Rue de Bruxelles is a typical Parisian street with a significant symbolic literary history. Near the bustling Place de Clichy in the seventh arrondissement is the well-preserved 21 rue de Bruxelles where a commemorative plaque marks the location of the hotel Zola called his home from 1889 until his death in 1902. For the past twenty years, Agessa, an association that works to ensure the welfare and social security of authors from all artistic genres (“Agessa”), has inhabited the former residence.
Émile Zola was a French novelist, critic and the founder of the Naturalist movement in 19th century literature. “Naturalism” as defined by Zola is “the choice of a commonplace contemporary subject, careful observation and a painstakingly exact reproduction of nature” (Gauthier 514-517). Of Zola’s most famous works is his twenty novel series, Les Rougon-Macquart. The collection, subtitled Histoire naturelle et sociale d’une famille sous le Second Empire (Natural and social history of a family during the Second Empire) includes such novels as Nana which tells the story of a street-walker’s rise in Parisian society, L’assommoir, which portrays the struggles of the working class in Paris and Au Bonheur Des Dames, which is about the world’s first department store and the rise of consumer culture. In his obituary, published in the New York Times entitled “The Life of Émile Zola” it is stated that “[Zola] would take a concrete case in a certain environment: the provincial, social, legal, or political world; then he would collect data by long tireless personal observation. If the narrative was not already on his mind, his investigations would reveal it to him” (“New York Times” A30). Zola’s use of “naturalism” in his writing created objective and realistic portrayals of various social and political aspects of 19th French culture. Zola’s inspiration for plot lines and character traits was evoked by “long tireless personal observation” (“New York Times” A30), a behavior similar to André Breton who in his work Najda is all at once the author, narrator and flâneur.
Zola’s writing aimed to be objective and realistic, saw the flâneur as an idealized spectator who produces objective and concise observations about the inhabitants in the city of Paris. For example, in Au Bonheur des Dames, Zola describes the rise of a fictional department store based on meticulous observations of the Le Bon Marche’s conception.
Flâneurie was made possible by Haussmann’s reorganization of the city. This reconstruction made possible conspicuous consumption along boulevards such as those in the ninth arrondissement, which were newly lined with grand department stores such as the Galleries Lafayette. The grand magasins facilitated the creation of a mass public for which flâneur the was enveloped and amused.
In his office at 21 rue de Bruxelles, Zola wrote the polemic “J’accuse,” a narrative regarding the affairs of Alfred Dreyfus, a French army captain who was falsely convicted of espionage for the German government. In this front-page literary newspaper publication dedicated to the President of France, Zola condemned the French government for a “horrid miscarriage of justice” (Vizetelly 413) and accused various military members, handwriting experts, and courts of deceit and blatant disregard of the law. Zola’s article on national morality earned him recognition as an activist. He became the leader of the “Dreyfusard intellectuals” while gaining a popular and politically virtuous reputation amongst the general public. However, three weeks after “J’accuse” was published, Zola was indicted for criminal libel and was sentenced to a year in prison. To avoid incarceration, he fled to England and lived in exile. He returned to Paris a year later in 1899 after the charges against him were dismissed and Dryfusard was retried, convicted, pardoned, and ultimately, declared not guilty in the year 1906 (439-490).
Émile Zola died of asphyxiation by carbon monoxide inside of this home on September 29, 1902. His death is controversial, as it is claimed by reporters to be an act of homicide as well as a tragic accident. French literary historians such as Frederick Brown, who wrote Zola: A Life, speculate that Zola was murdered by right-wing extremists who caused poisonous fumes to build up in his fireplace by obstructing the chimney of his apartment, which resulted in his suffocation (Brown 721-806). In a speech given in 1998 on the 100th anniversary of the publication of “J’accuse,” President Jacques Chirac recited Anatole France’s eulogy of Zola: “Zola’s text rests in our collective memory as ‘a moment in the conscience of humanity’” (Balakirsky-Katz 111).
The plaque that marks Zola’s former home acts as a representation of the place where the past and present interact with each other. This dialectical image is a fragment of the mosaic that was Zola’s life. With reflection on this life history, the immense presence of Émile Zola can be felt in the aura that surrounds the last place he called home.
Balakirsky-Katz, Maya. “Émile Zola, the Cochonnerie of Naturalist Literature, and the Judensau.” Jewish Social Studies. 13.1 (2006): 110-134. Web. 11 Nov 2010. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4467759.
Brown, Frederick . Zola: A Life . 1st. New York, NY: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1995.721-806
Gauthier, Paul. “Zola on Naturalism in Art and History.” Modern Language Notes. Vol. 70. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1955.
Howells, W.D. “Émile Zola.” North American Review 175.552 (1902): 587-596. Web 15 Nov 2010.<http://ezproxy.library.nyu.edu:2063/stable/25119324?&Search=yes&term=Émie&term=zola&term=death&list=hide&searchUri=%2Faction%2FdoBasicSearch3FQuery%3DÉmile%2Bzola%2Bdeath%26gw%3Djtx%26acc%3Don%26prq%3DÉmile%2Bzola%2Bmurder%26hp%3D25%26wc%3Don&item=5&ttl=2066&returnArticleService=showFullText>.
“The Career of Émile Zola.” New York Times 04 Oct 1902: n. pag. A30 Web. 15 Nov 2010.<http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=F5071EF6355F12738DDDAD0894D8415B828CF1D3>.
“Securute sociale des auteurs.” Agessa. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Nov 2010.<http://www.agessa.org/>.
Vizetelly, Ernest Alfred. Émile Zola – Novelist and Reformer – An Account of His Life and Work. Cambridge MA: The University Press, 1904. 439-490.