Famed French author finds new life online

Paul Mayne // Western News

French Studies professor Geneviève de Viveiros and her students recently launched the EZolaproject, a vlog dedicated to French novelist Émile Zola.

Geneviève de Viveiros never expected 21st-Century tools to lend such important insights into a 19th-Century mind. Then again, who knew a popular video website that gave the world Justin Bieber, Gangnam Style and Grumpy Cat could also augment our understanding into French novelist Émile Zola?

Supported by an Insight Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), de Viveiros’s research explores how the ideas of the famed author, thinker and journalist – a man who never set foot in Canada – managed to influence the fledgling country across the ocean.

At its core, her work eyes how networks of ideas worked more than a century ago.

“I realize that seems very far from YouTube. But it might not be that far away – as I have discovered,” the French Studies professor said with a laugh.

Émile Édouard Charles Antoine Zola was born April 2, 1840 in Paris, France. He published his controversial first novel, La Confession de Claude, in 1865 and continued his journalism career while publishing novels that cast a new light on social issues of the Industrial Revolution. As the founder of the naturalist movement, Zola also published several treatises to explain his theories on various topics. He died in 1902.

Like his contemporaries – Honoré de Balzac and Alexandre Dumas – Zola’s works were widely translated and read all over Europe and North America. In fact, many of his novels were illegally copied, translated and pirated. That held true in Canada as well.


“I wanted to focus on these networks and how they worked during the 19th Century,” de Viveiros explained about her research focus. “But I soon realized we are still full of those networks in the 21st Century – we just use other mediums. So I decided we should experiment with those.”

Enter the EZolaproject.

On this vlog – short for ‘video blog’ or ‘video log’ – the French Studies professor and her students share biographical background on Zola, as well as updates on their ongoing archival research, travels and challenges. Posted to YouTube in both French and English, the channel offers hints for young researchers on subjects ranging from working in archives to handling microfilm to exploring newspapers.

Launched in May, the vlog now boasts 10 videos – each one crafted to reach a new generation of researchers. Beyond the information it shares, the project is an exploration of new ways in teaching and learning.

The EZolaproject grew out of an inconveniently timed, one-day conference de Viveiros organized for undergraduate students. While interest was high in the subject matter, most wereunable to attend because of work or family commitments.

They asked for a live feed of the conference. There wasn’t one.

Further, de Viveiros discovered her students often augmented their preparation for quizzes by using YouTube videos that offered background on authors. It prompted her to consider harnessing the same medium.

“I thought, ‘Why don’t I do this?’ My students want to know more. How they use technology now is far different than 10 years ago – things are constantly evolving. We don’t I embrace that?”

The EZolaproject team is composed of de Viveiros, along with French Studies PhD candidates Fanny Leveau, Umut Incesu and Tetzner Leny Bien Aime.

The opportunity to work in local archives has been an important part of the project for de Viveiros, whose eyes were opened to the depth of a collection only steps from her office.

“I am so used to working in France, studying a French author. But here, it has been an exciting learning process for me. It has been really fun to find things here – all around us,” she explained.

While delving into the Western Archives and Research Collection Centre, she pulled out an 1892 playbill from the Grand Opera House in London – a predecessor of the Grand Theatre – advertising a play by Zola. The unexpected find was yet another clue into how culture, ideas, opinions and news traveled across Europe and North America during the 19thCentury.

“That was a huge discovery. It encouraged us to look around us and work with others.”

The EZolaproject has no defined end date, as the team continues to explore. de Viveiros’ own work will culminate in a book about Zola’s reception and influence in Canada.