The Zola biography came in the post yesterday just several days after I ordered it over the net. There’s a used book search engine that I’ve been plugging into with mixed results. I’ve often been able to find esoteric titles that are amazingly cheap – as the data base includes thousands of small book dealers who have cottoned on to this new way of connecting to buyers (as long as they are savvy enough to create an electronic listing of their stock). Most often I’ve received books that are in good shape. Several times, however, they’ve been so mildewed that I’ve had to throw them in the bin. This latest acquisition, however, was excellent. Not only was the book almost new but it was well packed and, surprisingly, delivered just days after I put in my order. The Internet has certainly changed the way books are purchased but it’s also given a thrust to the antiquarian market, recycling titles that otherwise would be lost in the back shelves of a dingy used book shop. In fact, there’s nothing to stop anyone from setting up their own little enterprise from their basement. Problem is, of course, that it’s risky buying sight unseen. But with the prices so low, you really can’t lose much. The brave new world sometimes harks back to the trembling old one and touches it with both the hand of god and the claw of mammon.

I started reading the Zola bio as soon as I unwrapped it. Written by Alan Schom – formerly a professor at UC Riverside but now living, I believe, in France. Published by Queen Anne’s Press, an imprint of Macdonald. I could tell from the introduction that it would be a book I’d like as it was clear Schom wasn’t writing a hagiographic or overly pretentious bio. The style is clear and straightforward – something, I suspect Zola would have appreciated.

Zola was the son of an Italian engineer who was to build a canal in Aix (later named the Zola canal) but died before the project actually got started – leaving his wife and young son essentially penniless (her only income was a meagre pension from the canal company). He spent his early years in Aix – where his closest friend was Cezanne – but moved with his mother to Paris to do his bac in science (he was studying to be an engineer like his father). However he failed his exams – to his mother’s dismay – and failed his retakes (fortunately for his future readers). So there he was – young, penniless but free in Paris. He read voraciously. Became a poet. Ate stale bread dipped in oil and sometimes used the bread to trap sparrows on his window ledge for protein accompaniment.

So what impelled him? What drove him on in those early days? Certainly he had a strong sense of family and of filial obligation toward his widowed mother. The ghost of his father, who was a dreamer, a creator, fired his imagination. He was well loved. There was much expected of him. And he was bright – a bright spark in the Paris firmament during a time when social cohesion was crumbling and the Second Empire was providing the foil for passionate minds.

He had a stroke of luck in being hired by Hachette (strange coincidence, that) to work in the mail department. He only lasted there several days before being promoted (through his insistence) to publicity where he learned what it took to become a successful commercial writer. What better place to acquaint oneself first hand with the economic requisites of publishing. So there was the duality – the poet, the lover of truth, and the young man who needed to earn a living by his wits.

He became a journalist writing book reviews. He did this by proposing a column where he reviewed books en masse in capsule form – something that hadn’t been done before. It meant he had to read and regurgitate three or four titles a day – literature, history, politics. What an education was imposed on him! Even though it’s hard to believe he actually absorbed everything he read, he still needed to have some idea of the content and the form in order to write even a paragraph that made sense. It was the making of an omnivorous mind. And as he was looking at everything with fresh eyes – the eyes of a young man with everything to prove and nothing to tether him – he was able to give a fresh interpretation separating the hypocrisy and cant from the honest and passionate. In the background was the iron boot (rather rusty and stiff) of the Second Republic which tried cracking its ineffectual whip to keep order in a time of chaos. This made journalism a game of subterfuge and bravado but it also tempered the literary swords of those who survived. It was this milieu that moulded the young Zola into a writer.


October 2006