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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Masterpiece

Émile Zola

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To purchase The Masterpiece

Title: The Masterpiece
Author: Émile Zola
Genre: Novel
Written: 1886 (Eng. 1950, rev. 1993)
Length: 441 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Masterpiece - US
The Masterpiece - UK
The Masterpiece - Canada
L'Œuvre - Canada
L'Œuvre - France
Das Werk - Deutschland
L'Opera - Italia
La obra - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • French title: L'Œuvre
  • The fourteenth volume in the Rougon-Macquart series
  • Translated by Thomas Walton (1950), revised by Roger Pearson (1993)
  • With an Introduction by Roger Pearson
  • Previously translated by Ernest Alfred Vizetelly, as His Masterpiece (1886)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : uneven, but ultimately quite powerful

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Westminster Review* . 10/1886 .

[* review of an earlier translation]

  From the Reviews:
  • "It is as powerful as anything Zola has ever written; not so sensational, inasmuch as the action is for the most part mental and moral rather than physical, but none the less, poignantly sad. To us it seems the saddest book Zola has ever penned, and at the same time the most poetical. (...) All the love story of Claude and Christine, from their first acquaintance up to the fourth year of their married life, is an exquisite, delicate, idyll, such as few contemporary writers could equal. It is a new proof of the fact, often before observed, that genius is greater than systems." - The Westminster Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Masterpiece is the story of aspiring painter Claude Lantier -- a character Zola based on his childhood friend, Paul Cézanne, with a Zola-like character also figuring in the novel, the writer Pierre Sandoz. (Another close mutual friend, Baptistin Baille, is also portrayed here, as Louis Dubuche; the character are described as having: "been known as 'the three inseparables'" in their schooldays in Plassans (in real life, the trio hail from Aix-en-Provence).) As revising translator Roger Pearson puts it in his Introduction: "The Masterpiece is a confessional work and by far the most autobiographically based of the Rougon-Macquart novels".
       While Claude is largely a Cézanne-stand-in, the novel's opening also leans strongly on another artist of those times, as Claude has been working on a large canvas. While the description does not match exactly -- Claude's painting has not only the naked figure of a woman in the foreground but also two other nude women in the background, and only a single, fully dressed man ("to make the necessary contrast") -- there can be no question that the painting in question is a fictional version of Edouard Manet's Le déjeuner sur l'herbe (originally: Le bain). So also the picture comes to hang -- as Manet's did -- in the (in)famous 1863 Salon des Refusés-exhibit, where artists turned down for the traditional 'Salon'-exhibits could show their work.
       Claude tries to spin his failure -- redoubled when his painting is laughed at at the Salon des Refusés -- as one of simply being ahead of his time, arguing:

