Read CHAPTER XV - IN THE WORKSHOP OF ZOLA of Ivory Apes and Peacocks , free online book, by James Huneker, on

Taine once wrote:  “When we know how an artist invents we can foresee his inventions.”  As to Zola, there is little need now for critical judgments on his work.  He is definitely “placed”; we know him for what he is ­a romancer of a violent idealistic type masquerading as an implacable realist; a lyric pessimist at the beginning of his literary career, a sonorous optimist at the close, with vague socialistic views as to the perfectibility of the human race.  But he traversed distances before he finally found himself a field in which stirred and struggled all human animality.  And he was more Zola when he wrote Therese Raquin than in his later trilogies and evangels.  As an artist it is doubtful if he grew after 1880; repetition was his method of methods, or, as he once remarked to Edmond de Goncourt:  “Firstly, I fix my nail, and then with a blow of the hammer I send it a centimetre deep into the brain of the public; then I knock it in as far again ­and the hammer of which I make use is journalism.”  And a tremendous journalist to the end was Zola, despite his books and naturalistic theories.

Again, and from the diary of the same sublimated old gossip, Goncourt, Zola speaks:  “After the rarefied analysis of a certain kind of sentiment, such as the work done by Flaubert in Madame Bovary; after the analysis of things, plastic and artistic, such as you have given us in your dainty, gemlike writing, there is no longer any room for the younger generation of writers; there is nothing left for them to do, ... there no longer remains a single type to portray.  The only way of appealing to the public is by strong writing, powerful creations, and by the number of volumes given to the world.”  Theory-ridden Zola’s polemical writings, like those of Richard Wagner’s, must be set down to special pleading.

Certainly Zola gave the world a number of volumes, and, if the writing was not always “strong” ­his style is usually mediocre ­the subjects were often too strong for polite nostrils.  As Henri Massis, the author of an interesting book, How Zola Composed His Novels, says, “he founded his work on a theory which is the most singular of mistakes.”  The “experimental” novel is now a thing as extinct as the dodo, yet what doughty battles were fought for its shapeless thesis.  The truth is that Zola invented more than he observed.  He was myopic, not a trained scrutiniser, and Huysmans, once a disciple, later an opponent of the “naturalistic” documents, maliciously remarked that Zola went out carriage riding in the country, and then wrote La Terre.  Turgenieff declared that Zola could describe sweat on a human back, but never told us what the human thought.  And in a memorable passage, Huysmans couches his lance against the kind of realism Zola represented, admitting the service performed by that romancer:  “We must, in short, follow the great highway so deeply dug out by Zola, but it is also necessary to trace a parallel path in the air, another road by which we may reach the Beyond and the Afterward, to achieve thus a spiritualistic naturalism.”

Mr. Massis has had access to the manuscripts of Zola deposited by his widow in the National Library, Paris.  They number ninety volumes; the dossier alone of Germinal forms four volumes of five hundred pages.  Such industry seems fabulous.  But, if it did not pass Zola through the long-envied portals of the Academy, it has won for his ashes such an honourable resting-place as the Pantheon.  There is irony in the pranks of the Zeitgeist.  Zola, snubbed at every attempt he made to become an Immortal (unlike his friend Daudet, he openly admitted his candidature, not sharing with the author of Sapho his sovereign contempt for the fauteuils of the Forty); Zola, in an hour becoming the most unpopular writer in France after his memorable J’accuse, a fugitive from his home, the defender of a seemingly hopeless cause; Zola dead, Dreyfus exonerated, and the powdered bones of Zola in the Pantheon, with the great men of his land.  Few of his contemporaries who voted against his admission to the Academy will be his neighbours in the eternal sleep.  His admission to the dead Immortals must be surely the occasion for much wagging of heads, for reams of platitudinous writing on the subject of fate and its whirligig caprice.

