January 7, 2010

My comments are mostly about books and reading. I don’t do comprehensive reviews. Instead I write about some aspect that gets my attention.

For information about American silver and for slide shows related to my courses, see the Pages listed on the right.

The View from the Fortieth Floor

November 26, 2014

view40floorIn the 1970s, I had an office in the Chrysler Building on the 34th floor, facing the old Commodore Hotel (now encapsulated within the Hyatt). My view was six floors less elevated than the view Ridge Warren had in Theodore H. White’s novel, but high enough that I could not see whether it was raining. I learned to lean my forehead against the glass and look down at the people on Lexington Avenue. If the umbrellas were up, it was raining. Warren’s view did not include the pedestrians below.

The snowclouds were indistinct in the night. Yet every now and then a black veil of cloud would drift low between the windows from which they watched and the silhouette of other distant buildings, so that the buildings rose from a pit of darkness without foundations.

Theodore H. White’s novel is set in 1960, a year I remember. I had come to New York from Michigan with my young family in 1957 and did clerical work for several years in the lower floors of those buildings and at the same time when White’s hero, Ridge Warren, had the view from the top. My role was to be expected. What other options were there for a young woman with a cum laude degree from a well-regarded Midwestern university and a strong need to put food on the table? It is well to be reminded of those years from a loftier view, even if some of the memories cut close to the bone. “Good girl!” Warren exclaims to his faithful secretary when her actions please him.

So. In White’s novel it is 1960, and long-established magazines are in serious trouble. Readership is down and advertisers are transferring their dollars to television. Warren’s ambition is to turn things around, to survive and then to prosper again. He knows the situation is bad. (A reader 50 years later knows that it was hopeless). Warren sees that the world is changing, and it is not just magazine which are in trouble.

The smell of cranberries simmering on the old iron stove was the first fragrance of the holiday season. But now cranberries happened all year round, slung out of cans at restaurants, hotels, dinner parties, drugstore counters, at once more common and more elegant…. Just the way everything got redesigned from the back of a steer’s rump to the breastbone of a turkey, to the taste of mustard and pickles so that the greatest absorption of the redesigned product in the over-all market could be engineered right into product quality. They claimed they could engineer everything for a broader market by knocking the highs and lows of the taste spectrum. But when it came down to cranberries, what they really meant was just adding more sugar.

With this romantic view of the past, Warren wants to establish the importance of his magazine, The Trumpet, as a political and social influence.

Nat, for the past fifty years anything this country has done, the magazines kicked them into doing – the magazines closed up the trusts, cleaned up the cities, put through the food-and-drug acts, amended the Constitution, closed off immigration, with this magazine leading the way!

thwhiteIn 1960 where can Warren lead The Trumpet? I did not think of Theodore H. White at a novelist, much less a chronicler of a business tycoon. He is best known for his Making of the President series, beginning with Kennedy’s successful campaign in 1960. You can find a clue in to his thinking and Warren’s problems in his Author’s Note.

In my time of reporting, I have witnessed, from within, the collapse of three great publishing enterprises and have observed, from the close fringes of friendship, at least as many other disasters.

White was a reporter and he had been there, seen that. This is his report from the 40th floor.

Brendan Gill, Many Masks: A Life of Frank Lloyd Wright

November 13, 2014


Masks, Faces, Belief and Community

Some time ago, I read and enjoyed Meryle Secrest’s admiring biography of Frank Lloyd Wright (Frank Lloyd Wright: a Biography, 1992). I am also an admirer of Wright, and check out his viewable buildings whenever I travel. All these years, another biography, Brendan Gill’s Many Masks, has sat on the shelf unread. I understood that Gill revealed the “truth” behind Wright’s public persona and believed that the title Many Masks implied deliberate deception on Wright’s part.

I was wrong about Gill; he admires Wright’s works as much as I do, and appreciates the many faces that Wright turned toward the world. These faces are not masks — false identities assumed to deceive — but aspects of his complex personality. And, yes, he could usually turn the display on and off at will. Once you get past the ethics of Wright’s treatment of his many wives and children, his troubled relationships with clients, his irresponsibility about money and obligations, you see a brilliant man who used both his virtues and his faults in service of an architectural talent which was the one thing in which he always believed.

28007169_wrightWright called architecture “the great mother-art, the art behind which all the other arts are related.” He may or may not have been correct about its importance, but that is what he believed and so he knew something of the power of belief. During his long career, Wright designed a number of buildings to celebrate belief and enable worship. I have been able to visit six of them:

  • Two Unitarian churches
  • One non-denominational chapel
  • One Protestant church
  • One Greek Orthodox church
  • One Jewish Synagogue

Wright was a member of a family of Unitarians (“the God-almighty Joneses”), so it is appropriate that early in this career he designed the Unity Temple for a Unitarian congregation in Oak Park. From outside, the building appears fortress-like and much larger than it really is.


Unity Temple, Oak Park, Ill., 1904

The scale inside is intimate. From any section you feel you can reach out to touch the other congregants. While one has no strong sense of sacredness or mystery, the design brilliantly enables discussion and togetherness.


Interior of Unity Temple. Two-dimensional photographs fail to show the skill of Wright’s manipulation of space.

Forty years later, a Unitarian congregation in Wisconsin, received from Wright an startlingly different interpretation of their requirements.


Unitarian Church, Shorewood Hills, Wisc., 1947

The sharp angles, the down-folded roof, the look of the prow of a ship – these are effects which now seem familiar because they have been imitated so much. Inside and out, the major forms, as well as the design details, repeat geometric motifs of the triangle, the diamond, and the chevron. Gill says of the interior:

The meeting house contains some perennially incorrigible Wright flaws: a choir loft too small for any choir to sing in (it now contains organ pipes) and too extreme a cantilevering of a portion of the great roof. Where it swoops down over the front entrance as a daringly unsupported porte cochere, the roof’s supports have sagged for any member of the congregation more than six feet tall it hints not at a cozy welcome but at decapitation.


Interior of Unitarian Church. The scale is smaller than the photograph suggests.

My own reaction to the space was that it is pleasant and the details are clever, but I felt neither emotional involvement nor spiritual lift. Gill calls it “a good time place.”

pfeiffer chapel fsc frank lloyd wright

Pfeiffer Chapel, Florida Southern College, Lakeland, Fl., 1938

Gill likes better the non-denominational chapel that Wright designed for Florida Southern College.

The most interesting building at Florida Southern is Wright’s enchanting Annie Pfeiffer Chapel. Its auditorium is a late and more exquisite version of the auditorium of Unity Temple, providing a similar intimacy between speaker and audience and promising an even greater intimacy between earth and heaven (or, at second best, sky). The glass in the pierced blocks of the side walls of the chapels strikes a note of pagan joy – a note more pagan, indeed, than the go-getting ministerial [college president] may have counted on.

That is how I felt also. The use of color and light is warmer, more enthusiastic, than in the churches described above, Under their influence, you can give yourself up to the experience, whatever it may be.


First Christian Church, Phoenix, Arix., 1950, 1971

Wright designed the First Christian Church in Phoenix in 1950, but it was not built until a dozen years after his death. This use of the triangle motif, the notched spire echoed in a separate bell tower, and the conventional interior layout seemed less successful to me than the designs of the other churches I visited. Gill did not much like it (and similar structures) either:

In most of these structures, we sense a marked resemblance between their interiors and the interiors of theaters; Wright manipulates the volumes of space at his disposal to create an effect that is first of all dramatic and then, perhaps rather grudgingly, reverential.

Also, at the time of my visit the windows were softened by blue draperies which could not possibly have been Wright’s intention. He was well known for visiting homes he had designed and returning furniture and accessories to his chosen locations.


First Christian Church interior

The Annunciation Greek Orthodox church, a late-Wright design, looks like a space capsule which has alighted in a garden.


Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, Wauwatosa, Wisc., 1956

It is nothing like the little Orthodox chapels I visited in Greece with their darkness, icons, and smoky odor of mystery. Inside, Wright has kept the dim light and the icons, but the overall feeling is quite different and takes little from the past. It has a complex interior, based on the circle and the ellipse. I would like to attend a service there to observe how a live congregation interacts with it.


Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church interior

Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church altar screen with icons

Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church altar screen with icons

So far as I know, Wright designed only one Jewish synagogue, the one in suburban Philadelphia.


Beth Shalom Synagogue, Elkins Park, Penn., 1954

It is the religious building in which I felt the strongest connection to the absent congregation. Gill likes it too.

In the Wright ecclesiastical oeuvre, the Beth Shalom Synagogue is unprecedented for the extent to which the reverential takes precedent over the theatrical. One would not guess this, however, from its exterior, which (like so many of Wright’s buildings) flies in the face of his own teaching: instead of being of a hill and not on it, the synagogue leaps aggressively skyward from its site at the top of a steep hill, and by its great height and peculiar tepee shape dominates an otherwise low-roofed suburban environment.

I have visited synagogues in Europe where deliberately bland exteriors intend not to provoke the neighbors, but wonderfully rich interiors evoke the people who worshiped there. Perhaps, in Elkins Park, the congregation enjoys asserting their confident place in the New World. The official explanation of the “peculiar tepee shape” is that it represents Mt. Sinai, the place where Moses received the Ten Commandments. I think it looks like a cocked hat.


