Kamis, 18 April 2013

Pierre Sandoz in The Masterpiece

This young novelist, Claude’s best friend in The Masterpiece, actually represented Émile Zola’s personalities which makes this book the most autobiographical in Les Rougon-Macquart series. Sandoz was portrayed as an amiable and enthusiast young man, loved socializing and was always attentive to his friends. He had a habit of inviting his artist friends to have dinner in his humble house every Thursday evening, and to have warm discussions—or rather debates—around arts and politics after the meals. He continued this habit even after marriage.

Sandoz was indeed the oldest of the gang, but it’s not the only reason that he appeared to have a fatherly quality. Despite of being one of the members of the revolutionary young artists, Sandoz had a proportional and healthy life. Unlike his maniac friends, Sandoz possessed the ability to balance his creativity and his personal life. He did confess that sometimes he would be carried away by his imagination, that he’d forgot everything surround him; he would be drowned into his works and ignored his family. Nevertheless, he still kept his marriage well enough, and he have never neglected the Thursday’s dinner for his friends! I should say that Sandoz was the ‘glue’ of the gang. I believe Sandoz was the wisest and most logical artist of them all.

Portrait of Emile Zola - Paul Cezanne, 1864

Among the young artists, Sandoz befriended Claude Lantier most closely. I think it’s because Sandoz’ fatherly quality perfectly matched Claude’s childish and trustful personalities. Sandoz understood Claude very well, he never laughed at his mistakes, not because he was afraid to hurt his best friend’s feeling, but more because he knew that Claude was very sensitive, and criticizing him openly just brought him down. Sandoz knew how to bring it softly to encourage his friend. And when Claude did not do Sandoz’ suggestion and failed, Sandoz never blamed him.

When Claude completely failed, unlike the others, Sandoz kept befriending him; he even worried about him and took great care of him and Christine. Sandoz was willingly to put his effort and time to take Claude on their strolls to break his despair. And finally, at the funeral, Sandoz faithfully defended his poor friend; and was one of few who attended the funeral and took dear old Claude to his last resting.

What a friend Pierre Sandoz was, and how lucky Claude for having such a good friend! I won’t talk about Sandoz’ novels, for Sandoz is Zola, and we all know how genius this French novelist and Naturalist is!

Rabu, 17 April 2013

Naturalism and Impressionism in The Masterpiece

During April I read two books from Émile Zola for my Zoladdiction event; one of them is The Masterpiece, which relates quite a lot about the turning of the century, or specifically pointing to the birth of Impressionism. Zola was one of several young artists in Paris who originated the new wave of arts. Having been saturated by the “dark and grim” Romanticism arts, these energetic young men (Zola, Paul Cezanne, Claude Monet and Edouard Manet were among them) introduced more natural, bright sunshine into paintings. I am quoting a few passages from the book, which I believe was Zola’s own thoughts.

…Courbet’s “black” painting is already beginning to feel rusty and reek of a musty studio where the sun never enters… Do you see what I mean? Perhaps that’s what we need now, sunlight, open air, something bright and fresh, people and things as seen in real daylight. I don’t know, but it seems to me that that’s our sort of painting, the sort of painting our generation should produce and look at. ~The Masterpiece, p. 37.

Claude Monet, Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise), 1872

Impressionist painting characteristics include relatively small, thin, yet visible brush strokes, open composition, emphasis on accurate depiction of light in its changing qualities (often accentuating the effects of the passage of time), ordinary subject matter, inclusion of movement as a crucial element of human perception and experience, and unusual visual angles. [wiki]. And Claude Monet with his painting “Impression” has inspired the name of the new style: Impressionist.

Not only in paintings, Zola believed that the naturalism and impressionism should occur also in other branches of arts: music, sculpture, literature, and architectural.

Surely all the arts were intended to march forward together, and the process of change which was taking place in literature, painting, and even music, was going to lead to a renewal of architecture too. If ever there was a century in which architecture should have a style of its own, it was the century shortly to begin, the new century, new ground ready for reconstruction of every kind, a freshly sown field, the breeding ground of a new people. Down with the Greek temples, down with the Gothic cathedrals; belief in legends was dead! Down too with the delicate colonades and the intricate tracery of the Renaissance, that Classical revival crossed with medieval art… What was wanted was an architectural formula to fit that democracy, the power to express it in stone, building which it could feel to be its own, something big and strong and simple, the sort of thing that was already asserting itself in railway-stations and market-halls, the solid elegance of metal girders, developed and refined still further, raised to the status of genuine beauty, proclaiming the greatness of human achievement.” ~The Masterpiece, p. 139.