This stubborn, silent man of violent imagination, copious vocabulary, and a tenacity unparalleled in literature, knew that a page a day ­a thousand words daily put on paper every day of the year ­and for twenty years, would rear a huge edifice.  He stuck to his desk each morning of his life from the time he sketched the Plan general; he made such terms with his publishers that he was enabled to live humbly, yet comfortably, in the beginning with his “dear ones,” his wife and his mother.  In return he wrote two volumes a year, and, with the exception of a few years, his production was as steady as water flowing from a hydrant.  This comparison was once applied to herself by George Sand, Zola’s only rival in the matter of quantity.  But Madame Sand was an improviser; with notes she never bothered herself; in her letters to Flaubert she laughed over the human documents of Zola, the elaborate note taking of Daudet, for she was blessed with an excellent memory and a huge capacity for scribbling.  Not so Zola.  Each book was a painful parturition, not the pain of a stylist like Flaubert, but the Sisyphus-like labor of getting his notes, his facts, his characters marshalled and moving to a conclusion.  Like Anthony Trollope, when the last page of a book was finished he began another.  He was a workman, not a dilettante of letters.

In 1868 he had blocked out his formidable campaign.  Differing with Balzac in not taking French society as a whole for a subject, he nevertheless owes, as do all French fiction writers since 1830 ­Stendhal alone excepted ­his literary existence to Balzac; Balzac, from whom all blessings, all evils, flow in the domain of the novel; Balzac, realist, idealist, symbolist, naturalist, humourist, tragedian, comedian, aristocrat, bourgeois, poet, and cleric; Balzac, truly the Shakespeare of France.  The Human Comedy attracted the synthetic brain of Zola as he often tells us (see L’Oeuvre, where Sandoz, the novelist, Zola himself, explains to Claude his scheme of a prose epic).  But he was satisfied to take one family under the Second Empire, the Rougon-Macquarts ­these names were not at first in the form we now know them.  A friend and admirer of Flaubert, he followed, broadly speaking, his method of proceeding and work; though an admirer of the Goncourts, he did not favour their preference for the rare case or the chiselled epithet.

Every-day humanity described in every-day speech was Zola’s ideal.  That he more than once achieved this ideal is not to be denied.  L’Assommoir remains his masterpiece, while Germinal and L’Oeuvre will not be soon forgotten.  L’Oeuvre is mentioned because its finished style is rather a novelty in Zola’s vast vat of writing wherein scraps and fragments of Victor Hugo, of Chateaubriand, of the Goncourts, and of Flaubert boil in terrific confusion.  Zola never had the patience, nor the time, nor perhaps the desire to develop an individual style.  He built long rows of ugly houses, all looking the same, composed of mud, of stone, brick, sand, straw, and shining pebbles.  Like a bird, he picked up his material for his nest where he could find it.  His faculty of selection was ill-developed.  Everything was tossed pell-mell into his cellar; nothing came amiss and order seldom reigns.  His sentences, unlike Tolstoy’s, for example, are not closely linked; to read Zola aloud is disconcerting.  There is no music in his periods, his rhythms are sluggish, and he entirely fails in evoking with a few poignant phrases, as did the Goncourts, a scene, an incident.  Never the illuminating word, never the phrase that spells the transfiguration of the spirit.

Among his contemporaries Tolstoy was the only one who matches him in the accumulation of details, but for the Russian every detail modulates into another, notwithstanding their enormous number.  The story marches, the little facts, insignificant at first, range themselves into definite illuminations of the theme, just as a traveller afoot on a hot, dusty road misses the saliency of the landscape, but realises its perspective when he ascends a hill.  There is always perspective in Tolstoy; in Zola it is rare.  Yet he masses his forces as would some sullen giant, confident in the end of victory through sheer bulk and weight.  His power is gloomy, cruel, pitiless; but indubitable power he has.

