On the Inclination To Abandon Emile Zola and The New York Times Magazine

10Oct07

In the introduction to the Emile Zola work Nana — which we have recently been reading — we are given the following insight into the French author: “Zola tried to establish an analogy between literature and sciences, arguing that imagination had no place in the modern world, and that the novelist, like the scientist, should simply observe and record, introducing characters … into a given environment … and then noting down the progress and results of his ‘experiment’ for the attention of legislators and the ultimate benefit of mankind.”

As with any introductory text, we took this with barely a grain of salt as we began the work, yet found after several chapters that we could not shake our memory of this observation, particularly as we confronted the thousands of words that still awaited us with what could only be described as a certain dread. While there is undoubtedly a masterful quality to much of Zola’s prose, particularly in his ability to direct our attention to the smallest details of say, a night at the opera in Paris in the year 1880 or the different styles of furniture in a drawing room, there is nevertheless something distasteful and ultimately tedious going on here. We are reminded of so many articles in The Times (and, of course, The New Yorker) that leave us feeling deflated and depressed, not for a lack of description or analytical insight — or even compassion, as is clearly the case with Zola as he describes the downward trajectory of his leading actress/prostitute — but for a measured, reasonable and appropriate tone that in its journalistic detachment seems both voyeuristic and bourgeois.

Here too we can turn for insight to the great Huysmans, who writes of his alter ego Des Esseintes and his search for books of interest: “[O]nly the working of the brain interested him, regardless of the subject … each person naturally goes to the works which most intimately correspond with his own temperament, and ends by relegating all others to the rear…[these works] enabled him to penetrate farther into the depths of the temperaments of these masters who revealed in them the most mysterious transports of their being with a more sincere abandon; and they lifted him far above this trivial life which wearied him so.”

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