The Card Players, an iconic work by Cézanne (1892)

Zola also emphasized the condition near the end of the century with a vast rebuilding scheme took place, which also touched the land prices and many people attracted in investments. In short, Zola portrayed the early decadence of the society at the end of the 19th century through The Masterpiece.

We are living in a bad season, in a vitiated atmosphere, with the century coming to an end and everything in process of demolition; buildings torn down wholesale; every plot of land being dug and redug, and every mortal thing stinking of death. How can anybody expect to be healthy? The nerves go to pieces, general neurosis sets in, and arts begin to totter, faced with a free-for-all, with anarchy to follow, and personality fighting tooth and nail for self-assertion. ~The Masterpiece, p. 359

Senin, 15 April 2013

[Review] The Masterpiece - L'Oeuvre

Should we devote our time and energy to leaving a mark in some way (a painting, a sculpture, an opera, a fortune), or should we indeed ‘spend more time with our family’ and live for the present?

Zola seemed to let us answer the above question by depicting Claude Lantier’s struggles between arts and life, imagination and reality. The Masterpiece—although not Zola’s masterpiece—is a prominent work from the Father of Naturalism which was also the most autobiographical piece from Les Rougon-Macquart series. Claude was the son of Gervaise and Auguste Lantier (in L’Assommoir), now lived in Paris as a painter. Together with his junior artist friends (painters, architect, sculpture, novelist, journalist), he started the new wave of arts, which later on became Impressionism. Zola’s own personalities could be found in Pierre Sandoz, Claude’s closest friend, a novelist who acted as ‘the glue’ of their friendship since school to their adult lives as artists. They met every Thursday to discuss about the fading Romanticism that they hated, and the urge to bring their fresh ideas of Impressionism to public.

Claude was the leader of this group (it is assumed that either Paul Cézanne and/or Claude Monet or Edouard Manet might have inspired his character). Real objects, natures and outdoor landscapes were his obsession—while at that time painters used models for indoor paintings of mythological or historical themes. Unfortunately his paintings were repeatedly rejected by the Salon des Refusés (an exhibition of works rejected by the jury of the official Paris Salon), while his friends—who adopted his ‘Open Air’ ideas and who were less talented than him—could gain successes little by little.

Bennecourt, where Claude & Christine spent their happy times together

Claude then found a perfect landscape in Ile de la Cité for his masterpiece, and became obsessed to paint it in big canvas, using his wife Christine as his nude model. However, no matter how hard he had worked on it and revised it many times over, Claude could never put the painting in a meaningful whole; and this depressed him severely. Claude could never recover from his humiliating failure until the end, and it ruined Christine’s life too in the process.

The Masterpiece (originally L’Oeuvre or The Work) is simply Zola’s way to criticize Parisian arts society. Many of the artists were so obsessed to be famous and a master of their art, that they ignored their private lives, happiness and families. They were never satisfied with their works, and worked madly day and night to create such a masterpiece; often drove themselves to severe despair or even madness. But on the other hand, there was also the Salon with its overwhelming tasks to sort art works from hundreds of artists. The Selection Committee would decide whether their works deserved to be hung for the Salon or not. This committee would walk together from rooms to rooms, inspect each painting, and vote for its inclusion or exclusion.

People gathered to discuss Cezanne's painting,
might it be some kind of the Salon?

I can imagine how tiring the task might have been, and in those pressured events, who could maintain their fair judgment all the time? It was more than possible that a painting of a talented artist would be rejected just because it’s different from the current trend. And don’t forget, there were many collectors who did not understand arts and just took whatever the Salon exhibited as the most valuable paintings to collect. In short, there were so many small wrong aspects in the Salon exhibitions running by men who might not have had enough artistic sense to execute their jobs, while these aspects might have influenced an artist’s failure or fortune, wealthy or poverty.

Although The Masterpiece would not shock you like L’Assommoir or entertain you like Germinal, but it’s enough to take us to see the ugly struggles beneath the beautiful works of arts! Zola wanted also to make us see how a child who was born from generations of drunkards might be deformed either mentally or physically. Claude, in particular, had the problem of madness attack every time he was exposed to an intense emotion. The art was the dearest thing of his existence; it’s his life, it’s his soul….

“What was Art, after all, if not simply giving out what you have inside you?”

But that was also one thing that triggered his madness, and when the madness came, it would dominate him such, that his painting would be one disaster. Oh, poor Claude! The only one which made him happy, caused his ruin. Genius in brain but corrupted in soul….and that was not his fault! It’s his parents’; but most of all, it’s the society…Paris of the late 19th century, under the Second French Empire.

Although the novel has a rather hopeless tone, it actually marks the turning of the century. The birth of impressionism in arts—and painting is only one of them, because it would change architecture, sculpture, literature, and music as well—would certainly bring a new change to the civilization.

Four stars for The Masterpiece, a very interesting and educating novel! And thank you Monsieur Zola for ever writing it….

“What price glory, then, the thing we’d die for?”

“In life everything comes to an end, but nothing is ever repeated.”

Kamis, 11 April 2013

Claude Lantier in The Masterpiece

Claude is the main character in Zola’s The Masterpiece; he was a shy guy who liked painting but disliked women. One day Claude met Christine, fell madly in love with her, then married her. But it turned out that Claude could not control more than one passion at the same time; that when he was enjoying his love with Christine, he could not drag himself to produce any serious painting. Then, when Christine offered herself to model for his painting, Claude began to stay away from his wife, and began fallen in love with his painting—or in this case, the woman in his painting. Seems that, in Claude, one passion would dominate another; but it was a madness which dominated Claude to his end.

I am still wondering whether it’d be much better if Claude has never been in love with Christine at all, or it would be all the same whether he married her or not, because the madness was already there? Maybe Claude was right after all for not liking women, maybe that way he could focus only on painting. But would have it altered his future to the better? I don’t know, maybe not…..

Claude seems to be a man with an unbalanced emotion. He was, in fact, a talented and skilled painter—all his friends admitted that—and he was genius too. Claude with several of his friends—young painters—started a new generation of impressionism. He had set a new style of painting, and although his paintings kept being refused by the Salon (a public exhibition which influenced the public taste of arts), many young artists followed his example in putting natures in their paintings. But strangely, he who had set the style, could never produce any single masterpiece till the end. Why? Again….I put the blame to his unbalanced emotion.

It’s a pity to see such a talented young man must meet a sad end. Claude was always very kind to his friends, and in a way he still loved Christine till the end. His only problem was he could not cope with himself, he could not control his emotion—when his paintings were refused, he would be so enraged, and when he poured out his feelings in painting, he became severely obsessed. Claude did not possess self-control of himself, and at last his repeatedly failure ruined him completely.

Bernard Fresson as Claude in L'oeuvre, 1967

Sabtu, 06 April 2013

Between Work & Success - The Masterpiece

The Masterpiece is called the most autobiographical novel of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series. Zola’s personage was reflected from Pierre Sandoz, a kind hearted novelist, a best friend of Claude Lantier—the protagonist of this book—who represented Paul Cézanne or Claude Monet. The quote I am featuring this week is from Sandoz,

So long as you can say to yourself that you’ve put your whole life into your work, that you expect neither immediate justice nor even serious appreciation, that you’re working without hope of any kind, simply because the urge to work beats in your body like your heart, because you can’t help it, you can let yourself die happy and console yourself with the illusion that you’ll be appreciated one day…

I can’t agree more with it. Sandoz here wanted to console Claude who was depressed because the world rejected his works, and he felt himself useless. The fact is, we might be different from others, we might not be with the mainstream, but that doesn’t mean that we are not as good as they are. I believe that success comes not from the world’s appreciation, but from the happiness which our work had brought us. As long as we can do what we want which came from our heart, make the best of it, to achieve what is right for us, then I’ll call that ‘success’. To be praised by others would be a bonus, but without that, we can claim that we have served our purpose very well…. and die happily, as Sandoz put it…

Do you agree?

