Archive for May, 2010

Bit of a Rant

Zola and Me

When I tell my mates down the pub that I’m writing a book about Zola they always seem a bit surprised. And then they ask me how long I’ve supported West Ham, or if I have ever been even vaguely interested in football.

Over the past four years I’ve been re-reading Emile Zola’s magnificent series of interlinked Rougon-Macquart novels and I have to tell you folks, that they really are one hell of a piece of work.

With this cycle of novels, Zola’s bold and entirely successful  plan was to document the fortunes and miss-fortunes of one extended and deeply flawed French family during the Second Empire, thus documenting France itself in what Havelock Ellis1 has described as ‘a study in social mathematics’.

The thirty novels which comprise the Rougon-Macquart cycle are written in a wonderful panoramic, all-describing, ‘naturalistic’ style which upset a few folk at the time.  As Jack would say, they just couldn’t handle the truth.

They couldn’t cope with Zola’s depictions of the urban working/drinking classes in L’Assommoir, they cringed at his descriptions of the not-so-gentile middle classes in Pot-Bouille, they rejected his accounts of the industrial poor in Germinal, of the rural poor in The Earth and they were furious with his icily accurate portrayal of the failure of French military leadership in The Debacle.

Contemporary cartoons depict Zola as a flower sprouting from a chamber-pot or as a bespectacled, bearded midget carefully examining a prostitute’s bottom with his magnifying glass. Zola’s writing frightened his readership and made them feel uncomfortable about their heritage, their nation and their lives. But Monsieur Emile Zola kept right on telling the truth anyway, and he made them have it.

Zola was banned in Britain, vilified by the Vatican and condemned by all and sundry as a pornographer. But the quality, voracity and unquestionable integrity of his writing shone through, and eventually the public  came to love his work. And then there was the Dreyfus affair which transformed Zola into a hero. But that really is another story.

By all accounts Emile Zola was a humourless, supercilious and self-important little man, well-impressed with himself a long while before he had demonstrated his talents.  If I could travel back in time and meet just one person it would always be him. And I already know he would have hated me for my half-arsed work ethic, my sloppiness and my ‘made-up’ stuff.

Zola’s widescreen cinematic style of writing always gives me goose bumps. This lad could write, and Zola’s eye really was his camera. He could pan across a crowd and capture a dozen little moments, or focus right in and describe in far too much detail the way a drowned mans face slowly falls to pieces.

Get any group of published writers together and the second thing they will talk about is how they write. The first thing they’ll talk about will always be money, a subject very close to Zola’s cold and calculating heart.

I ‘m always fascinated to know how other writers write, when they write and why they write.  And I always want to know the gory details.. Do they write long hand? Do they make notes? Do they write in the kitchen, down the pub or in a garden shed? Do they get insensibly pissed and then crouch in the corner wearing the rubber rabbit costume, muttering to themselves and clawing at their faces?

Or do they write as I did, for the months preceding the sad and unexplained death of next doors Alsatian, on a laptop in the car in Tesco’s car park?

I’ve been obsessed by Zola’s writing since I was 13 years old.  I still remember the Penguin Classic editions of his books, the ones with the black spines which cracked white as you read them, jammed onto the shelves of my dads study, between his books about tomatoes, bee-keeping and the joy of sex.

Zola’s books were the first ‘real’ books I ever read and they weren’t easy. But I was a lonely teenager with not much else to do. I began with Germinal, and still remember being absolutely transfixed by the desperation in that book and above all, its grinding panoramic feel. As a 13-year-old, Germinal really was a glimpse into another world for me. It felt like growing up as a reader, leaving behind stories with ‘hopeful’ or ‘meaningful’ endings and acquiring a taste for the real stuff, for the tart and bitter experience of degradation and failure. Which pretty much has been how my own life has turned out.

So it was natural for me to want to know how Zola wrote, how he actually did it. It’s an old chestnut, but you really do have to write about what you know. So it’s a great relief for writers such as myself who endured dull childhoods followed by uneventful lives to learn that if you do enough research you can write about anything.

This is exactly what Zola did. He was obsessed by research. When he was planning Germinal, arguably his finest book, Zola visited the coal-fields of Northern France, where a strike was in progress, posing as the secretary of Alfred Giard, an elected representative of the mining constituency of Valenciennes. Zola didn’t want to be recognised and he certainly didn’t want to told stuff he could put in his next book.

And we all know that one don’t we..

‘so you’re a writer eh? Maybe you could put me in your next book?

‘Only as a corpse.’ I always say.

Zola’s anonymity allowed him to talk to the miners without arousing suspicion; he attended union meetings, visited miners’ cottages and went underground with the men. And then he wrote it all up. Zola made a thousand pages of handwritten notes before he embarked upon Germinal and some years after its publication Sherard, (an early biographer of Zola) met an old foreman from the same Valenciennes mining district who recalled talking to a man fitting Zola’s description. He said that he had never met a man who asked so many questions.

