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June 15, 1986|Merle Rubin

ZOLA by Philip Walker (Routledge & Kegan Paul: $16.75; 257 pp.). Ambitious yet altruistic, publicity-seeking yet public-spirited, Emile Zola (1840-1902) was passionately determined to become what he in fact became: one of the central prophetic figures of his century. The brutal realism of such novels as "Therese Raquin," "L'Assommoir," "Nana," "Germinal," "La Terre" and "La Debacle" shocked the French reading public, outraged critics and assured his place in literary history. His pivotal role in making public the gross miscarriage of justice in the Alfred Dreyfus affair remains one of history's shining examples of the power of the pen.

Philip Walker, a professor of French at UC Santa Barbara, brings an invigorating freshness to a subject that has been examined by many, including novelist Angus Wilson, scholar F.W.J. Hemmings, biographer Joanna Richardson and Walker himself, who published a biography of Zola in 1968. This new biography emphasizes Zola's works rather than his life, although placing his novels and other writings in the chronological--indeed, the biological--context of his life: youth, prime, maturity and age. The chief strengths of Walker's approach lie not in the ingenuity of his insights but in the enthusiasm and scope of his appreciation.

In clear, simple prose that will appeal to a wide range of readers, Walker evokes the complexity of Zola's vision, stressing the extent to which it is an interweaving of diverse strains: pantheism, naturalism, positivism, science, romanticism, realism and mythopoeia. Zola's stance, Walker suggests, was biblical, although his position was anti-clerical. An heir to the Enlightenment and the skepticism of Voltaire, Zola was a true believer in the unofficial 19th-Century religion of humanity. "Fecundity," "work," "truth" and "justice" were his bywords. It is to Walker's credit that this account of Zola and his complicated, sometimes conflicting beliefs manages to reinvest those grand abstractions with the powerful life force they held in their own time and may still hold in ours.

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