Wednesday, December 21, 2011

100 Books 78 - Emile Zola's HIS MASTERPIECE

Ah, me, I've been wondering, as I've read this, when the perfect time to read this might have been. Better late than never, of course, but I can't help wondering if it might have done me more good earlier in life.

Then again, earlier in life, I would probably have had far too much in common with our wonderfully tragic hero, Claude Latiner to have taken this book's observations, its lessons, to heart or in any way profit from them. I would have rolled my eyes, sighed dramatically, read resentfully, had someone instructed me to at 20 -- perhaps even at 30.

So perhaps now is the perfect time to have read this. At 41, I still feel closer perhaps to the beginning of my career than its end, but have experienced enough of what the world has to offer -- and to deny -- would-be artists to recognize Claude's errors even as I sympathize with his passions.

At this age I also have more patience with this book's one possible flaw: Zola has let his characters, passionate, angry young artists, all, go nuts with the speechifying. Would people actually let each other run on like this in real life -- especially in taverns over bottles and bottles of wine? Characters deliver outright manifestos (that sound exactly like what hipsters in coffee shops all over the developed world here in the 21st century spout) while all their equally fired-up, drunken friends just listen? But I forgive them, and Zola. It's good stuff, both touchingly naive and wildly inspirational at once to an artist just beginning to deliver on promise seen in years past.

Which is to say that there's a bit of a cautionary tale at the heart of this story, but it's subtle, which makes it all the more effective. Having read, as my readers know, a lot material this year on all of the ways human brains delude themselves, I found His Masterpiece served as a brilliant case study -- which just proves that we, or at least our greatest novelists, have known all along that we are not so smart. Science is just confirming this.

But what, for me, really made His Masterpiece one of my best reads of this year was how Zola managed to translate the purely visual into the verbal, not just in describing the paintings and sculptures and criticism created by his characters, but also in delivering to the reader the visceral visual experience of being in Paris in the late 19th century. How long must he have sat and studied these vistas, just as painters might (reading of these artists' careers and ideals and goals now, in an age of digital photography and instant visual gratification, both alienates and lures the modern reader)! What writer today could exercise that kind of patience? Who needs painstakingly to describe the interior of an Applebees or a King Soopers or a Starbucks? The words themselves come with a prepackaged set of sensory associations available to any lazy writer. Zola had none of this at his disposal, just as his plein air painters had no cameras but their own eyes, their sketches, and their memories.

And look at all they accomplished.

Now it's our turn.

*And yes, that this novel is based on Zola's real-life friendship with Paul Cezanne, but only loosely. Don't go looking for biographical accuracy here. This is Emile Fracking Zola, kids.

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