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 Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights by John Steinbeck

The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights cover

In the Classics Club Spin number 25 I got The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights by John Steinbeck. I’m a bit of a completist so I intend to read everything by Steinbeck which is probably the only reason I bought this book as I’ve already read a fair few versions of this subject. To begin with I really regretted putting this book on my list as I wasn’t enjoying all the never ending combat between various knights for no good reason, the beheadings, swords cleaving through armour and constant violence, but it did get a bit better further on. I suspect that as Steinbeck wandered further from his original inspiration of Thomas Mallory’s version and reached the ‘other sources’ mentioned on the cover then the stories became less rigid and felt a bit more modern.

After 293 pages the book comes to an end as Steinbeck just couldn’t continue with it. It seems that after Queen Guinevere and Lancelot got together and did the dirty on King Arthur he didn’t have the heart to continue with it.

There is a very long appendix which conists of letters between Steinbeck and Elizabeth Otis his literary agent and Chase Horton. In the letters Steinbeck details how he went about his research which was very detailed, I haven’t read all of the letters but it looks like they may be more interesting to me than the actual book was. You get a real sense of Steinbeck the person, just as you do in his book Travels with Charley.

However if you are planning to read books featuring King Arthur/Merlin I’d recommend the Mary Stewart series to you which is really very good. The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills and The Last Enchantment followed much later by The Wicked Day which isn’t quite as good.

Steinbeck was only nine years old when his aunt gave him a copy of Thomas Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur which the small boy fell in love with, strange spellings and the archaic words fired up a passion for the English language which never left him.

I suspect that his six year old sister who had to perform as his knight didn’t have quite the same enthusiasm for the subject!

The Classics Club Spin # 22 – the result

The result of The Classics Club Spin number 22 was announced on Monday and it’s 13 which means I’ll be reading Rider of the White Horse by Rosemary Sutcliff.

The Rider of the White Horse cover

I’m happy about that as I enjoy Sutcliff’s writing, but such is life and my book piles the book has been languishing here unread for a long time. Previously I’ve mainly read her books which were aimed at children, but this one is for adults. The setting is the English Civil War, or as it is more accurately called nowadays, The Wars of the Three Kingdoms as it all spilled over into Scotland and Ireland too.

If you’re taking part in this spin I hope you were lucky enough to get something you’re looking forward to reading too.

Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant

 Miss Marjoribanks cover

Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant has been languishing on my Classics Club list for years, it was definitely about time that I got around to reading it, and I’m so glad that I did, it’s so well written. This book was originally published in 15 parts in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1865-66. Margaret Oliphant was Scottish, born in Wallyford, near Edinburgh. In case you don’t know – the Scottish surname Marjoribanks is pronounced Marchbanks and indeed by the end of the book Marchbanks does appear – in the shape of an estate and village.

It begins when Miss Marjoribanks, known as Lucilla to her friends is only fifteen years old, and her mother has just died. Lucilla was away at boarding school at the time but she has decided that she will leave school and concentrate on being ‘a comfort to her papa’. Papa is a popular local doctor and he succeeds in making Lucilla go back to school to finish her education, including a finishing year in Switzerland and Italy. By the time Lucilla gets back to her home town of Carlingford she’s raring to go.

She’s a managing sort of female and quickly takes control of the household. She gets the decorators in to transform the drawing room where her mother had died, making sure that the walls are the perfect shade of green to complement her own complexion and re-upholstering the sofa where her mother had died. She couldn’t be called good looking and she’s a bit on the heavy side, but her father is well off and she intends to stay at home with him for at least ten years before getting married, after ten years she thinks she’ll begin to ‘go off’. She very quickly develops what would be called in London ‘a salon’, with every Thursday night an open evening for the local society and very good dinners being served to them, no wonder she becomes very popular. The house becomes the centre of Carlingford society and Lucilla seems to have an abundance of common sense which helps her to manage everyone which could be very annoying – but somehow isn’t.

To begin with it’s her intention to stop any men from ‘speaking’ (proposing marriage) but over the years just as she thinks that the big moment is coming from various eligible bachelors – it doesn’t, and before she knows it her ten years of self-imposed spinsterhood are almost up and she’s sure that her best days are behind her.

To begin with I wasn’t too sure about this book but I really ended up loving it. Miss Marjoribanks’s thoughts and comments often seem so modern. Men were often seen as being rather inadequate and far from perfect and I really had to laugh when she met up with an old favourite from the past and realised that he had definitely ‘gone off’ far more than she had over the years.

Jack read Miss Marjoribanks before I did and you can read his thoughts on it here.

