Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Notes from Exile by Emile Zola

Diary of a fugitive
At the end of the 19th century, France was embroiled in the political scandal known as the Dreyfus Affair. A French army officer named Alfred Dreyfus was wrongfully accused, tried, and convicted of espionage, largely on the basis of anti-Semitism. High-ranking officials in the French military fabricated evidence and even protected the real perpetrator of the crime, another officer who was not a Jew. This divisive scandal was the cause of great outrage in France. Among those who spoke out publicly against the miscarriage of justice was Emile Zola, who published his incisive editorial “J’accuse . . . !” in an 1898 Paris newspaper. Because of comments he made in that essay about three handwriting experts who helped to convict Dreyfus, Zola was charged with slander. On July 18, 1898, the Assizes Court at Versailles found Zola guilty. Rather than face a prison term and hefty fine, Zola fled the country that very same night. Notes from Exile is Zola’s diary of his life as an expatriate in England.

An English translation of Notes from Exile, edited by Dorothy E. Spiers and Yannick Portebois, was published by the University of Toronto Press in 2003. This edition includes 43 photographs taken by Zola himself of the English countryside, villages, and churches. These photos are as murky as one would expect of photos from 1898, and they don’t really add much to the narrative. Zola’s diary is a brief work, and only occupies about 33 pages of this 120 page book. Notes from Exile is really more of an article than a book, but it is educational and quite successful in giving the reader a glimpse into Zola’s personality. The editors also provide a detailed chronology of the Dreyfus affair, as well as an informative introduction, notes, and a bibliography.

Zola fled France with nothing but a nightshirt wrapped in a newspaper, and he barely spoke a word of English. He was aided by a few friends, primarily French painter Fernand Desmoulin and Englishman Ernest Alfred Vizetelly, who had previously translated most of Zola’s novels into English. With their assistance, Zola settles into his new life and eventually rents a series of country houses in Surrey. In this rural setting, Zola enjoyed exploring the English countryside by bicycle and taking photographs of the landscape. Still practicing his craft, he wrote his novel Fruitfulness by meeting a self-imposed quota of five handwritten pages per day.

His stay in England, however, was not entirely a pleasure trip. Since this is Zola’s personal journal, he is very candid in expressing his feelings, even though the entries are brief. Upon arrival he is troubled by his inability to speak English and plagued by anxieties. He worries about being recognized, for fear that he might be beset by journalists, attacked by anti-Dreyfus fanatics, or accosted by a process-server. Zola frequently laments his forced absence from the country he loves, but also curses the shameful corruption that has led to his unjust persecution. He sees himself as a victim, but not a helpless victim, and the indignation expressed in his journal entries sometimes rises to the strident tone of his socially conscious novels.

Zola’s last entry in his Notes from Exile is dated October 21, 1898. He did not return to Paris until June 5, 1999. A 33 page diary covering a year of Zola’s life may not be very thorough, but it is nonetheless revealing. Thanks to the fine presentation by the editors, one does learn a great deal about Zola’s involvement in the Dreyfus Affair.
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