Jumat, 05 April 2013

Sunset Views From The Masterpiece

In The Masterpiece, Émile Zola spoiled me with his beautiful descriptions of Paris in the end of 19th century landscapes. As I always amazed at nature beauties, I am trying to capture here some images which transform the beauties from Zola’s words to more vivid imagination. These passages were taken from chapter 3 (p. 95-96) where Claude was enjoying afternoon strolls together with Christine. While the pictures might not represent the scene accurately, they could still help us to imagine the scenes, while savouring Zola’s beautiful words….

The lovely sunsets they watched on those weekly strolls along the Seine, when the sun shone ahead of them all the way through the many lively aspects of embankment life: the Seine itself, the lights, and shadows dancing on its face, the amusing little shops, each one as warm as a greenhouse, the pots of flowers on the seedsmen’s stalls, the deafening twitter from the birds-shops, and all the joyous confusion of sounds and colours that makes the waterfront the everlasting youth of any city.


One evening, in an unexpected shower, the sun, as it reappeared through the falling rain, lit up every cloud in the sky, making the rain overhead glowed like liquid fire shot through with pink and blue.”


 On days when the sky was clear, the sun like a ball of fire would sink majestically into a waveless lake of sapphire."


"For a moment, as it passed behind the black dome of the Institut, it was horned like a moon on the wane; then as its disc reddened to deepest purple it would pass out of sight in the depths of the lake transformed into a pool of blood.”


But the most theatrical effects, the most magnificent transformation scenes were only produced in a cloudy sky. Then, according to the whim of the prevailing wind, they would see waves of sulphur breaking on boulders of coral, palaces, towers of buildings piled up in a blazing heap or crumbling down as torrents of lave poured through the gaps in their walls.”


Or, at other times, the sun already out of sight, hidden by a veil of mist, would suddenly break through with such a mighty thrust of light that a tracery of sparks would be sent shooting clear across the sky like a flight of golden arrows.


Don't those gorgeous views make you want to visit Paris? In 19th century?.... I do!

Selasa, 02 April 2013

Émile Zola Mini Bio & Bibliography

On this date (April 2nd, 2013), 173 years ago, a baby boy was born in Paris. He was named Émile François Zola, the only child of an Italian engineer. “Zolla” in Italian means ‘cloth of earth’. He was four years old when his father died, leaving his mother as a widow with meager pension. His mother prepared him to have a law career, but Zola failed in his Baccalauréat exam. Before entering journalism and beginning his writing career, Zola worked as clerk in shipping firm and in sales department of a publisher. Among his first published works is Contes à Ninon, published when he was 24 years old. When the publication of his next semi-autobiographical novel: Claude’s Confession (1865) caught police’s attention, the publisher office fired him.

Zola’s first major novel was Therese Raquin (1867). In his 28 years of age, Zola started to build the complete layout of his future series of novels traces the "environmental" influences of violence, alcohol and prostitution which became more prevalent during the second wave of the Industrial Revolution during the second empire of France. Les Rougon-Macquart was the title of the series, depicted—or rather examined—two branches of a family: the respectable (legitimate) Rougons and the disreputable (illegitimate) Macquarts for five generations. Zola: "I want to portray, at the outset of a century of liberty and truth, a family that cannot restrain itself in its rush to possess all the good things that progress is making available and is derailed by its own momentum, the fatal convulsions that accompany the birth of a new world."

During the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 Zola and his newly married wife, Alexandrine moved temporarily to Marseilles. And during that period, Zola worked as journalist for several different newspapers. Right after that Zola began to write his Rougon-Macquart series.

