Daniel Williams

Archive for the ‘French’ Category

‘The Masterpiece’ (1886) Émile Zola

In Book Review, French, Literature, Review, Writing on 26/09/2011 at 20:55

This is the fourth novel by Émile Zola I’ve tried to read and only the second I’ve finished. This novel is part of the Le Rougon-Macquart series, which are twenty novels that follow various members of family, as well as exploring different aspects of French society; each can be read individually or as part of a bigger picture. The Masterpiece aka L’Œuvre (1886) is the fourteenth novel and deals with art and artists.

The painter Claude Lantier, and his friends, despise the current state of art and long to create something new and original. Claude wants to paint a masterpiece that will unify his ideas and visions. He also meets a young woman, Christine, on a dark and stormy night in Paris and their relationship blossoms before becoming compromised by Claude’s obsession.

The Masterpiece is supposedly the most autobiographical of the Le Rougon-Macquart novels because of Zola’s friendships with several famous painters. One of the characters in The Masterpiece is Pierre Sandoz, who is pretty much a 19th century Mary Sue. Sandoz is a novelist, who is described in at various points as been wise, kind, and lyrical. Not only that, but he is the only one of his friends who becomes a ‘true’ success both financially and artistically because of his familiar sounding series of novels. I couldn’t really take to him because every character liked and trusted him.

It’s only the second novel of Zola’s I’ve finished, the others I gave up on, which is not something I often do. My feeling is that I admire his work as oppose to liking it. I think his series is a brave undertaking, and I find the idea of showing inherited traits throughout a family fascinating. The main problem for me is that I don’t like his style. I can’t help my groan whenever I see a paragraph that goes on for a page or more, and there are a lot of them. In the other novel of his I finished, The Drinking Den aka L’Assommoir (1877), it followed the same structure- characters are at their happiest about a third of the way through the story, and then the rest of it follows their disintegrating lives. Also, I think he fails on the old Creative Writing motto of ‘show, don’t tell’ because he normally tells us about a character before we have a chance to see them interact.

There is much I respect about the novel. I like what it does have to say about art, be it painting, music or writing, and how’s it a thin line between passion and doomed obsession for something unobtainable. Claude is an interesting character, and his progressively erratic behaviour was well played out. But still, I just can’t fully embrace it. Like the old break-up routine- it’s not you, it’s me. I just can’t get to grips with Zola’s style no matter how much I admire what he’s trying to achieve.

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