I think it’s fair to say that Zola is kind of a blowhard. It’s always too much with him: mud or sex or fruits and vegetables. (Respectively: La Terre, La Curée, Le Ventre de Paris.) So in The Masterpiece, his novel about a failed modernist painter, at the end as the painter is buried in a dreary suburban cemetery, the procession winds past the spectacle of a damp bonfire made of five-year-old coffins. (In the 19th century you could lease a cemetery plot for a limited period.) Hyperbolic? Oh, yeah. And yet the notes to the edition I read show that when Zola trekked out to St. Ouen to do his research, he did see the same damp bonfire.
The Masterpiece is one element in Zola’s massive Rougon-Macquart cycle of novels. They were supposed to be a scientific analysis of France, following the fates of an intertwined clan. They tend toward the thematic: Zola wrote about retail (Au Bonheur des Dames) and trains (La Bête Humaine) and, in this case, artists. Claude Lantier is the protagonist, a genius who cannot quite pull off the great work he envisions. He is, naturally, misunderstood. Zola was very friendly with both Édouard Manet and Paul Cézanne, the latter of whom discontinued the friendship once this novel was published. (One of the paintings described in the book closely resembles Manet’s famous Déjeuner sur l’Herbe.) There’s a lot of wonderful detail about how the Parisian art world functioned between the 1860s and the 1880s. But the emotional heart of the novel is really located in the relationship between Claude and his band of brothers — the novelist Sandoz (a stand-in for Zola himself), and other men, a sculptor, an architect. etc. They get together weekly as young men, hotly debating the role of art in society late into the night. This narrative trajectory is very poignant, for some find success while some find only poverty, but even the success comes at a price.
The other narrative thread concerns Claude’s relationship with the beautiful and innocent Christine, a lady’s maid whom he meets in a Parisian rainstorm and who enchants him. Ultimately they marry and Zola sets up a love triangle between Christine, Claude, and Claude’s massive painting of a nude woman in the center of Paris. Christine represents sex, the painting represents art, and Claude is effectively torn apart. What feels saddest is the sense of disillusion at the end of the book. Sandoz, the novelist, berates himself for accepting the “nearly-right” rather than pursuing the perfection of his vision. Yet it was that vision that drove Claude to suicide.
Happily for Zola, he continued to crank out these novels at the rate of one a year, and finished his ambitious cycle on schedule.