Michael Rosen: Zola In Norwood

Edinburgh International Book Festival

On 26 August 2017

Review by David Chadderton

Former Children's Laureate Michael Rosen shows his range every time he visits the Book Festival: you can Laugh Out Loud with Michael Rosen on a Sunday morning, or you can see him show off his academic credentials in this very informative talk about poet and novelist and pioneer of naturalism in the theatre, Émile Zola. I confess, I did both.

Chaired by Philip Ardagh, the event focussed on the Dreyfus affair, setting the scene in France in the 1890s when half of French society believed that the Jews would cause the downfall of France and "anti-semitic" was considered an acceptable moral position for a national newspaper to take officially.

Dreyfus was an army officer, which in itself was seen as a contradiction by those who believed a Jew could not possibly be a French patriot. He was found guilty of a form of treason for allegedly leaking military secrets to Germany and was sentenced to life on Devil's Island, which was effectively a death sentence.

Very few people didn't believe Dreyfus to be guilty, but he had a small core of supporters who approached Zola, then the most famous writer in the world, a writer who wrote about the poor without moral approbation and who had written an essay taking an anti-antisemitic stance.

Zola initially refused to help, but then agreed, sitting down with the editor of a major newspaper to write the now-famous J'accuse article in the form of a letter to the French President which graced the front page of the next day's edition. Zola was accused of libelling the Court Martial (in France you could be guilty of libelling a public body, not just a person), was tried twice and found guilty.

Zola was prepared to serve his time, but his friends advised him to leave as he would distract from the campaign to get Dreyfus, by now gravely ill, back to France. He arrived in England alone, not able to speak English, with just a piece of paper with the words "Grosvenor Hotel" on it.

Rosen spoke of Zola's complicated marital arrangements—a wife who managed his affairs but was childless and a mistress with whom he had two children—and his controversial writing during the 11 months he was in England.

Dreyfus won the right to a retrial but was still found guilty, so the President intervened to pardon him. Zola was furious as the pardon meant that the truth would never be properly examined in court. Dreyfus was reinstated in the army and promoted, whereas Zola died from asphyxiation due to a blocked chimney, some say in suspicious circumstances.

Michael Rosen's The Disappearance of Émile Zola: Love, Literature and the Dreyfus Case is out now in hardcover.