After the rather dainty writing of his Contes a Ninon, Zola never reached such compression and clarity again until he wrote L’Attaque au Moulin, in Les Soirees de Medan.  To be quite frank, he rewrote Flaubert and the Goncourts in many of his books.  He was, using the phrase in its real sense, the “grand vulgariser” of those finished, though somewhat remote artists.  To the Goncourts fame came slowly; it was by a process of elimination rather than through the voluntary offering of popular esteem.  And it is not to be denied that Madame Bovary owed much of its early success to the fact that its author was prosecuted for an outrage against public morals ­poor Emma Bovary whose life, as Henry James once confessed, might furnish a moral for a Sunday-school class.  Thus fashions in books wax and wane.  Zola copied and “vulgarised” Charles de Mailly, Manette Salomon, Germinie Lacerteux (Charles Monselet saluted the book with the amiable title “sculptured slime"), Madame Gervasais ­for his Roman story –­Soeur Philomene, all by Goncourt, and he literally founded his method on Madame Bovary and L’Education Sentimentale, particularly upon the latter, the greatest, and one is tempted to say the most genuine realistic novel ever written.  Its grey colouring, its daylight atmosphere, its marvellous description of Fontainebleau, of masquerades, of dinners and duels in high and low life, its lifelike characters, were for Zola a treasure-trove.  He took Rosanette, the most lifelike cocotte in fiction, and transformed her into Nana, into a symbol of destruction.  Zola saw the world through melodramatic eyes.

Mr. Massis has noted Zola’s method of literary travail, the formation of his style, the labour of style, the art of writing, the pain of writing, and his infinitely painstaking manner of accumulating heaps of notes, and building his book from them.  The Massis study, the most complete of its kind, may interest the student, not alone of Zola, but of literature in general.  Not, however, as a model, for Zola, with all his tiresome preparations, never constructed an ideal book ­rather, to put it the other way, no one of his books reveals ideal construction.  The multiplicity of details, of descriptions weary the reader.  A coarse spirit his, he revelled in scenes of lust, bloodshed, vileness, and cruelty.

His people, with a few exceptions, are but agitated silhouettes.  You close your eyes after reading La Bete Humaine and think of Eugene Sue, a Sue of 1880.  Yet a master of broad, symphonic descriptions.  There is a certain resemblance to Richard Wagner; indeed, he patterned after Wagner in his use of the musical symbol:  there is a leading motive in each of Zola’s novels.  And like Wagner he was a sentimental lover of mankind and a hater of all forms of injustice.

From the conception of the work, with its general notes on its nature, its movement, its physiology, its determination, its first sketches of the personages, the milieu ­he was an ardent adherent of Taine in this particular ­the occupations of the characters, the summary plan with the accumulated details, thence to the writing, the entire method is exposed in this ingenious and entertaining book of Massis.  He has no illusions about Zola’s originality or the destiny of his works.  Zola has long ceased to count in literary evolution.

But Emile Zola is in the Pantheon.


The publication of the number of books sold by a young American novelist previous to his untimely taking off does not prove that a writer has to be alive to be a best seller.  If that were the case, what about Dickens and Thackeray as exceptions?  The publishers of Dickens say that their sales of his novels in 1910 were 25 per cent more than in 1909, and 750,000 copies were sold in 1911.  In many instances a dead author is worth more than a live one.  With Zola this is not precisely so, though his books still sell; the only interregnum being the time when the Dreyfus affair was agitating France.  Then the source of Zola’s income dried up like a rain pond in a desert.  Later on he had his revenge.

The figures for the sale of Zola up to the end of 1911 are very instructive.  His collected works number forty-eight volumes.  Of the Rougon-Macquart series 1,964,000 have been sold; other novels, 764,000; essays and various works bring the total to 2,750,000, approximately.  In a word, a few years hence Zola will easily pass 3,000,000.  Nana still holds its own as the leader of the list, 215,000; La Terre, 162,000; L’Assommoir, 162,000.  This would seem to prove what the critics of the French novelist have asserted:  that books in which coarse themes are treated with indescribable coarseness have sold and continue to sell better than his finer work, L’Oeuvre, for example, which has only achieved 71,000.  But L’Assommoir is Zola at his best; besides, it is not such a vile book as La Terre.  And then how about La Debacle, which has 229,000 copies to its credit?  The answer is that patriotism played a greater rôle in the fortune of this work than did vulgar curiosity in the case of the others.  Another popular book, Germinal, shows 132,000.

