Notes From Exile

by Dorothy/Yannick Speirs/Portebois
ISBN: 080203747X

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A Review of: Notes from Exile
by George Fetherling

When I was about 15, I stumbled on a book no one else seemed to have checked out of the public library in decades: mile Zola, Novelist and Reformer: An Account of his Life and Work. It was published in 1904, a couple of years after the great French novelist's tragic death. (He died at his writing desk, after accidentally kicking open an unlighted gas jet-as depicted by Paul Muni in the last scene of The Life of Emile Zola, a once-famous Hollywood film.)
The book I pulled from the stacks turned out to be straightforward to the point of being simple-minded but it had the advantage of being written by someone who'd known the subject personally: Edward Vizetelly, who like his father before him had been Zola's English translator and publisher. Vizetelly once went to prison for publishing a translation of one of Zola's novels, which were widely held in the late 19th century to be as risqu as they were popular (particularly the one entitled Nana, which scandalized our great-grandmothers and titillated our great-grandfathers). In 1898, when Zola himself was sentenced to jail by a French court for his role in the Dreyfus Affair, he fled to England where Vizetelly helped him hide.
Later I learned that Vizetelly, part of a long line of publishers, printers and writers, had also published an account of this exile, With Zola in England, but I was never able to locate it during my brief but intense flirtation with Zola's work and world. I tried reading any number of his novels any number of times, but the translations were cumbersome and I was young and easily distracted. All I recall vividly now are parts of La Dbcle, which tried to use the Franco-Prussian War of the 1870s somewhat in the way Tolstoy had employed the Napoleonic struggles. I admired Zola mostly for his role as a writer/citizen who dived right in to issues of the day, most notably l'affaire Dreyfus. At his best, he was a tough-minded and honest critic of French society, yet also a person of great humanity and compassion.
In the end, alas, he grew sentimental. This was ironic but perhaps inevitable. So was the fact that ultimately, after years of accusations and public abuse, he was honoured with a state funeral. Even though it was a period of my life when I was searching hard for proof of meritocracy, Zola's rise through the society he chronicled so unflinchingly interested me less than the fact he was so perfectly engag.
I doubt that I, or perhaps English readers generally, could read much Zola today. He's one of those writers who comes with a lifetime quota. But I recall him, and Vizetelly's book, with affection. This fact set me up to be the perfect appreciative reader of Notes from Exile, a journal Zola kept during his 11-month stay in England, published once in France as Pages d'exil but never before put into English. It is translated by Dorothy E. Spiers and edited by her and a University of Toronto colleague, Yannick Portebois, who are working on a history of the Vizetelly publishing firm.
The prison sentence Zola was fleeing was the result of his conviction for criminal libel. To understand the charge and indeed Notes from Exile you have to embrace the story of Alfred Dreyfus, a captain in the French army and a Jew, who had been drummed out of the army and imprisoned on Devil's Island on a phony espionage charge in what was actually, as Zola and others proved, an anti-Semitic frame-up.
This incredibly intricate tale begins in 1894 when French army intelligence intercepted a memo about military secrets sent to the German military attach in Paris by an unnamed French officer. One of the first in a series of handwriting experts, who was also a vicious anti-Semite, concluded that the author was Dreyfus, who thus found himself in a cell awaiting court martial. Bolstered by secret files given them by the war minister, the judges sentenced him to life in the notorious island prison in French Guiana off the northeastern coast of South America.
Dreyfus's family lobbied for a new investigation, and further evidence was found that seemed to point at another French officer, named Esterhazy, who was later tried and acquitted. But that was countered by still other documents (forged, as it happened) that swung suspicion back to Dreyfus. The first pamphlet in defence of the prisoner was by a young Jewish intellectual in 1896, by which time the scandal had animated the newspapers and consumed the military and would eventually imperil the Third Republic itself, or so it must have seemed. As the whole ugly business spun out of control, it produced a mysterious woman in a veil, a duel, numerous ruined careers (and the start of others), and at least one suicide.
Zola, who had been a famous public figure for years because of his 20-volume roman fleuve published under the general title Les Rougon-Macquart, one of the great milestones of literary naturalism, didn't jump into the Dreyfus case until November 1897. When he did so, however, his articles in Le Figaro and elsewhere galvanized the public. The turning point was an article (later a separate pamphlet), "J'accuse", published in 1898. Within weeks, three handwriting experts sued him for libel. In short order he was found guilty and sentenced to a year in prison, but the verdict was overturned on appeal. Whereupon the judges who freed Esterhazy brought their own suit against him. When found guilty this time, Zola decided that a visit to England would be timely.
He lived in hotels and rented houses in the outer suburbs of London and the Surrey countryside. He wrote, he rode his velocipede, he pursued his interest in photography. But there were psychological costs. A typical entry reads:

"Wonderfully calm day, I didn't see anyone, I didn't go out. Shortly before ten o'clock, I got to work, and I wrote five pages of my novel. All is well. In Paris, I would have said, My day is complete,' no matter what happened afterwards. But here, the afternoons are very long, very difficult to endure. The sky turned grey and a high wind was blowing. I walked for only half an hour in the garden, deep in sorrow, suffering more than I would have thought from loneliness. I'm still reading [Stendhal's] Le rouge et le noir, but that doesn't fill up my life."

His isolation was due partly to the fact he didn't know English, as shown by this equally dispirited entry:

"I've stopped making my notes each day, because my days are all the same. I always work in the morning, sometimes I go out [to] the two little villages between which my house is situated [] When I go into a store, I get what I want by pointing to it, and, in order to pay, I've learned to count in English, so I can manage."

None of the locals, he goes on, "seems surprised, no one makes fun of me. They don't seem to notice me; they don't bother me. In the stores, when I can make myself understood, they smile, but in a kind way, and we always end up understanding each other."
He returned to France in 1899, two days after Dreyfus was shipped home from South America for a new trial. Poor Dreyfus was found guilty again. This time, however, he was sentenced to only 10 years. The French president, hoping to end the mess, soon pardoned him, and later the verdict was overturned. Over the next few years, Dreyfus, who lived until 1935, was reinstated, promoted, compensated and awarded the Lgion d'honneur on the same spot where he had had his epaulets torn off in disgrace. But in the same period there was an attempt to assassinate him, for simply exposing the current of anti-Semitism in French life had of course done nothing to eliminate it.
Spiers and Portebois provide a helpful timeline of this complex case. They also reproduce, for the first time, the many photographs Zola took of his English surroundings. The fact that none of them shows people, just buildings and outdoor scenes, adds to their melancholy. It's also interesting to remember that Zola relocated in England at about the same time Oscar Wilde relocated in France, for the two countries, rather like Canada and the U.S., have a long history of taking in each other's exiles.

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