Beth Shalom Synagogue at night

When I visited St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, I approached a massive grey stone building, large and impressive, but not particularly moving. Then I stepped inside and felt a surge of wonder and joy in that great domed space. That is architect Christopher Wren’s message to me. To step into the interior of Wright’s synagogue is to experience warmth and community and the need to reach out. Photographs cannot give you that feeling; it comes only from being within the building itself.


Beth Shalom Synagogue interior

In the picture above, the space looks large. It is large, but it doesn’t feel that way. The seats surround the ark and reading desk in a gently sloping bowl, and from any seat you feel close to them and to those around you. Judaism puts a high value on group prayer — that’s why a minyan of at least 10 is required for some prayers — and this layout brings the congregation into a community for that purpose.

Interior details of roof and color.

Interior details of roof and color.

The glass roof admits softened natural light during the day, enhancing the touches of color. The design motif is the triangle, but the repeated triangles do not dominate the overall effect. It is less clever than some of Wright’s designs and benefits from his restraint.

Gill observes the difficulties of judging this or any other building:

…I find myself introducing an old and vexatious distinction between architecture, defined as having a function, and art, defined as being functionless. Since any substantial work of architecture is also a work of art, one feels obliged to judge it by two sets of standards, employed simultaneously even when they are bound to be at odds with each other. In responding to a certain arrangement of forms in three dimensions, why should we care whether the Taj Mahal, the Getty Tomb, and the Medici Chapel have or haven’t functions: whether they are mausoleums or comfort stations? Nevertheless, it turns out that we do care. The essential impurity of architecture as an art – the impurity of its being charged with a stated purpose – seems to force us, against our will, to take into account the degree to which it succeeds or fails in carrying out that purpose.

And Frank Lloyd Wright, that man of many masks, could he combine art with purpose in his buildings? Yes, sometimes. Wright the showman could provide drama. Wright the intellectual could provide analysis and discussion. Wright the cultist of hearth and home could offer warmth and community. Wright the proud egoist found it more difficult to suggest humility and worship, yet he aspired to create. What he created In Elkins Park shows us what we rarely see, not a mask but a human face behind it.

What I Read in October 2014

October 31, 2014

BrownZolaFrederick Brown, Zola: A Life. This weighty biography relates the life of Zola, as well as the lives of his friends and colleagues along with the ups and down of French politics and society during his lifetime. Complete, almost overwhelming.

SteamboatHerman Melville, The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade. A man travels down the Mississippi to New Orleans on a steamboat. He meets many people and is himself, in fact, many people. If you give him your confidence, you may also have to give him your money.

ZolaPotEmile Zola, Pot-Boulle / Pot Luck, translated by Brian Nelson. The inhabitants of an apartment house in Paris display a variety of form of corruptions, financial and sexual. This modern translation leaves nothing out.

Dr_Jekyll_and_Mr_Hyde_poster1-croppedRobert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In this very Victorian novel, a doctor creates a second self to express the evil and violent side of his nature.

ManyMasksBrendan Gill, Many Masks: A Life of Frank Lloyd Wright. A lifelong admirer of Wright’s work, I thoroughly enjoyed Gill’s account of both the life and work of this distinguished American architect. If you live in the greater New York City area, you have limited access to examples of his work, but here are a few: Wright in Our Neighborhood.

At this point an unexpected illness interrupted my blogging, but the following two books cheered me in the hospital. Maybe I can return later to write more about Wright.


I read this on my Kindle, so here is a suggestive image.

Ada Leverson, Love’s Shadow. I knew before I read this entertaining novel that Leverson was a contemporary of Oscar Wilde, but I was not surprised later to learn that they were friends. This depiction of a shadow on the love of a young married couple is very Wildean, with witty dialogue. They are silly, of course, but you forget that most of the time. A flaw was in the presentation of the other couples in the book, especially of Edith and her husband. He became more and more childish as the story progressed, and this was never resolved.

LyndonMargaret Kennedy, The Ladies of Lyndon — thanks to the generosity of blogger Kat at Mirabile Dictu. Like all the best social comedy, this one had one foot (but only one foot) in reality. A beautiful girl marries a wealthy man. She is 18; he is 30. Both are from the same world of mannered courtesy and great wealth. It works, but only for a short time. After all, whose character is perfectly developed by 18? So the fun begins, with the various ladies of Lyndon making their own matches with a variety of consequences, all accompanied by dazzling dialogue. Be careful what you wish for because, if you are beautiful and perfectly prepared to marry great wealth, you may be unprepared for any other life.



