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Archive Fever: Emile Zola

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday June 21, 2017


I am an artist. I am here to live out loud. - Emile Zola

If ever there was a situation in which the admonition of the Roman poet Ovid, “Be careful what you wish for” might be taken seriously, it was on January 13, 1898. The French author Émile Zola wrote an editorial on that day which exposed a cover-up that led to what became known as the Dreyfus Affair. A scandal arose when evidence confirming the innocence of the Jewish artillery officer, Alfred Dreyfus, who had been sentenced to life in prison on Devil’s Island for passing military secrets to the Germans, came to public attention through Zola's article. At stake were not only the innocence of a man wrongly convicted, but a range of issues including politics, religion, and national identity. These revelations resulted in accusations of anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, and anti-Protestantism, among other things, which divided French society for decades and are still felt today. 

Zola, a prolific journalist as well as an acclaimed novelist, was a champion of literary realism and truth. When he discovered facts concerning suppression of evidence in the Dreyfus case through research for a future novel, he could not remain silent. A month after the publication of his editorial, “J’accuse” [“I accuse”] he was prosecuted and found guilty of libel. To avoid jail time, Zola fled to England.

Zola departed in such haste that he had no time to pack a suitcase. And he spoke not a word of English. His only local contact,  translator Edward Vizetelly, helped him rent a house and get some clothes. But Zola was miserable; he hated the food ("Why don't they use salt?") and missed his families (he had two). He spent mornings writing his last novel, Fécondité [Fruitfulness], and afternoons walking around South London taking photographs of women on bicycles and women walking their dogs.

Zola was introduced to photography in 1888 when he acquired a Kodak box camera. Over the years he became an accomplished photographer, developing his film and making prints in his own darkroom. During exile, he sent for his cameras and cemented a commitment to expressing his artistic vision through photography.

The following year when new evidence emerged and Dreyfus was pardoned, Zola returned to Paris. After making final corrections to proofs for a new edition of his 20-volume cycle of novels published under the collective title Les Rougon-Macquart, Zola made camera-work his main activity. It is known through his journals and letters that he had ten or more cameras and had produced thousands of plates and negatives, of which only a few hundred survive.

During his lifetime (1840-1902), critics and the public were divided on Zola’s novels—they either loved them for their realism or hated them for their focus on poverty and its depredations. Best-known to English-speaking readers are Thérèse  Raquin [often presented as a play, most recently at New York's Roundabout Theater], Nana [about a courtesan, and inspired by a painting by the author’s friend Edouard Manet] and Germinal [adapted as a film by Claude Berri and starring Gérard Depardieu]. However Zola's service to his country during the Dreyfus Affair was taken to heart; more than 50,000 people turned out for his funeral, after which he was interred at the Pantheon. 

Photos, top to bottom: Zola photographing in the Bois de Boulogne;Jasper Road off Westow Hill in Crystal Palace, south London; the river Wey, near Surry, England; rue de Rivoli at rue des Pyramides, Paris; Cambodian Pavilion at l’Exposition Universelle, 1889, seen from the Eiffel Tower, all from Château d’Eau, Toulouse Info

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