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Zola at Work.
SPEAK of M. Zola's novels in the drawing-room, the street, or the café, and you will assuredly raise a storm of adjectives— nasty, beastly, abominable, etc., etc. Criticism generally finds vent in the following phrases :-"We don't want to hear about drunkenness and immorality.' "Art should confine itself "Low society is not interest
to depicting the beautiful.” ing." We know that vice exists, but what object is attained by flaunting it in our faces?" As subject of conversation M. Zola is devoid of interest, for not only are all the speakers of the same mind, but their opinion is never differently expressed. Toothpick tells Crutch in Piccadilly what Crutch tells Toothpick in Pall Mall; the journalist in the café confides to a confrère the same set of words which the confrère has been confiding five minutes before to another confrère; and two ladies in the drawing-room dismiss the question by mutually agreeing that they do not care about low life. Upon no other subject are these classes agreed. You may ransack art, politics, and religion, without finding one mutual opinion.
How then is this marvellous concord of ideas and similarity in phraseology to be explained? Scarcely, I think, by assuming that on all other subjects in the world there may be a difference of opinion, but upon M. Zola's novels there can be none. If this theory be not put forward to account for this, till now, unknown unity of thought, it becomes evident that the only other possible reason is that all these critics are gossiping about that of which they know absolutely nothing: it must be either of these reasons-no one will pretend to advance a third.
Personally, I incline to this latter explanation as the correct one; for having often been a forced listener in street, café, and drawing-room to many such conversations, I have observed that when the critics were even a little pressed, it generally came out that their knowledge of M. Zola's works was limited to having tried to read "L'Assommoir," after having seen the play Drink (from which most of their information was
drawn); they had heard of "Nana,"—and upon this information is based the stupendous edifice of abuse that English criticism has raised to Zola's honour or dishonour. It is true that these critics can all read Racine, and perhaps a volume of George Sands; but the knowledge of classical French helps them but little towards construing the language of "L'Assommoir."
On this head, the most intelligent criticism I have ever heard is, that they (the journalists) admitted readily that when a novelist wished to paint a labourer, he had to use the phraseology employed by that class; but to what they would never consent, and what they could not by any conceivable stretch of imagination understand, was how it could be right, when the author was himself speaking, to use the language of Bec-Salé.
I know of nothing that better shows the ignorance of contemporary criticism than this much-used argument, for quite unconsciously it attacks the first principle of the experimental novel, which is the continual maintenance of the surroundings (le milieu). Had M. Zola used the marvellous language which he compiled with much manual and mental labour from special dictionaries, low novels, and personal experience only in the dialogues between Mes Bottes and Bec-Salé, the milieu would not have been maintained, the detailed study of which is the essence of the naturalistic formula. I will only refer to morality, that journalistic jemmy, used so constantly and with unfailing effect against even the best protected windows and doors, by saying that I deplore many scenes in M. Zola's work, principally in "La Curée" and "Nana," quite as much as the most virtuous of the chorus of ignorant reviewers, but had I to choose out of the immense treasure-house of English and French fiction an intensely moral work, I would unhesitatingly hold up "L'Assommoir."
The third argument used against "L'Assommoir" is that it is merely photography! How can this be, when behind the observer there is the artist who arranges, classifies, and gives life to the facts observed with the fire of his individual inspiration? To call "L'Assommoir" photography is, of all impossible judgments that blindness or ignorance may pass on a man's work, the worst. The descriptions, in the factory where Gervaise goes to see Gouget at work, of the titanic power of the immense steam hammers working ceaselessly in the great obscurity through which figures hurry to and fro, sometimes clearly defined in the glare of the furnace fires, sometimes seen like
phantoms in the distance, are not photographic, but Miltonic, or, better still, Homeric. The scene chez les Lorrilleux, with the curiously detailed painting of the small dark room, the two old people bent over the furnace attending to the gold chains in various stages of completion, and Gervaise looking on with a silly, vacant, ignorant interest, is poetry of the best kind, and ranks with the highest Dutch art. The death of the child has never been surpassed in prose or verse; it is as beautiful as any work by Shelley or Raphael; the form is different, but the same qualities are there. "L'Assommoir" has been praised for being photographic, and it is epic.
But, absurdly as "L'Assommoir" has been criticised, great as is the mass of ignorance and prejudice brought to bear against this immense work, which is most assuredly as immortal as the French language, it is the only one, if I except "Nana," known even by name to the general public and literary critics. Speak of "La Conquête de Plassans," or "La Fortune de Rougon," or even of "La Curée," and not one in a thousand will know of what you are talking. Tell a journalist that "L'Assommoir is only one of a series of twenty novels called "the natural and social history of a family under the Second Empire," and he is utterly at sea.
Had it not been for Drink, I do not know what the society journalists would have done; but the Reed upon which they relied was feeble, and it long ago gave way beneath their weight. So much for contemporary criticism.
