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Summary

Perhaps the most autobiographical of Zola's Rougon-Macquart cycle of novels, The Masterpiece is a hard, bleak, and raw portrait of unrecognized artistic genius. Claude Lantier, brother to Nana and son of Gervaise, is a struggling painter who dreams of conquering the Paris art scene with his revolutionary "open air" style of painting. Discouraged and mocked, Claude retreats to the countryside with a young woman from Clermont, with whom he has fallen in love, before returning to Paris, where he continues to experience rejection at every turn. Zola's depiction of a frustrated artist is said to have drawn heavily on the real-life experiences of Edouard Manet and Paul Cezanne, the latter of whom broke off his friendship with the author upon reading the novel.

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Public Domain (P)2020 Naxos Audiobooks

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  • MEH
  • 24-08-20

Great novel , great narrator!

Fantastic! An engaging story with lifelike images. And now to continue with another masterpiece in Zola's series.

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  • Tad Davis
  • 01-06-20

Tragic and compelling

Leighton Pugh seems to be carving a niche for himself as Naxos’ primary Zola narrator. I'm not complaining. I've listened to his readings of Germinal, Nana, and L’Assommoir, and now this; and I hope he does more. Pugh has been my ticket into Zola, who had always seemed so forbidding before. He's still pretty forbidding — too many of his characters end up dead, dismembered, starved to death, and decomposing — but now it's up close and personal. His books are enjoyable in the same way Thomas Hardy’s are enjoyable: they're immersive, emotionally wrenching, devastating, and memorable. It's good to feel that kind of pain for others once in a while, especially if you've been numbed by two months of sitting at home wearing a mask. The novels cover a lot of territory but are largely interconnected. Claude, the young painter who figures prominently in The Masterpiece, is the brother of Nana the prostitute, the brother of Etienne the miner in Germinal, and the son of the sad drunk Gervaise in L’Assommoir. (Another brother, Jacques, is a central character in La Bête Humaine, which would make the next logical choice for Naxos to record. In the meantime there's an excellent reading of that novel by Peter Joyce.) In a rainstorm, he takes in Christine, a young woman who is drenched and has nowhere to go, and as they become friends — the most affectionate and platonic of friends — he realizes that she's a perfect model for the painting he's working on. The painting, of a nude woman reclining in a grove in front of a fully-clothed man, is to be submitted to the next Salon, the annual art exhibition of Paris. The young artists with their new ideas and techniques are trying to get a foothold in a world dominated by the old guard, and Claude thinks this painting is his best shot. He's wrong: the painting is rejected, and when it's exhibited with others rejected by the Salon, the crowd laughs at it. He is crushed, and when Christine consoles him, their relationship becomes no longer platonic. Zola doesn't follow a traditional development of plot; their relationship unfolds organically, in fits and starts. They throw off their friends in Paris and move to the country. They have a child. They move back to Paris. Claude loses the will to paint. Claude regains the will to paint. They get married; they stop loving. Through it all pulses the heartbeat of life that animates all of Zola’s novels (at least the ones I've read), and that forms such a vivid contrast to the mechanical theories about human nature he espoused. Unfortunately those theories are still there in the background: as Claude begins to realize he doesn't have the talent he needs to fulfill his vision, the bad genes of the family begin to make themselves felt. The one thing Claude and Christine can't seem to do is live within their means. Claude lives on the interest from a 20,000 franc account he has. It's not quite enough, and he's not quite successful enough as a painter to make up the difference. So eventually, loving comfort more than security, they take the fatal step: they start withdrawing money from the principal. As they plunge into poverty, Claude continues working on his masterpiece. He does finally get a painting exhibited in the Salon — not the big one, but a small one he dashed off under the worst and most tragic circumstances possible. The people who come to view the exhibition are repelled by it. And he finds that the bubble can burst for even his most commercially successful friends, and that when once an artist starts rolling downhill, past friendships mean nothing. In the end, even the love of the ever-devoted Christine is not enough to pry him loose from his self-destructive vision. Zola’s style shifts easily between dramatic scenes that are blistering in their intensity and more relaxed summaries that cover months or even years of slow change in a few paragraphs. I mention that partly to note that Zola never read any of the recent gurus on the art of the novel, which is a good thing: they would have told him you can't do that. Zola’s stories unfold with their own clear logic, and the narrative proceeds at whatever level of detail it needs to proceed at. Be like Zola. He supposedly lost some friendships among painters when the book came out. He'd done his research among his artist friends and some of them thought he'd taken their personalities as well as their advice. It's a shame. I can understand that they might see Claude and his colleagues as unflattering caricatures of a type of artist. But looking at it with the perspective of time, they seem more like human beings drawn as they are — and as WE are. I've never painted, and I don't know any visual artists. But I've spent much of my life writing, and it doesn't take a great leap of imagination to transfer the agonies of one type of art to another. From this perspective, Zola has done a masterful job capturing the psychology of artists at different stages of their careers and with different levels of talent. He recognizes the brutal role that envy can play in the life of the most talented artist. On that score the novel is totally convincing. Pugh is a wonderful narrator. Only one nit to pick: in my opinion the voice he's chosen for the writer Sandoz is misjudged. But apart from that, bravo!

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  • Anaximander
  • 09-01-21

Great, but...

The narrator is great. Strangely, certain passages of the book are not included in a few places.

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  • Lucca
  • 05-09-20

classic book, great if you know your art history.

you should know that this is the book that ruined zola and Cezanne's friendship! also, fun and descriptive but damn it zola get words that are not "indignant", "obstinate' or "ardent". I guess it's not his fault. he's french. (kind of). good read. uhr, listen.