|French literary history|
Émile Zola (2 April 1840 – 29 September 1902) was an influential French novelist, the most important example of the literary school of naturalism, and a major figure in the political liberalization of France.
Born in Paris, the son of an Italian engineer, Émile Zola spent his childhood in Aix-en-Provence and was educated at the Collège Bourbon (now called Collège Mignet). At age 18 he returned to Paris where he studied at the Lycée Saint-Louis. After working at several low-level clerical jobs, he began to write a literary column for a newspaper. Controversial from the beginning, he did not hide his disdain for Napoleon III, who used the Second Republic as a vehicle to become Emperor.
More than half of Zola's novels were part of a set of 20 collectively known as Les Rougon-Macquart. Set in France's Second Empire, the series traces the 'hereditary' influence of violence, alcoholism, and prostitution in two branches of a single family: the respectable (that is, legitimate) Rougons and the disreputable (illegitimate) Macquarts, for five generations.
As he described his plans for the series, "I want to portray, at the outset of a century of liberty and truth, a family that cannot restrain itself in its rush to possess all the good things that progress is making available and is derailed by its own momentum, the fatal convulsions that accompany the birth of a new world."
Zola and the painter Paul Cézanne were friends from childhood and in youth, but broke in later life over Zola's fictionalized depiction of Cézanne and the bohemian life of painters in his novel L'Œuvre (The Masterpiece, 1886).
He risked his career and even his life on 13 January 1898, when his "J'accuse" (see  and) was published on the front page of the Paris daily, L'Aurore. The paper was run by Ernest Vaughan and Georges Clemenceau, who decided that the controversial story would be in the form of an open letter to the President, Félix Faure. "J'accuse" accused the French government of anti-Semitism and of wrongfully placing Alfred Dreyfus in jail. Zola was brought to trial for libel on 7 February 1898, and was convicted on 23 February. Zola declared that the conviction and transportation to Devil's Island of the Jewish army captain Alfred Dreyfus came after a false accusation of espionage and was a miscarriage of justice. The case, known as the Dreyfus affair, had divided France deeply between the reactionary army and church and the more liberal commercial society. The ramifications continued for years, so much so that on the 100th anniversary of Émile Zola's article, France's Roman Catholic daily paper, La Croix, apologized for its anti-Semitic editorials during the Dreyfus Affair.
Zola was a leading light of France and his letter formed a major turning-point in the Dreyfus affair. In the course of events, Zola was convicted of libel, sentenced, and removed from the Legion of Honor. Rather than go to jail, he fled to England. Soon he was allowed to return in time to see the government fall. Dreyfus was offered a pardon (rather than exonerated) by the government, and, facing a re-trial in which he was sure to be convicted again, had no choice but to accept the pardon if he wished to go free. By accepting it, he was, in effect, saying that he was guilty, although he clearly was not. Zola said, "The truth is on the march, and nothing shall stop it." In 1906, Dreyfus was completely exonerated by the Supreme Court.
Zola died in Paris on 29 September 1902 of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a stopped chimney. He was 62 years old. His enemies were blamed, but nothing was proved. (Decades later, a Parisian roofer claimed on his deathbed to have closed the chimney for political reasons.) He was initially buried in the Cimetière de Montmartre in Paris, but on 4 June 1908, almost six years after his death, his remains were moved to the Panthéon.
The biographical film The Life of Emile Zola won the Academy Award for "Best Picture" in 1937. The film focuses mainly on Zola's involvement in the Dreyfus Affair.
In January 1998, President Jacques Chirac held a memorial to honor the centenary of "J'Accuse".
"Let us never forget the courage of a great writer who, taking every risk, putting his tranquility, his fame, even his life in peril, dared to pick up his pen and place his talent in the service of truth." — Jacques Chirac
"Zola descends into the sewer to bathe in it, I to cleanse it." — Henrik Ibsen
"Civilization will not attain to its perfection until the last stone from the last church falls on the last priest." — Émile Zola