The son of a French-Italian engineer, Zola is widely regarded as one of the founders of the modern ‘naturalistic’ novel. His output is dominated by twenty novels known as the Rougon-Macquart series, which follow the various members of a single family through all the different levels of nineteenth-century French society. Germinal (1885) is an account of a mining community that stages a strike, and its detailed settings are balanced by a symbolism that presents the mine as a womb from which the social revolt of the community is born. Nana (1880) tells the story of a prostitute whose personal destruction mirrors that of the society through which she moves, and L'Assommoir (The Boozer, 1877) tells the story of the prostitute's mother, a laundress who descends into alcoholism. Zola's friendships with the Impressionist painters inform The Masterpiece (1886), the story of an artist striving to complete a great work against the background of dealers, salons, and collectors of Paris. Zola was an enormously controversial figure in his time, and the publication of his open letter ‘J'accuse’ in 1898, as an intervention in the notorious Dreyfus Affair, led to a temporary exile in London to avoid imprisonment. Zola's British publisher had himself been imprisoned for distributing the author's works, and their often graphic realism meant that many of his books remained unavailable in translation until the 1960s.
Honoré de Balzac, D. H. Lawrence, Theodore Dreiser, George Gissing WB