Read by Mark Rice-Oxley (Unabridged: 55mins)
Émile Édouard Charles Antoine Zola was born in Paris on 2nd April 1840. When he was 3 the family moved to Aix-en-Provence in the southeast. At 7 his father died, leaving the family on a meagre pension. In 1858, they returned to Paris. His mother had planned a law career for Émile, but he failed his baccalauréat examination twice.
He took jobs as a clerk in a shipping firm and then in the sales department for the publisher Hachette. Zola also wrote political, literary and art reviews for newspapers.
As a writer Zola wrote numerous short stories, essays, plays and novels. When ‘La Confession de Claude’ was published and received the attention of the police Hachette fired him. He continued to write and after his first major novel, ‘Thérèse Raquin’ (1867), Zola started the series called ‘Les Rougon-Macquart’, a carefully planned twenty-volume history of a single family under the reign of Napoléon III.
With the publication of ‘L'Assommoir’, Zola became wealthy. His subsequent works, ‘Nana’ and La Débâcle fared even better, increasing both fame and bank balance. He was now a figurehead of the literary bourgeoisie. However, despite several nominations, he was never elected to the prestigious Académie Française.
The infamous Dreyfus Affair infuriated Zola who wrote in defence of Alfred Dreyfus. His plan was to be prosecuted for libel so that the truth would be exposed. It went badly wrong. Zola was convicted for criminal libel in February 1898 and removed from the Legion of Honour. The judgment was overturned but a new suit began. Zola fled to England only to return when an Amnesty was granted. Zola said of the affair, "The truth is on the march, and nothing shall stop it."
Émile Zola died on 29th September 1902 of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by an improperly ventilated chimney.
On 4th June 1908 Zola’s remains were transferred to the Panthéon, where he shares a crypt with Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas.