The Masterpiece by Émile Zola

Cezanne's Studio

Cezanne’s Studio


When I visited Cézanne’s studio in Aix-en-Provence, the docent told the story of the childhood friendship between the artist and his friend, Émile Zola, as they both grew up in the beautiful countryside of Provence.  After Zola left for Paris as a young man, Cézanne decided the countryside was the place for him, but they kept their friendship alive through letters.  According to the tour guide,  when Zola sent a copy of his book L’Oeuvre, known now as The Masterpiece, to his old friend,  Cezanne recognized himself in the character of Claude Lantier, the failed artist from the provinces, rejected by the famous Salon, and never attaining the greatness he desired.  Cezanne never spoke to his old friend again.

28409I had thought to find the book but had forgotten, until recently a local book club chose The Masterpiece to discuss.  The electronic copy is available for free from Project Gutenberg, and I can finally satisfy my curiosity.

In researching the background for the book, I found Aruna D’Souza’s critical analysis in the essay Paul Cézanne, Claude Lantier, and Artistic Impotence:  

“Much ink has been spilled on the extent to which Claude Lantier, protagonist of Zola’s L’Oeuvre, was modeled on Paul Cézanne. Scholars argue over whether the novel is a thinly-disguised and unflattering biography of a single artist, Cézanne; whether its protagonist, Claude Lantier, is an amalgam of a number of artists including Cézanne, Édouard Manet and Claude Monet; or whether it is a work of pure fiction.  One must, of course, be careful in treating L’Oeuvre as anything but a powerful, inventive fabrication. And yet how tempting it is to read into Cézanne’s work and life some part of the character so compellingly described by Zola! Zola’s novel seems to provide one of the few real insights into this most inscrutable artist, not only in terms of the early biography of Lantier, for which Zola clearly mined his boyhood friendship with Baptistin Baille and Cézanne, but also in the kind of anguished frustration with which Lantier faces the very act of painting, in which we hear echoes of Cézanne’s own doubts. The “match” between Cézanne and Lantier seems too perfect, too potentially revealing, to discard wholesale.”

D’Souza’s reminder to accept the story as a work of fiction has me looking for a biography of Cézanne to compare the character to the artist. But first, Zola’s story – it promises to be a good one.

Jason Segal as David Foster Wallace

David_Foster_Wallace_headshot_2006After reading Cara Buckley’s New York Times piece in Arts and Leisure about Jason Segal’s portrayal of genius novelist David Foster Wallace in an upcoming film, I felt bad about never having read Wallace’s much-proclaimed tome – Infinite Jest.  Have you read it?

With over 5 credits on audible, my quest led me to explore the possibility of listening – but I found more than I had anticipated – Infinite Jest, Part I, over 28 hours; Infinite Jest, part II, over 28 hours, and Infinite Jest, part III with end notes, over 7 hours.  The paperback is over a thousand pages.

Having never read Wallace (I confess), I found his much proclaimed commencement speech – This is Water – free online – both the transcript and a live you tube version.  His writing was quirky yet serious; his message might have been to be consciously present in the present, but my guess is he had a few other nuances to share – maybe over my head and probably over the heads of the graduates he was addressing.  Nonetheless, I liked his style and wanted to read more – but maybe not 1000 pages. A few titles in the library catalog sound promising, among them Consider the Lobster and Other Essays and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.

The movie with Jason Segal is an adaptation of David Lipsky’s book based on interviews during five days spent with Wallace during the 1996 promotion of Infinite JestAlthough Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.  The book was published a year after Wallace committed suicide.  Michael Schaub in his review for NPR writes:

“The world became too much for Wallace, and he’ll never get the chance to see himself proved right. But his fans and his readers at least have this: a startlingly sad yet deeply funny postscript to the career of one of the most interesting American writers of all time.”

The movie sounds promising, and I always like to read the book first, so this might be a good place to start.



imagesWhen my ninety year old father-in-law requested a harmonica as a birthday gift, I was surprised at his ability to play old singalong tunes he had learned in his younger days.  The notes from his harmonica seemed as magical as the one Pam Munoz Ryan uses as the focus for her children’s 9780439874021_p0_v1_s192x300book – Echo.

The story begins and ends with a fairy tale, lending a mystical quality to the lives of the three young children who play the harmonica, as it is passed on from person and place.  Ryan uses World War II as the setting, and targets children with a talent for music.  Each child also has an obstacle to overcome, with music as their savior.The book is divided into three separate tales and each section ends with a cliffhanger, until all ends well as the grown-up children come together in the end.

Years after Otto receives the enchanted harmonica, mysteriously imbued with the voices of three abandoned princesses in the forest, Freidrich finds the harmonica in the local harmonica factory in 1933 Germany. Freidrich conducts symphonies in his head, despite ridicule from others and the purple birthmark on his face. Although his sister, Elizabeth, has joined the Nazi youth group, Freidrich, his father and his uncle, resist, and are targeted for questioning.

Mike and Frankie are orphans in what could be Miss Hannigan’s horrible home for boys in 1935 Philadelphia.  Both have a talent for the piano, and are miraculously adopted by a female Daddy Warbucks character, who also happens to be a former concert pianist.  Threatened by the possibility of being sent back to the home (Auntie really wanted a girl to adopt), Mike makes a deal – if he wins a spot in the national touring harmonica orchestra, his younger brother will not be sent back to the orphanage.

Finally, Ivy Lopez is the newest owner of the harmonica.  Her story in 1942 Southern California, a year after Pearl Harbor, focuses on racism and discrimination against migrant farm laborers and Japanese Americans.  Ivy’s father is hired to oversee a farm in Orange County, whose Japanese-American owners, the Yamamotos, have been sent to an internment camp. Ivy is forced to attend a separate school but is allowed to join the after school orchestra in the main school. She finds solace in music, and passes on the harmonica to the young Yamamoto who visits his family’s old farm before going off to war.

The story follows a formula for each section, providing historical information within the context of well-rounded characters.  Although the plots are sometimes hokey, the characters redeem the message of strength and courage. When Ryan pulls all the players together in the end, the resolutions to their trials seem contrived, but the endings justify their persistence and, anyway, fairy tales should always have happy endings.

The book is a little long and one of the stories could have been omitted but the careful attention to history and prejudice is worth the read – at any age.