Sunday, April 6, 2014

Emile Zola - 'The Masterpiece'

The fourteenth book in Zola's Rougon-Macquart Cycle is, like L'Assommoir before it, a novel I'd read read prior to embarking on my mission to read all twenty novels in the Cycle in Zola's intended order. While I was tempted to reread novels I already had under my belt, I ultimately decided that the amount of Zola I'd undertaken to achieve my goal was more than enough! So this post is reaching back perhaps five or six years to when I read this book.

I read the Oxford University Press edition, translated by Thomas Walton. While I cannot comment on how well something is translated from a language I do not speak, I can say that the translation 'felt like' Zola to me and, in almost all passages, was fluid and enjoyable.

A bit of background. In L'Assommoir, we were briefly introduced to two of Gervaise Macquart Coupeau's three illegitimate sons through Auguste Lantier, as well as the daughter she had with Coupeau. We don't learn much about the boys in L'Assommoir, while we see that Nana seems to lack a moral compass pretty much from the start. The four novels that follow L'Assommoir give us the deeper stories of these four children. First up, The Masterpiece tells the story of the oldest child, Claude Lantier, who is a talented, obsessive painter.

a young Paul Cezanne
Claude has actually already made an appearance in the Cycle as the wandering bohemian who befriends Florent Quenu in The Belly of Paris. In The Masterpiece we are brought up to speed on the intervening years between Claude's early childhood in L'Assommoir and where things stand now.  Claude was essentially adopted at nine by an art collector intrigued by his drawings. When this protector died, he left Claude an annual income of a thousand francs but no power to touch the principle until he turned twenty-five. Claude has returned to Paris to become an artist.  His friendships in Paris seem to be somewhat autobiographical in flavor, because they resemble a close-knit set of friends Zola himself had as a young man, including painter Paul Cezanne. The story is that Zola modeled Claude in some measure on his friend Cezanne. When Cezanne read the novel and recognized himself, he was apparently less than thrilled. Their friendship suffered a serious rupture (and I'm not sure whether it ended or if something else finished off the relationship later on).

Anyway, The Masterpiece depicts the world of bohemian artists in Paris during the late 1800's. For this reason alone, it is a fascinating read for anyone interested in art or art history from this period. As in The Ladies' Paradise and Money, where Zola depicts the rise of the department store and the financial circles of the time, The Masterpiece explores its world in amazing detail. It's like using Professor Dumbledore's pensieve to take a trip into the past. I literally felt like I was seeing, hearing, and feeling what it was really like to be a starving artist in Paris at this amazing time. Most interesting were the passages detailing the Salon. The Salon was a major art show in Paris that ultimately seemed like it became the nemesis of the modern art movement, rejecting many innovative artists that came along and inspiring the establishment of the Salon des Refuses by all those artists who felt they were kept out of the Salon because they were innovators. Zola's novel depicts the press of the throngs visiting the Salon, the crowded walls of artwork, the politics, the noise, and even the food court with 'you are there' detail.

In terms of plot, like his mother Gervaise's story, Claude is character full of possibilities thwarted. He is clearly a talented artist, but he lacks the ability to complete paintings. The number of works he completes in the novel, as I recall, was well under ten. His drive to succeed and his repeated frustrations ultimately lead to tragedy.

Claude Lantier - now that I have enough novels of the Cycle under my belt and can see patterns - is a prime example of a type of character that repeatedly surfaces in Zola's Cycle: the idealistic dreamer who cannot bring his grand visions to life - usually through lack of persistence or a thirst for 'instant-mix success'. It is a hereditary disconnect between desire and the demands of the real world. Examples of this type can be found throughout The Fortune of the Rougons (Pierre and Felicite Rougon, Aristide Rougon, Silvere Mouret, and Antoine Macquart), as well as Lazare Chanteau in La Joie de Vivre and Florent Quenu in The Belly of Paris. The fact that Zola purposefully juxtaposes Claude and Florent in The Belly of Paris suggests he intended us to connect the common malaise shared by these two characters.

Claude's failure to prosper in the real world is given further concrete form by the early death of his child. This death is also something Zola replicates elsewhere in the Cycle. Throughout the novels there are examples of still-born children or children who suffer early deaths. Serge Mouret, Helene Mouret, Lazare Chanteau, and Nana all have children who die young or at birth. To expand the theme, there are also the 'dead ends': Desiree Mouret, Angelique, and Silvere Mouret. In all these cases the hereditary disease of the family leads not only to increasing moral decay, but the lack of productive talent is reflected in the inability to procreate physically or to reach adulthood. It's as if the ills of the family terminate its ability to propagate into the fourth and fifth generations.

Another theme that emerges - or which I first noticed - in The Masterpiece is the influence of the city versus the country. During Claude and Christine's time away from Paris in the country they seem to move towards a healthier life, just as Florent took pleasure in visiting the country. There is a cleaner, slower pace that is depicted here - as compared to Paris - that Zola also touches on in The Dream, Abbe Mouret's Transgression, and perhaps even in A Love Episode. One could probably go through the Cycle and work out a sub-theme related to the influence of environment on hereditary potential. It seems that the country is viewed as creating a kind of torpor, while the city stokes the inherited fevers of these damaged characters.

A final note relates to the brief appearance of two other Rougon-Macquart characters at a funeral at the end of the novel. Sidonie Rougon, one of the few members of the family not to be given a novel of her own, comes out of the woodwork once again. Zola describes her in the usual unsavory terms, portraying her as a bottom-feeder whose come to see what she might pick-up from her distant relation. The other attendee is Octave Mouret who - true to his middle class pretenses - seeks to siphon some vague air of arts patronage from his, up to now, non-existent relationship with Claude. In this final scene, the graft of the Rougons, the grasping materialism of the Mourets, and the moral decay of the Macquarts head towards the pauper's graveyard.

A painting of the Paris Salon, reflecting the crowd of paintings and people

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