The Masterpiece, by Émile Zola, translated by Thomas Walton

The MasterpieceFor most of us who know a little about Zola’s life, the man is a hero. He is famous for denouncing the anti-Semitic persecution of Dreyfus, and he’s a literary lion for his championing of a realism which portrayed French life warts and all – and bravely spent a lifetime cocking a snook at the regime into the bargain. But in The Masterpiece he bares his soul and shares the struggle that underlies all work in the creative arts. He shows us the loneliness of innovation and the despair that accompanies the quest to make the object match the imagination. It’s a superb book…

First published in 1886 when Zola was forty-six, The Masterpiece has also been translated as A Masterpiece or His Masterpiece and this is, it seems to me, a rare example of a translated title being better than the original. Zola called this book L’Œuvre, a word which translates somewhat clumsily as ‘the body of work’, (which is why English has appropriated the French word oeuvre as a more elegant option). But Zola’s novel isn’t really about a ‘body of work’ or an oeuvre, it’s more about an artist’s obsession with capturing one symbolic image on canvas, which would be his masterpiece. Perhaps Zola was being ironic…

Anyway, the story begins with the optimistic young Claude Lantier arriving in Paris to take it by storm. The art world was astir with the birth of Impressionism and the Paris Salon was exercising its power to humiliate the brash young artists who created strange ‘unfinished’ pictures of unheroic life. (You can read more about the battle between the conservatives and the innovators in Ross King’s The Judgement of Paris, see my review). Lantier doesn’t care: he is certain that ‘old’ art is dead and that the light-filled beauty of the new will sweep it away. But Lantier, first introduced to readers of the Rougon-Macquart cycle as a very young artist in The Belly of Paris (1873) and briefly alluded to as the son sent away to his uncle in Plassans in L’Assommoir (1877), is the son of Gervaise, as doomed as she is by her fatal flaws. (Click the links to see my reviews).

Zola famously got into strife with this novel because (as Roger Pearson explains in the Introduction) it was interpreted as an attack on impressionism, and Cézanne, Zola’s friend since childhood, severed the friendship over it. And it is true that Zola doesn’t depict the new artworks with any great sense of respect. But like many an outraged friend who thinks his flaws have been depicted in a novel, Cézanne failed to see that Lantier is an amalgam of many people that the author knew. From Cezanne, says Pearson, Zola did derive many aspects of Lantier, but he also drew on what he knew of other contemporary painters including Manet and Monet. Still, Cézanne had some grounds for anger:

As well as being the model for Lantier’s Provençal childhood, Cézanne also provides his physical appearance, his obstinate and volatile temperament, his timidity with women, his vaulting and obsessive artistic ambition, his murderous self-doubt (and tendency to put a fist through his canvases), his growing isolation from his fellow painters and a reputation for being a ‘madman’, his failure to have a painting accepted for the Salon except once (in 1882) as an act of ‘charity’ on the part of a lesser, derivative artist (here Antoine Guillemet* is indeed the model for Fagerolles), and – in common with Manet and the Impressionists – his enduring lack of recognition as an original and talented artist. (Introduction, p. xi)

* Guillemet is an artist now so obscure that he rates only a brief page at French Wikipedia, and apart from listing all the honours he was (so undeservedly) given and the (now forgotten) paintings that he exhibited at successive Salons, it mainly covers his role in having one of Cézanne’s paintings accepted by the Salon jury, of which he was a member.

But the artwork which drew so much derision to Zola’s character Lantier is not attributable to Cézanne, it’s a close description of Manet’s striking Dejeuner sur l’Herbe (which you can see at Nancy’s commentary over at The Books of Émile Zola). While I enjoyed these ‘spot-the-painting’ moments, what interested me more was the struggle to create them, that is, to realise the artistic vision in the imagination with hand, eye, and paint.

But for Lantier, there is also the struggle to survive financially. His small legacy is soon gone, and his imprudent marriage to Christine results in an unwanted and badly treated child. Christine loves him, but she doesn’t understand him, and while she is willing to put up with poverty for his sake, she wishes he would paint saleable pictures. It is only the first of many sad moments when he is reduced to painting commercial commissions in order to put bread on the table…

The confessional aspect of this novel comes in the character of Sandoz. Clearly recognisable as Zola himself, Sandoz is determined to ignore the criticism and produce his series of novels, and he diligently sets about doing so. He works solidly as a journalist to pay his way and support his ailing mother, and as his fortunes rise by contrast with his struggling artist friends, he hosts ‘Thursday’ dinners as much to provide them with a decent meal as to enjoy their company.

