At first sight, this book looks like an exhaustive study of the familiar: Zola’s ascent from impoverished beginnings to enjoying the status, by the end of his life, of the best-known European writer of his generation; and a novel series charting the rise of a provincial family to political and economic power. The originality of Frédérique Giraud’s thesis lies in its rigorously sociological approach, prefaced by a somewhat defensive theoretical positioning, invoking as a model Norbert Elias’s Mozart, sociologie d’un génie (Paris: Seuil, 1991). This, she claims, ‘appliquée à la compréhension de la carrière et des créations littéraires d’Émile Zola permet de compléter les études zoliennes existantes et d’en renouveler les perspectives’ (p. 9). In practice, this involves repackaging the results of the last half-century of Zola scholarship, scrupulously recorded and annotated, into a ‘biographie sociologique du producteur culturel’ (p. 13), with a particular emphasis on ‘la fabrication familiale’ (p. 93), in which the role of the absent father, François Zola, is seen as of crucial importance. But not, of course, in merely psychological terms; instead, his son’s lifelong efforts to protect and rehabilitate a paternal reputation are seen as consistent with the creation of his own identity and visibility in the public sphere. The narrative of Zola’s social aspirations extends from failing the baccalaureate to his repeated attempts to be elected to the Académie française, notwithstanding which the transfer of his remains to the Panthéon in 1908 is a telling epilogue. The milestones on this journey to recognition are intelligently rehearsed: Zola’s strategically energetic access to the platform afforded by contemporary journalism; his leadership of the Groupe de Médan underlined by the signalling of his newly acquired bourgeois residence in which, as the illustrations in this book remind us, he was more than happy to be photographed; his remorseless self-publicity, whether in the shape of securing reviews of his early work, ensuring the theatrical adaptation of his novels, mastering the vogue for celebrity interviews, his single-minded dealings with translators and interchanges with foreign critics, like Jacques Van Santen Kolff, designed to enhance his global reach. In the absence of diaries and an autobiography, it is by recourse to Zola’s fiction that the themes of his career can be tracked: ‘l’écriture lui permet de construire un rapport distancié à des expériences biographiques vécues comme douloureuses’ (p. 349). Authorial surrogates and self-reflexive scenarios are not, however, unequivocally compensatory. Nor are the vicissitudes of imagined characters, ranging from degradation to triumph, simply grounded in personal experience. For what the latter also provided was a heightened consciousness of the precariousness of the times, ‘le trouble du moment’ (as Zola put it in the preliminary notes for the Rougon-Macquart), characterized by dissolving hierarchies and a social structure in crisis. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for French Studies. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
French Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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