Why difficult books can be so rewarding – thoughts on Zola’s ‘The Masterpiece’

I have finally finished reading Emile Zola’s ‘The Masterpiece’, first published in 1886. I read my Oxford University Press paperback edition in a text so small that I could initially only read one or two pages continuously. For at least the first third of this text I persisted out of sheer stubborn-ness and an irrational belief that to not complete a book once started was some kind of sin or character weakness. However, once past this section I became more and more drawn into the story, began to care about the characters and was curious to know how things would develop. I started to savour the richly descriptive style and found myself being transported into Zola’s story about the bohemian community of artists in 19th century Paris and the society around them. What happened was what happens to me in all my best fiction reading experiences, what Ronald Dahl’s ‘Matilda’ describes so well:

“The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to people who lived amazing lives.”

By the final chapters I couldn’t wait each day, to find out what the central characters were going to do and hoping that they would somehow resolve those perennial human problems they all had to do with belonging, achievement, choice and control. The artists in Zola’s story strive to achieve and choose to put most of their energy and passion into this but by doing so their chances of feeling the true belonging of relationship are reduced.

The world that Zola described, on the face of it, is so different to my own and yet that egoic drive of Claude Lantier, the central character of ‘The Masterpiece’, a talented and ambitious young artist who becomes obsessed with the creation of a masterpiece at the cost of his wife, son, health and happiness seems strangely contemporary. I have worked with many young people, and older ones, who want to be the best, to achieve beyond what anyone before has managed and to be praised and rewarded and I believe it is behind what we know nowadays as ‘celebrity culture’. This heightened sense of self and one’s own importance almost always exists along with relational and emotional problems as most therapists know so well. I don’t want to spoil the experience of ‘The Masterpiece’ for anyone so minded to read it but let’s just say it is not a ‘happy ever after’ story but it has some important points to make that stay in your thoughts long after reading the final page.

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