As young men, Sandoz and Lantier shared the same dreams and confused ideals:

[Sandoz], too, fell silent. The previous winter he had published his first book, a series of pleasant sketches of life in Plassans, in which a harsh note here and there was the only indication of the author’s revolt, of his passion for truth and power. Since then he had been groping his doubtful way through the mass of still confused notions that besieged his brain. He had started toying with the idea of a gigantic undertaking and had projected an ‘Origins of the Universe’ in three phases: the creation, established according to scientific research; the story of how the human race came to play its part in the sequence of living beings; the future in which beings succeed beings, completing the creation of the world through the ceaseless activity of living matter. He had cooled off, however, when he began to realise the hazardous nature of the hypotheses of this third phase, and was now trying to find a more limited, a more human setting for his ambitious plan. (p, 38)

Lantier muses aloud about his dreams:

‘The ideal would be,’ said Claude after a while, ‘to see everything and paint everything. To have acres of walls to cover, to decorate the railway stations, the market-halls, the town-halls, whatever they put up when architects have at last learned some common sense! All we’ll need then is a good head and some strong muscles, for it isn’t subjects we’ll be short of…. Think of it, Pierre! Life as it’s lived in the streets, the life of rich and poor, in market-places, at the races, along the boulevards, and down back streets in the slums; work of every kind in full swing; human emotions revived and brought into the light of day; the peasants, the farmyards and the countryside…. Think of it! Then they’ll see, then I’ll show ’em what I can do! It makes my hands tingle only to think of it! Modern life in all its aspects, that’s the subject! Frescoes as big as the Panthéon! A series of paintings that’ll shatter the Louvre! (p.38)

Sandoz shares Lantier’s ambition to do something new and to be acknowledged for it, but he differs in personality. His capacity for dogged persistence and to adapt when necessary is in marked contrast to Lantier’s fatal flaws, not least because he is willing to revisit and revise his own work whereas Lantier destroys his out of frustration and keeps having to start again. His quest for perfection dooms him in the end.

The glorious artwork on the cover is a detail from Portrait of Frédéric Bazille, c. 1866, by Auguste Renoir. Bouquets to whoever chooses the artworks for the Oxford World’s Classics series of Zola’s novels, the choices are all just perfect for the titles they represent!

Do read Arnold Bennett’s thoughts on The Masterpiece as well.

The Beast in ManThe Masterpiece is the fourteenth title in my quest to read the entire Rougon-Macquart cycle of 20 novels in the recommended reading order. Next up is The Beast in the Man (La Bête Humaine, 1890) and since there isn’t a nice new edition, I have acquired a splendid old Elek edition (1956) with a characteristically lurid cover to match Zola’s most violent work. I plan to read it in July…

Author: Émile Zola
Title: The Masterpiece
Translated by Thomas Walton (1950), revised by Roger Pearson (1993)
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics, 2006
ISBN: 9780199536917
Review copy courtesy of Oxford University Press

Availability

Fishpond: The Masterpiece (Oxford World’s Classics)

Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers.

 

Elek Book Translations

Elek Books

Elek Book covers – The original 1950s editions often had garish pictures on their covers as with ‘His Excellency’. The more plain covers are from the 1970s reprints.

When I was reading the Rougon-Macquart series I came across Graham King’s book Garden of Zola, in which I discovered that a large portion of Zola’s books were translated in the 1950s and 1960s. As I had realised by this time that not all the R.M. books were available in newer, more readily available translations and that the older Vizetelly translations were not necessarily the best versions to read, I decided to search for some of the Elek books. I found some in my County Library’s store and some I bought on eBay. Admittedly, these are probably not as easy to get outside the U.K. but many were published separately in the U.S. and may be available by different publishers. I have tried to give some information about U.S. publications below.

In the end I read thirteen of the novels as new translations, six were the Elek Book versions and only one was the Vizetelly translation. Until all the books are available in new translations English readers will have to fall back on older translations such as the Elek Book translations, especially if you’re trying to avoid Vizetelly. I have included as much information as possible on the Elek Book translations below – this information is largely taken from Garden of Zola and from personal copies.

I have also included some information, again mostly from Garden of Zola, highlighting the differences between the Elek Book versions and the Vizetelly version. I have limited this to the novels that are, as yet, unavailable in a modern translation. Graham King compares large sections from the books, however, I will limit myself to quoting his summaries and conclusions which are very often amusing and illuminating.

