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the masterpiece

22 april 2019

I have long considered myself a fan of Émile Zola, and I've written about several of his novels here. But there are 20 Rougon-Macquart novels, and it's a notably uneven series: some are brilliant page-turners and some are tough slogs across rhetorical deserts with overpopulated character lists. I have abandoned several of them midway. I never even heard of The Masterpiece (L'Œuvre, 1886) till I ran across a paperback reprint of Thomas Walton's smart, literate translation, in a thrift store, a few months ago.

The Masterpiece is readable enough, but do not expect a lurid melodrama like L'assommoir or a thriller on the order of La bête humaine. The plot of The Masterpiece is glacial, and its best moments consist of description (of cityscapes or artistic processes) and rumination (on the psychology and sociology of art).

Zola provides a nice narrative hook to get you into this long rhetorical novel. It's the 1860s. Claude Lantier, scion of one of the families in L'assommoir, has grown into a talented painter, member of a Parisian set that strongly resembles Henri Murger's Bohemians: a couple of painters, a writer, an architect, a sculptor, etc. One night, straggling back to his garret on the Île Saint-Louis, Claude finds a young woman on the doorstep of his building. Help me, Monsieur, I'm new to Paris, I got sidetracked on my way to my respectable situation. Yeah, right – thinks Claude, but he takes Christine in for the night. In the morning, while she's asleep in his bed (he has scrupulously taken the divan), he starts to sketch her. She wakes up, embarrassed, and disappears. He can't stop thinking about painting Christine, nude as she was that one innocent morning.

Critics connect Claude with Zola's friend Paul Cézanne. But the novel is not a roman à clef. The painting Claude's working on when the book opens is more like one by a mutual friend of Zola and Cézanne's: the Dejeuner sur l'herbe by Édouard Manet. Like Manet's great painting, Claude's features a naked woman outdoors with some clothed men. And like Manet's, Claude's painting (which Zola calls Plein Air, "Open Air") is shown at the 1863 Salon des Refusés, Napoleon III's great alt-art exhibit: where, like Manet's masterpiece, Claude's painting provokes a scandal. But Claude could care less. He has completed "Open Air" by getting Christine to pose for it, and its unveiling sparks a relationship between them.

That last summary paragraph takes over a hundred plot pages to unfold, so you can see that the pace slackens after the promising start. Claude's struggles with self-expression make interesting reading, though the teeming cast of his dozen or so best friends, all described minutely as to appearance and career, makes for slow going at times. The exquisite descriptions of Paris may enchant 21st-century English readers or put them to sleep. I happened to start the book a few days after the spire and roof of Notre-Dame burnt in April, 2019, against a background of gilets jaunes; and for me, Zola's prose meant Paris of, well, happier days.

But it's not particularly my beloved Paris, and though the characters of The Masterpiece feed on the city's energies and stoke them in return, it's not a happy place for any of them. Claude and Christine briefly find happiness a couple of hours downriver in a village called Bennecourt, which to this day features a Rue Émile Zola in commemoration. But their rural idyll cannot survive the magnetism of the city, and they are soon back in its Bohemian midst. From there, things take their L'assommoir-like way straight downhill. I must say that Zola knows how to depict the road to ruin.

Too much of The Masterpiece is taken up with introducing one cardboard-cutout character after another and propping them up while they display a particular idea about art, or represent some aspect of the mid-19th-century art world. This is dreary in dramatic terms but presumably makes the novel valuable as a source for cultural history.

But artistic psychology is Zola's primary concern. At several points, characters opine that the worst thing for an artist is too much success. (Though Claude has the opposite problem – there may be nothing good for artists.) Too much facile, commercial success is bad because an artist sells out; that's a commonplace. But too much actual production of masterpieces is also soul-destroying. The elder painter Bongrand (who seems to me traced over Jean-François Millet to some extent) bewails the "death agonies of your talent that's out of keeping with the times" (183). The novelist Sandoz, modeled on Zola himself, agrees. Just as he's hit the best-seller lists, he complains:

Work has simply swamped my existence. … It's like a germ planted in the skull that devours the brain, spreads to the trunk and limbs and destroys the whole body in time. … It follows me to lunch and I find myself chewing over sentences as I'm chewing my food. (265)
Claude Lantier himself, balked of success at the Salon des Refusés (his career does not track Manet's subsequent fame), finds his perfect subject in the Île de la Cité, the heart of Paris that includes Notre-Dame. He stretches an enormous canvas in a shabby Montmartre studio and resolves to paint the ultimate image of the Île. This great painting must be the "Masterpiece" of the title (though the French title L'Œuvre means simply "the work," with more subtle resonances). Of course, ironically, Claude's painting never achieves the status of work, let alone masterwork. It is eternally unfinished, and it consumes him as surely as Sandoz's string of hit novels consumes him.

Zola, Émile. The Masterpiece. [L'Œuvre, 1886.] Translated by Thomas Walton. 1950. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1968. Reprinted 2008.