Experiments of a naturalist

Emile Zola was 26 years old when he wrote Therese Raquin

Emile Zola was 26 years old when he wrote Therese Raquin. The novel was his first masterpiece, and in a pattern that was to be repeated throughout his life, it shocked the bourgeoisie and inspired the scorn of high-minded critics. Louis Ulbach, the newspaper editor who nonetheless hired Zola as a columnist, called it "putrid literature".

The first stage adaptation of Therese Raquin, written by Zola himself, ran for only nine performances in 1873. "It created a scandal because the characters are playthings of their instincts and sexual urges," says Henri Mitterand, a professor at Columbia University in New York and the world's most renowned Zola expert.

"Adultery was presented not as something to be condemned but as the result of a physiological attraction. The prudish, puritan morality of the time could not accept this; the taboo against sex could not be broken."

Despite its initial snubbing, more than a dozen versions of Therese Raquin have been staged, including a late 19thcentury Italian translation starring the great Eleonora Duse. But it is Marcel Carne's 1953 film version, with Simone Signoret as Therese, which most French people remember.

Therese Raquin portrays the same trio - bored wife, dull husband, passionate lover - as Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary. But Zola took the realism of Balzac, Stendhal and Flaubert further, treating his fictional characters as if they were laboratory animals under scientific study. Their fate is the brutal result of physical determinism. Zola called this literary school "naturalism".

"He worked on the principle that every character had a specific temperament," Prof Mitterand explains. "Camille, the husband, is sluggish, Therese is highstrung, Laurent hotblooded. It was a chemistry experiment."

Like other novelists of his time, Zola often set his stories in the stifling world of the petit bourgeois. The lovers are forced to work in the mother-in-law's shop and lie about their relationship. They feel they have no choice but to get rid of the husband. "Zola's stroke of genius, his invention, was to imagine that after they kill the husband, they can no longer satisfy their passion," Prof Mitterand says. "This inhibition is a modern form of remorse. They become impotent. Little by little, they begin to hate one another. It's like a Greek tragedy - characters are punished in the flesh for their crime and sink into madness."

Zola's sad childhood may have predisposed him to writing about hardship and decline. His father, an immigrant Italian engineer, died when Emile was seven years old. His mother, Emilie, was harassed by Francesco Zola's creditors, and the downward progression began. The young Zola twice failed his baccaulaureat and gave up formal schooling. A rebellious streak and several years doing menial jobs were his basic training for journalism.

French intellectuals in the second half of the 19th century were fascinated by medical science and nervous disorders. Industrialisation was drawing the rural poor into the cities, creating an urban proletariat.

in 1865, the Goncourt brothers, Jules and Edmond - friends and rivals of Zola - published Germinie Lacerteux, the story of a neurotic, alcoholic servant girl. Zola expanded on their pathological vision of the mind and body. "He believed that his generation was in decline, exhausted by unfulfilled aspirations," Prof Mitterand says.

Yet Zola brought incredible discipline and energy to his work, publishing some 40 volumes in 36 years in addition to hundreds of newspaper articles. He described his 20-volume saga, Les Rougon-Macquart, published between 1871 and 1893, as "the natural and social history of a family under the Second Empire". Across four generations, the reader follows the legitimate branch, the Rougons, and the bastard Macquarts, through every strata of French society. The Rougons are tainted by mental illnes, the Macquarts by alcoholism.

Zola's oeuvre helped to free the fin-desiecle French public of its 19th-century prudishness. When his 1884 novel, Lourdes, was banned by the Catholic Church for denouncing the hold of superstition over believers, Zola went on to investigate corruption at the Vatican and published the equally devastating Rome. His understanding of the subconscious, and of instinct and sexual urges, prefigured Freud.

Flaubert and Zola were skilled technicians whose ability to shift scenes and sequences was later repeated in the cinema. Zola had a profound influence on the 20th-century novel, especially in the US, where John Steinbeck and Theodore Dreiser took up his crusade on behalf of modern society's losers.

