Of the four great French novelists of the 19th century (Balzac, Flaubert, Stendhal and Zola), a strong case could be made in the last years of the 20th for Zola as being the most accessible: the racy, hard-hitting, plot-driven achievements of L'Assommoir, Nana, or Germinal, to name but the most famous, would not be misrepresented as a "good read", all the more so for their heady portrayal of the low life of the period, which Zola somehow contrives both to romanticise and to brutalise.
Yet these three pieces take their more rightful place in the series of 20 interlinked novels collectively known as Les Rougon-Macquart, ambitiously conceived of as an entity from an early stage in their composition (albeit not pre-emptively designed), which occupied Zola for as many years, and reached its anticlimactic synthesis in Le Docteur Pascal, affording as it does a kind of scientific justification (for its admirers) or an inflated index (for its detractors) of the entire project.
Uniting the cycle is the conviction that heredity is destiny, underpinned by the motif, eventually to become the title of a late volume in the series, of La Bete Humaine, and a tireless programme of research by the author into the etat present of whatever subject he was treating, be it alcoholism, smallpox, mining or department stores.
What Zola's most famous novels however conceal is the range of his panorama, not just of 19th-century France (and his - still unexplained - death in 1902 seems to coincide particularly fortuitously with the demise of the century), but of human experience, encompassing as he does the clergy (La Faute de L'Abbe Mouret), the nobility (Son excellence Eug ne Rougon) and the bourgeoisie (Pot-bouille), alongside peasants (La Terre), prostitutes (Nana) and the urban working classes (Germinal), and introducing strands of compassion (Le Reve) and (albeit short-lived) optimism (L'Assommoir) beside or within his more notorious depictions of degradation and squalor.
Apart from the masterwork, and after some juvenilia, come the fruits of a career in literary journalism, amalgamated into treatises on politics, and on the aesthetics of the novel and the theatre; a late, didactic trilogy devoted to Lourdes, Rome and Paris; three parts of an unfinished (secularised) Quatre Evangiles, addressing respectively fecundity, labour and truth (the fourth was to deal with justice); a few dramatisations of his own novels, almost invariably flops, and, even more improbably (although meeting with relative success), operas; and the final engagement in a political crisis initiated by the publication of an open letter to the president of the republic in defence of Dreyfus, universally known from its reiterated refrain as J'Accuse, and leading to its author's trial and temporary exile in England.
The life that subtends this activity is accorded an eloquent and scholarly treatment in this latest study. Working from Zola's notebooks and correspondence and from the testimonies of family, friends, colleagues and enemies, Professor Brown affords what is undoubtedly a uniquely comprehensive biography. From his subject's origins in Aix-en-Provence, through the Paris apprenticeship years as a journalist and art critic to his first commercial success as a novelist with Ther se Raquin, and on to the increasingly convincing mature stages of his Ouvre, a clearly marked progression is meticulously described.
Accompanying this is a full exposition of Zola's education and marriage, his belated involvement with a mistress who bore him two children, his progressively more affluent accommodation in Paris and Medan, his travels, illnesses and, above all, reactions to the many and fierce polemics which accompanied the appearance of his novels (of which an - entirely justifiable - plot summary is afforded in each case). More vitally, we are given an eclectic but eminently well-focused account of the turbulent political, military and social background of the period of his life (than which there can have been few more chaotic, as monarchy, empire and republics succeeded one another, orchestrated by the disruptions of the Franco-Prussian war, the Paris commune, and the Dreyfus affair).
Most fascinating of all is the depiction of literary and artistic milieux: the friendships with Cezanne and Manet; the intimates, admirers and table companions who included Flaubert, Mallarme, Maupassant, Daudet, Turgenev and Huysmans; and the comically bickering relationship with Edmond de Goncourt. All these place Zola the writer in the company of immortals (even if his own more formal claims to immortality were repeatedly rebuffed by the Academie Francaise), and in this way the work is about much more than Zola.
In this way too it is a most rewarding study, whose qualities are further enhanced by an admirably succinct chronology, generous and pertinent illustrations and a full scholarly apparatus of references and bibliography.
The life is entirely in English, with just the odd, rather quirkily chosen word of French (or German, or Italian, or Russian), to lend authenticity or to indicate an especially intractable term. Extracts from all primary sources, including Zola's novels, are translated (presumably by the author) but, whereas this allows for a readable consistency of style and register, some more extensive reference to original texts in French would have enlivened the sections devoted to quotations from the novels. (The translations themselves are on occasion stilted, and unequivocally presuppose an American reader - one wonders what exactly the French original was for Zola's "there's a great bugaboo", or "in this land of pluck and blithesomeness", let alone Manet's "You've made me a dandy New Year's gift".) Two more serious, and related, questions need also to be raised. The first applies to all literary biographies of which this is, no doubt, a first-class example. The mediation through a creative life of an historical period and its preoccupations into fiction is a fascinating source of study; yet the activity of studying that mediation is problematic, and throws into question its own centre of emphasis. Zola writes fiction, however scientifically, positivistically or physiologically grounded. He does not write history, even less does he write autobiography. The temptation is however always present to confuse life and art, and at times this temptation goes unresisted by Brown, even to the point at which a room described in L'Oeuvre is, without any acknowledgement of the intermediate fiction, purported to describe the studio of Cezanne.
Second, and more problematic again, is the question of why we remain interested in the life of Zola at all (so as to merit this kind of exhaustive enquiry) in contradistinction to the lives of the writers of contemporary treatises or those of the political figures which populate the work. We are taken in some detail through the formation of Zola's views on heredity and naturalism, and there is no doubt that these account to a large degree for the inception and realisation of his great project and, thus far, that the life and the writing are interconnected (more explicitly Freudian relationships carry less conviction).
Yet these do not account for his ability to transcend in his best writing (and even, more patchily, in some less acclaimed works) what Brown memorably encapsulates as his "preachy" tendency. To know more about that achievement is to ask about how he wrote (beyond his motto of nulla dies sine linea), who his prose models were, what (if?) he deleted or reworked, above all to ask how his unique capacity for verbal painting allows him to propagate his fleurs du mal, to make beauty from squalor, lyricism from "la litterature putride". As Anatole France said, "He is a poet. His large, simple genius creates symbols", even if, as a young writer, he eschewed poetry in favour of a more "virile" genre. At one point, Brown quotes an astonishing passage from Nana which anticipates Genet in its daring development of the double metaphor of Nana as a disease-carrying fly, likened in turn to a jewel.
But such features go entirely without comment in the accompanying text. To ask a biography to be a detailed stylistic analysis is clearly unreasonable; yet if we continue to read Zola it is not primarily because of his (often dated) scientific theories, nor even because of his heroic stance against anti-Semitism; it is because of his narrative and stylistic brilliance. So if, at the end of this long book, we know more about Zola's urinary habits than about his syntactical or lexical habits, more about his digestive rhythms than his prose rhythms, some feeling of disappointment may well occur; and if some of this is the fault of the genre, it still seems the more regrettable in that its author would, above all, have been qualified to redress the balance. Yet despite (or because of) these reservations, Brown tells a compelling story, avoids "preachiness", paces well and never leaves the reader in doubt as to the weight of research that has guided his exposition. Rather like his subject, d'ailleurs.
Richard Parish is fellow and tutor in modern languages, St Catherine's College, Oxford.
Zola: A Life
Author - Frederick Brown
ISBN - 0 333 55066 8
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £25.00
Pages - 888