A MOMENT OF TRUTH
Life of Zola
On September 29, 1902, Paris police commissaire, Camille Cornette, is called to Émile Zola's apartments to find him dying and his wife scarcely breathing in their smoke-filled bedroom. Cornette is aware of the many death threats on Zola after his campaign to save Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish captain unjustly imprisoned for treason on Devil's Island. All his investigations point to murder, but reasons of state dictate a a verdict of accidental death.
Fifty six years before, Émile, aged six, sees his father brought back dead on a cart from Marseilles, killed with the effort of building a reservoir for Aix-en-Provence. Francesco Zola leaves his widow and son penniless in an alien town where the bourgeois strip them of their inheritance.
At ten, Zola can neither read nor write. His father's friend, Adolphe Thiers, French prime minister, secures him a place in Aix's best school, Bourbon College; but there, his ignorance, weakness and Italian name make him the butt of his younger classmates. Another outcast stands up for him. Paul Cézanne, a local banker's son, and Zola strike up a friendship that lasts forty years until both feel betrayed by each other.
Poverty forces Zola and his mother to return to Paris where, still a misfit, he fails his baccalauréat. Cézanne arrives to study painting but to Zola's regret, quickly runs back to Aix frustrated by his lack of success.
A lowly job with Hachette, the publisher, as a dispatch clerk brings Zola into contact with illustrious authors like Renan, Michelet, Taine; they inspire him to write and he has some tales published, though he sees himself as a garret poet.
Through Cézanne, back in Paris, he meets artists who are rebelling against bourgeois art represented by the official Salon -- young painters like Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Degas and eventually Edouard Manet, idol of the group. At Cézanne's prompting, he champions the outlawed painters, particularly Manet, and earns the hatred of the artistic and literary establishment. He owes Cézanne something else, the model and mistress he has discarded before his second flight to Aix. Gabrielle Meley moves in with Zola and his mother and several years later becomes his wife.
His first book, the autobiographical Claude's Confession all but lands him with a prosecution for obscenity; his third novel, Thérèse Raquin brings more scandal on his head, but wins him praise and backing from the influential Gouncourt Brothers. To them he outlines his great literary project --to take two flawed Aix families, the Rougons and the Macquarts, and construct a vast fresco round them portraying French society in Napoleon III's Second Empire.
His seventh Rougon-Macquart novel, Gervaise, makes him famous, and he outsells even Balzac and Hugo; now founder of the Naturalist School, he gathers round him in his mansion at Médan a group of writers including Maupassant, Huysmans, Alexis.
Publication of Nana, a novel about a high-class courtesan, revives accusations of obscenity, pornography. As always, Zola researches his subject on the ground, contriving a visit to the greatest demi-mondaine of them all, Valtesse de la Bigne; that lady he shocks by measuring her bed instead of throwing her on it and leaping in after her. He is now one of the great names of international literature.