Research for Zola was much more than a basic desire to get the facts right. He did have to get his facts right though, and not just to please himself. Zola was often attacked for ‘distorting’ the facts, usually by those critics who could not face the unpalatable truths his naturalism revealed.  So Zola had to cover his back. In a sense, since he was writing about every aspect of life in the second empire, Zola was already writing novels of recent history, so that all had to be right as well. This was particularly so in the case  of his novel The Debacle, a very close and brilliant account  of the events and incidents of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and the subsequent Paris commune, a violent and life-changing upheaval still very much in the minds of his readers when the book was published in 1892. Research for Zola was also a kind of comfort blanket, just as it is for me, a way to bolster confidence, a means of steeping yourself in a subject before setting off on your own fictions.

When he was really busy, Zola sent other people out to make notes for him. I think he would have loved the internet, as he did all things scientific and technical.  The internet has made research, at least of the superficial kind, a lot easier. You can go onto Street View now and have a look around town, something I did with Paris when I re-read Zola’s The Ladies Paradise, The Belly of Paris and The Kill. Incidentally. I went to Crump Tennessee yesterday. It’s dull. But at least I know that now.

I’ve done Zola’s kind of research twice, once by reading extensively about Elvis Presley and a second time by immersing myself in everything to do with Michael Jackson. It doesn’t give you ideas for fiction as such, but it does at least ensure that when you have an idea you can just crack on with it and make stuff up which might have been, or at least rings true.

Zola wrote three pages a day. Every single day.

“This is how I do it. In fact I can hardly be said to ‘do it’ – rather, it does itself. I can’t invent facts, as I completely lack imagination. If I sit down at my table to think out the plot of a story, I remain sitting for three days, racking my brains, and finding nothing. Consequently I have given up troubling myself about the subject of my stories. I begin to work on my novel without knowing what events will be described, nor what characters will take part in the action…I only know my principal character- my Rougon or my Macquart, male or female, always an old acquaintance. I occupy myself with him alone; I reflect on his character, I think of the family in which he was born, on his first impressions, and on the class in which I have decided to place his life. That is my most important occupation…After spending two or three months in this study, I am master of this particular kind of life; I see it, I feel it, I live it in my imagination and I am certain of being able to give my novel the special colour and fragrance of that class of people…I have in my head a quantity of types, of scenes, of fragments of dialogue, of episodes, of occurrences, which form a confused story made up of a thousand unconnected pieces. Then there remains the most difficult task of all – to attach a single thread, as best I can, all these reminiscences and scattered impressions. It is almost always a lengthy task. But I set to work on it phlegmatically, and instead of using my imagination, I use my reasoning facilities…I write a little every day, three pages of print, not a line more and I only work in the morning. I write almost without having to make any corrections because for months I have been thinking it all over, and as soon as I have written them, I put the pages aside and do not see them again until they are in print. I can calculate infallibly the date when my book will be finished.”2

This may seem a pragmatic, almost anti-artistic approach to writing, but the end results do not completely reflect the process which Zola describes. Zola was no social scientist; he was a novelist, who despite his claims to the contrary, was in possession of vivid and far-reaching imagination. Zola makes his process sound like some kind of elaborate admin. job. Maybe that’s how he really saw it… but I doubt it. There’s a lot more going on than that.

Sitting at his large and cluttered desk at Medan, Zola did something much more to the ‘facts’ and with the ‘facts’ than merely marshal them.  There is a slippery magic to his writing, a real gift which I cannot even begin to understand. Zola’s writing is relentless and perfect in its description, inspired in its grandeur, cold and precise and incisive in its turn of phrase.

He’s the bollocks this lad. The absolute bollocks.

There’s such a lot to take in with Zola; the research, the detail, the crowds, the weather… basically what everybody says when they say nice things about Zola. But for me… it’s how he does it all that holds me to his work, how he controls it all, how he takes down all that scaffolding of research and painstaking observation and how he leaves us with those towering edifices of Germinal, The Earth and L’Assommoir. Anybody could have made 1200 pages of notes about the French railway system if they really wanted to. Only Zola could have done that and then turned them into the monster novel of La Bête Humaine.

Emile Zola is the main man for me. Always has been, always will be. But then again I’m reading the works of my very favourite writer in translation.

And I must confess to only getting a C for O’ level French back in 1976.

Which is really fucking annoying.

1. Affirmations; Havelock Ellis (London 1893)

2. Emile Zola; A biography and critical study, Robert Sherard (London: Chatto and Windus, 1893)


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Beat The Dust

I’m in Beat The Dust this month with a thing about Zola.

The other writers are younger, more intelligent and better-looking than me.

As per usual.

I thought that growing a beard might make me look all distinguished and maybe even a bit like Zola.

But it just makes my face look like a minge.


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