Elek Book Editions

  • Madeleine Ferat (1957) – Madeleine Ferat (1868) translated by Alec Brown. Published in U.S. by Citadel Press, 1957.
  • The Kill (1958) – La Curée (1871/2) translated by A. Texeira de Mattos. Originally published by Lutetian Society in 1895. Includes an introduction by Angus Wilson. Published in U.S. by Citadel Press, 1957.
  • Savage Paris (1955) – Le Ventre de Paris (1873) translated by David Hughes & Marie-Jacqueline Mason. Published in U.S. by Citadel Press, 1955
  • A Priest in the House (1957) – La Conquête de Plassans (1874) translated by Brian Rhys, ISBN 0236309641. Published in U.S. by Citadel Press, 1957.
  • The Abbé Mouret’s Sin (1957) – La Faute de l’abbé Mouret (1875) translated by Alec Brown, ISBN 0236308084, reprinted 1970. Also published as ‘The Sinful Priest’ in 1960.
  • His Excellency (1958) – Son Excellence Eugène Rougon (1876) translated by Alec Brown. Published in U.S. by Dufour Editions, 1958.
  • The Drunkard (1958) – L’Assommoir (1877) translated by Arthur Symons. Originally published by Lutetian Society in 1895 as L’Assommoir.
  • A Love Affair (1957) – Une Page d’amour (1878) translated by Jean Stewart. Reprinted 1972, ISBN 0236309056. Published in U.S. by Citadel Press, 1957.
  • Nana (1957) – Nana (1880) translated by Victor Plarr. Originally published by Lutetian Society in 1895.
  • Restless House (1957) – Pot-Bouille (1882) translated by Percy Pinkerton. Originally published by Lutetian Society in 1895.
  • Ladies’ Delight (1960) – Au Bonheur des dames (1883) translated by April Fitzlyon. Originally published in 1957 by John Calder. Published in U.S. by Abelard-Schuman, 1958.
  • Zest for Life (1955) – La Joie de vivre (1884) translated by Jean Stewart with a preface by Angus Wilson. Reprinted in 1968, ISBN 0236310135. Published in U.S. by Indiana Uni. Press, 1956.
  • GerminalGerminal (1885) translated by Havelock Ellis. Originally published by Lutetian Society in 1894.
  • The Masterpiece (1950) – L’Œuvre (1886) translated by Thomas Walton. The O.U.P. version published in 1993 is a revision by Roger Pearson of the Walton translation.
  • Earth (1954) – La Terre (1887) translated by Ann Lindsay. This was reprinted by Arrow Books in 1967.
  • The Beast in Man (1958) – La Bête humaine (1890) translated by Alec Brown.
  • The Debacle (1968) – La Débâcle (1892) translated by John Hands with an introduction by Robert Baldick.
  • Doctor Pascal (1957) – Le Docteur Pascal (1893) translated by Vladimir Kean with an introduction by Hugh Shelley. ISBN 0236308602. Published in U.S. by Dufour Editions, 1957.

Translation Comparisons

  • Madeleine Férat – According to King, Brown puts over Zola’s physiological explanations well, whereas Vizetelly makes them even more ludicrous than they already are. Brown’s translation is the best of the three available.
  • A Priest in the House (The Conquest of Plassans) – King quite likes the Vizetelly translation as there wasn’t too much in the novel to annoy the censor. However, the Rhys translation is described as ‘excellent’ and it ‘captures the gossipy flavour of the narrative.’ I enjoyed the book and had no problems with the translation, though this one should be redundant soon as a new O.U.P. translation is coming out.
  • The Abbé Mouret’s Sin – King compares the Elek/Brown translation with a newer one by Sandy Petrey. Although he has qualms about both he admits that both are ‘highly recommended versions’. The original Vizetelly version is ‘as stodgy as a plot of turnips’ and the ‘revised’ Vizetelly was even worse. The middle section of the book is incredibly lyrical, King says that ‘Zola’s linguistic skills are revealed at their peak’ and the Vizetellys weren’t up to the task. This is one of my favourite books of the series.
  • His Excellency – King says that the Elek/Brown version is a ‘craftsman-like interpretation of a straightforward narrative’ and the early versions are ‘run-of-the-mill Victorian mannerist’. This was my least favourite book of the series but I would think that Vizetelly would probably be ok.
  • A Love Affair – King declares the Elek/Stewart translation as ‘excellent’ especially in relation to the many descriptive passages in the novel. The ‘revised’ Vizetelly suffered quite a bit as they cut a lot out.
  • Zest for Life – King states that Stewart conveys ‘both the sombre atmosphere and the dramatic incidents with equal skill’ and almost approves of the pre-trial Vizetelly version of 1886. However, even here Vizetelly evades a menstruation scene. Further cuts were made in the 1901 version, especially in relation to a particularly harrowing childbirth that takes place in Chapter Ten.I also made some comparisons between the Vizetelly and Stewart translations and was astonished at the differences. For anyone who’s interested you may like to check out this post on this site and my GoodReads review. The amount of culling involved is highlighted by looking at the word counts for Chapter Ten of each version: the original French version had approx. 11,200 words, the Elek version had approx. 11,600 words and the Vizetelly version had approx. 5,200 words. So, avoid the Vizetelly version at all costs!