In honor of Zola's birthday, I was happy to sign up for a Zola reading event hoted by Delaisse and Fanda. I had six novels by Zola on the TBR shelves, and I settled on The Masterpiece because I'm fascinated by Impressionist painters. (And because it's fairly short, less than 400 pages.) Though it's not my favorite Zola so far, it was definitely interesting, though tragic. The Masterpiece is the fourteenth book in Zola's Rougon-Macquart cycle, and it's the story of Claude Lantier, an Impressionist artist living in Paris and his obsession with creating a masterpiece. Claude's obsession becomes his downfall. The character of Claude is based on the Impressionist Paul Cezanne, Zola's childhood friend.
|Not actually a painting by Cezanne -- this cover is a detail of a portrait of the artist Bazille, by Auguste Renoir.
In the morning, he peeks at the sleeping woman, Christine, and is so inspired by her beauty that he begins to sketch her. After she awakes, she flees the apartment, but returns weeks later to thank him. They begin a friendship that eventually blossoms into something more.
Meanwhile, Claude is hard at work on his paintings, and he and his artist colleagues are desperately trying to get their work accepted at the official Paris Salon. Claude and his friends are "Open Air" artists, also known as Impressionists, so their work is too radical and daring. Claude's major work at this time is based on Edouard Manet's most famous work, Le dejuener sur l'herbe:
This being a Zola novel, Claude is another train wreck (he's the son of Gervaise Lantier of L'Assommoir and brother of Jacques Lantier of La Bete Humaine, so he's from an entire family of train wrecks! Nobody writes fascinating train wrecks like Zola). Christine becomes Claude's lover, and things go pretty well for awhile, but eventually Claude becomes obsessed with creating a masterwork, and his life turns into a downward spiral; naturally, tragedy ensues. Along the way Zola takes some serious jabs at the artistic temperament and obsession, and about the politics of the Paris art scene. (Zola himself is represented by Claude's childhood friend Pierre Sandoz, a writer.)
This is Zola's most autobiographical work, and even though the book is ostensibly about artists, I couldn't help wondering if any of Zola's own experiences as a writer were expressed as Claude's obsession, with a lot of insight as to the constant stress of artists and their overwhelming need to create better and better works. Here, Claude's friend Bongrand, a fellow artists, tells Claude how hard it is even after an artist is successful:
That's when the torture begins; you've drunk your excitement to the dregs and found it all too short and even rather bitter, and you wonder whether it was really worth the struggle. From that point there is no more unknown to explore, no new sensations to experience. Pride has had its brief moment of celebrity; you know that your best has been given and you're surprised it hasn't brought a keener sense of satisfaction. From that moment the horizon starts to empty of all the hopes that once attracted you towards it. There's nothing to look forward to but death.
After The Masterpiece was published, Cezanne never forgave Zola and refused to speak to him ever again, so it must have hit pretty close to home. I liked this book, though not as much as some of the other Rougon-Macquart novels I've read. I found the plot to be a little on the slow side. Zola's characters tend to be fairly awful people, but the stories themselves are so compelling I can hardly put them down -- I zoomed through Germinal and La Bete Humaine in a just a couple of days each. This one took longer. I did like some of the characters, especially Sandoz, and the story was interesting, but somehow it didn't hook me the same as some of his other novels. However, I'm still going to keep going with Zola. Eventually, I hope to read the entire series, though I doubt I'll ever read them in order. And some of them are still only available in the Vizetelly translations which are terribly bowdlerized. I'm toying with the idea of taking up French so that I can read them in the original, though that's probably a drastic solution.
Has anyone else read The Masterpiece? What did you think? Any other favorites by Zola? I'd like to read another before the end of April, and I'm thinking of The Ladies' Paradise. Thoughts?