Investigative journalism was the foundation of Zola's fiction. An agnostic, he attended Mass and studied confession manuals before writing La Faute de l'Abbe Mouret in 1876.

For Au Bonheur des Dames (1883), which takes place in a Paris department store, Zola interviewed staff at Le Bon Marche and asked his wife to collect catalogues. The book is still studied in marketing courses today.

Germinal, the story of a miners' strike published in 1885, is Zola's greatest novel. In February 1884, he spent eight days among 12,000 striking miners at Anzin. Zola was the only writer to crawl through a dark miners' tunnel, just as five years later, when preparing his railway classic, La Bete Humaine, he would travel in a locomotive cabin.

"He was the first novelist to give a dynamic, sympathetic vision of the working classes," Prof Mitterand says. "The workers in Balzac, Stendhal and Flaubert are mere silhouettes. Germinal was the first book to pose the problem of the place of the working class in modern society."

Zola is the undisputed master of the crowd scene. The crowds he describes are living creatures. Before the police open fire on the strikers in Germinal, the workers destroy equipment at the mines, then rush towards the homes and offices of their bosses, crying: "Bread! Bread! Bread!". Thirty-two years before the Bolshevik revolution, Zola describes "this beautiful horror" witnessed by the mine-owners and their families:

"It was the red vision of revolution that would inevitably carry them all away, one bloody, fin-desiecle evening. Yes, one evening, the people let loose, unleashed, would run thus down the roads; the blood of the bourgeois would flow, they would parade heads, scatter the gold from gutted safes." ZOLA'S novels were best-sellers, and he might have settled comfortably into his Paris townhouse and country home at Medan, but in 1888, his own personal drama began. The 48-year-old writer fell in love with Jeanne Rozerot, a 21-yearold laundress hired by his wife, Alexandrine. The following year, their daughter Denise was born and, in 1891, a son, Jacques. The childless Madame Zola went through years of weeping and emotional crisis, but eventually accepted the arrangement, becoming fond of her husband's illegitimate children.

While his private life was in turmoil, Zola continued his lifelong battle against the establishment. Paradoxically, he sought the recognition to which he believed he was entitled. Zola was the most famous literary figure in France, but was so controversial that the Academie Francaise rejected his application more than a dozen times. Like his friends, the impressionist painters Cezanne and Manet, who were excluded from the official salon, Zola was a brilliant outcast. During the Dreyfus Affair, which divided France from 1894 until 1906, he was even stripped of his Legion d'Honneur.

At a time of intense anti-Semitism, Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army captain, was unjustly accused and convicted of giving military secrets to Germany and condemned to forced labour on Devil's Island. Zola took up Captain Dreyfus's cause, publishing an open letter to the president of France under the banner headline "J'Accuse . . .!"

"My duty is to speak out," Zola wrote. "I do not want to be an accomplice. My nights would be haunted by the spectre of the innocent man who far away, in the most horrible torment, is paying for a crime he did not commit."

Zola was tried for defamation and condemned to prison. He fled to London, where his wife, mistress and children visited him during his year of exile. Zola returned to Paris in 1899, after Dreyfus was acquitted. He died in 1902 of carbon monoxide poisoning from a coal fire in his Paris townhouse. A roofer had blocked the chimney.

The hatred raised by the Dreyfus affair was so bitter that suspicion still lingers that Zola's death at the age of 62 may have been intended. At his funeral, the writer Anatole France delivered the famous epitaph: "He was a moment in the conscience of mankind." A group of miners joined the cortege of 20,000, chanting, "Germinal! Germinal!" Six years later, Zola's ashes were taken to the Pantheon - not because he was a great writer, but because he had willingly risked his reputation and livelihood to fight injustice in the Dreyfus affair.

Therese Raquin, adapted by Nicholas Wright, opens at The Gate Theatre, Dublin, tonight. It is directed by Michael Caven and stars Susan Fitzgerald, Mark O'Halloran, Donna Dent and Phelim Drew. Booking on 01-8744045/8746042.