Including L’Oeuvre (The Masterpiece), I’ve so far read five of the twenty-volume Rougon-Macquart series by Emile Zola (the other four being: La Curee (The Kill), L’Assommoir (The Dram Shop), Nana (Nana) and Le Ventre (The Belly of Paris)). All five are set in kaleidoscopic Paris. The period is some time during the semi-aristocratic and semi-bourgeois Second Empire epoch. I love that each of the five portrays a different and unique social and cultural aspect of the times.
In the Preface, Ernest Alfred Vizetelly tells us that Zola draws from the real life experiences of the famous French painters Paul Cezanne (Zola’s childhood friend) and Edouard Manet (whose art Zola tirelessly championed) to develop the characterization of the protagonist Claude Lantier. Sadly, this would subsequently cause Cezanne to break up his friendship with Zola.
Claude Lantier is a descendant by blood from the Macquart line and presumably suffers from hereditary mental illness.
The story follows Lantier through his initial ambitions as a young rebellious painter and his subsequent self-perceived failures, which lead to a gradual tragic descent into abject poverty and ultimate despair about life.
Cheered on by a circle of fellow artists, including his best friend and budding writer Pierre Sandoz (Zola himself), Lantier at first nurtures a megalomaniac dream of conquering the art scene of Paris one day with his new concept of “open air” painting. He even balks with audacity at the jeers of the public on his first creative piece “In the Open Air” which he submits to the newly opened and supposedly more liberal Salon of the Rejected.
He then falls in love with a modest young woman from Clermont who adores him. The couple lives happily in the countryside for a few years before returning to Paris. As time wears on, each of his once loyal supporters has found success in varying degrees, some by unscrupulous means, and he feels left behind in face of consecutive rejections of his works by the conservative but still authoritative Old Salon. In the end, neither his beloved wife nor his most loyal friend Sandoz is able to lift him from the psychological dumps.
Zola paints the Paris art scene with equal doses of realism and romanticism, of derision and compassion, of insight and scorn. But all in all, I can feel his consuming love of the city of Paris, which is also my favorite city. In this novel as well as in L’Assommoir (The Dram Shop), he takes us on a leisurely stroll through all the boulevards and avenues in the center of Paris. In this novel, he dwells amorously on the scenery surrounding L’Ile de la Cite and makes it the subject of the protagonist’s last masterpiece.
“People see it every day, pass before it without stopping; but it takes hold of one all the same; one’s admiration accumulates, and one fine afternoon it bursts forth. Nothing in the world can be grander; it is Paris herself, glorious in the sunlight.”