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An essay by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch

M. Zola

Title:     M. Zola
Author: Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch [More Titles by Quiller-Couch]

Sept. 23, 1892. La Débâcle.

To what different issues two men will work the same notion! Imagine this world to be a flat board accurately parcelled out into squares, and you have the basis at once of _Alice through the Looking-Glass_ and of _Les Rougon-Macquart_. But for the mere fluke that the Englishman happened to be whimsical and the Frenchman entirely without humor (and the chances were perhaps against this), we might have had the Rougon-Macquart family through the looking-glass, and a natural and social history of Alice in _parterres_ of existence labelled _Drink, War, Money_, etc. As it is, in drawing up any comparison of these two writers we should remember that Mr. Carroll sees the world in sections because he chooses, M. Zola because he cannot help it.

If life were a museum, M. Zola would stand a reasonable chance of being a Balzac. But I invite the reader who has just laid down _La Débâcle_ to pick up _Eugénie Grandet_ again and say if that little Dutch picture has not more sense of life, even of the storm and stir and big furies of life, than the detonating _Débâcle_. The older genius

"Saw life steadily and saw it whole"

--No matter how small the tale, he draws no curtain around it; it stands in the midst of a real world, set in the white and composite light of day. M. Zola sees life in sections and by one or another of those colors into which daylight can be decomposed by the prism. He is like a man standing at the wings with a limelight apparatus. The rays fall now here, now there, upon the stage; are luridly red or vividly green; but neither mix nor pervade.

I am aware that the tone of the above paragraph is pontifical and its substance a trifle obvious, and am eager to apologize for both. Speaking as an impressionist, I can only say that _La Débâcle_ stifles me. And this is the effect produced by all his later books. Each has the exclusiveness of a dream; its subject--be it drink or war or money--possesses the reader as a nightmare possesses the dreamer. For the time this place of wide prospect, the world, puts up its shutters; and life becomes all drink, all war, all money, while M. Zola (adaptable Bacchanal!) surrenders his brain to the intoxication of his latest theme. He will drench himself with ecclesiology, or veterinary surgery, or railway technicalities--everything by turns and everything long; but, like the gentleman in the comic opera, he "never mixes." Of late he almost ceased to add even a dash of human interest.

Mr. George Moore, reviewing _La Débâcle_ in the _Fortnightly_ last month, laments this. He reminds us of the splendid opportunity M. Zola has flung away in his latest work.

"Jean and Maurice," says Mr. Moore, "have fought side by side; they have alternately saved each other's lives; war has united them in a bond of inseparable friendship; they have grasped each other's hands, and looked in each other's eyes, overpowered with a love that exceeds the love that woman ever gave to man; now they are ranged on different sides, armed one against the other. The idea is a fine one, and it is to be deeply regretted that M. Zola did not throw history to the winds and develop the beautiful human story of the division of friends in civil war. Never would history have tempted Balzac away from the human passion of such a subject...."

But it is just fidelity to the human interest of every subject that gives the novelist his rank; that makes--to take another instance--a page or two of Balzac, when Balzac is dealing with money, of more value than the whole of _l'Argent_.

Of Burke it has been said by a critic with whom it is a pleasure for once in a way to agree, that he knew how the whole world lived.

"It was Burke's peculiarity and his glory to apply the imagination of a poet of the first order to the facts and business of life.... Burke's imagination led him to look over the whole land: the legislator devising new laws, the judge expounding and enforcing old ones, the merchant despatching all his goods and extending his credit, the banker advancing the money of his customers upon the credit of the merchant, the frugal man slowly accumulating the store which is to support him in old age, the ancient institutions of Church and University with their seemly provisions for sound learning and true religion, the parson in his pulpit, the poet pondering his rhymes, the farmer eyeing his crops, the painter covering his canvases, the player educating the feelings. Burke saw all this with the fancy of a poet, and dwelt on it with the eye of a lover."

Now all this, which is true of Burke, is true of the very first literary artists--of Shakespeare and Balzac. All this, and more--for they not only see all this immense activity of life, but the emotions that animate each of the myriad actors.

Suppose them to treat of commerce: they see not only the goods and money changing hands, but the ambitions, dangers, fears, delights, the fierce adventures by desert and seas, the slow toil at home, upon which the foundations of commerce are set. Like the Gods,

"They see the ferry
On the broad, clay-laden
Lone Chorasmian stream;--thereon,
With snort and strain,
Two horses, strongly swimming, tow
The ferry-boat, with woven ropes
To either bow
Firm-harness'd by the mane; a chief,
With shout and shaken spear,
Stands at the prow, and guides them; but astern
The cowering merchants, in long robes,
Sit pale beside their wealth...."

Like the Gods, they see all this; but, unlike the Gods, they must feel also:--

"They see the merchants
On the Oxus stream;--_but care
Must visit first them too, and make them pale_.
Whether, through whirling sand,
A cloud of desert robber-horse have burst
Upon their caravan; or greedy kings,
In the wall'd cities the way passes through,
Crush'd them with tolls; or fever-airs,
On some great river's marge,
Mown them down, far from home."

Mr. Moore speaks of M. Zola's vast imagination. It is vast in the sense that it sees one thing at a time, and sees it a thousand times as big as it appears to most men. But can the imagination that sees a whole world under the influence of one particular fury be compared with that which surveys this planet and sees its inhabitants busy with a million diverse occupations? Drink, Money, War--these may be usefully personified as malignant or beneficent angels, for pulpit purposes. But the employment of these terrific spirits in the harrying of the Rougon-Macquart family recalls the announcement that

"The Death-Angel smote Alexander McGlue...."

while the methods of the _Roman Expérimental_ can hardly be better illustrated than by the rest of the famous stanza--

"--And gave him protracted repose:
He wore a check shirt and a Number 9 shoe,
And he had a pink wart on his nose."

[The end]
Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch's essay: M. Zola