The Picture of Jekyll and Hyde

October 16, 2014

Dr_Jekyll_and_Mr_Hyde_poster1-croppedWe all know the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, of the mild-mannered physician who drank a potion which turned him into the menacing Mr. Hyde. The story is told by Robert Louis Stevenson in his novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Written in 1886 it is told, as many Victorian novels are, in stages which develop slowly. We begin with two gentlemen who take a walk and are reminded of a certain incident, followed by discussions and interviews. The climax of the tale is told in documents left by participants who are no longer with us and cannot be interrogated. Too bad, because there are questions I would ask, most especially why Jekyll was so concerned that his suppressed self was evil.

Dr. Jekyll is civilized and benevolent as are his friends, Mr. Utterhouse and lawyer and Dr. Lanyon, another physician. With them in view, the story is only mildly interesting; it is Mr. Hyde who grabs and holds our attention. Witnesses struggle to describe him:

 Only on one point, were they agreed; and that was the haunting sense of unexpressed deformity with which the fugitive impressed his beholders.

Hyde is not an obvious cripple, yet de-formed, a variant from the normal form of a man. When Jekyll becomes Hyde, his clothes are too large because Hyde is smaller. At the same time, Hyde is younger, more agile, more flexible and energetic in his movements, more vital in every way. Jekyll explains Hyde’s origins:

 It was on the moral side, and in my own person, that I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both; and from an early date, even before the course of my scientific discoveries had begun to suggest the most naked possibility of such a miracle, I had learned to dwell with pleasure, as a beloved day-dream, on the thought of the separation of these elements.

Jekyll wants to separate these two elements of himself, to place them in two separate bodies. To what advantage?

 If each, I told myself, could but be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust delivered from the aspirations might go his way, and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path, doing the good things in which he found his pleasure, and no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil.

Jekyll believes that by splitting off the less desirable side of his nature, he will no longer need to make the effort to control evil impulses and will be relieved of their consequences. This same idea was used by Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Again we have dual bodies, but one is forever young and beautiful, while the other is a portrait which reflects Dorian’s true nature. Wilde’s book was written five years after Stevenson’s, so he may well have been familiar with Jekyll and Hyde, but his interpretation of what happens when a personality is split stands on its own.

In both books, there is a strong suggestion that those desires we struggle to suppress are strong. If we release them – even temporarily – they grow stronger and even more difficult to control. Symbolically, Hyde grows larger and more able to fill Jekylls’ clothes. Dorian, as his portrait takes on the physical effects of his depravity, becomes even more extreme in his actions and desires.


Dorian Gray and the portrait which shows the real man

Neither man wants to admit or display the side of his personality which he has transferred to Hyde or to the hidden portrait. What are the impulses which frighten and disgust them? Dorian Gray desires sex and drugs and possession of beautiful things. He is indifferent to cruelty and takes pleasure in his power over others. Robert Louis Stevenson is more reluctant to spell out what it is exactly that Hyde does.

 The pleasures which I made haste to seek in my disguise were, as I have said, undignified; I would scarce use a harder term. But in the hands of Edward Hyde, they soon began to turn toward the monstrous. When I would come back from these excursions, I was often plunged into a kind of wonder at my vicarious depravity.

The examples in the text are of sadistic and unprovoked violence toward others.


John Barrymore as Mr. Hyde

Stevenson was understandably reluctant to mention sexual adventures – although they are implied – but Hollywood was not so restrained. In the 1920 silent film, John Barrymore plays a Hyde who leers at the Spanish dancer when she flaps her shawls and clearly believes any woman can be bought. All the male characters in this movie are very stiff, very British, except Barrymore who grins and scowls and generally made a fool of himself as Hyde. He had a reputation as a great actor, but his performance here is terrible.

These are morality tales. A man who denies his basic impulses – his   id   – may indeed strengthen their power to do him harm. Jekyll concludes:

I have been made to learn that the doom and burthen of our life is bound for ever on man’s shoulders, and when the attempt is made to cast it off, it but returns upon us with more unfamiliar and more awful pressure.

A man who cannot accept his whole nature is in mortal danger of losing the best part of himself.

Emile Zola, Pot Luck / Pot-Bouille

October 12, 2014

ZolaPotThe expression Pot-Bouille, the title of one of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series of novels, is difficult to render in English. “Pot luck” in the Midwest, where I come from, implies taking your chance on what may be in the pot that day. A French dictionary calls pot-bouille a “repas ordinaire d’un ménage.” I rather like that – it’s what you usually get, and luck doesn’t much enter into it.

