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An essay by Brander Matthews

Of A Novel Of M. Zola's

Title:     Of A Novel Of M. Zola's
Author: Brander Matthews [More Titles by Matthews]

IN his most suggestive study of the Greek World Under Roman Sway, wherein we find the feelings, the thoughts, and the actions of those who lived in the first century explained and elucidated by constant references to similar states of feeling, thought, and action still surviving among us who live in the nineteenth century, Professor Mahaffy expresses his belief that the Golden Ass of Apuleius does not give a true picture of the Greek life it purported to represent, but that it is rather a reflection of the depravity of the Romans to whom it was addressed; and then he adds these shrewd suggestions, to be borne in mind by all who ever consider the fiction of a foreign country or of another century: "We might as well charge all society in France with being addicted to one form of vice, because recent French fiction occupies itself almost exclusively with this as the material for its plots. The society for which such books are written must have shown that they are to its taste; the society which such books portray may be wholly different and grossly libelled by being made to reflect the vices of the author and his readers."

If French society were composed exclusively of the men and women who people most of the Parisian romances of the past fifteen or twenty years; if the inhabitants of the cities were like the miserable creatures we see in M. Zola's Pot-Bouille, and if the dwellers in the fields were like the horrible wretches we see in M. Zola's La Terre, the outlook of France would be black indeed, for no country could exist or should exist which was peopled by such a gang of monsters. But any one who knows French life, any one especially who knows the life of the larger provincial towns, knows that what M. Zola has represented as typical and characteristic is, in reality, exceptional and abnormal. Probably there is no house in the whole of Paris occupied by as corrupt a set of tenants as those set before us in Pot-Bouille; and certainly there is no village in the whole of France wherein all the horrors depicted in La Terre could possibly have taken place. The fact is, the French like to boast about vice as the British like to boast about virtue. I should doubt if there was any great difference in morals between the upper society of Paris and of London, except the overwhelming hypocrisy of the latter. Apparently M. Zola has at last awakened to some consciousness of the false impression produced by his work. Le Rève was his attempt to produce a novel fit for the class to which nearly all English novels are addressed.

In his recent study, L'Argent, there is a fairer balance than in his other books; there are decent people, kindly folk, men and women of honest hearts and willing hands. We have a cheerful glimpse of the home life of Mazaud, the stock-broker who commits suicide when he fails. The Jordans, husband and wife, are perhaps the pleasantest pair to be found in all M. Zola's novels. With the novelist's increasing fame, apparently, he is taking brighter views of humanity. And Madame Caroline, despite her lapse, might almost be called an honest woman, if this is not a paradox; she is a strong, wholesome, broad-minded creature, admirably realized. The goddess Lubricity, whom Matthew Arnold first named as the presiding deity of French fiction, is still worshipped in other parts of the book; and her worship is out of place in this book at least, for those who are seized with the lust for gain have little time for any other. For example, the whole story of Saccard's relations with the Baroness Sandorff is needlessly offensive and revolting; and at bottom it is essentially false. But there is a marked improvement of tone in L'Argent over certain even of his later books, while the atmosphere is nowhere as foul as it was in most of his earlier novels.

There is no disputing that M. Zola is a man with a dirty mind--with a liking for dirt for its own sake. There is no disputing also that he is a novelist of most extraordinary fecundity and force. Of all the books I have read in the past ten years, I received the strongest impression from Zola's Germinal and from Ibsen's Ghosts; and I can still hear the cry for light, and the pitiful appeal of the son to the mother with which the latter closes; and I can still feel the chill wind which whistles across the dark plain in the opening pages of the former. There is in L'Argent the same power, the same splendid sweep, the same mighty movement, the same symbolic treatment of the subject, the same epic method. M. Zola thinks himself a naturalist; he has preached naturalism from the house-top; he is generally taken at his word and criticised as a naturalist, and as a fact he is not a naturalist at all. M. Zola is not one who sees certain things in life, and who ties them together with a loose thread of plot--although this is the naturalism he approves of. He has preached it, but he has never practised it. On the contrary, M. Zola picks out a subject and reads up and crams for it, and conceives it as a whole, and devises typical characters and characteristic incidents, and co-ordinates the materials he has thus laboriously accumulated into a harmonious work of art, as closely constructed as a Greek tragedy and moving forward towards the inevitable catastrophe with something of the same irresistible impulse. No novelist of our time is affected less by what he sees in nature than M. Zola; not one is more consciously artful.

This symbolic method of M. Zola's is shown in L'Argent almost as clearly as in Germinal, which I cannot help considering his greatest novel, despite its prolixity and the foulness of many of its episodes. As Germinal was the story of a coal-mine with a strike, so L'Argent is a story of a gigantic speculation on the stock exchange, treated in the same epic fashion, with typical characters and all the necessary incidents. Obviously the Union Générale suggested certain particular details of Saccard's Banque Universelle. Obviously also Baron Rothschild sat for the portrait of Gundermann. There is the same use of minor figures to personify the crowd, and themselves identifiable by some broad characteristic--Moser, the bear; Pellerault, the bull; Amadrin, the speculator who foolishly blundered into a successful operation, and who has wisely held his tongue ever since; and all these minor characters (and there is a host of them) serve as a chorus, help along the main action of the tale, comment upon it, and typify the throng of men and women who are at the periphery of any great movement. These little people are all vigorously projected; they are all adroitly contrasted one with another; they are all carried in the hand of the novelist and manœuvred with unfailing effect, with a power and a certainty which no other living novelist possesses.

That many readers should be bored by all of Zola's writing I can readily understand, for it is not always easy reading. That many more should be shocked by him is even more comprehensible, for he has a thick thumb and he makes dirty marks over all his work. That some even should be annoyed by M. Zola's method or irritated by his mannerisms, I can explain without difficulty. But what I cannot comprehend is that any one having read Une Page d'Amour or Germinal or L'Argent can deny that M. Zola is a very great force in fiction. But there are critics in Great Britain--and even in the United States, where we are less squeamish and less hypocritical--who refuse to reckon with M. Zola, and who pass by on the other side. A man must be strong of stomach to enjoy much of M. Zola's fiction; he must be feeble in perception if he does not feel its strength and its complex art. M. Zola's strength is often rank, no doubt, and there is a foul flavor about even his most forcible novels, which makes them unfit for the library of the clean-minded American woman. But in any exact sense of the word M. Zola's novels are not immoral, as the romances of M. Georges Ohnet are immoral, for example, or those of the late Octave Feuillet. Yet they are not spoon-meat for babes.


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Brander Matthews's essay: Of A Novel Of M. Zola's