The Masterpiece by Emile ZolaOctober 26, 2009
The Masterpiece is ostensibly about the life of a tortured genius trying to change the world of painting. In reality, it’s much more than that–it’s about friendship, marriage, and art of all kinds. I didn’t even realize how engrossed I was in this book until one day I missed my bus stop while breathlessly reading the last quarter of the novel. At some point, too, I noticed that I was growing sad in my daily life simply because the main characters, Claude and Christine, were going through a hard time. It’s not often that a book grabs hold of me like that. It felt odd, because the people in The Masterpiece were not “my type” of people at all–bohemian egomaniacs who were so blinded by their ambition to revolutionize art (painting, writing, sculpture, music) that they were unable to function in society at a basic level. Yet, as they ranted against the boring art of the period, I must have been taken in, because I grew to love these characters.
I read this book as part of a book club. At a previous meeting we had discussed another one of Zola’s many works, Nana. Nana was interesting but featured wholly unrealistic situations and characters. In The Masterpiece, however, Zola seems to be able to paint a perfectly realistic picture because he drew so much of the story and the characters from his own life. Most noticeably, Claude is based on a conglomeration of Zola’s childhood friend Cezanne and an older painter that he knew, Manet. Some of the pictures described in the book are clearly modeled after some of Manet’s actual work, such as the painting Luncheon on the Grass.
There are times when this book can be very frustrating, when you want to reach through the pages and shake some sense into the characters. But eventually, that’s what made me love this as much as I did–despite their flaws, the characters in The Masterpiece are unforgettable.