The Masterpiece by Emile Zola

 The Masterpiece cover

The Masterpiece by Emile Zola was first published in 1886. My copy was translated by Thomas Walton in 1950 and I must say that I doubt if anyone else could have done a better job. It’s the fouteenth novel in Zola’s Rougon Macquart series, and it’s a great read. I read this one for Back to the Classics Challenge and The Classics Club.

The Masterpiece is Zola’s most autobiographical novel, he based the main characters – a group of artistic friends on some of his own friends and himself. The artist Cezanne was his friend and there must have been plenty of artistic discussions between the two over the years, so Zola would have had plenty of copy to choose from I’m sure. The character Sandoz is based on Zola.

The main character Claude is a serious young artist, his friends think he has great talent and it’s only a matter of time before he becomes his generation’s Delacroix with his art being hung in The Salon and winning prizes. Claude is developing a new style called ‘Open Air’ (Impressionist). However he makes life difficult for himself, painting on enormous canvases and never being happy with his work, never knowing when to stop. His ideas which start off well somehow always go awry and when he does manage to get a painting accepted by The Salon it’s only in the gallery of the ‘refused’ artworks, where everyone laughs at his efforts. However some years later one of his friend’s steals that composition and changes it slightly and the resulting painting and the artist are lauded.

Zola concentrates on Claude’s story and his wife Christine, but his friends are a sculptor, journalist, architect and of course a novelist, and their lives and how they interact with Claude are also a big part of the book.

Germinal has always been my favourite in this series but this one ran it a close thing, although I must warn anyone thinking of reading it – especially in these angst-ridden pandemic times – that it vies with Thomas Hardy for shock and darkness. However there are some lovely descriptions of Paris, especially at night, Claude was in love with the city.

There’s an introduction by the translator Thomas Walton, obviously not to be read until you’ve finished reading the book, but as it happens the one passage that I had marked to quote is in his introduction.

Sandoz (Zola) is speaking to Claude:

“Has it ever struck you that posterity may not be the fair, impartial judge we like to think it is? We console ourselves for being spurned and rejected by relying on getting a fair deal from the future, just as the faithful put up with with the abomination on this earth because they firmly believe in another life where everyone shall have his deserts. Suppose the artist’s paradise turned out to be as non-existent as the Catholic’s, and future generations proved just as misguided as the present one and persisted in liking pretty-pretty dabbling better than honest to goodness painting! …. What a sell for us all, to have lived like slaves, noses to the grindstone all to no purpose!”

Such is life!

I bought my copy of this book in a charity shop in North Berwick one hot summer’s day a few years ago in the glory days of travel. I can’t say that I like the cover though. It’s an Ann Arbor paperback, The University of Michigan Press, and I bought about five other Zola books along with it, all similarly very far from home.

Aberdeen book purchases

Jack had done his homework and looked up the addresses of the secondhand bookshops in Aberdeen before we got there. There’s a great online directory that you can see here.

So when we were in Aberdeen the first port of call was Old Aberdeen Bookshop, which took us to a part of the city we hadn’t been to before. It was my kind of place, not very big but crammed with books, double parked on the shelves and piled all over the floor. I dug into the piles and Jack even found a couple of books there he knew I would like, so it’s not all my fault! But I thought I had only bought five books there – it turns out it was much worse than that. It’s a real mixed bag and showcases my catholic taste I suppose.

Books Again

The Enchanted Land (1906) by Scottish author Louey Chisholm and illustrated by another Scot Katharine Cameron. The illustrations are really enchanting and you can see some of her work here.

The other book for children (of all ages) that I bought is Cockle Button, Cockle Ben (1943) by Richard Phibbs and illustrated by Gladys M. Rees which has very different illustrations but is very much of its time and is almost equally charming.

Jack found Money by Emile Zola for me, another one to add to my Classics Club list.

He also found Wolf Among Wolves by Hans Fallada, a great find as his books rarely pop up in secondhand bookshops – at a reasonable price anyway.

The last three are all by the Scottish author Jane Duncan who also writes as Janet Sandison.
My Friend Flora
My Friend Muriel and
My Friends the Miss Boyds

I read some of her books back in the 1970s when they were very popular but I can’t remember anything about them. The blurb is hopeful though, one front cover says: A riotous romp – moving, funny, fresh and alive. They might be the perfect light reading for when the news is too depressing.