I agree with Jack that Miss Marjoribanks would make a great TV dramatisation and would be such a change from the seemingly constant re-makes of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen’s works. It’s about time that TV producers branched out to the less well known writers of the past, but I suspect that they never actually read any of them.

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

Bonjour Tristesse cover

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan was first published in 1954 but my copy is from 1955 when it was published in English, translated by Irene Ash. It’s a slim volume with just 132 pages. It was published when she was just 20 years old and had dropped out of the Sorbonne. The book is written in the first person.

This is a very simple tale, but it’s beautifully written. Cecile is just 17 and since her mother died when Cecile was only two she has had her father to herself. He’s now 40 years old and is described as being an attractive, pleasant and sophisticated hedonist, and he’s rich. His hobby seems to be falling in love with very much younger women, but he tires of them within a few months and Cecile is quite happy with that situation, she knows none of his women are going to be a threat to her relationship with him. Cecile is conducting her own holiday affair with Cyril, a young student.

Her father has rented a large white villa in the Mediterranean for the summer and he and Cecile are accompanied by his current girlfriend the red-haired Elsa which Cecile is happy about but when she discovers that her father has also invited Anne, the woman who had been her mother’s best friend she’s upset by the prospect of them all being together. Anne is 42, elegant and a successful fashion designer. Cecile should feel gratitude towards Anne as she had taken her in hand when she was at an awkward stage in her development and was suffering from a lack of motherly advice on clothes and such.

Cecile immediately sees Anne as an enemy although that isn’t immediately obvious, but when Anne begins to throw her weight about it’s obvious that things aren’t going to turn out well.

I really liked this one which I read for the 2019 European Reading Challenge which is hosted by Rose City Reader.

And also for the Classics Club

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

 A Tree Grows in Brooklyn cover

I feel that I might be close to being one of the last females in the western world to read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. The blurb on the front of the book says: Poignant, moving, triumphant – in the bestselling tradition of Angela’s Ashes. I find that really bizarre as this book was first published in 1943 and Angela’s Ashes was published in 1996 and is so much more depressing and frankly distressing than A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

The setting is the Williamsburg slums of Brooklyn where the Nolan family is living a hand to mouth existence, being held back by the alcoholic father who is ruled by his need for alcohol but otherwise is a decent father and husband, greatly loved by his family despite his weakness. The book begins in 1912. Katie and Johnny are a young married couple. Katie married Johnny mainly because he had been her friend’s boyfriend and she liked knowing that her friend had still wanted him, she liked winning him but it wasn’t long before Katie realised that she had taken on a big problem and she realised that she would have to find work with a home as part of the deal as paying rent was going to be a problem. She can’t rely on her husband to come home from work with his wages. To add to their problems in no time Katie and Johnny find themselves the parents of a daughter and son.

Francie is the young daughter who along with her brother Neeley and their mother manage to cope with the poverty and often go hungry when Papa loses his job due to his drinking. He’s a singing waiter (who knew?). Papa has charm though and he’s a popular character, I think Francie inherited his charm. She’s a bookish little girl and her favourite place is the library, despite the fact that she doesn’t get much in the way of encouragement from the librarian. She can hardly wait to get home with her books where she sits out on the fire escape to read them, hidden from the neighbours by her tree. I loved Francie and how she matures in this book but there are other great characters in it too, people that I was happy to spend a lot of time with as this book has 487 pages.

To me there’s a vast difference between this one and Angela’s Ashes as in that one the mother is just as bad as the father is and she just spends her time drinking and smoking while her children die of starvation or suffer from terrible health problems that could be easily dealt with by a doctor. However Katie is the opposite, she’s hardworking and resourceful, but she isn’t able to hide that she loves Neeley much more than she loves Francie and Francie has to take second best all the time. This is how it was back then, in fact it was how it was when I was growing up in the 1960s/70s. Boys in families were treated like kings and the daughters were the maidservants. I hope it’s different nowadays!

I read this one for The Classics Club and I think I’ll probably give it five stars on Goodreads.

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 Fair Maid of Perth by Sir Walter Scott

The Fair Maid of Perth or Saint Valentine’s Day as it was originally titled by Sir Walter Scott was first published in 1828 and I believe it was originally in three volumes, but they’re all incorporated in one book in The Edinburgh Edition of the Waverley Novels. I must say that these editions are really excellent as they have so many interesting explanatory notes, a glossary, an emendation list and all sorts. Scott seems to have felt that people might be losing their appetite for chivalric swashbuckling tales, but he was persuaded to carry on although there is an unusual ending – in my opinion. I must admit that the first volume of this book I ploughed through with not much enjoyment, I wasn’t too concerned by that as it usually takes me a while to get into the rhythm of Scott’s very wordy writing style. The further I got into the book – the more I enjoyed it.

