Books

Michael Rosen
The Disappearance of Émile Zola

In 1893, Britain and the British literary world feted the visiting French novelist Émile Zola so grandly and warmly that he fantasised about one day returning to London and living there “incognito”. Five years later, in the early hours of July 19, 1898, he stood on the deck of the ferry from Calais to Dover, his only luggage a nightshirt wrapped in newspaper, tears welling, considering that he had never “experienced such deep unhappiness”. He, “who had always worked for the glory of France”, had been forced to flee his beloved homeland. 

In 1894, a French court had sentenced a Jewish officer, Alfred Dreyfus, to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island for treason. Two years later, evidence came to light that he had been framed, but a cabal of high-ranking military officials kept the verdict from being overturned and protected the wrongdoers. The case had strong anti-Semitic overtones. Zola, a tremendously popular novelist, was the only prominent non-Jew to demand justice for Dreyfus, which he did publicly and passionately, in an open letter to the prime minister titled, “J’Accuse…!” The letter concluded: “I have but one passion: to enlighten those who have been kept in the dark, in the name of humanity which has suffered so much and is entitled to happiness. My fiery protest is simply the cry of my very soul. Let them dare, then, to bring me before a court of law and let the inquiry take place in broad daylight! I am waiting.” The letter was published on January 13, 1898. Shortly after, Zola appeared in court on charges of libel related to a particularly damning passage in “J’Accuse” and was sentenced to a large fine and a year’s imprisonment. But further appeals caused delays in enforcement and another court convened on the morning of July 18; before it could conclude, with mobs outside baying for his blood, and at his lawyer’s insistence, Zola fled for England. 

The French president eventually pardoned Dreyfus – and those who had framed him. Less than 50 years later, Dreyfus’s granddaughter was transported to Auschwitz. By then, Zola’s dream of a “kingdom of human intelligence, of letters, and of universal humanity”, one “above the secular hatreds of races”, seemed – and still seems – a distant fantasy. 

For all the seriousness of its subject, The Disappearance of Émile Zola is a ripping great read. Michael Rosen intercuts moments of high drama with almost farcical comedy. Zola’s supporters are much tested by the ongoing problem of how to hide him from discovery by the press and French or British agents carrying orders for his deportation. At one point, Zola’s friend, translator and chief supporter-in-exile Ernest Vizetelly considers it safe to park him and a visiting French friend in a downmarket pub in a low-class entertainment district while he carries out a quick errand. When Vizetelly returns, he’s alarmed to find the Frenchmen surrounded by an excited mob. As it turns out, they were artistes who had mistaken Zola, “with his prosperous appearance” and French conversation, for a Parisian music-hall director scouting for talent.

In England, Zola, who’d fretted on the ferry that he hadn’t even enough English to order a glass of milk, taught himself to read the papers. He amused himself with taking photos and noting local customs, such as the tendency of Englishwomen to ride their bicycles in skirts rather than culottes, and he pondered the philosophical implications of the capital “I” versus the lower-case je. English food was a constant torment, as were English aesthetics – he despaired at the “habit of sacrificing beauty for utility” and detested the ubiquitous and sentimental portraits of dogs and horses. He missed home. He missed his wife. He also missed his mistress.

Rosen richly delivers on the promise of the book’s subtitle, “Love, Literature and the Dreyfus Case”. Vizetelly had to help organise separate visits from Zola’s wife, Alexandrine, and his lover, Jeanne, Alexandrine’s former seamstress and mother of his two beloved children. There is much, too, about literature: Zola’s place in it, his instinctive modernism and the novel he managed to complete in exile.  

Zola’s role in the Dreyfus affair, meanwhile, had a profound effect on public opinion generally, in England as well as France, and particularly on the progressive politics of the time. French socialists, who admired Zola’s naturalistic depictions of the poor in his novels, had previously been as inclined to anti-Semitism as the rest of the population, associating Jews with capitalism. It was explicitly thanks to Zola that, Rosen demonstrates, a “new kind of politics” came into being on the left, “combining ideas that were internationalist, against poverty, against injustice and against what we now call racial discrimination – four ideas that hadn’t always sat together in one worldview”. Zola risked his liberty, happiness and life for his beliefs. He may, in fact, have been murdered for them, according to a 1953 investigation by the paper Libération that Rosen discusses in some detail.

Rosen is a British poet, broadcaster, former children’s laureate and a recipient of a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. He reveals two small but poignant points of connection with Zola’s story and that of Dreyfus. Rosen’s great-grandparents lived in the poor Jewish areas of Whitechapel that Zola visited and wrote about sympathetically on his visit in 1893. And one of his great-uncles was transported from France to his death in Auschwitz in the same convoy as Dreyfus’s granddaughter. 

Anatole France said at Zola’s funeral that “he was a moment in the conscience of mankind”. If he failed to defeat anti-Semitism single-handedly, he helped to banish it from progressive discourse, and his actions and courage inspired others. Today, another tide of hatred and fear is washing across the world. Right-wing populists here, in the United States and elsewhere, while keeping anti-Semitism on the boil, claim it is now Muslims who threaten civilisation. Like Zola, others of us hold that such violent prejudices themselves are the real threat. We need to extend the “moment” of which France spoke. This excellent book, which includes a translation of “J’Accuse…!”, may help inspirit us in these dark times.  CG

Faber, 320pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 18, 2017 as "Michael Rosen, The Disappearance of Émile Zola ". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: CG

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