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Heroic by Nature

Émile Zola and the literary representation of art.

Jan 20, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 18 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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Zola’s intervention in this painterly revolution would be less well-remembered today had he not amplified his views in two novels, Thérèse Raquin (1867) and L’Oeuvre (The Masterpiece, 1886). The first is a morbid tale of adultery and murder in which the role of art is minor but crucial. Two scheming lovers plot to drown the woman’s husband on a rural outing, but their victim’s ghost spoils their sexual idyll. Every time the man, who is an artist, tries to revive his modest skills, the resulting portraits, regardless of period or mode, favor the murder victim. Even their bedroom, scene of the lovers’ anticipated trysts, is haunted by a crude portrait of the victim. They imagine that his mouldering corpse lies between them in their bed and finally end their insomnia by mutual suicide.

In the later and longer tale, a young and ambitious painter, Claude Lantier, returns to his Parisian atelier on a stormy night to find a young woman huddled in his doorway. She spends the night there (modestly concealed) and then disappears. But the reader knows that Claude hasn’t seen the last of her. She soon returns to become, by stages, his model, his mistress, and finally his wife. She is exactly the model he needs to complete an ambitious nude for the Salon. But the painting for which she models, the central feature of this magnum opus, becomes an obsession he cannot finish. He hangs himself in despair.

T. S. Eliot, wearing his hat as master critic, once ventured the controversial view that Shakespeare had failed, artistically, in what he meant to do in Hamlet. The problem, Eliot wrote, coining a jawbreaker term, was that the drama lacked an “objective correlative,” a persuasive metaphor, for Hamlet’s alleged irresolution—“in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion.” Eliot’s diagnosis remains controversial, to say the least; but it bequeathed an enduring term for the failure to render an idea or emotion successfully as art.

When I set out to reread Zola’s two novels of art, I expected to find in them an “objective correlative” of the supportive views he had expressed about the “new painting.” Zola does venture an overarching metaphor for the artist’s struggle with his subject—the struggle of the biblical patriarch Jacob, who endured a night-long wrestling match with an angel who left him with a blessing, a new name, and a damaged hip. The episode is a metaphor in Zola’s parables of art, made familiar also by Delacroix’s mural in the Paris church of Saint-Sulpice. But the angels that Zola’s artists wrestle with both turn out to be angels of obsession and death: In Claude Lantier’s tale, the gigantic nude whose pursuit on canvas defies him drives him to madness and suicide, less a denouement than a deus ex machina.

Was Zola, the journalist and pamphleteer-turned-novelist, trying to tell his readers something about the bewitching fatality of art? Or nudity? It is fair to ask that a novelist’s parables of craft clearly transmit a truth about the craft in question, but there is no law that they must; and Zola’s art novels do not. We still don’t know why his artists, unlike the young polemicist he himself had been a few years earlier, are ultimately defeated by the challenge of painting and driven to kill themselves. 

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is the author, most recently, of Vacancy: A Judicial Misadventure.  

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