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Zola and the Norwood connection

27 February, 2017 — By Dan Carrier

Émile Zola as painted by Manet

IT was a perfect mystery, and it filled the pages of Europe’s newspapers: what had happened to the towering giant of French literature Émile Zola, after he was found guilty of libel?

Before he could face the consequences of a court’s judgment, the writer had simply disappeared – but as Michael Rosen’s latest book, The Disappearance of Emile Zola, reveals, the author of such classics as Thérèse Raquin fled Paris because of his role in the famous Dreyfus affair and spent a year living in hiding in a nondescript boarding house in South Norwood.

Alfred Dreyfus was a captain in the French army. In 1894, he was accused of committing high treason and sent to the infamous penal colony on Devil’s Island, in French Guiana. The case unleashed a wave of violent anti-semitism in France – and his defenders saw it as a symptom of something rotten in the nation’s psyche, a betrayal of the concepts of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity that were seen as a post-Revolution foundations between government and the people.

But Dreyfus was framed, and the evidence that he sent military secrets to Germany did not stack up.

Zola believed the best way to highlight this gross injustice – and how the bigotry was undermining the very essence of what France should stand for – was by penning a devastating attack in an open letter to the prime minister called J’Accuse. It was published in the L’Aurore newspaper and he had hoped to be done for libel. J’Accuse did not just name the person believed to be really responsible, but accused the government and army of a number of crimes including corruption, cover-ups, and a vigorous campaign to shape public opinion. He hoped he’d have his day in court to highlight the horrendous miscarriage of justice Dreyfus had suffered.

But no. Instead, the parameters of what his lawyers were allowed to speak about were narrowly confined and Zola was found guilty. He was given a hefty fine and a year in prison – but, rather than accept the sentence, on July 18 1898, he disappeared.

Drawing on letters written by Zola during his exile, contemporary accounts and newspaper reports, Michael has drawn up a picture of why Zola risked everything to speak out against an injustice in a way that he had never done previously.

As Michael writes: “These events split France down the middle, brought the fundamental nature of the French state into question, and have left their marks on France ever since.”
Michael describes a lonely a year living quietly in South Norwood, scared of being served extradition papers, desperate to see his family and his mistress, and above all to see justice done.

“Many thought at the time, what was he doing siding with a rich, Jewish traitor?” writes Michael.

“They had an answer: arrogance, vanity and probably a secret allegiance to the ‘syndicate’, the mythic conspiracy that bound ‘the Jews’ together. Then, rather than face justice, he turned tail and escaped his due punishment – so he was a coward, too.”

Michael was fascinated by Zola’s motivation.

“The key question is: why did he make this stand?” he asks.

“The point is there was no real context in terms of his previous work. He had been a journalist, championing the work of the Impressionists. He had written a series of novels about the seedier, underbelly of life in Paris in the 1870s – but he wasn’t particularly political. He wasn’t like Dickens, calling for reform. He was simply saying: this is where we are now, this is how it is.”

After Dreyfus was convicted in 1894, Zola did not immediately join a clamour for his release.

“At first, as far as we can tell, it had little impact on Zola,” says Michael.

“Only a small group of people believed Dreyfus was innocent. But Zola became incensed by the top echelons of the army and government and the atmosphere of rising anti-semitism.”

The book reveals how Zola had mixed feelings about his flight.

“He came here with just a night-shirt and a loaf of bread,” adds Michael.

“He was lonely. But then there was a sense of relief that in London he could get away from the abuse he was receiving. And there was the idea that England was a place that would offer refuge. There were political refugees who had found safe haven here.Their views may have offended an element of Victorian sensibility but there was also something about the concepts of personal freedom that made people accept them.”

And the story of Zola and Dreyfus has resonance today, adds Michael. “Governments and populists are whipping up hatred against migrants and Muslims,” he says. “There is a huge amount of unfair scapegoating, saying migrants have caused the problems we have today – and it similar to the hysteria directed towards French Jews at the time.

“Zola helped transform the discussion by showing how wrong it was. It was a crucial moment. It was an incredibly brave thing to do. He said: ‘Get involved.’”

The Disappearance of Emile Zola. By Michael Rosen, Faber and Faber, £16.99
Michael is appearing at Jewish Book Week on Tuesday, February 28, at 8.30pm at Kings Place.


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