All we have to do is educate the public ! ... After all, it really amounts to a victory. Take out a couple of duds and our Salon knocks theirs into a cocked hat. We've got guts ! We've got courage ! We are the future ! ... Oh yes, the day will come when we'll kill their Salon stone dead ! We'll ride into it as conquerors, with masterpieces for weapons.
       Yet after fleeing from Paris for some years, when he returns to the hub he also comes crawling back and, year after year, submits his work to the Selection Committee of the official Salon, still desperate for their approval (and, year after year, still not getting it). Rather than forging his own path, he tries to follow the established one, at least in the way 'success' is measured for the artists of the day -- but it won't really have him. Already when that first painting hangs in the Salon des Refusés his thin skin shows all too clearly, as: "beneath his rugged revolutionary's exterior he was as credulous and sensitive as a woman, always amazed to find himself rebuffed or ridiculed".
       The novel opens on a rainy night, when Claude runs across eighteen-year-old Christine, just arrived from Clermont to take up a position as a reader for a wealthy woman but arriving too late to reach her new employer's house that night. Claude more or less rescues her, but it isn't a particularly satisfying first encounter; only months later does love begin to bloom, as she then becomes a frequent -- if still entirely innocent -- visitor. The strongest scene in the novel comes then when Claude struggles with the painting that is to be displayed at the Salon des Refusés and can't get the last bit right -- and Christine gives herself to him, as it were: not actually physically, but by posing for him.
       When he is done painting:
they could only stand and look at each other in silence, for both were so overcome by emotion that speech was impossible. Was it sorrow they felt, infinite, unconscious, unspoken sorrow ? For the tears welled in their eyes as if they had both made a wreck of their lives and plumbed the depths of human misery. Shattered, heartbroken, unable to utter so much as a word of thanks, he planted a kiss on her brow.
       While the picture turns out as he hoped, he does not have the success with it he expected. But he and Christine now find themselves passionately in love, and act, head over heels -- "In one foolish moment it was done", that Christine gives up her position and the couple flee Paris together. Claude makes clear: "I'm not asking you to marry me, all I want is to live with you ...".
       As Cézanne did with Hortense Fiquet in the village of L'Estaque, Claude and Christine move to the quiet countryside, Claude practically cutting himself off from all his friends and acquaintances. Claude has long been living off a thousand francs a year he earns off some invested capital, and they can just get by off that and what little else he earns from his occasional sales of pictures. They have a child -- but Christine isn't an enthusiastic mother, not to the baby: "She was a lover still, not a mother, still twenty times fonder of the father than of his child" -- and she: "kept all her tenderness and anxiety in reserve for her grown-up child, her artist husband whose humours and depressions kept her nerves constantly on edge". The boy: "was not well looked after and grew up more or less casually" -- and things don't get any better: Claude and Christine are miserable parents.
       Christine recognizes the restlessness in Claude: "Paris haunted him". Worse yet: "he began to show a lively interest in the Salon, though he had previously pretended to disdain it and had sworn he would never submit a picture again". They move back to Paris -- and eventually, like a pathetic puppy, Claude begins submitting his work to the Salon again, only to be turned down again and again. He is desperate for the official seal of approval that acceptance to the Salon would mean -- and devastated by each rejection. After one rejection, he destroys the submitted painting -- showing just how little faith he has in his own work and talents.
       When he finally does get a piece accepted, it's basically only out of charity; it's hung in: "the great East room, the death chamber of art on a grand scale, where they dump all the outsize canvases of clammy, gloomy, historical, and religious subject" -- despite being a small (and personal) picture. Hung high on the wall, it can barely be made out, looking like: "just a confused mass"; even in what he imagines should be his triumph, Claude's efforts amount to failure.
       Ironically, however, the most successful pictures at that Salon are those in imitation of his early effort ..... If not personally successful, he has proven himself to be a trend-setter.
       Sandoz tries to cheer him up:
The Salon's your victory this year. Fagerolles isn't the only one to plagiarize you, far from it ! They're all doing it. They all got a good laugh out of "Open Air", but it nevertheless caused a revolution ! Look around you, there's another "Open Air", and there's another and another, the whole Salon's "Open Air" !
       It's no comfort to Claude: imitation doesn't flatter him, he wants to be recognized in his own right, for his own creations -- and that remains denied to him.
       With his writing, Sandoz is more successful than Claude, but he too worries about posterity -- noting with frustration that:
Immortality at present depends entirely on the average, middle-class mind and is reserved only for the names that have been most forcefully impressed upon us while we were still unable to defend ourselves .....
       Claude can't quite let go:
He found himself a job, doing small flower paintings for the English market, which brought in enough to keep the two of them; but all his spare time he devoted to his big canvas.
       He obsesses over what he hopes will be his great creation, but of course struggles to complete his vision.
       Along this long way, the once so pure and intense love between Claude and Christine has turned into something very different. She is still devoted to him, but the passion is all gone, and Zola is very good in describing what their relationship has become, some of the scenes between them among the strongest in the book, as when:
