There is very little that seems normal about this, the year of our lord two thousand and twenty. It was a year in which we were all supposed to use our time in lockdown to write King Lear, or at least to make a lot of noise about how that was never going to happen. Could mass death and no social life actually give us the space in which to write our masterpieces? Survey says . . . probably not. Many are giving themselves a pass on meeting ambitions entirely, content to merely survive in the most basic sense of the word.
The end of one year and the beginning of another is often a time of strange anxiety for a modern writer. It is usually when the ‘best of’ lists exert their tyrannical reign. These are the best books of the year that just was, and worse, the best books of the year that hasn’t even started yet. These ‘most anticipated’ listicles in particular can make an overlooked writer feel as if their own nascent tome is a flop before it has even gone to the printers; that it is already over, not just for their book, but for them.
It was in this spirit of panicked messages from lamenting author friends that I returned to Émile Zola’s L’Oeuvre of 1886. Inexactly translated as The Masterpiece – L’Oeuvre literally means ‘The Work’ in French – it is by far the most autobiographical of his twenty-novel Rougon–Macquart cycle. Were it published today, it might have been called Art Monster, or Les Workaholics.
Based on his own life, and that of his impressionist painter friends, The Masterpiece is about art, recognition, fame and the relentless drive to create. It is also about the monstrosity, not only of ambitious artists themselves and the markets that make or destroy them, but of the very desire to make art at all in the first place. Not just artist as monster, but art as monster too – the kind of monster that will eat your children if you’re not careful.
It is in many ways a surprisingly modern book. The plot is this: a group of childhood friends have spent their provincial youth dreaming of greatness, and then move to the big city to try and make it happen. In this instance, that big city is Paris. Despite the period-standard misogyny found in some of the internal monologues of its male protagonists, there are also frank depictions of premarital sex, female desire, and ‘fallen’ women who do not get any kind of comeuppance for their promiscuity. A courtesan makes smart real estate investments and becomes the benefactor of a great painter. Men who are bad husbands and fathers get called out for being so.
The book casts a suspicious eye at celebrity and the concept of artistic immortality in general. A pivotal scene takes place in a graveyard, in which the five-year plots of temporary graves are being dug up and the disintegrating coffins burned. Here, not even the exhibition of death is permanent. The novel is set at a point in history when the protagonists, like so many of their time, were deeply questioning religion and doubting the existence of any kind of God. Why, then, do they still believe so fervently in art? What does such a conviction mean? Is it possible that they are simply trading one blind faith in eternity for another?
Zola’s characters are, in every sense of the term, art monsters – a concept that has been having a cultural moment during the past decade. Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, published in 2014, includes the line, ‘Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things,’ which set off a flurry of essays about the subject. What was an art monster? Could only men be one? Should anyone? I am greatly looking forward to the forthcoming book Art Monsters by Lauren Elkin on this subject, about the necessity of transgression in the lives of creative women. We have also been asking ourselves what to do with the art of monstrous, transgressing men, like Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. We have so often excused monstrosity for the sake of art, but could it be that art itself is, in some way, inherently monstrous? Does an artist-as-monster always need a martyr, a ‘wife’, to feed off of like a parasite? Or is art itself the parasite, and the artist its unfortunate host? Is the desire to become an artist a blessing or a curse? In reading The Masterpiece, I began to wonder if it was possible we had been looking at this whole art business the entirely wrong way around.
I’ve felt a little bit at the mercy of art-as-monster myself of late, which may be why I wanted to revisit the inherent contradiction of this book. This is a book about the near impossibility of making a lasting work of art, which is in itself a lasting work of art. Although Zola’s characters in The Masterpiece meet with varying levels of tragedy and compromise, their real-life counterparts fared significantly better. These include the fate of Zola’s obvious self-portrait in the form of the novelist Pierre Sandoz. It is now 134 years after its publication, and 118 years after the death of its author, and here we are, still talking about it. The book’s doomed central character, the painter Claude Lantier, has been widely accepted as an amalgam of Paul Cézanne and Édouard Manet. Two artists who, despite being known mostly as troubled artistic outsiders at the time when Zola was writing, are now among the most famous and highly prized painters of all time.
Zola’s cycle of twenty novels is his masterpiece, but this particular installment offers a glimpse into how he might have felt about his decision to undertake such a large endeavour. That is to say, he may not have been feeling very good about it at all. Sandoz is also in the midst of writing a series of twenty novels, and by the end of The Masterpiece, he is feeling utterly trapped and defeated. Yes, his books are selling, and yes he’s successful. But he is also consumed, night and day, by the incessant need to work. It has robbed his life of joy. He has found success, and his dear friend has not, but they are both still in the same state of unhappiness.
Once, they walked together through the long fresh twilights of springtime in southern France. They lay on the new grass beside cold rivers, shouting their favorite poetic verses to the twigs and birdsong and crisp purple air. Their young bodies were warm and flushed and pulsing with life. Everything was possible. Nothing was certain, save for their ability to be in each other’s presence, free upon the earth. What they thought was merely the planning stages, the antechamber of life – they had now come to realize – had been its richest part all along.
Cover Image, Portrait of Émile Zola by Édouard Manet