The Disappearance of Emile Zola

Michael Rosen

Published by Faber & Faber 5 January 2017

320pp, hardback, £12.99

Reviewed by Zoë Fairbairns

Click here to buy this book


On the night of 23 September 1893, the skies over Crystal Palace Park in south London were lit up with fireworks. As the display reached its climax, a glittering portrait appeared of the French novelist Emile Zola.

Zola himself was visiting from Paris, attending a banquet in the Crystal Palace’s dining hall as guest of the Institute of Journalists. Five years later, in 1898, he returned to the area, not this time as a feted celebrity, but as a fugitive. He checked into the nearby Queen’s Hotel under a pseudonym, wondering how soon he would be spotted and handed over to the French authorities who wanted to put him in prison.

The Disappearance of Emile Zola by Michael Rosen tells the story of how Zola, one of the most successful novelists of his time, fell from favour with the French establishment by espousing the cause of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer who in 1894 had been found guilty of espionage and was sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island, a harsh penal colony.

The circumstances of Dreyfus’s trial and sentencing led many (including Zola) to believe that the accusations against Dreyfus owed more to anti-Semitism than to strict regard for the truth. Zola expressed his outrage in a newspaper article entitled J’Accuse which led to him being prosecuted for libel and sentenced to a year in prison. Hence his flight.

Living as a fugitive in suburban London gave Zola much to contend with: fear, homesickness, anger and loneliness, as well as the contradictions of celebrity – he needed to be incognito, yet he yearned to be recognized. Then there was the terrible cooking: ‘Their vegetables are always cooked without salt, and they wash their meat after they’ve cooked it.’

The distasteful personal habits of some Crystal Palace women were another irritant – apparently they dropped hair pins in the street.

Rosen’s lively and highly readable book uses letters, diaries, first-hand accounts, books, newspaper reports and interviews with Zola’s descendants to present intriguing insights into how Zola spent his time. He wrote letters, articles and fiction, received visits from trusted friends, political allies, and, when it was safe, his two young children and their mother. Sometimes, by way of a change, he invited his wife – not the same woman – over.

He explored the neighbourhood on a bicycle, and developed his skills as a photographer – some of his photographs of the Crystal Palace area can be seen in the book.

To Rosen, Zola is a hero who ‘established a line of argument from outside Judaism, outside the Jewish communities, as to why prejudice, discrimination and persecution were wrong’ – none of which stopped Zola from being patriarchal in his attitudes and lifestyle. He wrote tirades against birth control, lived a near-bigamous existence, and urged the mother of his son and daughter to encourage the son to work hard at his studies, but not the daughter lest she become too clever and therefore less ‘happy to be a good little wife’.

Rosen doesn’t seem to think much of Zola’s choice of the Crystal Palace / Norwood area as his main place of refuge: ‘In considering Zola as the Paris novelist or campaigner for the liberty of Dreyfus,’ he writes, ‘it is almost farcical to think that he spent nearly eight months of his life holed up in a suburban hotel in Norwood.’ Farcical? Why? Because it wasn’t Hampstead? The elegant and impressive-looking Queen’s Hotel still stands, with its English Heritage blue plaque that commemorates Zola’s time in residence. For many of us who live in the area, this part of its history is a matter for pride.

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