The Disappearance of Émile Zola

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On Monday 18 July 1898 the French novelist Emile Zola was sentenced to a year in prison and a 3,000 franc fine. His crime was to have written an open letter to the French president entitled “J’accuse” (I accuse).

In it Zola accused military officials, including the minister of war, of falsely convicting Major Alfred Dreyfus (a Jewish officer) of passing military secrets to Germany. Fully aware that he risked prosecution for libel by denouncing the army and government’s handling of the Dreyfus affair, Zola boldly stated:

“It is a crime to stoke the passions of reactionism and intolerance, by appealing to that odious antisemitism that, unchecked, will destroy the freedom loving France of the Rights of Man. It is a crime to exploit patriotism in the service of hatred.”

Convinced by his lawyer and friends to leave France rather than go to prison, Michael Rosen’s book describes the scandal created by Zola’s “disappearance” and his year in exile in south London. Rosen makes extensive use of correspondence between Zola, his wife Alexandrine and mistress Jeanne, to illustrate the isolation and frustration Zola felt.

The most interesting parts of the book explain how Zola convinced both French and British socialists to campaign in defence of Dreyfus and against the widespread antisemitism of the time.

Beginning with Jean Jaures (future leader of the French Socialist Party), Zola persuaded him that while a military officer, Dreyfus’s treatment at the hands of the French courts made defending him a protest against the existing social order. Zola then developed this argument into a more general one against all forms of discrimination, which won him support from Jewish intellectuals and workers in Britain and the US.

While Dreyfus was restored to his army rank and declared innocent in 1906, Rosen makes reference to the resurgence of antisemitic ideas in France 40 years later under the Vichy regime. 76,000 foreign-born Jews were deported to Auschwitz, including Dreyfus’s great granddaughter and Michael Rosen’s great uncles.

While in England Zola worked on two novels — Fécondité (Fruitfulness) and Travail (work), which formed part of his Quatre Evangiles (the Four Gospels). The second presented a utopia drawing on the work of Charles Fourier. In reviewing Travail, Jaures said that while organisation and the struggle of the working class would be needed to achieve the utopia, “in Zola, social revolution has indeed found
its poet”.

The underlying message of this book is that Zola was an engaged intellectual at a time when not many were, as illustrated in the quote from Anatole France at Zola’s funeral in 1902: “He was a moment in the conscience of mankind.”