Have you read any of these books?

The Classics Club Spin #19 – The Earth by Emile Zola

The Earth cover

The Earth by Emile Zola was first published in 1887 and it’s part of his Rougon Macquart series and it’s the book that I got in the Classics Club Spin number 19. I’ve read quite a lot of books in this series and enjoyed most of them, I liked this one but it wasn’t exactly an uplifting read. My Penguin edition, translated by Douglas Parmee is 500 pages long and I was glad to get to the end of it, but apparently it was the author’s favourite novel.

Jean Macquart is now working as a wandering farmhand but previously he had been a corporal in the army, a veteran of the Battle of Solferino. When he reaches the small village of Beauce, north of Paris he decides to settle there, he’s attracted to Francoise who already has an illegitimate child with Buteau who is the youngest child of a local landowner. Buteau isn’t keen to marry Francoise but she decides to wait in hope that he will eventually. Meanwhile Jean says that he will marry her if Buteau won’t.

Buteau’s father Fouan is feeling his age and decides to split his land up between his three children who will work the land and pay their father a small pension from their farm incomes. Fouan’s older sister is very domineering, she’s nicknamed La Grande and she warns Fouan that he is making a huge mistake in giving up his land. She’s correct of course as as soon as Fouan gives up his land he feels that he has lost his status in the village, he’s just an old man of no importance now and it isn’t long before his children stop paying him his pension. They aren’t at all interested in him now that they already have their inheritance and they all start fighting amongst themselves. Fouan should have read King Lear.

Zola had obviously done plenty of research into the subject of agriculture and the problems that were faced by the peasants, the agricultural year is described as the peasants work their way through the sowing, reaping and then the wine-making and amazingly despite the hard work involved they always seemed to have plenty of stamina for illicit sex, they were a very loose-living bunch indeed. Under a hedge seemed to be a favourite place for it!

As ever though Zola’s descriptions are lovely and I intend to read my way through all of this series.

The Kill by Emile Zola – Classics Club Spin no. 18

The Kill cover

The book that I got in the Classics Club Spin is The Kill by Emile Zola which was first published in 1872 and it’s the second book in his Rougon Macquart series. I think this is about the fifth book in that series that I’ve read and it is the one that I’ve liked least. However it’s one of his earliest books and he obviously improved with maturity.

The setting is Paris 1852 and Aristide Rougon has gone there having left his native Provence. He hopes to get help from his older brother and eventually he does get a job with his help, he’s a surveyor of roads. It isn’t really what he was looking for but he realises that the work gives him access to important city planning decisions and this means that he can take advantage by buying up tracts of land that he knows will be needed in the rebuilding of the new Paris. He’ll make lots of money when the land is bought from him by the city.

Aristide is a born wheeler dealer and when his wife dies he marries Renee a young woman from a wealthy family. She is already pregnant and needs a husband. Aristide can use her money for his business dealings, but although Renee is much younger than Aristide and is very pretty, he isn’t really interested in her, she’s just a business deal as far as he is concerned. They both have affairs and Renee eventually ends up having an affair with Aristide’s son by his first wife. She spends a fortune on her clothes and has to borrow to pay some money towards her debts. Meanwhile Aristide realises that he isn’t such a brilliant businessman as he thought he was.

The subject matter of massive greed, waste and infidelities didn’t appeal to me and the book is very overwritten. I like descriptions but there are far too many of them in this book – too many adjectives, too much purple prose.

They say that writers should always write about what they know but Emile Zola was writing about a society that he knew little about and he apparently got all of his information from the society pages of the Paris newspapers. Of course they described the dresses and jewellery that were worn at balls and Zola must have felt the need to do the same. I got to the stage where I was thinking – ‘please – no more satin, lace and bows!’

I’ll definitely be continuing with this series though.

Classics Club Spin – it’s NINE

classics club
The 18th Classics Club Spin number is 9 and that means that I’ll be reading The Kill by Emile Zola before the 31st of August.

I’m very happy about this as apart from anything else my copy of The Kill only has 271 pages, very short for Zola I think, it looks like it’ll be a great read too.

This book is part of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series and the blurb on the back says:

A great wave of redevelopment is bursting over Paris when Aristide Rougon arrives from the provinces in 1852. Fortunes are being made and lost by those with the nerve to speculate and to swindle on a grand scale. To some, Paris is disappearing in a cloud of plaster dust: All Aristide can see is a shower of gold.

