- Explosive Narratives: Terrorism and Anarchy in the Works of Émile Zola by Eduardo A. Febles
Terrorism is a byword these days. It is helpful, then, to put the concept into perspective both historically and in terms of cultural production. Eduardo Febles does this skillfully in Explosive Narratives, by analyzing the “literary function” of the forgotten terrorist figure of the Belle Époque anarchist in three of Zola’s novels, Germinal (1885), Paris (1898) and Travail (1901). Febles selected these novels as representative anchor pieces from each of Zola’s long-term, multi-volume series—Les Rougon-Macquart, Les Trois Villes, and Les Quatre Evangiles. They therefore form a “coherent trilogy” for tracking the naturalist’s “evolving views” (21) on anarchism. The conceptual premises of Explosive Narratives are that “the discourse on terror functions symbolically within a given social structure” (11)—in this case, Third Republic France; that naturalism’s inclinations are “entropic,” a framework opened up by David Baguley’s work on that particular “vision” of naturalism; and that anarchy, by definition an unwilling participant in realist representation, challenges naturalist aesthetics. Methodologically, Febles pursues meticulous readings of the novels as they are interwoven with dialogue and indirect discourse that embed Zola’s changing views on anarchism; there is [End Page 212] also a hint of genetic criticism where Febles introduces to good effect elements from Zola’s correspondence, preparatory notes and drafts in order to further disclose the novelist’s changing views on anarchism as he composed these novels. Febles argues that Zola, in three different ways, calls upon and then purges anarchism of its radical thrust. Explosive Narratives will thus be of interest to specialists of Emile Zola and Belle Époque France, to be sure, but will also appeal to those interested in radical social and political movements, as well as to those drawn by the relationship between politics and aesthetics, particularly as they apply to anarchy in art and literature.
Carefully following more than two decades of Zola scholarship, Febles traces the fault lines that trouble Zola’s treatment of anarchism. If Zola cannot be held responsible for his wariness regarding what he perceives to be anarchy’s violent means, Febles demonstrates how Zola is nevertheless liable for misrepresenting, diluting and ultimately erasing anarchism as a political phenomenon of Third Republic France, after having exploited and then absorbed its allure into an alternative anti-bourgeois stance in his novels. Chapter 1, “Souvarine’s Vanishing Act,” traces the figure of this anarchist character in Germinal, the first instance of Zola’s “effacement of anarchy” in his novels (36). It becomes clear that the novel suffers from its anachronistic depiction of anarchy, as well as from watered-down, popularizing and stereotyped versions of anarchism and socialism. Zola’s ambivalence about both the utility and violence of anarchism leads not simply to the dismissal of the social movement, but to a strange smothering of it, as if he could have it both ways—playing up the radicalism of anarchism in parallel to his critique of bourgeois existence and social inequities, without adopting its most extreme tenets. Significantly, Febles attends to formal concerns, exploring for example how a naturalist mode of description positions itself complicitly in a stable, controlling point of view akin to the very bourgeois order Zola pretends to unmask (44). In addition, the moral authority of Souvarine, the anarchist anti-hero and “misanthrope” (49), is “undermined”; but so too, Febles argues, is an entropic depiction of the Voreux mine’s destruction, a depiction in which elements of the fantastic stretch the limits of narrative stability and undermine realism (58–61). Ultimately, several literary strategies in Germinal spin out of control and erode any of the author’s ideological sympathy for anarchism’s cri de coeur.
In Chapter 2, “Anarchy as Narrative Capital,” Febles’s sustained reading of Paris, the climax to Les Trois Villes, provides a healthy update and sets a new standard for readings of this novel. Paris is the intermediate step toward the utopian register of Travail, yet as...