Saturday, February 07, 2015

Zola: "The Masterpiece"

Emile Zola: The Masterpiece, 1885-86
Cover illustration from Auguste Renoir:
"Portrait of Frederic Bazille," 1866.
In his novel The Masterpiece, Emile Zola depicts a group of ambitious young men beginning their careers as painters, sculptors, and writers, particularly Claude Lantier the central figure. Near the beginning, they meet at the home of Pierre Sandoz, an aspiring writer, who holds the group together by hosting a weekly Thursday night dinner party. He's approved the menu proposed by the daily maid, "Skate, and then roast leg of lamb and potatoes?" The dinner party introduces the men, and the level of detail about the dishes served is extraordinary. (p. 56)

As the dinner began, the maid complained bitterly "because it was half-past seven and her lovely joint was drying up in the oven." The first guests were already at the table eating their "excellent onion soup" when another arrived. Conversation continued as she set another place.

"When the skate was served, the vinegar bottle was brought on to the table for those who wanted to give an extra fillip to the black-butter sauce. They attacked the simple meal with great gusto, devouring large quantities of bread, but being careful to put plenty of water with their wine. They had just greeted the leg of lamb with a hearty cheer, and the master of the house had just begun to carve, when the door opened again." As they ate and talked, Zola lets the reader know the interests of the various group members.
"The meal ended in pandemonium, with everyone taking at once. The last course, a choice piece of Brie, was particularly well received, not a trace of it was left. The bread nearly ran out and the wine actually did, so everybody washed the meal down with a good long draught of water, with much smacking of lips and clicking of tongues, accompanied by hearty laughter." (p. 71-73)
Many years later -- almost at the end of the novel -- Sandoz attempts to reunite the members of the group by holding another Thursday night dinner. By this time, he's a wealthy and successful novelist, some of the others are successful artists (though they have sold out) but the protagonist, Claude Lantier, has become, in all eyes including his own, a dismal failure. Just as much detail is provided for this meal, over which Sandoz's wife Harriet presides.
"She had a small staff now: a cook and butler ... She accompanied the cook to the markets and went in person to deal with her suppliers. They were both fond of exotic dishes, and on this occasion they decided on oxtail soup, grilled red mullet, fillet of beef with mushrooms, ravioli a l'italienne, hazel-hens from Russia and a truffle salad, as well as caviar and kilkis [anchovies] for hors d'oeuvre, a praline ice-cream, a little Hungarian cheese, green as an emerald, some fruit and pastries. To drink, simply some decanters of vintage claret, Chambertin with the roast and sparkling Moselle as a change from the same old champagne with the dessert." (p. 321)
Unlike at the first dinner, on this occasion the guests and their wives quarrel relentlessly and and exchange insults. They are scarcely able to notice, much less enjoy the high quality, expensive ingredients, and imaginative choices of dishes and accompanying wines that the Sandozes have provided. Zola describes each course as he did for the earlier dinner, but only to tell us how little they were appreciated. The contrast between the two events in every respect is in my opinion a kind of tour de force -- an extremely interesting use of food to highlight human relationships, perhaps one of the most intense I know of.

Throughout the novel, Zola focuses on the ridicule and antipathy of both the art establishment and the public towards the early works of the Impressionists. Claude Lantier is convinced that he has a new vision for his vocation as a painter, and he tries over and over to be recognized and accepted.

Edouard Manet: "Still Life with Carp," 1864
One of the ridiculed paintings of the era, reminds me of the foods in the novel.
Zola tells of the politically charged way that artists' work is judged for the famous Salon, and describes how Lantier's work is displayed there -- first as a "rejected" artist, then as a accepted, though ungraciously accepted, artist. Zola always offers fascinating details. For example, this description of the Salon in Paris:
"the air was hot and the atmosphere soured by perfume which soon gave way to a predominating smell of wet dog. It was evidently raining outside... for the latest arrivals were very wet, and their heavy garments soon began to steam in the heat of the room. ... Claude saw all the faces emerge from the dusk, all round-eyed and open-mouthed with the same idiotic rapture." (p 284-285)
Lantier's difficulty is not only with the public and mainstream art critics, but also with his inability to complete any painting to his satisfaction. Each effort, he is sure, will be a masterpiece, but he can never actually finish. Zola did not specifically identify Lantier with any particular artist (though he clearly thought of Cezanne, Manet, and Monet whom he was very close to). However, after reading this novel, Cezanne, his lifelong friend from childhood and youth, never spoke to him again. For the modern reader, the key to which artists, exactly, were being described is less intriguing than the two simultaneous themes of Lantier's slow decline and failure, and of the intense political environment for art in that era.

Cezanne: "The Eternal Woman," 1877.
I wondered if this painting contributed to Zola's descriptions of
Lantier's works, which include nude figures in unexpected places.
Lantier's first entry into the Salon, as Zola described it, was very
similar to Manet's famous "Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe" (1862-63)
Lantier and his mistress/wife Christine are vibrant characters and their failures and sorrows are remarkable. In addition, Zola's choices of detail for depicting other characters and scenes are irresistible. For example, there's one woman character who throughout the novel is defined by her smell. She was married to an herbalist, who ran "a mysterious little shop which the herbs and spices filled with the fragrance of incense."

Zola writes of her "all-pervading perfume, the strong smell of simples that impregnated her clothes and scented her greasy, always untidy hair -- the sickly sweetness of mallow, the sharpness of elderberry, the bitterness of rhubarb, all dominated by that warm odour of strong peppermint which seemed to be the very breath of her lungs, the breath she breathed into the faces of her men." (p. 62) This aroma follows her even after she leaves the shop and marries, assuming pretensions to much higher status.

As they fall into poverty and want, Claude and Christine Lantier have many meager meals as well as more opulent ones. A single example: once when their food money is exhausted, she pawns a dress and obtains enough for a poor dinner of sorrel soup and potatoes. Lots more descriptions of great meals and impoverished ones appear in the book than I have included here -- I wonder if someone has created a cookbook from them (though I haven't found it).

Zola's book The Belly of Paris is better known than this one for amazing depictions of food and hunger. While The Belly of Paris centers on the market and describes much more food, this too is a Masterpiece of food writing!


Jens Zorn said...

Mae, thanks for this post that leads me to novels that I would otherwise overlook.

Jeanie said...

I have never read Zola -- or at least a whole novel, just essay/stories. This one is on the list for sure.