I’m really looking forward to reading it now.

The cover of my copy shows a detail from the painting Foggy day near Madeleine by Jean Beraud.

If This is a Man/The Truce cover

Nana by Emile Zola

Nana cover

Nana by Emile Zola was first published in 1880 and it’s part of his Rougon Macquart series which I’ve been reading completely out of order. There’s a list on Goodreads which recommends the order they should be read in, you can see it here. I’m not sure if it makes a huge difference to the enjoyment of the books.

Bluntly, this book is about prostitution and the part it played in French society of the Second Empire, particularly in Paris. Nana is the main character and in the beginning she’s a new girl in a theatre, her first experience on stage didn’t go well at all, she couldn’t sing, but she had the wit to realise that a lack of talent wouldn’t be a problem for her, she had a great figure and she was more than happy to show it all off, with just a very thin gauze veil for cover.

The men are agog, so are a lot of the women, and Nana goes from being a penniless unknown to being the toast of Paris, in some circles anyway. She’s a manipulative and totally dishonest tart who as time goes on becomes more and more out of control. The wonder is that the men involved with her were happy to put up with her nonsense, but there’s nowt as queer as men when it comes to sex it would seem!

Apparently Zola did a lot of background research for this book and he even managed to get a peek at a very ornate and expensive bed of a famous Parisian courtesan, and he based Nana’s bed on that one. As ever Zola’s descriptions light up the book but I didn’t enjoy it as much as the others of his that I’ve read. Zola wanted to compare Nana’s destructiveness with that of the French Empire’s disintegration which came in 1870.

Zola did set out to show how hereditary weaknesses affected various members of the families in this series and Nana’s personality is completely out of control, self-centred and destructive. She’s a nutter, one of those women who should have ‘dangerous to everyone’ stamped on her forehead. She’s smart though, much wilier than everyone else and has the unusual (for that society) tendency to kindness when others are in despair.

This one was on my Classics Club list.
Have you read Nana? What did you think of it/her?

The cover of my Penguin Classic shows ‘Nana’ painted by Edouard Manet.

Guardian links

I had intended to do a blogpost about the books that I got at Christmas but, there are so many of them and I still have to take photos, so I’m just doing this quick post to interesting articles in the Guardian Review section.

There’s an article here about six women writers, by Alex Clark: Beryl Bainbridge, Angela Carter, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Molly Keane, Jenny Diski and Anita Brookner. Some of my favourite writers although I haven’t read anything at all by Jenny Diski. Have you?

Just when you thought that all the books about Elizabeth I of England had been written – up pops another one by John Guy called Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years.

Last but not least, if you enjoy Emile Zola’s books as I do you’ll be interested in this article about his time in London in 1898.

The Ladies’ Paradise by Emile Zola

 The Ladies' Paradise cover

The Ladies’ Paradise by Emile Zola was first published in 1883, but it’s set in the 1860s when Paris was undergoing a huge rebuilding. It’s part of the Rougon-Macquart series and features Octave Mouret as one of the main characters. The Mourets are an illegitimate branch of the family.

Octave Mouret is an ambitious young widower who sets about building up the biggest department store in Paris, The Ladies’ Paradise, at a time when shoppers were served by hundreds of small independent shops. He employs the sort of marketing devices which we see today, and they have the same effects now as they had then. The small shop owners are unable to keep up with the cheaper prices which The Ladies’ Paradise can market the goods at and eventually they all go out of business. Silk fabric is used as a loss leader to entice the ladies into the department store. Mouret manages to sell it so cheaply only because he drives such a hard bargain with the silk manufacturer that they end up going out of business.

As you would expect from Zola the descriptions of the merchandise on sale are seductive, the lace department is a favourite with the ladies, some of whom are completely intoxicated by it and end up shoplifting.

The main character is Denise, a young woman who has travelled to Paris with her two young brothers after the death of their parents. It’s a shock to the youngsters who are used to rural life and they are having to stay with an uncle and his wife temporarily, under sufferance. The uncle’s business is already being damaged by the setting up of the department store across the road from his shop. But Denise is fascinated by the new store and is on the side of Mouret as she thinks anything which means that the public can get cheap goods is a step in the right direction.