On the appearance of La Terre in 1887 (it was first published as a feuilleton in Gil Blas, from May 28 to September 15), five of Zola’s disciples, Paul Bonnetain, J. H. Rosny, Lucien Descaves, Paul Margueritte, and Gustave Guiches, made a public protest which is rather comical if you remember that several of these writers have not turned out Sunday-school literature; Paul Margueritte in particular has in L’Or and an earlier work beaten his master at the game.  But a reaction from Zola’s naturalism was bound to come.  As Remy de Gourmont wrote:  “There has been no question of forming a party or issuing orders; no crusade was organised; it is individually that we have separated ourselves, horror stricken, from a literature the baseness of which made us sick.”  Havelock Ellis, otherwise an admirer of the genius of Emile Zola, has said that his soul “seems to have been starved at the centre and to have encamped at the sensory periphery.”  Blunt George Saintsbury calls Zola the “naturalist Zeus, Jove the Dirt-Compeller,” and adds that as Zola misses the two lasting qualities of literature, style, and artistic presentation of matter, he is doomed; for “the first he probably could not have attained, except in a few passages, if he would; the second he has deliberately rejected, and so the mother of dead dogs awaits him sooner or later.”  Yet Zola lives despite these predictions, as the above figures show, notwithstanding his loquacity in regard to themes that should be tacenda to every writer.

But in this matter of forbidden subjects Zola is regarded by the present generation as a trifle old-fashioned.  When alive he was grouped with Aretino and the Marquis de Sade, or with Restif de la Bretonne.  To-day Paris has not only Paul Margueritte, who when writing in conjunction with his brother Victor gave much promise, but also Octave Mirbeau.  With Zola, the newer men assert that their work makes for morality, exposing as it does public and private abuses, an excuse as classic as Aristophanes.

In 1893 the figures for the principal novels of Zola stood thus:  Nana, 160,000; L’Assommoir, 127,000; La Debacle, 143,000; Germinal, 88,000; La Terre, 100,000; La Bete Humaine, 83,000; the same number for Le Rêve; Pot-Bouille, 82,000; whereas L’Oeuvre only counted 55,000; La Conquête de Plassans, 25,000; La Curee, 36,000, and La Joie de Vivre, 44,000.  La Terre, then, the most unmentionable story of them all, has jumped since 1893 to the end of 1911 from 100,000 to 215,000, whereas L’Oeuvre moved only from 55,000 to 71,000 in fourteen years.  But a Vulgarian can understand La Terre while L’Oeuvre would be absolutely undecipherable to him.

Zola always knew his market; even knew it after Dreyfus had intervened.  Of the series called Les Trois Villes, Rome is the best seller, 121,000; and it is as profound a vilification of the Eternal City as was La Terre of the French peasants, as Pot-Bouille of the French bourgeois.  Indeed, all Zola reads like the frenzied attack of a pessimist to whom his native land is a hideous nightmare and its inhabitants criminals or mad folk.  His influence on a younger generation of writers, especially in America, has been baneful, and he has done much with his exuberant, rhapsodical style to further the moon-madness of socialism; of a belief in a coming earthly paradise, where no one will labour (except the captive millionaires) and from whose skies roasted pigeons will fall straightway into the mouths of its foolish inhabitants.

Zola as a money-maker need not be considered now; his gains were enormous; suffice to say that he was paid large sums for the serial rights.  Nana, in Voltaire, brought 20,000 francs; Pot-Bouille, in Gaulois, 30,000 francs; Bonheur des Dames, La Joie de Vivre, Germinal, L’Oeuvre, La Terre, in Gil Blas, each 20,000 francs; L’Argent, in the same journal, 30,000 francs; Le Rêve, in the Revue Illustrée, 25,000 francs; La Bete Humaine, in Vie Populaire, 25,000 francs; La Debacle, in the same, 30,000 francs, and Docteur Pascal in Revue Hebdomadaire, 35,000 francs.  That amounts to about 300,000 francs.  Each novel cost from 20,000 to 25,000 francs for rights of reproduction, and to all this must be added about 500,000 francs for the theatrical works, making a total of 1,600,000 francs.  And it was in 1894 that these figures were compiled by Antoine Laporte in his book on Naturalism, which contains a savage attack on Zolaism.  Truly, then, Zola may be fairly called one of the best sellers among all authors, dead or living.