AT AGE 53, Emile Zola made his first, triumphal trip to London. Meeting him, Henry James recorded his impression of the renowned, notorious French novelist as "fairly bristling to him in his [WORD ILLEGIBLE] but with the betrayal that nothing whatever had happened but to write Les Rougon-Macuart ." Hardly a negligible achievement, but such an assessment, particularly from one whose own personal life is legendary for its lack of drama or event, might well daunt a biographer. Fortunately for Zola, F. W. J. Hemmings and the reader, in this instance names was uncharacteristically devoid of perception and prescience. Of course at that moment few knew of the clandestine double life on which Zola had recently embarked, and certainly no one could anticipate that within five years Zola would return to London to escape prison in Paris following an act of singular and spectacular bravery. There was "a beast in the jungle" for Zola in his later years, two of them in fact, a lady and a tiger - Jeanne Rozerot and the Dreyfus Afur.

If indeed by 1893 Zola the man seemed obliterated by Zola the novelist, it may be because form the start his life, as recounted in this lucid, con-se biography, seems destined, virtually exemplary, for the formation of writer. Zola's childhood, despite his father's failure and early death, was on the whole a strong and happy one with a devoted mother, a band of co-ains including Paul Cezanne, and the yllic setting of Aix-en-Provence.

Moving with his mother to Paris in 1958 provided the trauma: he fell seriously ill, was treated as a yokel by the ceen sophisticates, twice failed his [WORD ILLEGIBLE] and at age 20 plunged to what Angus Wilson, in an elegant short study of Zola (1952), calls a period "anarchic bohemianism." In fact, in his loneliness, misery and grotesque [WORD ILLEGIBLE] (unable to go out, having pawned his pants, on his attic roof he [WORD ILLEGIBLE] and roasted sparrows for [WORD ILLEGIBLE] it sounds less like La Vie de Boeme or even Les Fleurs du Mal than The Lower Depths .

His demoralization was redeemed [WORD ILLEGIBLE] by his conviction of his mission; "the poky, unheated room he rented," he would "wrap himself up in a blanket and continue writing fairy stories or sublimely ethereal verse." Zola? thereal verse? During that time he still believed that the writer "had a sacred mission - to show always and everywhere, the soul to those who think only of the body, and God to those whose faith has been destroyed by science."

Six years later all had changed in both his life and writing. In the year 1866 he left his job as a clerk at Hachette, published his first novel, moved form the slums to a pleasant suburb and met the woman who was to become an almost perfect wife. But if he had escaped poverty, violence and vice in his surroundings, they had marked his mind forever; as his life eased, his literary credo hardened: "I am rather hard on works of pure imagination, being unable to understand the necessity of dreams when reality offers such a human and gripping interest." This same year he began to publish articles championing the unpopular realism of Manet and the early Impressionists. He also attacked Romanticism, dethroning his former idol Hugo in favor of his new hero, Balzac.

Balzac, whom he regarded as towering over all others, influenced not only ideals of fiction - "His only concern is with truth, and he exhibited our hearts to us on the operating table" - but his form as well, inspiring Zola to create a body of work similar in scope as well as honesty to La Comedie Humaine . By 1869 he had evolved his grand design for 10 interrelated novels (they were to become 20) which in their unflinching portrayal of proletarian poverty, grief and crime would often shock but earn him fame and success and such ambivalent epithets as "the Homer of the cesspool."

Throughout the next two decades, secure in a happy if childless marriage and association with Turgenev, the Goncourts and de Maupassant, financially comfortable and unscathed by the 1870 war and Commune, he so dedicated himself to the meticulous research and vigorous writing of these novels that one could indeed almost say of him as V.S. Pritchett says of Balzac, "to him life had become the habit of writing."

1893, the year of the encounter with Henry James and of the publication of the final Rougon-Marquart book, was essentially the end of his career as a major writer but the beginning of a new life. In his previous book on Zola, a large, thorough critical study (1952), Hemmings wrote that "Zola's life history is in fact a very simple one . . . not a life that lends itself easily to dramatization," but this hardly applies to his last decade. Deeply disappointed at being childless, this scrupulous monogamist entered into a liaison with a young seamstress. The romance was improbably productive of contentment and two children (whom the magnanimous Mme. Zola later adopted) but, as Angus Wilson says "physical fatherhood was undoubtedly the precusor of literary sterility."

However, if his last books were banal, his last years were not. in 1898, convinced of the innocence of Captain Dreyfus who was convicted in 1894 as a traitor, Zola published what may be the world's most famous piece of jouranlism, J'accuse , attacking all those party to the conspiracy against Dreyfus. Obscenely vilified and threatened by large segments of French society, Zola nonetheless welcomed his trial for libel though forseeing he would be condemned. While Dreyfus was not entirely vindicated until after Zola's death (which Hemmings suggests may have been murder), there is no question that Zola's role had been decisive.

Henry James also once wrote of Zola's elaborate plan for the Rougon-Marquart series "No finer act of courage and confidence is recorded in the history of letters." On might well add of his part in L'Affaire , that no finer act of courage and confidence is recorded in the history of the life of a man of letters.