The book details how Mouret’s business ideas developed and how his shop rapidly became a place where the women of Paris could go on their own, the only other place which they could do that was church and his store became a cathedral to commercialism. The smell of such a mass of women in the store was at times overwhelming (the mind boggles).

Store managers are still employing exactly the same principles when setting up departments in stores, with goods being changed around constantly, meaning that the shopper has to trail all over the place to find what they want, obviously the owners hope that you will pick up other things on the way to find whatever it is you wanted to buy in the first place. Zola was writing a history of French life through his fiction and he undertook a huge amount of research.

I thought of the farmers in the UK who have been put in the position of having to sell their milk at below cost price because they have been bullied by the supermarket to do so, many of them having been put out of business because of it, nothing much seems to have changed in our capitalist world.

I wasn’t at all sure about this book to begin with because the subject matter wasn’t too exciting to me, but after about 100 pages I really got into it. I believe that the BBC serialised the book last year as The Paradise but I didn’t watch it so I have no idea how well it was done.

I read this book for The Classics Club, another one ticked off, but in fact I didn’t have this book on my list, it was a random choice from the library.

The Belly of Paris by Emile Zola

The Belly of Paris cover

The Belly of Paris by Emile Zola was first published in 1873. I’ve only read two of his books prior to this one and of those Germinal was my favourite, but this one is running it close.

It’s the story of Florent, a young man who had been caught up in the Paris street riots of 1853 and although he was innocent of any wrong-doing he ended up being transported to Devil’s Island, just because he had got blood on his hands. After years of starvation and bad treatment on the prison island he managed to escape and travel back to Paris and that is when the book begins, with a half-dead Florent entering Paris which he doesn’t recognise as there have been so many changes since he has been away.

A huge market place has been built near the area where he had previously lived, Les Halles as the market is called provides what amounts to a feast for all the senses as Zola describes everything he sees there. This is not always good, you definitely won’t be keen on reading this book if you are a vegan or even a vegetarian, the descriptions of the fish market and meat and poultry was sometimes a bit too over-powering. The fruit and flower markets feature too, easier on the mind’s eye as you might imagine, but the cheese market was definitely more than a bit whiffy!

Most of the market workers are women and very strong willed and Les Halles is full of gossip, mainly completely made up, people like to think the worst of their neighbours.

Florent ends up working as a fish market inspector which pushes him into close proximity to the women who scare him. He had intended to go back to his old work – teaching, but he couldn’t get a job. Lisa his very business minded sister-in-law persuaded him to take the market job, which is really like working for the government, something which he swore he wouldn’t do. Florent ends up getting mixed up in politics, which you know is only going to end in tears.

This book is about the people of Paris, most of whom seem to be doing very nicely in the stable atmosphere of the Second Empire, and they have no wish to rock the boat. They are the fat people, only concerned with business and the getting of money. Florent is on the other side, the thin people who are more interested in building a fair society. Guess who wins in the end?!

Apparently Zola spent a lot of time in the area of Les Halles to capture the atmosphere of the place and the people, his decriptions of the area have been of use to historians as Les Halles were demolished and it’s only from Zola’s desciptions of the buildings that people know how they looked.

I read this book as part of my Classics Club challenge.

The Belly of Paris is one of the 20 books which make up Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series.

Therese Raquin by Emile Zola

This book is in my reading list for 2011, I was supposed to be working my way through the list of 52 books, at least one per week. It started out well but I’ve fallen way behind now.

Anyway, this is a quick read at just 196 pages and my copy of the book is a 1960 paperback. I suspect that there have been better translations since then, that’s the only thing I have against it, the word egotism/egotistic was overused and I’m sure mis-used when something like arrogance or selfishness would have been better I think.

I really enjoyed this book which Zola wrote after he had read Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. I wasn’t too keen on Madame Bovary because I really disliked Emma, I couldn’t find any redeeming qualities in her at all.

The book is about adultery, amongst other things, but Theresa has had a tough life really as she was farmed out to her father’s sister as a very small baby. She ends up being married off to her cousin before she knows anything about life and men, and let’s face it – it was never going to be a success given the fact that she had shared a bed with her cousin/husband as a child.

When Therese forms a liason with one of her husband’s work colleagues they take things too far and disaster ensues. The lovers are conscience stricken and racked with guilt they descend into horror.

I know, it doesn’t exactly sound like a barrel of laughs but it is a good read and I’m looking forward to reading the only other Zola book which I have at the moment – Nana, sometime soonish.