Claude's Confession by Émile Zola.

Claude's Confession (La Confession de Claude) is Émile Zola's first novel, first published in 1865 (Zola's first published work was Contes à Ninon, a short story collection published in 1864), six years before The Fortune of the Rougons (1871), his first Rougon Macquart novel. The novel is semi-autobiographical as it describes his relationship with Berthe (her surname is unknown), his first love with whom he lived in the winter of 1860-61 on the Rue Soufflot before he met and married Alexandrine (the date of their marriage is uncertain, but it would seem they were certainly living together in 1865).

The first thing that struck me when reading Claude's Confession is that it's written in the first person. So far, out of the 37 or so works by Zola I've read, the only other story of Zola's to be written in the first person (that I've come across) is Big Michu (1870). The novel begins,
Winter is here: the air in the morning becomes fresher, and Paris puts on her mantle of fog. This is the season of social soirées. Chilly lips search for kisses; lovers, driven from the country, take refuge beneath the mansards, and, huddling together before the hearth, enjoy, amid the noise of the rain, their eternal spring.
As for me, I love in sadness: I have the winter without the spring, without a sweetheart. My garret, away up a damp staircase, is large and irregular; the corners lose themselves in the gloom, the bare and slanting walls make of the chamber a sort of corridor which stretches out in the form of a bier. The wretched furniture, the narrow planks, ill fitted and painted a horrible red colour, crack funereally when they are touched. Shreds of faded damask hang from the canopy of the bed, and the curtainless window opens upon a huge black wall, never changing and always repulsive.
Portrait of Emlie Zola by Edouard Manet (1868).
There is, as I think can be seen here, an element of the melodramatic which we do see in Zola's Rougon Macquart novels, but this is a novel not only on the poverty he begins to show in these opening paragraphs, but also on the pain of love. The novel reads like a long letter (whereas Zola's later novels have a sort of journalistic quality to them): as Zola explains in the preface, which is addressed to Paul Cézanne and Baptistin Baille (these two along with Zola were known in their childhood as "les trois inséparables" or "the three inseparables"):
You knew, my friends, the wretched youth whose letters I now publish. The youth is no more. He wished to become a man amid the wreck and oblivion of his early days.
In the novel 'Claude' explains how he came to meet Laurence, a prostitute (as Berthe was) who is ill and he is there simply to care for her in the absence of anyone else. His feelings for her in this first meeting are deeply contradictory; sexual attraction and repulsion are suggested in the line where he describes seeing her lying half-naked: "I was ashamed for the young woman, I felt my virginity fly away in my glance". Laurence recovers, and when she is evicted from her room she takes up residence with Claude where, after some frustration he accepts her and means to reform her; instead, he falls in love with her. He finds himself dragged further into the degradation of poverty, and he learns the hard truth that Laurence is irredeemable.

I did wonder if I would like Claude's Confession, and I wanted to read it simply for curiosity's sake, but this is a great novel. It's not the immediately recognisable Zola, more Zola meets Goethe (I'm thinking of The Sorrows of Young Werther, 1774). It is, as I've already said, semi-autobiographical but it's also a character study of a young man in love with a woman who does not return his love, yet it is more of the Romantic than the Realist. Even so there is still a strong element of of poverty and similar social concerns (to be blunt, it's as bleak and miserable as many of his Rougon Macquart novels), and I recognise in this work some of Zola's later (and sharper) descriptions in, for example, L'Assommoir (1877). It is a very dark work, and Zola manages to drag his reader down with Claude almost. It's very effective, very impressive, and so unlike anything I've ever come across before. Had Zola have remained in this Romantic / Realist frame I do think he could have been successful. As it is, he left both for Naturalism, and it's interesting to see the development by looking at his earliest novel. It was a novel he was nearly taken to court for; it would seem the Minister of Justice was contemplating whether it constituted "an outrage to public and religious morals". It never got to that stage but Hachette, a publishing firm where Zola worked as a clerk, expressed its disapproval and Zola left to pursue a career in journalism. Claude's Confession did indeed mark a king of rite of passage, both for its narrator and for its author.


  1. I haven't got round to reading much of Zola's pre-RM work. I have a copy of Fatal Intimacy aka Madeleine Férat and the story collections but haven't really considered his first novel. It's good to hear it's pretty good. I liked the quotation you posted.

    1. I'm looking forward to reading Madeleine Férat and The Mystery of Marseilles too. First I want to read The Four Gospels and a re-read of Thérèse Raquin. As for his short stories, I'm slowly working my way through the 'Dead Me Tell No Tales' which I'm really enjoying!


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Getting up on Cold Mornings by James Henry Leigh Hunt.

The Prevention of Literature by George Orwell.

Moments of Being: Slater's Pins Have No Points by Virginia Woolf.