The setting is mainly Perth and Falkland so just a stone’s throw from where I live, great for me as I could ‘see’ it all clearly in my mind. It’s 1496 and Catherine is such a beauty she’s nicknamed The Fair Maid of Perth. During a drunken escapade King Robert III’s eldest son Rothsay and his entourage try to abduct Catherine. She’s the daughter of a well-off glover and he is keen for his daughter to marry Henry Smith who is a very successful armourer. He’s also well known for being good at fighting and it’s that that puts Catherine off him. She isn’t into alpha males at all, doesn’t like violence and she already has feelings for a young man who had been her father’s apprentice in the past.

In this book Scott shows that he wants to move on from the days when clan warfare could result in some clans being more or less wiped out completely and looks forward to a more civilised society in the future – I think.

I read The Fair Maid of Perth for The Classics Club.

No Signposts in the Sea by Vita Sackville-West

No Signposts in the Sea cover

No Signposts in the Sea by Vita Sackville-West was first published in 1961 but my copy is a Virago Modern Classics reprint from 1985.

I really liked this one, the setting is a cruise ship which is sailing to exotic locations and Edmund Carr is a passenger on it, one of the reasons he decided to go on the cruise is that he discovered that Laura is going on it and he has secretly admired the beautiful and smart widow for years.

Edmund had never married, his life had been taken up with his career in journalism and he had ended up being an influential leader writer on a serious Fleet Street newspaper. Edmund’s doctor has recently given him bad news, he doesn’t have long to live so he gives up his job to go on the cruise and spend his last weeks with Laura who knows nothing about his illness or indeed even that he will be on the cruise.

This is a thoughtful read as Laura and Edmund’s friendship deepens and they explore each other’s views on marriage and other things and Laura realises just how different their backgrounds are (possibly this explains Edmund’s reticence where a relationship with Laura was concerned) as Laura is obviously well-heeled and Edmund grew up in poverty in a teeny wee cottage. There’s plenty of humour though in observing the other cruisers and those must have been gleaned from the author’s own cruising experiences.

There is an introduction by Victoria Glendinning.

This was Sackville-West’s last novel, written when she was dying of cancer. She had a complicated personal life but was also a very keen and knowledgeable gardener, creating the famous Sissinghurst – a place that I have yet to visit.

I read this one for The Classics Club.

The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather

The Song of the Lark cover

The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather was first published in 1937 and it’s a chunky read at 581 pages. I’ve read quite a lot of books by Cather, I think this is the seventh and it’s the one that I’ve least enjoyed. It begins well with the setting of Moonstone, a small town in the American West where Thea Kronberg is one of a family of seven children, their father is a local Methodist minister and there’s some rivalry between them and the local Baptists. The blurb on the back says that it’s a Cinderella story – but who is the Cinderella character – certainly not Thea.

From the beginning it’s obvious that Thea has been singled out as the special daughter of the family. She’s pretty and blonde, everybody’s favourite. The local piano teacher thinks she has talent and she has to spend lots of time practising the piano, but eventually it’s her voice that she concentrates on and when she’s old enough she moves to Chicago to take lessons there.

Along the way Thea makes friends with various men. She’s one of those females who gets on much better with men than with other women. Everything leads to Thea’s eventual fame and fortune of course, but it’s at a cost to everyone else. She is completely focused on her career. She only went back to Moonstone once after leaving home, and didn’t even go there when she knew that her parents were dying. Her mother who had been so happy to put Thea up on a pedestal died thinking that having a family wasn’t really worth the bother. But Thea’s upbringing made it almost a certainty she was going to be a selfish diva.

There are a few mentions of the other daughter of the Kronberg family – Anna, the younger girl. She is the true Cinderella. Whilst Thea was getting all the attention poor Anna was the one doing all the housework that Thea was too special to do. Anna is portrayed as a bit of a fanatical Christian, but maybe she was hoping to get some attention and love from her father the minister. She was never going to be loved by her mother. Anna is seen as being embittered, but who wouldn’t be under those circumstances? She drops completely out of the book about half-way through. I want to know what happened to Anna who was so neglected by everyone.

Apart from that the book is just far too long, it really drags in the middle and could have been doing with being cut by about 200 pages. However as ever there are some lovely evocations of the countryside although Chicago is more of a shadowy place so you don’t get much of an idea of what it was like.

I read this one for The Classics Club.