In The Masterpiece, Zola captures the pain of creation, as he claimed himself:
I want to depict the artists’ struggle with reality, the sheer effort of creation which goes into every work of art, the blood and tears involved in giving one’s flesh, in trying to make something that lives. (Introduction to Oxford World Classics edition, page ix.)
In telling the story of the doomed Claude Lantier, Zola does capture a painful side to creation. As a self-absorbed painter, Claude is unable to see beyond his skewed perception of the world, since he sees all through the eyes of his “impressionistic” painting style. (Although Zola does not use the word “impressionism,” it is clear that such is the era of art.)
I didn’t enjoy reading the story, but I certainly appreciated it as a whole. Zola shows a realistic disconnect for people who struggle with a vision, and I felt like I was glancing at real lives between the pages of the novel.
Zola’s own judgments come out through the story because he doesn’t appear to understand the new style of painting. To the omniscient narrator, Lantier’s paintings appear to be a mess of colors. They are ridiculous failures. It’s obvious that Lantier is aiming for some degree of symbolism when he depicts the naked woman in the center of all his paintings. Yet, Sandoz (the novelist in the story that represents Zola) finds it ridiculous and mourns for Lantier’s apparent insanity. The editor of the introduction indicated that Zola was not able to appreciate impressionism; his taste in art was rather immature as was evident in his art criticism essays of the day.
Incidentally, Lantier’s first major painting is based on one by Eduard Manet, which was displayed in the Salon des Refuses as was Lantier’s in the novel. Seeing Manet’s painting helped me to understand the reasons behind the ridicule, not that the painting was bad but that the concept was bizarre for the era.
Zola was somewhat careful to make sure that no character in his novel fully represented a person he knew in real life, yet the similarities were plentiful enough so that many of Zola’s friends were offended. Paul Cezanne, who shares many of the qualities with the doomed Claude Lantier, for example, never spoke to Zola again after publication of The Masterpiece. (See the introduction to the Oxford World Classics edition for more discussion of similarities.)
But the similarities were only one reason to be offended. Zola’s premise seems to be that it is hopeless to try to capture the world in art and create something original. Truly, artists of the day would have been slighted by such a premise. Further, attempting to do so leaves one isolated from reality. In the novel, Lantier failed to develop any real human relationships. Christine tried to bring Lantier back to reality, yet the art always called and Lantier was doomed in the end, for without art he was nothing.
Despite the hopelessness depicted in the novel, Zola’s friend Cezanne truly was an influential painter who began a new way of thinking about art: impressionism. I found it interesting that Zola’s counterpoint in the novel, the writer Pierre Sandoz, was not as doomed as Lantier the painter. Yet, Zola’s writing was apparently as cutting edge as Cezanne’s paintings: seeing the world in a new way.
I didn’t enjoy reading Zola. The only parts that captured my full interest and attention were the moments when he meets and courts Christine. Throughout the book, I kept waiting for a tragedy to capture my emotions and help me feel fully engaged. Yet, even when mortal tragedy struck, it was told in a matter-of-fact way that left me completely emotionless. That was, I’m sure, Zola’s point. Life is not a romantic experience. It’s harsh: we each suffer and in the end, everyone lives with their own life and their own suffering.
“And now, back to work!” a character says at the end of the novel (which is not a happy ending, I’ll warn you). Such is life.
While I’m sure I’m a romantic girl at heart, I am glad I’ve experienced Zola. It truly did help me see the world in a new light.
I read Zola as a part of the April Classics Circuit. See where Zola will visit here.