The Masterpiece

The Masterpiece (L’Œuvre) by Émile Zola

This is another work from the Rougon-Macquart series. It follows a typical Zola formula of a positive chain of events for the main characters in the first half of the book followed by a sequence of terrible misfortunes. However, it has significant differences from other books in the series I’ve read. First, it is quite autobiographical and personal. Secondly, the topic is about how the creative impulse drives people. Many of the characters are talented and are trying to express their talents creatively in a full-time fashion. Thirdly, it discusses theories of art. The types of characters stands it in contrast to other books in the series which are based on characters trying to survive difficult circumstances: miners, farmers, laundry owners, soldiers etc… Perhaps this relates to books covering the Macquart side of the family and I should read more Rougon oriented books.

The background to the book is quite extraordinary. Its subject is creative arts and especially painting. Zola was friendly with many artists such as Monet and Manet and especially Cézanne. In fact the latter was a very close childhood friend. Clearly, the character Sandoz seems a self portrait of Zola. This is evidenced by his origins (childhood in provincial Plassans) and literary goals (a sequence of books like the Rougon-Macquart). This would suggest then that the central character Claude Lantier is Cézanne (Lantier and Sandoz are childhood friends in the book).

This is not very positive because Lantier is given many negative attributes. For example, he can never quite finish his work, he is prone to violent destruction of his work, he neglects his family (to the point his son dies), his work starts well but then degenerates, and finally he kills himself. It is said that Zola sent Cézanne a copy of the book on publication, that the latter sent a short note of thanks in reply and then never spoke to Zola again. It is possible that Zola did not intend a direct parallel between Lantier and Cézanne. However, it shows that an author must be careful representing people in their books. Perhaps it is better to refer to people with whom you have an enmity. For example, C.S. Lewis made Elizabeth Anscombe the witch in the Silver Chair. Alternatively, maybe you should be unambiguously positive. Sandoz’s wife Henriette is quite a positive character, and maybe for this reason Zola’s wife thought the Masterpiece was his best book.

Another issue is what the book says about styles of art in general and Impressionism in particular. Clearly Zola was a forward thinking person; this is consistent with his sympathy with painters rejected by the Académie des Beaux-Arts who then exhibit in the Salon des Refusés. It is possible that the downward trend for Claude Lantier is some type of attack on Impressionism. However, I tend to see Lantier’s problems as personal, stemming from a depressive obsessive personality. This is similar to the destructive behaviour of his relatives such as Gervaise his mother and Nana his half sister. It is also possible to question the sophistication of Zola’s knowledge of art. He did write quite a lot about art and was an intelligent man but I can’t say I’m really qualified to judge. Another point is that he may have not appreciated the depth of Cézanne’s genius. On probabilistic grounds alone the chance of your childhood friend being such a genius would not have made it easy.

Drawing on one’s own experiences to describe a collection of poor aspiring artists is not unique to Zola. I’m sure there are many other examples such as Puccini’s La bohème. Maybe a difference is that the libretto for the opera is adapted from a novel so the personal connections are looser. Still certain events are said to recognizable to his contemporaries. Maybe Puccini was more careful at depicting other people.

Finally, the book has some great descriptions of meals. The rather tragic meal at the end where everyone argues is still described in lovely detail covering the food and drink, furnishing etc… Zola must have been a great host.

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