The Disappearance Of Emile Zola: Love, Literature And The Dreyfus Case
by Michael Rosen
Faber & Faber £16.99
The slightly hazy image we have of the ‘Dreyfus Affair’ here in Britain, more than 100 years on, leaves a historical memory somewhat at odds with the reality. If they are aware of the case at all, most people assume Captain Alfred Dreyfus was cleared and reinstated … and that a significant factor was the intervention of novelist Emile Zola, whose newspaper article ‘J’Accuse’, published on January 13, 1898, confronted France with the depths of the military and state anti-semitism that sent a loyal and innocent army officer to die on the Devil’s Island penal colony, found guilty of treason by a Court Martial.
The latter belief has considerable truth. Zola’s intervention did succeed in focusing attention on this criminal injustice and in marshalling previously indifferent forces, such as the socialist movement and its leader Jean Jaures, to Dreyfus’s cause. But the idea that a declaration of Dreyfus’s innocence followed swiftly on the publication of ‘J’Accuse’ is erroneous … not least because Dreyfus was never found ‘innocent’ at all.
In fact, a second Court Martial, more than a year after Zola’s intervention, found Dreyfus guilty a second time, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. He was only freed as the result of a Presidential pardon on September 19, 1899. In July 1906 a Supreme Court judgement quashed the Court Martial verdict, after which a vote of the Chamber of Deputies of the National Assembly reinstated Dreyfus in the army with the rank of Major.
The French military high command, however, never admitted its mistake or its own guilt and under a general amnesty granted by the National Assembly, Major Ferdinand Esterhazy, the true author of the document for which Dreyfus was prosecuted – ordered to forge it, he claimed, by military superiors – lived out the rest of his life comfortably in England, writing anti-semitic articles for French journals.
Another beneficiary of that amnesty, ironically, was Emile Zola himself. Following publication of ‘J’Accuse’ Zola was sued for libelling the Army General Staff and, on July 18, 1898, fined 3,000 francs and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment. After leaving the Versailles court room he ‘disappeared’ for almost a year, returning to France only after Dreyfus was granted his retrial.
The author’s ‘disappearance’ is the subject of Michael Rosen’s enjoyable book, inspired by a Radio 3 programme he and his wife Emma-Louise Williams made in 2014. While the controversy raged in France, Zola – who spoke no English – was wandering the streets of Weybridge, Norwood and Crystal Palace, taking photographs – or holed up in rented houses and second-rate hotels in those areas writing his novel Fecondite. Rosen relates the occasionally sad, sometimes amusing and frequently infuriating tale of this fish-out-of-water existence through the author’s letters and the accounts of those few confidantes who knew his true whereabouts.
It’s actually quite extraordinary that, though Zola was widely known, or at least suspected, to be in England, he was never discovered. No 19th century papparazi, or the French court officials seeking to serve notice of his conviction, came knocking at his door. Perhaps it was because of the relative indifference of the English – beyond a relatively small readership and a few upmarket newspapers – to an author often regarded as symbolic of a near ‘pornographic’ school of French literature. Or perhaps there was a tacit, collective (possibly latently anti-French) agreement to leave him be, as a thorn in the side of the establishment across the Channel.
This is an area that Rosen, sadly, leaves largely unexplored. Instead he concentrates most closely on the author’s domestic affairs, as he strives to maintain his two households – that of his wife of 40 years, Albertine, and the one containing his other ‘dear wife’ of ten years, Jeanne, and their two children Denise and Jacques – and juggles their visits to England (and his hotels) to avoid too much embarrassment.
We see things mainly through Zola’s eyes, as Jeanne’s letters are lost (possibly destroyed after his death by Albertine). Those from the latter, however, give a taste of the pain she felt while tolerating, and even caring for, his second family. Zola meanwhile seems to tolerate Albertine – out of loyalty, guilt or a mix of the two – while adoring Jeanne and the children, though never ceasing to pester the two youngsters about their schoolwork.
For all his faults, though, his dedication to the Dreyfus cause is unswerving, while the sincerity of his socially radical politics is clear, even if, like the Fabian attachment to eugenics, the directions in which they led him are now long discredited. He also hates English food, and who can blame him for that?
Being an avid follower of his seemingly endless Facebook postings, it amazes me how Rosen also finds the time to write his poetry, perform his readings and make his radio programmes, as well as write a book like this – but I’m glad he can. This is not the most profound insight into Zola or his work, but it’s a valuable glimpse of an important historical and literary figure at a significantly unusual moment in his life.
Three years later he would be dead – murdered, possibly, by an anti-Dreyfusard builder who temporarily blocked his chimney, causing him to be poisoned by carbon monoxide. This contribution to the portrait of the late flowering of activism that led to his
premature death is certainly recommended.