“… a clear steer towards anti-racism…”

From: Ritz and Escoffier: The Hotelier, The Chef, and the Rise of the Leisure Class (2018), by Luke Barr:

“When the novelist Emile Zola came to London for the first time in the early 1890s, he stayed at the Savoy and spent hours reminiscing with Escoffier about the food of his childhood in Provence…Zola also…had a special fondness for polenta with thinly sliced white truffles from Piedmont…

Escoffier was honoured…Escoffier sought to bring calm and creativity to the chaotic restaurant kitchen, while Zola was intent on bringing passion and social realism to the novel.

And another irony, not lost on Escoffier, was the fact that Zola was staying at the luxurious Savoy to begin with: the author had come to London to observe the conditions of the working class, to see the vast slums of the world’s biggest city…

Zola loved London – the scale of it, the energy, the constant movement on the Thames. Perhaps he would set a novel here, he said…”

On 28th December, 2016, Michael Rosen wrote in The Guardian:

On Christmas Day 1898, France’s most famous writer, if not the most famous writer in the world at the time, was living in a hotel in Upper Norwood, south London. Émile Zola was the author of a clutch of international bestsellers – Thérèse Raquin, Germinal, La Terre, Nana – but this Christmas he was holed up in a room he hated, unable to speak English, longing to get back to France.

How had it come to this? It was only two or three years ago that I pieced together (in The Disappearance of Emile Zola: Love, Literature and the Dreyfus Case (2017) ) what Zola enthusiasts have known all along: that he was on the run.

Early on the morning of 19 July 1898, Zola had stepped off the boat train from Calais, carrying nothing more than a nightshirt wrapped in a newspaper and the name of the Grosvenor Hotel on a bit of paper. The writer who, for me, had been forever fixed in Paris – I imagined him to be a little like Toulouse-Lautrec but more anonymous, creeping around brothels and sewers, interviewing low-lifes and writing their answers in a black leather notebook – had actually spent months in the UK, in hiding from the French authorities. And there was one word that explained everything: Dreyfus…

Zola’s worldwide fame rested on the “Rougon-Macquart” cycle of novels set in the era preceding the time in which they were written. Zola had pioneered naturalism, a new method of writing which aimed to go beyond realism to a point where no state of the human condition was too sordid for consideration. According to the methodology of naturalism, such scenes and dramas had to be based on scientific observation and documentation, and presented without a moralising commentary. Whether it was due to the upheaval of the Dreyfus affair or that the life cycle of naturalism had run its course, Zola in England was writing something very different. The proofs of the first chapters of Fécondité (Fruitfulness), a story which proposed a solution to France’s declining birth rate, were now sitting on one of the five tables cluttering the hotel room.

Zola’s first step on arrival in England had been to take a room in the Grosvenor Hotel round the corner from Victoria Station, and with the help of his old friend the artist Fernand Desmoulin and his English translator Ernest Vizetelly, he started to get his bearings and clarify the legal situation regarding extradition. Vizetelly and his lawyer friend Frederick Wareham argued that Zola needed to get out of the centre of London where he was easily recognised. Partly as a result of Vizetelly spreading misinformation, the newspapers in Britain, France and then, all over the world produced “evidence” that Zola was in Norway visiting a novelist friend, crossing into Switzerland on a bike, or alternatively still in France.

Zola meanwhile was having trouble enough buying himself a pair of socks and some underpants, but in the end got taken to the Oatlands Park Hotel in Weybridge…

Though Christmas 1898 was on the bleak side, Zola, Jeanne and the children had spent an idyllic summer in a house called Penn in Walton-on-Thames, then at Summerfield in Addlestone, Surrey. Apart from the short Easter break of 1899, these weeks would turn out to be the only time that they would live together. When his family weren’t with him, Zola wrote adoring letters to Jeanne and the children. In fact, his mix of finger-wagging, admonishment, encouragement and jesting is a rare insight into a man of this era “talking” to his children…

Only when it was certain that Dreyfus would get a retrial, did Zola return to France. He had spent some 11 months in the UK. Dreyfus was freed, but it was a juridical fudge – an amnesty for all – which Zola loathed. He died of carbon monoxide poisoning on 29 September 1902 while in bed with Alexandrine. There was a blocked flue.

The exile is an extraordinary episode in Zola’s life, in which he lifted himself out of the turmoil of Paris and dropped into the houses and hotels of south London. He struggled to keep the three strands of his life connected to their place back home: his loves, his literary work and his politics. At times, it all got too much for him, at others he felt a sense of calm and hope.

He didn’t need to get involved in any of this. He could have pressed on with more novels. He was achieving new success with collaborations with the composer Alfred Bruneau. He could have exhibited his photos. Instead, he threw himself into the middle of France’s maelstrom, committed himself utterly, sacrificed his popularity and wealth and, if indeed the blocked flue was deliberate, as some allege*, he paid the ultimate price. He was also, I think, one of the first people in the socialist movement anywhere in the world to give it a clear steer towards anti-racism. For me, he is a hero.”

*see: https://www.historytoday.com/archive/months-past/strange-death-émile-zola

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