The Masterpiece is said to be one of the great books about being an artist (“the struggle with the angel”) along with works like The Horse’s Mouth and The Vivisector. The central figure Claude Lantier, the brilliant but rough-hewn painter who is never accepted by the establishment is, apparently, an amalgam of Cézanne, Monet and Manet. While Zola was one of their few early champions he came to believe that their technical skills never really equalled the accuracy of their eye. Paradoxically, he faulted them for not producing “finished” paintings, while for them the whole idea of a “finished painting” went against the nature of Impressionism. This is at the heart of Claude’s struggle: he produces brilliant studies but he simply cannot put his vision together coherently, and the harder he tries the further he gets from the initial inspiration, and the deeper he winds into obsession with his failure. He’s rejected by the art establishment, and his pictures in the Salon des Refusés are treated as a joke. He sacrifices everything and everyone to his art, and never achieves even personal satisfaction, let alone critical recognition. It’s a terrifying picture of genius devouring itself.
Zola means to picture the struggle of the artist in any medium. Sandoz the writer says
The thing is, work has simply swamped my whole existence. Slowly but surely it’s robbed me of my mother, my wife and everything that meant anything to me. It’s like a germ planted in the skull that devours the brain….Outside that, nothing, nobody exists.
This isn’t what you feel, though, as you read. Sandoz is capable of doing a day job and working at his novels until he can make a living from writing, and he is rewarded for his dedication. But the physicality of painting is a higher order of difficulty – the difficulty of making the flowing presence of the seen world live in the static form of a picture. And then there’s the extreme sensitivity of the non-rational senses in a genius like Claude. His failure and despair are bound up with the endless visual richness of the city of Paris, impossible to capture in a “finished” painting.
…the Seine flowed away into the distance to the ancient, rusty stone arches of the Pont-Neuf, away to the left as far as the Ile Saint-Louis in one straight vista, bright and dazzling as a stretch of mirror; the the right, the other arm making a sudden bend, the weir in front of the Monnaie seemed to cut off the view with its bar of foam. Over the Pont-Neuf the great yellow omnibuses and the gaily-coloured waggonettes moved with the clockwork regularity of children’s toys. Thus the whole background was framed between the persepectives of both banks of the river: on the right bank the houses along the embankment, half-hidden by a clump of tall trees, and beyond them, on the horizon, a corner of the Hôtel de Ville and the square tower of Saint-Gervais stood out agains the skyline above the surrounding conglomeration of smaller buildings; on the left bank, one wing of the Institut, then the flat façade of the Monnaie and beyond that, more trees, stretching into the distance. What occupied the centre of this vast picture, rising from the river-level and towering high into the sky was the Cité, the prow of the ancient ship, forever gilded by the setting sun. Below, the poplars on the terrace raised a powerful mass of grenery, completely hiding the statue on the bridge. Above, the sun threw the two shores of the Ile into violent contrast, plunging in shadow the grey stone houses on the Quai de l’Horloge, lighting up so brightly the red- gold houses and islets of oddly assorted buildings on the Quai des Orfèvres, that all their details, shop-signs, and even window curtains, were clearly visible to the naked eye…
The writer Zola can achieve what the painter Claude can only dream of. The Masterpiece isn’t only a great book about the artistic life; it may be the greatest book ever written about Paris.