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


Fishpond: The Masterpiece (Oxford World’s Classics)

Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers.



“L’Œuvre” Cover Images

L’Œuvre was first published in 1886 and has been translated as The Masterpiece.

For images of other covers please look on the Images page.

Arnold Bennett reads L’Oeuvre

Arnold Bennett

Arnold Bennett

I have been reading The Journals of Arnold Bennett. Made up of excerpts selected and edited by Frank Swinnerton, the journals represent over 30 years of Bennett’s opinions on a range of literary subjects. Bennett respected Zola as a fellow realist.  In 1905, he commented:

I have just finished reading L’Oeuvre. It has taken me a long time, because I left in the middle to read Wells’s Kipps. What a colossal affair it seems by the side of Kipps, so serious, tremendous, and imposing. The middle parts seem rather carelessly done; the detail piled up without sufficient attention to the form. But the final scene between Calude and Christine — the fight between love and art — is simply magnificent; it moved me; it is one of the finest things in Zola. It is overdone, it goes farther than the truth; but purposely; Zola has stepped into the heroic in this scene, as he does now and then. All the close of the book is most affecting.

Kipps, by Wells, is a worthy book, also realist in tone but devoted to the life and problems of a rather shallow young man who unexpectedly inherits some money. In depicting the struggles of an artist, Zola was developing a much more significant theme. Some people would say that Bennett was closer to Wells than to Zola in his own writing, so it is striking that he can appreciate what Zola was doing in L’Oeuvre.

Plassans Then, Aix Now


A residential street in Aix. Cezanne lived in this house at one time.

Emile Zola was born in Aix-en-Provence, the town in Provence where he lived as a boy and to which he gives the name of Plassans in his series of Rougon-Macquart novels. Aix is an old town, founded by the Romans with houses built of the local stone.


The now-abandoned quarry from which the stone came. Zola and Cezanne undoubtedly played here as boys.


Cezanne’s paining of the quarry.

In Zola’s time Aix was still surrounded by walls with gates that could be locked at night, as described in The Fortune of the Rougons.

 Until 1853 these opening were fitted out with huge wooden two-leaved gates, arched at the top and reinforced with iron bars. These gates were double-locked at eleven o’clock in summer and ten o’clock in winter. The town having thus shots its bolts like a timid girl, went quietly to sleep.

AixMapThe walls were gone when I visited Aix less than 10 years ago, but the present encircling boulevards follow the lines they once established.


AixFountainThe former gate, the  Porte des Augustins, has been replaced by La Ronde, a traffic circle in the center of which is a handsome fountain. You also find the Tourist Office there, a very appropriate location since one of Aix’s principal occupations now is tourism.

The Cours Mirabeau, identified as Cours Sauvaire in Zola’s Plassans, begins at La Ronde and has not moved from Zola’s time. The street itself is wide and shaded, and you can still find a café where Cezanne and Zola once enjoyed the local scene. The Cours divides two sections of the town, a community where each group knew and accepted its place.

 It is only once a week, and when the weather is good, that the three districts of Plassans come face to face. The whole town repairs to the Cours Sauvaire on Sunday after vespers; even the nobility venture there.


Cours Mirabeau today. Note restricted automobile traffic — plenty of room for strollers then and now.


This cafe on the Cours Mirabeau was also popular in Zola’s day.

The contemporary map shown above is one that is given to tourists for a self-guided walking tour of sites associated with Paul Cezanne, currently Aix’s favorite son. Zola is rarely mentioned at the tourist office, except in connection with Cezanne. The two were boyhood friends in Aix, both left it for Paris. Zola stayed in Paris, but Cezanne returned to Aix. They remained in touch but had a falling out when Cezanne saw himself portrayed unflatteringly in Zola’s novel L’Oeuvre.


Zola Dam, 100 years ago.

 The citizens of Plassans from Zola’s day and the citizens of Aix today have, however, good reason to honor the Zola family. Zola’s father, Francois  Zola, designed and built an important dam to assure a supply of water to the town.


Zola Dam today. It is still in use.

In Provence today, the countryside relies on a complex system of dams, canals and irrigation ditches to provide water in a semi-arid climate. When Francois Zola died prematurely his family felt cheated of the rewards to which they felt entitled for his work. This bitterness affects Zola’s descriptions of Plassans as a small-minded, conservative place.


Irrigation ditch in the Provence countryside.


Cezanne’s Studio, 1902

Within Aix, walking in the narrow street of the old parts of town – the area which was once within the medieval walls – one has little sense of the surrounding countryside. Both Zola and Cezanne knew it well however, and one finds it in the night wanderings of Silvere and Miette in The Fortunes of the Rougons. Walk out of central Aix and climb the hill to Paul Cezanne’s old studio, and you can see something of what they knew. The studio itself, built in Cezanne’s mature years of somewhat greater prosperity was once isolated on a hillside.

It is lonely no more, as tourist line up to see where the artist once worked.


Cezanne’s Studio on a rainy afternoon.

Best of all, look out from the location.


View from the street outside Cezanne’s Studio.

