Sunday, August 14, 2005
On Wednesday this week we visited the village of Médan, situated twenty kilometres to the west of Paris, in order to visit the house of Emile Zola. Unfortunately, we found the house was closed and had to settle for a walk around the village which was extremely quiet and looked as if the world had forgotten it. A small restaurant by the Seine had fallen into ruin and the main bar of the town appeared to have recently closed down.
Médan has been the home to two renowned writers: firstly Zola during the late 19th Century and later Maeterlinck who lived in the Château there in the 1920s. We were able to walk past the Château, but it is not open to the public without prior permission. Zola's house looked intruiging, a rather dark and foreboding place, we could just make out the painted shape of a bat in one of the dark stained glass windows of the parlour.
We resolved to return, and today we did. When we pulled up in the same parking space we had used four days earlier, my three year old daughter, whom we have up until now considered to be generally unobservant about the detail of her surroundings, suddenly said: "Not here again!" My elder daughter, who has decided that this week of visiting the homes of famous authors is probably the most boring in her life, was resolutely clicking on her new Tamagotchi toy, bought with 'Cheques cadeaux' the other day, and ignoring the environment around her completely.
Zola's house is solid and very plain on the outside. He originally bought it as an average-sized family home with the proceeds of 'L'Assomoir', his novel about the alcoholic lifestyle around a Paris bar. He referred to this part of the house, to which he later added two large towers on either side, as 'the rabbit hutch'. Each extension corresponds to the profits from a particular book so that one he referred to as the "Tour Nana" while the other was known as the "Tour Germinal". Each segment of the house had a different shape and style, so that the whole sits somewhat uneasily together.
Zola's life ended after several turbulent years during which he involved himself in the Dreyfuss affair. He wrote an article called "J'Accuse" which caused uproar by claiming that Captain Dreyfuss, who was Jewish, was set up as a fall guy by anti-semitic army officers for a crime of spying of which he was innocent. Zola was taken before the courts and eventually fled to London as an exile. When he eventually came back to France, he died not long after (in 1902) of asphyxiation in his Paris bedroom due to a blocked flue. His wife Alexandrine was fortunate to survive. There are suspicions that his death may not have been accidental. Dreyfuss' innocence was eventually recognised, mainly because Zola had kept the case alive, and he was able to leave Devils' Island in Guyana to which he had been deported ten years earlier.
In the basement of the house was Zola's dark room. He had many cameras and was a keen photographer. His photographs are available in a book and they represent some of the best of late 19th Century photography. It is always interesting to discover these 'other interests', it seems to add an extra dimension to a life. Victor Hugo had a similar passion and talent for art, for example. There is one of his dramatic, gothic pen sketches below. If the literature of both these men had simply gone up in smoke, there would still have been a footnote for them in the annals of art.
Something I found touching about Zola was his love of animals. He had many pets and built a farm just next to his house. He wrote articles about his pets, saying how upset he was when they died and stating that man would never be truely happy until his animals also lived happily. This respect for animals was shared by other late 19th Century thinkers, such as George Bernard Shaw, who was a vegetarian.
When I told my daughter that Zola thought man would never be happy until the animals were happy, she said: "Yes, I can understand that. It's like me. I'm not happy unless my Tamagotchi is happy."