Émile Zola and Matilde Serao: Two Nineteenth-Century Authors Who Still Have Lots to Say
Sophie Maddison is a PhD student in Comparative Literature at the University of Glasgow. Her current research examines interconnectedness in the urban narratives of Émile Zola (1840-1902) and Matilde Serao (1856-1927), combining new materialist and ecocritical analysis. More broadly, she is interested in urban studies, revisionist approaches to nineteenth-century culture, the convergence of artistic form.
As a student of nineteenth-century literature, I have been struck by the ways in which recent events relate to challenges faced in the 1800s. How does an epidemic spread, and what role does human activity play in contagion? How do public health crises impact how we live, work, and shop? How do issues of class influence people’s exposure to disease? These are all twenty-first century questions, but ones that were asked over a century ago (and for newly resonant reasons) by the authors I am researching.
Émile Zola (1840-1902) and Matilde Serao (1856-1927) have a lot in common. Widely regarded as canonical figures of French and Italian literature respectively, both produced a significant amount of fiction – but they are also known for their background in journalism, as well as their high-profile engagement with social and political issues. This convergence of activities, together with the fact that their fiction offers an extensive and largely realistic portrayal of everyday life, means Zola and Serao continue to be as relevant to historians as they are appealing to literary scholars.
Further overlaps can be found in the stylistic aspects of these authors’ fiction. Zola is among the most renowned proponents of naturalism, an offshoot of realism that applies the concept of scientific observation to the literary text. Serao’s work, too, stems from a realist tradition, bearing the influence of French naturalism as well as the southern Italian verismo of writers such as Giovanni Verga and Luigi Capuana. It is important to note, however, that neither author sits comfortably within a single literary genre. Much has been written on Zola’s divergence from his own, self-assigned brand of naturalism, while both authors can be seen to apply literary devices more readily associated with gothic fiction. And in current scholarship, fresh attention is being paid to the ways in which their work extends forwards as well as backwards or sideways, blending in with later movements such as modernism and symbolism.
Zola’s best-known fictional works are his breakthrough novel, Thérèse Raquin (1868), and the twenty-volume Rougon-Macquart ‘history’ of a family under the Second Empire. But he is also remembered for his ardent and highly influential involvement in the Dreyfus Affair – including, of course, J’Accuse…!, the open letter written to the French President, Félix Faure, and published on the front page of L’Aurore on 13 January 1898. Serao, too, is known not only for her fictional output, but also for her work as the editor and founder of several newspapers (she was among the first women to carry out such roles in Italy), and for the non-fictional work Il ventre di Napoli. This collection of articles, the title of which echoes Zola’s novel Le Ventre de Paris (1873), is an outspoken and politically charged response the Italian government’s call to ‘sventrare’ (disembowel) the poor quarters of Naples following an outbreak of cholera in 1884. It remains one of the most frequently cited commentaries on Neapolitan squalor in the 1800s and, moreover, is the main reason why Serao is heralded as one of the most passionate and empathetic figures to have rallied for socio-economic change in the city.
This brings me to one of the most pertinent connections between these authors, and one that is especially resonant at this moment in time. It concerns their engagement with urban regeneration in Paris and Naples which, in both cases, was greatly influenced by nineteenth-century experiences and interpretations of disease. The post-1884 regeneration of Naples, often referred to as ‘risanamento’, revolved around a central boulevard (the Rettifilo) designed to aerate the city and prevent the future spread (through miasma) of disease. The project drew inspiration from the long, broad, Parisian boulevards introduced by Baron Haussmann – and although these are often discussed in terms of political and imperial motivations, they were also connected to an ‘assainissement’ programme that stemmed from similar ideas of miasmic contagion. Such developments, which are dealt with in works by Zola and Serao, are striking for the modern-day reader – not only because we are being forced to question how our own urban infrastructure might change in the wake of a pandemic, but also because theories of miasma, for all their shortcomings, don’t seem quite so distant or irrelevant when we’re grappling with a respiratory disease spread through droplets in the air.
In my own thesis, which takes urban fiction as its main area of analysis, I focus on the cities of Paris and Naples. This decision stems from the fact that they were, respectively, the long-term homes of Zola (born in Aix-en-Provence) and Serao (born in Patras, Greece), and that they inspired the authors’ most extensive engagement with urban development. Zola’s fiction spans numerous urban locations, of which the larger examples include Rome and Marseille. But Paris is the city that receives the most sustained attention, and that clearly held a unique fascination for the author. And though Serao’s fiction presents a relatively even split between the cities of Rome and Naples, her Neapolitan texts reveal an impassioned concern for the material and social fortunes of the city – and this is not nearly as prominent in her narratives of other metropoles.
Theoretically, my research draws on the frameworks of new materialism and material ecocriticism. Part of what is often referred to as the ‘material’, ‘posthuman’, or ‘nonhuman’ turn in the humanities, these overlapping fields share a provocatively anti-anthropocentric fascination with boundless ontologies, agency, and emergent relationality. I focus, therefore, on the interconnectedness of beings and things in these authors’ work. Taking inspiration from ecocritical concepts of ‘storied matter’ and narrative interplays, I am uncovering new ways to explore the intertextuality that connects Zola and Serao to each other, and that situates them within a lively and highly porous landscape of discourses and ideas. While this approach centres my research in the context of the long nineteenth century, it also foregrounds intersections with other literary and historical moments – including our own.
Sophie Maddison, PhD student, University of Glasgow