The view reminds me of the anxious night Rougon spent on the terrace looking for signs of the insurrectionists.

 At the end of the garden there was a terrace that overlooked the plain; a large section of the ramparts had collapsed at that point, giving an unimpeded view…. In the distance, in the valley of the Viorne, across the vast hollow that stretched westwards between the chain of the Garrigues and the mountains of the Scille, the moonlight was streaming down like a river of pale light. The clumps of trees and the dark rocks looked, here and there, like islets and tongues of land emerging from a luminous sea. And corresponding to the bends of the Viorne, it was possible to see patches and slithers of the river….


Bridge over the “Viorne.” Zola painted a picture of this bridge so it must have been there in Zola’s day.

The stony ridge in the distance is, of course, Mt. Ste. Victoire, the subject of many of Cezanne’s landscapes.


We took a van tour which circled the mountain and found it fascinating. The ridge is so placed that one can never see the entire thing at once. It is long, very steep in places, and presents a different shape when seen from each side and angle. Like the grand canyon, the play of light on the rocks brings the mountain forms nearer during some parts of the day and softens and distances them at other times. When Cezanne returned to Aix from Paris, he found a subject worthy of his skill and could spend the rest of his life interpreting the local scene.


Mt. Ste. Victoire by Cezanne — one of many versions of the mountain and the surrounding plain. It looks much the same today, including the stone viaduct.

Zola, on the other hand, could not find in his Plassans a wide enough  canvas for his artistic dream. In L’Oeuvre, the writer lays out a comprehensive program of work and systematically applies himself to bringing it forth. It is not always appreciated but he has confidence in its value. This is very much what Zola did when he wrote his Rougon-Macquart novels. He made a plan and worked at it, book after book, year after year.

Zola’s fictional artist is not appreciated either. He stays in Paris, where he creates and destroys, creates and destroys in an attempt to make something so perfect that it must be acknowledged. This is the characterization which so disturbed Cezanne that he never spoke to Zola again. Since visiting Aix I think the two men were more alike that Zola acknowledged. Both worked in accordance with how they saw the world. Zola could not create as he wanted to within Plassans. He needed a wider scene and found it in Paris. Cezanne did not hang himself like the artist in L’Oeuvre. Instead, he left Paris to live and exercise his imagination in Aix, where his landscapes look out from the town, not back towards it.

Today Plassans/Aix is a short bus ride from the Marseilles airport. Aix in the 21st century is a modern city with a well-preserved older center. I was a tourist there a few years ago, walking in the town and enjoying the landscapes. The experience gave me a strong sense of the physical environment in which Zola lived during his formative years. The spirit of the place seems quite different from the Plassans of Zola. Aix is open, hospitable to tourists, and has a large population of foreign students, adding to a cosmopolitan atmosphere you do not find in the Rougon-Macquart novels.

L’Oeuvre (The Masterpiece)

masterpiece_zolaAs I read Zola’s The Masterpiece about the struggles of an innovative artist in 1880s Paris, I felt that Zola had lived that life. Although the central figure is the struggling artist, Claude, the next more prominent character is the writer, Sandoz. Claude’s experiments in artistic technique are not understood and are ridiculed; Sandoz (Zola) is also a victim.

His poor book! It was getting a fine old trouncing! Talk about butchery and massacre, he’d got the whole pack of critics at his heels, yelping and cursing him as if he’d committed murder most foul! It made him laugh, it even stimulated him, for he had the quiet determination of pursue the course he had set himself.

Claude is not full of quiet determination. Whereas Sandoz makes a plan for his series of related novels and proceeds diligently to produce them, Claude paints and destroys, paints and destroys. He seeks a single work, a masterpiece, to express his entire artistic vision. His first attempt has the significant title “Open Air” and is a light-filled contrast between a nude woman and a fully clad gentleman. Zola’s description of the picture suggests something very much like Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’Herbe.

dejeunerherbe_ManetClaude’s model for the nude is the beautiful Christine. They live together, have a child and eventually marry, while Claude paints version after version of what is to be his final masterpiece. He wants to show the heart of Paris with a glorious standing nude as its centerpiece. Christine continues to model; the picture does not work and Claude cruelly blames her.

“The colouring’s still splendid,” he went on, “but not the line. Not now…. The legs, oh, the legs are still all right; they’re usually the last thing to go in women…. But the belly and the breasts are certainly going to pieces. There, just take a look at yourself in the glass. Near the armpits now, you can see the way the flesh is starting to sag? Not very lovely, it it?”

It is not Christine who is deteriorating; it is Claude. The more he paints, the wilder and more improbable his picture becomes. His aspiration to create a single stunning masterpiece destroys him in the end.

This is only the second of Zola’s novels I have read but already I am impressed by his versatility. There is a central story — the returned political prisoner in The Belly of Paris and the artist-writer duo of this book — but there is also a host of other characters to play out the various possibilities of the situation. The Belly of Paris is the great food market, Les Halles, and Zola’s text is full of the tastes and smells of its fruit, fish and cheeses. In this book, we have word pictures of the colors and forms in the world the artists see and the works they create.