Friday, 1 February 2019

The Disappearance of Emile Zola by Michael Rosen

In 1898 the French novelist, critic and political activist Emile Zola writes ‘J’accuse’ an open letter in a newspaper supporting Alfred Dreyfus against the government. Dreyfus had been falsely tried, found guilty of treason and sent to Devils Island. Unfortunately the government was not impressed by his criticism and his friends advised him to flee the country rather than face trial. He quickly flees and reporters camp outside his Paris house awaiting news and newspapers openly speculated on where he has gone to.

Zola goes to England in what he hopes will be a short time but soon finds himself depressed and far away from the land he loves. For a man who loved every aspect of French life as Zola did, to be placed in such a foreign land was abhorrent and ‘the food was awful’. He was also separated from his wife, mistress and illegitimate children; and as his books stopped selling, his funds began to run out.

Emile Zola was much loved by the French people due to this sympathetic portrayal of them. However criticising the government and supporting Dreyfus who was a Jew brought him a lot of unwanted attention. There was a large anti- Semitic feeling which had been whipped up by the papers. This is a very interesting period in history, the ideas of socialism are gathering support and blind faith in leaders is being questioned openly. Even the everyday process of living is fascinating.

A few years ago now I read a large number of Zola novels, unfortunately not in French but at the time they left quite an impression on me. ‘Germinal’ in particular highlights the harsh lives of the French working class of this period. The movie is of course true to the book as it would have to be and is very grim. It clocks in at 2 hours 50 minutes and is available at the Havelock North library (sub-titled). Gerard Depardieu plays the villain and in the gets his come-uppance in a most gruesome way.

As well as the ‘Germinal’ DVD the library also has the books ‘Money’ and ‘Therese Raquin’.

Reviewed by Rob M

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