The Social and Natural History of a Family under the
M. Zola says: "All my novels published for the last nine years depend on one vast whole, the plan of which was definitely decided on beforehand. I follow it with scrupulous exactitude. Therein lies my strength." This immense work is to be concluded in twenty volumes, eleven of which are yet unpublished. The nine are as follows: "La Fortune de Rougon," "La Curée," "La Conquête de Plassans," "La Faute de l'Abbé Mouret," "Son Excellence," "Eugène Rougon," "L'Assommoir," "Une Page d'Amour," and "Nana." The Rougon-Macquart family
is divided into two parts-the Rougons are legitimate, the Macquarts illegitimate. The Macquarts on the female side marry into the Mouret family. These nine volumes tell the story of a Rougon or a Macquart. Lisa, in the Ventre
de Paris" and Gervaise, the mother of Nana, in "L'Assommoir" are the daughters of Antonine Macquart. Hélène, the heroine of "Une Page d'Amour," is a Mouret; her brother, François Mouret, escapes from a mad-house, and ends "La Conquête de Plassans by burning in his own house the priest who deprived him of his wife, children, fortune, and finally his reason. Serge, or the Abbé Mouret, and his sister Desirée, are born of a marriage between François Mouret and his cousin Marthe. Rougon, the head of the legitimate branch, halfbrother to Macquart, has two sons; the eldest, who becomes Son Excellence, Eugène Rougon; the younger changes his name to Saccard for fear of compromising his elder brother's position. He is the husband of Renée, the beautiful Parisian in "La Curée." From the first M. Zola drew up a list of the characters, assigning to each his or her career, with the intention of showing in all the effect of origin, education, the age we live in and surrounding circumstances. M. Zola says that if this plan be not taken into consideration, it is impossible to form any except odious and grotesque judgments of his work. He has still eleven novels to write to complete the series; and he hopes that when the history of the RougonMacquarts is finished, public opinion will justify his work. In the meanwhile he is working on a novel called "Le Soldat." It will contain a vast description of the Battle of Sedan; he went there expressly, and studied the ground with a guide, yard by yard. He expects it will raise a storm, and that he will be called the enemy of France. M. Zola will write also a commercial novel, anent the immense shops, like the Louvre and the Bon Marché, the struggle between large and small trade, the millions of bank-notes; an immense subject, full of new scenes and colours. He will write also the struggle of talent to make itself known in the world. It will be a band of young men who come to Paris to seek their fortune; journalistic life, literary life, art, criticism, misery in dress clothes, the fevers, the despairs of a young man who has genius within him, devoured by hunger and ambition. But there is another novel that he will write still more original than any of these. It will take place amid a network of railway lines, a junction where ten lines meet, each one of which will furnish an episode, and all will be united at the junction. There will be love in a railway carriage, an accident in a tunnel, the speed of the locomotive, the meeting, the shock, the disaster, the flight; all the grime, smoke, and noise. He has a
thousand scenes, blurred sketches, fearful catastrophes, in his head, which have to be worked together.
LA FORMULE NATURALISTE
Is the exact, the complete, and the sincere reproduction of socia surroundings, of the epoch in which we live. Such studies are justified by reason, the wants of the intelligence and public interest, and they should be free from all trickiness and lies.
This reproduction should be as simple as possible, so as to be understood by everybody. This is the formula, and it is applied as follows. The naturalistic novelist never sits down to imagine a certain complication of events; the plot is of no consequence, he does not know what his story is, if there be any, until his novel is finished. Having chosen his subject, he considers what scenes he will be able to bring in. These are noted down and carefully studied, and it is not until he possesses all his materials that he thinks of stringing them together; and this is done logically, and not imaginatively. For example, he starts with a fact observed. A young girl has been much flattered and admired; she marries a man who is not rich, and goes to live in the country. The novelist asks himself what is likely to happen. Life is composed of a thousand accidents; she is sure to be tempted back to fashionable society, for her passion for admiration still lives. How is this to come about? Probably some friend will ask her up for a ball. The opening chapter is clearly indicated-description of a ball in fashionable society. The novelist goes to a ball and studies how ladies speak among themselves; and again how, when gentlemen are present; he studies how the room is decorated, the different characters you meet, and their importance, and he makes a sketch of the description. What are the amusements of the London season? The Park suggests itself at once. There is another scene to be brought in; how the carriages move slowly up and down, sometimes drawn up alongside of the rails; how the pedestrians stop to speak to their friends in the carriages, how the horses canter up and down the Row, &c. After having for some time studied this kind of life, he can give its special colour and perfume. He has his head full of scenes, episodes, fragments of conversation, and typical stories. It now remains to unite these scenes together; this is done by reasoning from cause to effect. From such and such a fact it may be inferred that such and such an event may happen. Will this affect another person? Yes, in such and such a way.
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