Several years ago the Nobel Prize for Literature went to an author other than an American for the umpteenth time and there was some carping (yes, carping!) here in the United States about it. One of the members of the Nobel committee responded that the most notable writers in the United States tend to be too provincial: they write about all things American and have little international perspective. This observation, of course, brought on more carping (yes, carping!). Well, I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen, but it’s true. American writers tend to write about America and American issues and have precious little interest–or knowledge–about what’s going on elsewhere. I took a little poll recently and was surprised at the number of people who did not know the capital of France. The second most prevalent answer was “Italy.” May I drop dead on the spot if this is not true. Don’t believe me? Take a poll yourself. (No fair asking college graduates. They guess Paris because that’s the only city they know in France. Ask them to name another city in France and they’re generally befuddled.) Of course, if you’re reading this missive you probably know the answer, but that’s the problem, a surprising number of people in the United States don’t read at all. I almost NEVER read a short story in a university literary magazine set in a foreign country. If it weren’t for the sensational, big-selling writers like Ken Follett and the like, we would barely know that Venice has canals.
Think I’m exaggerating? Read a few short stories in our best university lit mags.
I went through a foreign author period in my youth (by “youth” at this point, I mean any time in my life under 50). I have extolled the virtues of Borges elsewhere and will here in the future, not to mention Hugo, Balzac, Gogol, Turgenev, D. H. Lawrence, and others. But the man who may have grabbed me most intensely was the great Emile Zola. No one reads him now and most have hardly heard of him, but in his time he was more famous in France–and making more money–than Victor Hugo or Guy de Maupassant, who continue to be read and recognized today.
His LA DEBACLE, a war novel, is so meticulously detailed that one feels one is actually on the battlefield. It compares favorably to the better known war novels here in the United States such as THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (German), or FROM HERE TO ETERNITY.
Zola was a leading advocate of naturalism in literature. His goal was to present a ruthless and accurate depiction of life as he saw it, objective, with the moral progress of society being his major concern. I ask you, is there something wrong with that? His best known novel is probably NANA, an unsparing depiction of a prostitute and the fate that must certainly be her destiny. L’ASSOMOIR is about alcoholism. When I read this book I was stunned by the horrid environment in which his subjects lived, and wondered, “How does this guy know this stuff? He was a wealthy gentleman, where did he get his material?” LA BETE HUMAINE, about a very sick, perverted family, is one of the most warped stories I’ve ever read, the setting being a train, of all things (Marquis de Sade would stand up and applaud at this one, and say, “You see? I was right!”). But, but, I want to hold my highest praise for the gripping novel GERMINAL, about miners and the desperate conditions under which they live. To this day I consider the page-after-page-after-page minute description of these poor people trying to climb out of a collapsed mine by the wooden railings one of the most vivid descriptions of anything I have ever read. Ye gads, what a talent!
I fully admit that my thinking has been influenced by Zola, not to mention my writing. (Though I am not by any means putting my writing on the same level as Zola’s. Perish the thought!). Many of my short stories have a psychological determinism to them. My upcoming memoir, I NEVER MET A PARANOID SCHIZOPHRENIC I DIDN’T LIKE, about the first twenty years of my career as a psychologist in mental hospitals, institutions for the mentally retarded, prisons, etc., and the novel WE WALK ALONE, about a complex woman with multiple personality disorder that I am shopping around New York, both have elements of Zola’s focus on the interaction of personality with the environment. Obviously, I could find a worse muse.
A man of transcendent ethics, he wrote the letter J’ACCUSE in 1898 about the famous Dreyfus case (the reader should look it it up if not acquainted with it–very instructive) and was forced to move to England (where he detested the food) for a year to escape prosecution. He died at 62, famous in his time, largely forgotten now.
Check 0ut a few of his books. You’ll be glad you did.