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Emile Zola's Biography

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Emile Zola was born in Paris on 2 April 1840.

He was brought up in Aix-en-Provence in poverty after the death of his father, an Italian engineer, when Zola was just seven.

Emile Zola was educated at College Bourbon at Aix and Lycee Saint-Louis in Paris. However, he failed his baccalaureat in 1859 and worked as a clerk.

His first short stories were published in 1864 and a year later he decided to support himself by literature alone.

He contributed many journalistic pieces and critical articles to newspapers. Zola's first major novel, Therese Raquin, was published in 1867.

The following year Emile Zola embarked on a remarkable tour-de-force: a series of novels in which he aimed to follow the effects of genetics and the environment in terms of one family, Les Rougon-Macquart. The series was to comprise 20 books published over the period from 1871 to 1893 and is iconic of the French Naturalist Movement. Perhaps the most famous works in the series are Nana, Germinal, La Terre and La Bete humaine, however my favourite is L'assommoir.

L'assommoir is the seventh in the series and like many of Zola's works appeared in serial form. When the first part was published in Le Bien Public in April 1876 it caused a huge stir and raised Zola's profile. The newspaper was so rattled by the public's reaction that after just six parts they suspended publication. Part of the public criticism was down to the crudity of the language (there was much coarse argot), and part was a dislike of the way Zola failed to glamourise the poor.

In the end, another paper, La Republique des Lettres, continued to publish it. In his own preface to L'assommoir in its book form, Zola wrote:

"When L'assomoir was serialized in a newspaper it was attacked with unparalleled ferocity, denounced and accused of every kind of crime ... I wanted to depict the inevitable downfall of a working-class family in the polluted atmosphere of our urban areas. The logical sequel to drunkenness and indolence is the loosening of family ties, the filth of promiscuity, the progressive loss of decent feelings, and, as a climax, shame and death. It is morality in action, just that.

"L'assommoir is the most moral of my books ... Only its form has upset people. They have taken exception to words. My crime is that I have had the literary curiosity to collect the language of the people ... Form! Form is the great crime. ... It is a work of truth, the first novel about the common people which does not tell lies but has the authentic smell of the people. And it must not be concluded that the masses as a whole are bad, for my characters are not bad, but only ignorant and spoilt by the environment of grinding toil and poverty in which they live...

"...I trust to time and the good faith of the public to disinter me at long last from the mass of rubbish that has been heaped upon me."

In 1898, Zola once again stood steadfast on his principles when he supported the cause of Alfred Dreyfus, attacking the government's militarism and anti-semitism in his pamphlet, J'accuse. Zola was sentenced to prison. However he escaped to England, and upon his return to France was welcomed back as a hero.

Dreyfus had wrongly been found guilty of delivering documents concerned with national security to a foreign government. Eventually the Chief of Military Intelligence admitted forging the papers for the original trial.

Emile Zola died in 1902.

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