The Disappearance of Émile Zola by Michael Rosen

Review published on January 28, 2017.

At the turn of the 19th century, the famous writer Émile Zola was fleeing from his home country of France. Carrying a nightshirt, he takes the train from the Gare du Nord, crosses the channel and heads to London. He had committed no crime, but had had the audacity to take on the French government over its handling and verdict of treason handed out to a Jewish artillery officer, Captain Alfred Dreyfus. Like many others, Zola believed Dreyfus was innocent and that the real culprit who had been handing over secrets to the Germans was another officer, Major Esterhazy. Zola’s open letter, ‘J’accuse’, published in L’Aurore, accused the French Army and establishment of antisemitism and injustice. The intention of this provocation was to be sued for libel so that documents in the Dreyfus case could be revealed and the innocent man freed. It didn’t quite work out like that, hence why he was on his way to London. Rosen has in this book revealed a fascinating little piece of history concerning a world-renowned writer who believed in justice and the truth. He details Zola’s movements into London and out into Weybridge, keeping a low profile, unlike his previous high profile visit where he was lauded and celebrated. We learn about the two women in his life, his wife Alexandrine and the mother of his children, Jeanne; it was a complex ménage-a-trois. He was not overly enamoured with the weather in England, and he loathed the food, but he used some of the time here to embark on the Les Quatre Évangiles novels. I have read a couple of Rosen’s books before, including one most parents will know well, Going on a Bear Hunt. I have not read any of Zola’s novels as yet and knew almost nothing about him, but Rosen’s skill as a writer means that he has added in those little details to the narrative to show Zola’s flaws and qualities without it becoming too bogged down. This is definitely a must read for any Zola fan. I found it to be an interesting account of a small slice of history.

Paul Cheney 3/3

The Disappearance of Émile Zola by Michael Rosen
Faber & Faber 9780571312016 hbk Jan 2017

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FESTIVALS: Words by the Water, 3rd-12th March 2017

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