     He claimed her body and she gave it to him, but it was a vain embrace, for the passion that had once been theirs was dead. They knew, as they released their hold upon each other and lay side by side again, that from that moment they were strangers, that there was some obstacle between them, another body whose icy breath had touched them more than once even in the passionate early stages of their love. Never again would they be all-in-all to each other; the rift between them would never be healed.
       Christine doesn't abandon him, and still holds out hope -- if only Claude could give up his pipedream. But, alas, love is not enough:
What more could you ask ? I love you. I adore you. I'll be your slave, I'll exist only for your pleasure.... Do you hear ? I love you, I love you, I love you ! Isn't that enough ?'
     He released his hands from hers, and with a gesture of refusal, answered glumly:
     'No, it isn't enough.... I don't want to go away with you. I don't even want to be happy; all I want is to paint.'
     'And to kill me as well as yourself, and make us end our days in blood and tears !... Art alone exists, Art is all-powerful, Art is the jealous god who strikes us both down, the god you worship ! Art is your master; it can destroy us both, and you'll offer up a prayer of gratitude !'
     'Yes. Art is the master, my master, to dispose of me as it pleases. If I stopped painting it would kill me just the same, so I prefer to die painting.... My own will doesn't really enter into it. That is the way things are; nothing else matters, and the world can go to blazes !'
       For all his claims of caring only about art, Claude nevertheless takes it very hard that his art is not recognized in the way he wants, by the people he wants -- the establishment and the general public. The support and praise of his wife and friends aren't nearly enough.
       Claude's failure to make it as a painter don't just gnaw at him, they completely eat him up, and Zola has several good scenes of just how desperate he becomes, as when:
One of the windows looked out on to a piece of waste land; he had opened it and was leaning so far out that at first she did not see him. Then, terrified, she rushed up and dragged him in by his coat tail.
     'Claude !' she cried. 'Claude ! What are you doing ?'
     He turned to face her, white as a sheet, his eyes blazing like a madman's.
     'Just looking,' he answered.
       But, yes, it comes as no surprise that Claude's story ends tragically. (Though the character is based on Cézanne, their life- and career-trajectories are ultimately very different.)
       Sandoz's own career isn't followed as closely, and the character fades from view for much of the novel, but he comes very much to the fore at the end. Early on, he too has wildly grand ambitions -- he's "toying with the idea of a gigantic undertaking and had projected an 'Origins of the Universe'", but already then realizes he may be aiming for too much and: "was now trying to find a more limited, a more human setting for his ambitious plan". By the end we hear of his latest success, and that: "His magnum opus, the series of novels he had planned, was now well advanced, and he was bringing out volume after volume with steady determination, making straight for the goal he had set himself, refusing to let anything, obstacles, calumny, or fatigue stand in his way" -- clearly Zola's own Rougon-Macquart series.
       Sandoz's occasional comments on his own efforts are revealing, reflecting, presumably, Zola's own ambitions and doubts. As Sandoz sets out working on his novel-series he describes what he hopes to do to Claude:
This is the idea: to study man as he really is. Not this metaphysical marionette they've made us believe he is, but the physiological human being, determined by his surroundings, motivated by the functioning of his organs
       Near the end, many years later, the author also admits:
     Yes, you've got to swallow your pride and cheat and make do with half-measures in this life.... My books, for example; I can polish and revise them as much as I like, but in the end I always despise myself for their being, in spite of my efforts, so incomplete, so untrue to life.
       It's a shame Sandoz isn't a more prominent character in the novel, but Zola's focus on painting (over writing) is also revealing, making for an interesting overview of how Zola saw the art-world of those years, from the gallerists to the influence of newspaper writers (and editors) -- to how, as one painter complains: "Painting these days is getting to be more and more of a business proposition".
       Zola struggles a bit with just how broad his canvas is in The Masterpiece, from the intimate story of Claude and Christine to the much broader consideration of the art-establishment in its farthest reaches. The story he weaves through this is, in its outlines, solid, but the many pieces aren't always ideally fit in. Bit-parts, such as the fact that Claude and Christine long remain unmarried, or that Claude eventually breaks into the capital, the interest on which they had been previously able to live on, have some significance but also feel somewhat tacked-on, as if Zola had expected to do more with them but then didn't. If some of the parts aren't ideally joined to the larger whole -- such as the haunting encounter where we see what has become of Dubuche -- many of the scenes are very strong, adding up, ultimately, to a powerful work.
       The Masterpiece is a very ambitious work, and Zola at times seems to draw back from some of his ambitions with it, leaving it a bit misshapen, but ultimately it is a strong novel, and revealing, about Zola's own attitudes towards art (including his own efforts). Certainly worthwhile.

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 September 2023

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The Masterpiece: Reviews: Émile Zola: Other books by Émile Zola under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Émile Zola lived 1840 to 1902.

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© 2023 the complete review

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