Michael Rosen’s interest in French, and in Emile Zola, came as a surprise, though not quite such a surprise as that of his late father, Professor Harold Rosen, who would pore over his homework in his eighties much as I did myself as a teenager. By the time I started to read French at university, Zola was considered so last century that a friendly lecturer (with a doctorate in seventeenth century drama) asked me why the hell I was bothering to read him. My reply that it was a good book seemed inadequate, but I still think this is the main reason for reading and studying literature. Zola was, and is, an important writer, and Michael Rosen’s book reminds us of one of the reasons for this.
“J’accuse,” is one of the most quoted lines in French history. It was the headline of Zola’s verbal onslaught on the establishment that fabricated evidence against Captain Alfred Dreyfus for allegedly leaking to the Germans details of the recoil mechanism of France’s 75mm quick-firing field gun, which was to play a crucial role in World War I. The false accusation was followed by a cover-up, and then by persecution of those who sought to expose the cover-up, including Zola himself, who was convicted of libel for telling the truth. Unlike Oscar Wilde, he had the sense to choose exile rather than imprisonment, and this book tells the story of his exile.
I learned a lot from it. I had not known that Zola’s first publisher in English, Henry Vizetelly, had been fined, and then imprisoned – like Wilde, with hard labour – on charges of publishing obscenity brought by the “National Vigilance Association.” I found it mildly surprising that Zola himself was allowed to live in hotels in London and Upper Norwood, and later to take leases on houses, with virtually no security arrangements. Opponents of Dreyfus and Zola were determined to maintain the former’s conviction even after it had been proved that he was innocent and a Major Esterhazy, who admitted forging the evidence, was guilty. Dreyfus was Jewish, and, as one of his enemies put it, all Jews were traitors. This, even more than the outrageous injustice to Dreyfus, was Zola’s driving force – the full power of the French state was being used to enforce lies and suppress the truth.
There is much social history alongside the drama. Zola cannot abide British food. The idea of putting water on a steak offends his soul. He is a pushy parent, urging and bribing his children to be top of the class, and telling his son that if he is lazy and tells lies, he will turn into a monkey and be put in the zoo. Zola is a keen photographer, with his own darkrooms, and pedals around with a plate camera on his bicycle. His double life, with children by his mistress while enjoying the support of his wife, are described in extracts from letters, as is their reconciliation – Zola’s wife has a picture of his mistress placed in his coffin. The enmity behind the story is never far away, though, and a confession that an anti-Dreyfus fanatic had murdered Zola by blocking the flue of his stove, so causing carbon monoxide poisoning, is consistent with the evidence. The account of the aftermath reveals a personal connection – Michael Rosen’s great-uncle, Oscar, was on the same “Convoi 61”, to Auschwitz, as Dreyfus’ granddaughter, Madeleine Dreyfus Levy.
First-class scholarship, and a light touch on a dark story. Recommended.