The complete twenty series of Les Rougon Macquart (the years are years of publication):

#1 (1871) - The Fortune of the Rougons
#2 (1872) - The Kill (La Curée)
#3 (1873) - The Belly of Paris
#4 (1874) - The Conquest of Plassans (La Concuête de Plassans)
#5 (1875) - The Sin of Father Mouret (La Foute de l'Abbé Mouret)
#6 (1876) - His Excellency Eugène Rougon (Son Excellence Eugène Rougon)
#7 (1877) - L’Assommoir (The Drinking Den)
#8 (1878) - A Page of Love (Une Page d'Amour)
#9 (1880) - Nana
#10 (1882) – Pot Luck (Pot-Bouille)
#11 (1883) – The Ladies’ Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames)
#12 (1884) – The Joy of Life (Le Joie de Vivre)
#13 (1885) – Germinal
#14 (1886) – The Masterpiece
#15 (1887) – The Earth
#16 (1888) - The Dream
#17 (1890) – The Beast in Man (La Bête Humaine)
#18 (1891) – Money (L'Argent)
#19 (1892) – La Débâcle
#20 (1893) – Doctor Pascal (Le Docteur Pascal)

Paul Alexis reading a manuscript to Zola,
painted by Paul Cezanne

During those years, Zola had became a political reporter (1871); held his First Impressionist exhibition (1874) and Second Impressionist exhibition (1876); took Jeanne Rozerot as his mistress; got a baby girl from Jeanne, named Denise (1889); got a baby boy—Jacques—also from Denise (1891). On 1894, at the same year that Alfred Dreyfus—a Jewish artillery officer in French army—was found guilty by a court martial, Zola published his first novel of Three Cities trilogy: Lourdes. It was followed soon by Rome on 1896, and Paris on 1898.

On January 13th, 1898 Zola published his article J’Accuse in defense of Dreyfus who was wrongly convicted as treason which was caused by anti-semitism in the highest levels of French Army. J’Accuse was an opened letter addressed to the President of the Republic which was published in the front page of L’Aurore newspaper. By publishing J’Accuse, Zola has brought his career to a major risk. On the other hand, as Zola was a leading French thinker at that time, J’Accuse formed a major turning-point on the affair, and it had divided France deeply between the reactionary army and church and the more liberal commercial society. The article is also widely marked in France as the most prominent manifestation of the new power of the intellectuals (writers, artists, academicians) in shaping public opinion, the media and the state.

Streets in Paris named after Emile Zola & Alfred Dreyfus

Zola was brought to trial on 7 February 1898 and was convicted on 23 February; however he fled to England rather than went into jail. After his return to Paris, Zola immediately published first novel in his new series Four Gospels: Fecundity (Fécondité); followed by Toil (Travail) on 1901. The third novel, Truth (Vérité) was published posthumously in 1903, while Justice would have become the fourth if only Zola have survived then to finish it…..

J’Accuse was proved to bring huge risk to Zola, as he was found dead on September 29th from carbon monoxide poisoning caused by an improperly ventilated chimney. Decades later a Parisian roofer claimed on his deathbed to have closed the chimney for political reasons, which was believed to be instructed by Zola’s enemies. He was buried in Montmartre cemetery; however on June 4th 1908 his remains were relocated to the Panthéon, where he shares a crypt with other French big authors: Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas.


It was a kind of mini biography of Émile Zola, one of the most prominent contributors of Naturalism in 19th century and a major figure in the political liberalization of France. Looking at his bibliography, I was amazed by how productive Zola had written his books; he published one book every year on average, to say nothing of his persistence to write the twenty novels of Rougon-Macquart series based on his layout for twenty years! Zola wrote each of his books after thorough researches to describe the settings in details. For Germinal, for example, he went to a mining, interviewed the miner and witnessed their risky lives, and examining their livings. No wonder, we would feel as if we were presence in every scene of his books.

In comparing between his work and Balzac’s, Zola said: “I don't want to describe the contemporary society, but a single family, showing how the race is modified by the environment. (...) My big task is to be strictly naturalist, strictly physiologist.” Jim, one of Zoladdiction participant, posted an interesting analysis over the taxonomy aspect in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series. If you could not decide which book you should read first at a start, or whether you must read them in publication order or not, Jim’s post would help you to consider. For you who, like me, decided to read in random order, the post provides information you need to know in order to see Zola’s whole perspective in writing the series.

I am a fan of Zola, although I have only read three of his novels so far. That’s why I host the Zoladdiction event, to encourage myself to read more (and to buy more in the end) of Zola. I plan to read at least all of the twenty novels in Rougon-Macquart series, and hopefully all the others too.

2 April 1840 – 2 April 2013