Emile Zola on the Destructive Power of Creative Work

French Naturalist Émile Zola (1840-1902) is one of my favorite authors. His most autobiographical novel, L’Oeuvre (The Masterpiece), one of the books in his Rougon-Macquart series, provides insight into Zola’s relationship with his childhood friend, Paul Cézanne. In this excerpt novelist Pierre Sandoz, representing Zola, speaks to his friend, obsessed painter Claude Lantier, representing Cézanne:

“I, whom you envy, perhaps–yes, I, who am beginning to get on in the world, as middle-class people say–I, who publish books and earn a little money–well, I am being killed by it all…. Listen; work has taken up the whole of my existence. Little by little, it has robbed me of my mother, of my wife, of everything I love. It is like a germ thrown into the cranium, which feeds on the brain, finds its way into the trunk and limbs, and gnaws up the whole of the body. The moment I jump out of bed of a morning, work clutches hold of me, rivets me to my desk without leaving me time to get a breath of fresh air; then it pursues me at luncheon–I audibly chew my sentences with my bread. Next it accompanies me when I go out, comes back with me and dines off the same plate as myself; lies down with me on my pillow, so utterly pitiless that I am never able to set the book in hand on one side; indeed, its growth continues even in the depth of my sleep. And nothing outside of it exists for me. True, I go upstairs to embrace my mother, but in so absent-minded a way, that ten minutes after leaving her I ask myself whether I have really been to wish her good-morning. My poor wife has no husband; I am not with her even when our hands touch. Sometimes I have an acute feeling that I am making their lives very sad, and I feel very remorseful, for happiness is solely composed of kindness, frankness and in one’s home; but how can I escape from the claws of the monster? I at once relapse into the somnambulism of my working hours, into the indifference and moroseness of my fixed idea. If the pages I have written during the morning have been worked off all right, so much the better; if one of them has remained in distress, so much the worse. The household will laugh or cry according to the whim of that all-devouring monster–Work. No, no! I have nothing that I can call my own. In my days of poverty I dreamt of rest in the country, of travel in distant lands; and now that I might make those dreams reality, the work that has been begun keeps me shut up. There is no chance of a walk in the morning’s sun, no chance of running round to a friend’s house, or of a mad bout of idleness! My strength of will has gone with the rest; all this has become a habit; I have locked the door of the world behind me, and thrown the key out of the window. There is no longer anything in my den but work and myself–and work will devour me, and then there will be nothing left, nothing at all!”

Are you obsessed with your creative work? Do you wish you could be satisfied, living day to day without creating? Do you manage to balance your creative work and your life better than Pierre Sandoz? How do you do it?

Excerpt from Zola, Emile (2007-10-22). Works of Emile Zola (20+ Works) Includes The Three Cities Trilogy (Les Trois Villes): Lourdes, Rome and Paris, The Fortune of the Rougons, Nana, The Fat and the Thin and more (mobi) (Kindle Locations 45022-45029) MobileReference. Kindle Edition.

15 thoughts on “Emile Zola on the Destructive Power of Creative Work

  1. Pingback: This Day in History: Émile Zola Is Put on Trial for Publishing “J’Accuse” (1898) | euzicasa

  2. juliekenner

    I’ve never read Zola, but now I’m putting him on my list. His take on creativity is poignant and heartbreaking and all-too-familiar. I’ve definitely been there and done that, but I think (hope!) that the all consuming bursts are wrestled now into finite boxes of time. I’m not always successful (my daughter once sent me an e-postcard with a pic of me and the caption: guess what! the Kenner mom is writing again!), but I feel like I’m able to turn it off and focus on the other things in life, especially the family! Though when deadlines creep up, I’ll confess to falling headfirst back into the breech!

    1. SJ Driscoll

      Thanks for coming by, Julie. Zola’s writing is intense. He held nothing back. (Aside from being a great writer, he was a very brave man.) I’m not sure how a writer could write without being obsessed. I can’t even do my job without becoming obsessed with it. Remember the movie, She-Devil? Meryl Streep played a romance writer who wrote outside on the lawn of her beautiful mansion, dressed in pink chiffon, wearing a picture hat. Her life was perfect, and it damn well had to stay that way because all that perfection was part of her obsession.

  3. Julie

    Hmm, I just wrote about this subject on my blog too. Can our creative selves merge with our outer selves and live in harmony? Guess Zola didn’t think so, but I sure hope so! Remains to be seen…

  4. Joe Iriarte

    I identify all too well. Luckily for me, my wife shares my obsession, so we each totally understand where the other is coming from. And the thing is, obsession is what it takes. We’re both close enough to our dreams now that we can touch them, but it has taken obsession, and countless hours of devotion, to get here. But from time to time I worry that I’ve neglected my kids in my pursuit of this obsession.
    This is a sobering excerpt, but thanks all the same for sharing it.

    1. SJ Driscoll

      Thanks for coming by, Joe. I hope you and your wife reach your dreams. Obsession is what it takes, but it’s costly. I both resent the cost bitterly and continue to pay it.

  5. Alicia Street

    I read Germinal years ago and remember being slightly wiped out by it. As to my work habits, Roy and I have lived the ridiculous lifestyle of artists for so many years it just seems normal to me now.

  6. Patricia

    Oh my goodness! We’d all best be careful how we view our work and our lives lest one consumes the other. Good words to heed!

    Now, back to work! (Tee hee)

    Nice post Sally. Thanks for sharing.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

  7. mgmillerbooks

    Wow. lol. I guess I just thought I’ve been obsessed before. But I think all of us can relate on some level. Zola’s great. Been many years since I’ve read him, but the bleak ending of ‘Germinal’ is still fresh in memory.

    1. SJ Driscoll

      Thanks, Debra. He’s terrific. IMO, his Therese Raquin is the ancestor of the modern horror novel, and his Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Paradise) tells the story of the first modern department store, complete with the destruction of the mom-and-pop businesses that we still complain about today. He wrote a lot, so you’ll have something to keep you busy in the New Year. 😉

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