Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Masterpiece by Emile Zola


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. 
 The story begins in Paris in the 1870s, on a stormy night.  Claude Lantier, an artist, returns to his studio/apartment and discovers a young woman waiting in the vestibule.  She claims to have been abandoned at the station after her train was delayed.  Claude is mildly suspicious but insists she come upstairs and stay the night.  Though she's nervous, it's all very chaste -- Claude sleeps on the sofa and gives her the bed. 

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?

15 comments:

  1. I'm with you to feel that The Masterpiece isn't as poignant as some of Zola's best (Germinal & La Bete Humaine are my favorites), yet it's still very interesting.

    So far, I'm satisfied with Oxford Classics edition for Zola, but unfortunately they only published 10 or so from the 20 in the series.

    Just an idea...as you have read most of Gervaise's children (Etienne, Claude, Jacques), why not continue with Nana? :)

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    1. Most of my Zolas are Oxfords and some Penguins I also have a recent translation of The Dream from The Hesperus Press and the Penguin edition of The Earth which I actually had to get from the UK.

      I thought about Nana as well. Lately I've been thinking about The Ladies' Paradise because it's a sort of sequel to Pot Bouille which was sort of funny -- I keep thinking it'll be a little lighter than Nana. All the books with the Lantiers are so tragic! But then that's Zola. Not expecting any happy endings from him.

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  2. By the way, don't forget to put this post in the linky... :D

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    1. I'll do it right away! Thanks for reminding me.

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  3. I was inspired by your Zola posts last year to buy two of his books that I came across, Therese Raquin and Au Bonheur des Dames - but of course they are sitll on the TBR stacks. Thanks for the reminder!

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    1. I'm flattered! Therese Raquin was great, and I have Au Bonheur des Dames on my TBR shelves as well. I'm going to try and squeeze in one more Zola by the end of the month.

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  4. I really enjoyed Germinal, actually enjoy isn't the right word, I didn't like Therese Raquin quite so much, but I haven't got around to anything else by him. I only have Nana in book form, but might read something on Kindle first.

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    1. I know!! It's so tragic and sometimes painful to read, it's hard for me to describe it as "enjoyed." But I appreciate how good it was and how important. L'Assommoir was the same way. Not what I'd call a fun read, but so well done.

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  5. I want to read Zola, but have tried and hated what I read. I have a copy of Nana and am willing to try again. There seems to be a weird, negative tone to his writing, but maybe it was just me?

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    1. I guess he is sort of negative, but he's making a lot of social commentary. I couldn't read him all the time since there are so many trainwrecks.

      I haven't read Nana but it does sound rather depressing. Of course L'Assommoir was about the downfalls of alcohol and Germinal is about a miner's strike, and they were both downers, but I couldn't stop reading either of them.

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  6. Ok, you have convinced me! I am going to read the whole Rougon-Macquar series. I have already downloaded The Fortune of the Rougons (but I will probably also purchase a paperback copy at some point). I am going to read in the order suggested on Wikepedia (rather than in order of publishing date).

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  7. I read The Masterpiece for Zoladdiction too. The other book I chose was Germinal, which I couldn't put down. Like you, it took me much longer to finish The Masterpiece. At one point I thought I might even abandon it, not because the story wasn't interesting or the pace slow, but because the point from Claude and Christine's return to Paris until Claude's picture being accepted by the Salon was almost too unbearable (I made sure that I only read in the house as I wasn't sure if I would burst into tears).

    I can't see myself reading The Masterpiece again, but I think I will be drawn back to Germinal which I absolutely loved.

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  8. Zola has been on my mind lately because he keeps popping up in a European class I'm taking. I've never read anything by him yet. I think I'll start with Germinal--it sounds like a page-turner.

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  9. I read this one before I read Germinal. I liked it well enough but then I read Germinal and WOW I knew that this one was far inferior. I will probably read Germinal again some day, but not this one. I think my impression of it was similar to yours. It was ok but nothing to write home about.

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  10. "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."

    Late to the party (sorry!)... but fear not, Vizetelly is never your only option - decent (unabridged) English texts exist for all 20 Rougon-Macquart novels.

    Thanks to OUP/Penguin/Hesperus the gaps are closing all the time - in the last ten years we've had excellent modern English paperback editions of Pot-Bouille, The Kill, The Belly of Paris, The Fortune of the Rougons, and now Money is just around the corner - and it hopefully won't be too long before the entire series is covered like this, but in the meantime you still have options.

    Of the "missing" Zolas (not counting Money), a company named Elek Books undertook fresh, unexpurgated, modern-for-the-time translations of the entire series in the 1950s and second-hand reading copies of those versions are still widely available on online auction sites; the Elek texts are still the best English way to read volumes...

    4 (La conquete de Plassans - "A Priest in the House")*
    6 (Son excellence Eugene Rougon - "His Excellency")
    12 (La joie de vivre - "Zest for Life")
    20 (Doctor Pascal)

    (* The Vizetelly version of this, The Conquest of Plassans, is actually not at all bad compared to his other heavily-censored hack-jobs, so if that's all you can find, it's by no means terrible.)

    There are also two very good English translations of volume 5, La faute de l'abbé Mouret - a direct sequel to vol. 4, so read that one first! - as either "The Abbé Mouret's Sin" or "The Sin of Father Mouret" (avoid the ones titled "Sinful Priest").

    That only leaves volume 8, Une page d'amour, which I don't think has ever been re-translated into English since the original Edwardian version by CC Starkweather, long out of print but available freely online (and I think there are some opportunistic paperback POD reprints out there). It's one of Zola's "gentler" books and needed no censorship, so while the prose style of Starkweather's translation is rather stilted and old-timey, nothing's actually been left out or bowdlerized as such.

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