How to tell the story of Anti-Semitism and Intellectuals who Challenge it: Reflecting on reading Michael Rosen’s (2017) ‘The Disappearance of Émile Zola: Love, Literature and the Dreyfus Case’ London, Faber & Faber.

How to tell the story of Anti-Semitism and Intellectuals who Challenge it: Reflecting on reading Michael Rosen’s (2017) The Disappearance of Émile Zola: Love, Literature and the Dreyfus Case London, Faber & Faber.

Image result for zola
Émile Zola

This is a book with far larger themes than can be imagined before we not only read it but reflect on it.  I have always admired Michael Rosen as before him I admired his father Harold Rosen. This is a family embedded in the cultural and intellectual life not only of Great Britain but of socialism conceived as a European tradition.

During the 2019 election, Michael Rosen was highly prominent on social media, challenging anti-Semitism but also challenging large unspecified claims against some on the left who were being called anti-Semitic with very little evidence. He challenged in particular the Anti-semitism Tsar, Lord John Mann, who had appeared, to many of us on the left, to have been using his role to attack the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn.

Challenging racism against Jewish people is at Rosen’s heart and is the dynamism of his intellectual life, as a man who is a Jew, who valued his roots in the community, and the experience of the long duration of oppression and diaspora from which those roots sought sustenance.

Admiring him again in the Election, I finally decided to read his book on Zola which has been an intention over the 2 years in which it has been published. The link however between the intellectual of proud Jewish origin, Michael Rosen on Twitter (@MichaelRosenYes), and the Author of this book was, I thought, entirely contingent and not substantive. I had, following another another self-promise, been over the last few years been reading and committing myself to reading much more of Zola’s work than I had – at least the work before and contained in the Rougon-Marquart series of novels.

How wrong I was! This book is a story of complicated love and family relationships and of literary projects that followed those works which made, and substantially still make, his name of value to lovers of literature.  Those literary projects are detailed here – one short story of biographical interest being reprinted in Appendix I, Angeline (pp246ff.).

Their difference to the great Les Rougon-Macquart series is the theme of Rosen’s account – in literary theory (Naturalism is abandoned), style, politics (he adopted Fourierism) and plan. Those later novels are of less interest, except as part of this story of an intellectual committed to human good, than the insight the story of Zola after his major works cast on the latter.

However, more importantly for me it is also a story of how the European Left became the champion of  anti-racist thought, led primarily through changes to the understanding of anti-Semitism caused by Zola’s stance and active participation in the Dreyfus affair. Rosen makes the point that prominent voices on the Left had equated the Jewish community with Capitalism and that it was Zola’s voice that challenged this (p.216f.) and acted, through the French Socialist Leader (even when Zola was in England) Jaurès and his connection to the nascent Labour Party (the Social Democratic Federation) in London.(pp158ff.)

In securing this, Zola is attributed as the cause of the Left becoming almost universally anti-racist, through, of course, the example of championing resistance to anti-semites. In the Postscript Rosen backs the idea that Zola became the very type of the ‘intellectuel engagé’, standing outside political parties he favoured but influencing them.[1] This was the very role Rose chose in the 2019 election.

In this light this biography comes to life almost in the same way as other disguised literary autobiographies which take other subjects outside the author himself – like Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria for instance. But this could all be missed and the book be as good without it.

Before reading it, I had completed reading La Bête Humaine, that railroad thriller of complicated sexualities and psychologies (as the more Gothic Angeline) and mixed socio-economic and political motives. It starts with the murder of the rancid paedophile, Railroad capitalist and politician known as the President. His gross body, we are told, decays in no time – faster than could be thought possible. But the French State is likewise in odorous decay:

in the unsettled political climate of the time: it was a critical moment for a great social body in which the slightest change of temperature might accelerate decomposition.  

La Bête Humaine (trans Tancock, L.) [1977:151] London, Penguin Classics

The state as a great decomposing body was Zola’s subject. We might call it the ‘crisis of capitalism’.

Zola supported Dreyfus not because of the nature of the man (he talked of him as merely a rich military man) but because of principles of ethical statecraft and the primacy of human good. Rosen summarises Zola’s notes thus:

In his notes, he returned yet again to cursing France’s ruling regime. They were guilty of backward-looking royalism and militarism and suffering from the incurable cancer of defeat (…).

Rosen (2019:74).

Here again a large sick body must be helped to die, even if the knife is an unrelenting article in the press on Government corruption: J’ Accuse (a translation is printed as Appendix 2).

This book is very professional. Zola appears I believe truly objectively – filled out by evidence from his letters, the letters of his double family, especially his illegitimate, but acknowledged, daughter Denise. But Rosen is subjectively there in the force of an identification that is a matter of political and ethical choice. Rosen chooses to become the ‘intellectuel engagé’ of our time, though there may be no room for people of the giant stature of Zola in the twenty-first century. He reads Zola like a literary master (p. 82 on Angeline), discusses his merit and significance to history of his photography (an area new to me [for instance p. 90) and explains his take on debates on eugenics – he was totally opposed encouraging in the novel he wrote and titled in England, Fécondité (a French word easy to translate). He took a position on sexuality much clearer than the tangled sex of Germinal, L’Assomoir & La Bête Humaine..

But despite the choice of a belated portion of Zola’s life to narrate, Rosen helps me go back to Zola (La Terre next) refreshed with perceptions. He says of a passage from a letter:

… in its time, this kind of language explores similar territory to Proust: in which past, present and future flow into each other, whilst he looks inside or out, one moment figurative, the next topographical, the next polemical. In the word of modern theory, it also expresses ‘liminality’: transition, the moment of being on the border, neither here nor there, but in-between, in the moment of change.

Rosen (2019:20)

I wish I’d written that. As Ross said to Oscar, after making that point, “You will Oscar, you will!”, I’m advising myself against the sin of the plagiarist.


[1] Rosen (2019:242)

2 thoughts on “How to tell the story of Anti-Semitism and Intellectuals who Challenge it: Reflecting on reading Michael Rosen’s (2017) ‘The Disappearance of Émile Zola: Love, Literature and the Dreyfus Case’ London, Faber & Faber.

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