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.

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.

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.

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.

The Lady with the Camelias by Alexandre Dumas (fils)


The Lady with the Camelias by Alexandre Dumas fils was my book for the Classics Club Spin this month. I’ve had a copy of this book for donkey’s years and just never got around to reading it. In fact it isn’t a book which has been passed down to me but one I bought myself just because it is one of those handsome dark red leather bound books with gold edged pages, and I see it cost me all of 90p. Before I get on to the book I’d just like to mention that it must have been awful for the author if he was known as Alexander Dumas fils his entire life. Obviously it was to distinguish him from his father – the Alexandre Dumas who wrote The Three Musketeers and many more well known books. I feel for Dumas junior!

Anyway, to the book. This was a complete surprise for me because just going from the title I thought it was going to be about a genteel lady of fashion, silly me, it is French after all.

I was not too pleased with the way the story began because almost from the very beginning we learn that the lady with the camelias is already dead and her life has obviously been a tragic one as apart from the fact she’s dead, her goods and chattels are up for auction to try and pay off the debts which she has left behind. The story is told by Armand Duval, who it turns out had been a past lover of the ‘lady’.

Marguerite was her name and she always carried a bouquet of camelias, I can’t help thinking that that must have been a bit of a burden after a while. The reason behind it was that for most of the month the camelias were white but for five days they were red. It was a sign to the ‘gentlemen’ that when the camelias were red she was unavailable to them, I did say this was French didn’t I?

Sadly Marguerite Gautier was a courtesan, if you want to be delicate about it but more plainly she was a high-class prostitute, ‘kept’ by an elderly duke but having many more lovers, being passed from man to man as their finances ran out. For she did ruin men with her constant need for money, with a love of beautiful things and wildly extravegant lifestyle, she had no need for men who couldn’t keep her in the style which she had become accustomed to. The poor, stupid lads sloped off penniless, no use to Marguerite.

Eventually Armand Duval becomes her lover, he convinces her to take more care of her health as she has TB and her hard-drinking lifestyle is fast taking its toll on her. Armand is obsessed and is on the road to ruin himself as he plans to make over his own small inheritance to Marguerite, and completely neglects his family.

When his father discovers what’s going on he isn’t best pleased, as his son’s reputation is likely to make it impossible for his daughter to marry a respectable man. As we know from the beginning, it’s all going to end in tears.

I’m really glad that I got around to reading this book at last but the subject matter isn’t one which really interests me and I’m far too much of a cynic to fall for the so-called romance which Armand had conjured up for himself.

French literature-wise I think I’m more of a Zola reader.

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.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos

Les Liaisons Dangereuses cover

Again I have to thank The Classics Circuit for introducing me to this book and French Literature in general. I would never have chosen this book to read had it not been for the CC and its participants.

The fact that this is an epistolary book was a bit off-putting to me but I didn’t have any problems with it at all. I was lucky enough to have the time to read the book in four days so it may have been more confusing if I had been picking it up and putting it down for weeks on end.

It was first published in Paris in 1782 and was regarded as outrageous, consequently it sold out within a few days.

It’s the story of two French aristocrats, the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, who use and manipulate the lives of their supposed friends, young and old. In the course of entertaining themselves in this way they cause mayhem in the lives of all concerned.

The main female character, the Marquise de Merteuil is portrayed as being the most dangerous of the pair, positively poisonous. Plus ҫa change – as they say!

Anyway, I enjoyed it and I’m hoping to be able to see the film soon, which has Colin Firth playing the part of Valmont. I’m wondering how I’ve managed to miss seeing it!

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Madame Bovary cover

Our copy of this book has been sitting unread since my husband inherited it from his grandfather 30 or so years ago. So I thought it was about time that I got around to reading it, especially as it can be my second book for the Gilmore Girls Reading Challenge.

First published in 1857, Madame Bovary was quickly banned due to the subject matter, so when the charges were dropped it became an instant best seller, as is always the way with banned things.

The story begins with Charles Bovary entering the fifth class of school as a new boy, and very much the country yokel. With years of hard study he eventually becomes a doctor and his parents marry him off to a supposedly wealthy widow, Heloise, who fairly quickly dies.

Charles had already taken a fancy to Emma Rouault, the young, convent educated daughter of one of his patients and they are soon married.

When they are invited to stay at Vaubyessard which is where the Marquis d’Andervilliers lives Emma gets a taste for the high life and becomes very disatisfied with her own. As she sinks ino a six week long depression, Charles is advised to move away from the town where he has a thriving medical practice for the good of his wife’s health.

After moving to the village of Yonville and having a daughter (Bertha) who is put out to a wet nurse. Emma longs for some romance in her life and starts a flirtation with Leon a young law clerk who eventually leaves for the bright lights of Rouen.

Then a local, wealthy bachelor decides to seduce her and Emma is targeted by the local draper (very much like a modern credit card company) who extends masses of credit to her at the same time as encouraging her to get power of attorney from Charles. The debts pile up. Disaster beckons.

I can’t say that I really enjoyed this book. For one thing I didn’t like any of the characters, but I can see that is important because it was the first time anyone had ever written about a woman like Emma Bovary.

But that is probably just me. I’m not keen on modern novels where characters fall for ‘the grass is greener’ type of life. However, I’m glad that I read it as it is a classic.