Emile Zola Biography: the Renowned French Author

Emile Zola was a French writer of the late 19th century. He is best known for his naturalistic novels, which include The Rougon-Macquart series and Germinal. Zola’s work was controversial at the time, but is now considered an important part of the Realist movement in French literature.

From controversy to classics – the legacy of Emile Zola

Émile Zola marked two important milestones. One, as a pioneer of naturalism, a literary current that has affected the whole world. And the second, as the protagonist of one of the most famous court cases in France. This writer was probably murdered.

Emile Zola is one of the great figures of French literature. If anything characterized his life, and even his death, it was controversy. His work, his opinions and his intellectual and political activity made him much talked about in his time. In short, he was a man demonized by some and adored by others, with the same passion on one side as on the other.

One of the defining aspects of Emile Zola’s life is that he never went to college. He became a reference in literature for the 19th and 20th centuries, despite the fact that he had no formal higher education. In fact, he failed his high school leaving exam and, in order not to become a burden on his mother, he decided to withdraw from university life and start working.

“My duty is to speak, I don’t want to be an accomplice. My nights would be besieged by the specter of the innocent who, undergoing the most horrible torture, expires a crime he did not commit.

-Emile Zola-

Émile Zola had a difficult life and a vibrant work. He is considered the father of naturalism, a literary current strongly influenced by science, which aims to show the human being and societies in all their brutality. This was, in principle, what made him hated by the more conservative sectors of his time.

Emile Zola’s childhood

Émile Zola was born in Paris on April 2, 1840. His father was an engineer of Italian origin, named Francesco Zola, his mother, Émilie Aubert, was an educated and enlightened woman from the French bourgeoisie.

Zola was Paul Cézanne’s classmate during his early school years. The two formed a beautiful friendship that lasted many years. It is said that both had a great love for literature. And that they shared the first readings of the romantic authors of their time. Mainly Victor Hugo and Alfred de Musset.

When Emile Zola was only seven years old, his father died. This had a significant impact on the economic situation of the family, which had to move to a city outside of Paris. The friendship with Cézanne persists, but Zola goes through great trials. As we have seen before, he failed the graduation exam twice and therefore decided to quit academia.

Literary evolution

Zola first had a job at customs, far from anything that interested him. However, in 1842, he obtained a position in the advertising department of the Hachette publishing house. In this job, he feels in his element. It was then that he began to produce his first literary works, although at first they went unnoticed.

Emile Zola devoted more time to his writing than to his work and that is why he was fired by the publisher. He lets himself go and quickly lands a job as columnist and art critic at the newspaper L’Événement. There, he began a fervent defense of the Impressionist movement which, at that time, was frowned upon; Zola especially defended Manet.

In 1867, he wrote the novel Teresa Raquin, with which he acquired a certain notoriety. This may have given him a new impetus, and later he defined his style better and produced a whole series of works, in which genetic heritage and social background defined the fate of the characters. His work aroused the enthusiasm of many, but also the loathing of others, especially the Catholic Church.

Emile Zola and The Dreyfus Affair

Alfred Dreyfus was a Jew wrongly accused of spying. The case became popularly known as the Dreyfus Affair, against which Émile Zola wrote a classic play called J’accuse. It was an open letter to the French leader, which was published on the front page of the newspaper L’Aurore. The text opened a lively controversy because of the strength of the arguments.

J’accuse was read all over the world and immediately a defamation process was launched against Zola and he was sentenced to one year in prison and to pay a heavy fine. Later, Zola goes into exile in London, while he is being prosecuted as an absentee convict in France. His innocence was proven in 1899 and he was allowed to return to Paris.

He writes again, but death surprises him on September 29, 1902 at his home. Apparently he had suffocated from an accident in the fireplace. However, most believe he was killed. Indeed, one of his lawyers had already been the victim of an assassination attempt, shortly before the death of Emile Zola.

It was not until 1906 that Alfred Dreyfus was exonerated. For his part, Zola was buried in the cemetery of Montmartre, in Paris. He remained there for six years, then his remains were transferred to the Pantheon, with which a belated tribute was paid to the writer.

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