealistic youth from Provence who moves to Paris to pursue a career as a poet. He lives a life of poverty in a dismal garret, keeping to himself and focusing on his writing. One night, a neighbor in his building falls ill, and he is asked to watch over the sick woman, named Laurence, whom he discovers is a prostitute. He performs his duty with gentlemanly intentions, but in a moment of weakness he succumbs to her sexual advances. Not long after, she is evicted from her room and insists that she take up residence with him. At first Claude feels nothing but pity and disgust for this woman. He vows to reform her and elevate her to some shred of respectability. After a while, however, he falls madly in love with her. Much to his dismay, Laurence makes it painfully clear that the feeling is not mutual, and repays his love with torment and scorn.

Claude’s Confession reads more like the work of Balzac than Zola. In his day, Balzac was chastised for always concentrating on the evil and ugly in the world—a criticism that would also come to be levelled at Zola. Yet Balzac would often use loftily poetic language to express even the most squalid scenes. Such is also the case with this novel. While Zola presents a gritty and repugnant depiction of life in a lower-class tenement, he also loads each chapter with the grandiose, romantic soliloquies of his protagonist. The result is like a baroque opera performed in a bordello. Claude is exceedingly sensitive and overly emotional to the point of histrionics. Like a throwback to the romantic and idealistic literature of the past, he clashes with Zola’s naturalism. It’s as if the title character of Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther were to wander into the harsh reality of one of Zola’s brutally lifelike portraits of the dark underbelly of Paris.

It’s unclear how autobiographical this novel really is, and the more the reader contemplates that question the more unpleasant the thought becomes. Whether or not Zola really did have a relationship with a prostitute, who are we to judge? But if he did, then the entire novel was written as an excuse. On the one hand, he depicts himself as a victim to this evil harpy; on the other he portrays himself as a Pygmalian who strives to raise this unclean soul from the gutter. It all feels rather insincere and self-serving, and incongruous with the accepted image of Zola as the paragon of social consciousness, as exemplified by “J’Accuse!” I’m a huge fan of Zola’s writing and have always admired the humanitarian dimensions of his work, but after reading Claude’s Confession I must admit my estimation of him dropped a bit on both counts. Diehard fans will want to read this book because it offers an important glimpse into his literary development, but casual readers of Zola would do better to stick with the twenty novels of the Rougon-Macquart cycle.

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