The Masterpiece by Émile Zola

Cezanne's Studio

Cezanne’s Studio


When I visited Cézanne’s studio in Aix-en-Provence, the docent told the story of the childhood friendship between the artist and his friend, Émile Zola, as they both grew up in the beautiful countryside of Provence.  After Zola left for Paris as a young man, Cézanne decided the countryside was the place for him, but they kept their friendship alive through letters.  According to the tour guide,  when Zola sent a copy of his book L’Oeuvre, known now as The Masterpiece, to his old friend,  Cezanne recognized himself in the character of Claude Lantier, the failed artist from the provinces, rejected by the famous Salon, and never attaining the greatness he desired.  Cezanne never spoke to his old friend again.

28409I had thought to find the book but had forgotten, until recently a local book club chose The Masterpiece to discuss.  The electronic copy is available for free from Project Gutenberg, and I can finally satisfy my curiosity.

In researching the background for the book, I found Aruna D’Souza’s critical analysis in the essay Paul Cézanne, Claude Lantier, and Artistic Impotence:  

“Much ink has been spilled on the extent to which Claude Lantier, protagonist of Zola’s L’Oeuvre, was modeled on Paul Cézanne. Scholars argue over whether the novel is a thinly-disguised and unflattering biography of a single artist, Cézanne; whether its protagonist, Claude Lantier, is an amalgam of a number of artists including Cézanne, Édouard Manet and Claude Monet; or whether it is a work of pure fiction.  One must, of course, be careful in treating L’Oeuvre as anything but a powerful, inventive fabrication. And yet how tempting it is to read into Cézanne’s work and life some part of the character so compellingly described by Zola! Zola’s novel seems to provide one of the few real insights into this most inscrutable artist, not only in terms of the early biography of Lantier, for which Zola clearly mined his boyhood friendship with Baptistin Baille and Cézanne, but also in the kind of anguished frustration with which Lantier faces the very act of painting, in which we hear echoes of Cézanne’s own doubts. The “match” between Cézanne and Lantier seems too perfect, too potentially revealing, to discard wholesale.”

D’Souza’s reminder to accept the story as a work of fiction has me looking for a biography of Cézanne to compare the character to the artist. But first, Zola’s story – it promises to be a good one.

Émile Zola’s “Paradise” – The Ladies’ Delight

9780143124702_p0_v1_s260x420The new cover of  Émile Zola’s classic – Au Bonheur Des Dames (The Ladies’ Delight) has a familiar face from the PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) series – “The Paradise.”  The televised series focuses on the melodrama, with cliffhangers at the end of each episode, using  Zola’s idea of French shoppers in the nineteenth century, and offering behind the scenes tales of the sales team and the driven aggressive shop owner.  I bought the book to catch up with the story, but did not expect to fall under Zola’s spell. He paints each scene so clearly, you can imagine you are in the midst of lush fabric and frenzied shoppers.

The young virginal Denise stars in both the book and the series, but PBS 9780140447835conveniently left out her two younger brothers, and recast her unforgiving uncle, the small store owner, as a willing conspirator.  Zola’s book includes the romance and the anguish of the television drama, but they are clearly asides to the marvel of those times – the first large department store with clever marketing, enticing sales, and the harbinger of the future of shopping.  Small shop owners could not compete with retail on a large scale, and the stark comparison of the very rich to the poor working class sets a harsher scene than the televised series.  Zola’s descriptions of those 13 hour work days, cell-like housing, and putrid food are conveniently left out.  Zola, of course, was the crusader (remember the Dreyfus Affair); through Denise, his heroine, he champions the woman’s new role as independent entrepreneur, and creates better working conditions for the sales team – the seed of future union labor.

Émile Zola

Émile Zola

The PBS series is a charming and engaging period drama,  conveniently focusing on the simmering romance between Denise and Mouret, the innovative store owner.  While “Paradise,”  the PBS version of upstairs/downstairs in the marketplace includes the happy romantic ending that Zola provided in his book,  the novel includes more information on the effects of the new big box store as it destroys small shop owners and their way of life.

If you are looking for the Readers’ Digest adaptation with a few Hollywood embellishments, you will probably find the televised series more enjoyable – a good preface to the upcoming season of Downton Abbey.  But if you are willing to take the time to examine social motivations and immerse yourself in another era, Zola’s The Ladies’ Delight combines history with Zola’s unique perspective and descriptive language.  I liked both.