The ménage in which Zola finds this ordinary meal is an apartment house in Paris, in which live a number of bourgeois families and their servants. These human ingredients of Zola’s story are no more exceptional than the ingredients of pot luck; their activities and attitudes are as we would expect. For details, see two posts at the Reading Zola blog where Jonathan provides a plot summary  and Lisa describes the characters and their interactions. Lisa also remarks that the “smart new building is Zola’s metaphor for the hypocrisy of the bourgeois.”

Almost all the inhabitants of the building are corrupt in some way. The servants steal from their employers and gossip about them. The tenants cheat financially and sleep with each other and with the servants. The bourgeoisie are hypocritical about what is going on; the servants are not. They know what is being concealed. After the morning gossip,

 They [the maids] all plunged back into their kitchens; and from the dark bowels of the narrow courtyard only the stench of the drains came up, like the smell of the hidden filth of the various families, stirred up by the servants’ rancor. This was the sewer of the house, draining off the house’s shames, while the masters lounged about in their slippers and the front staircase displayed all its solemn majesty amid the stuffy silence of the hot-air stove.

Now that I have read several Zola’s novels, I am struck by his repeated use of human constructions as metaphors for the theme of his story. In Pot-Bouille, it is the apartment house, designed to be impressive, but concealing its decadence. In La Curée, it is the grand, over-decorated mansion constructed by Saccard to display his wealth and social importance. In Germinal, it is the mine and its machinery – underground, yet dominating all above and below. In The Belly of Paris, it is the market, which is large, complex and contains the delights of fresh foods along with the stink of garbage.

In his biography, Zola: A Life, Frederick Brown gives a detailed account of how Zola acquired a modest country property at Medan. As he prospered, he expanded the original house, remodeling it and adding wings and towers. Construction had meaning to Zola, as shown by the attention he paid to his own property and his evident pride in the results. His house was a testimony to his success. With his feeling about the importance of buildings, it is appropriate that an apartment building in Bot-Bouille links together the characters and subplots of the novel. For example, it represented the conventional virtues to the erring Berthe, hiding from her angry husband.

 Then gradually the solemn staircase filled her with fresh anguish; it was so black, so austere. No one could see her; and yet she was overcome with confusion at sitting there in her chemise amid such respectable gilt and stucco. The wide mahogany doors, the conjugal dignity of these hearths, seemed to load her with reproaches. Never had the house appeared to her so saturated with purity and virtue.

Berthe is wrong, of course. The house itself cannot be virtuous, only the people within. Zola notices the details of wide mahogany doors and grants conjugal dignity to hearths. He is sensitive to constructions and what they represent. I hope he was satisfied by what his own domestic constructions meant to him, as well as what they represented to the world.

The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade by Herman Melville

October 9, 2014

SteamboatAll right, class. If you like reading Melville and you thoroughly enjoyed Moby Dick, raise your hands. Get them up there! What’s your problem? Many diligent readers have slogged through the tale of the whale, but very few can claim to have enjoyed it “thoroughly.” It helps to know, as you contemplate the physical, psychological and philosophical aspects of the whale, that in the conflict with Captain Ahab action is coming. Melville’s philosophizing has an interesting variety to it, although he is self-indulgent, sometimes pursuing issues unlikely to interest his readers. Hmmm – that puts me in mind of James Joyce and Ulysses.

Be respectful of my opinions here because I managed to read all the way to the end of Melville’s The Confidence-Man, evidencing the sort of dumb persistence of which very few other members of my book group were guilty. Now I get to show off my tediously-acquired knowledge.

A steamship is traveling down the Mississippi River in the 1850s. As various people board and leave the ship they discuss confidence in all its aspects. (There is no whale and no other action.) I almost said many aspects of confidence, but there aren’t all that many, since confidence seems to be the basis for some sort of swindle, time after time after time. Do you have confidence?

 “Believe me, I—yes, yes—I may say—that—that——” “That you have confidence? Prove it. Let me have twenty dollars.” “Twenty dollars!” “There, I told you, madam, you had no confidence.”

There is some entertainment value in the various ways Melville approaches his subject. Sometimes, we have the classical:

 Without confidence himself, Tacitus destroys it in all his readers. Destroys confidence, paternal confidence, of which God knows that there is in this world none to spare. For, comparatively inexperienced as you are, my dear young friend, did you never observe how little, very little, confidence, there is? I mean between man and man—more particularly between stranger and stranger. In a sad world it is the saddest fact. Confidence! I have sometimes almost thought that confidence is fled; that confidence is the New Astrea—emigrated—vanished—gone.”

Sometimes we have religious exhortation:

 Oh, friends,” raising his arms as in the pulpit, “oh beloved, how are we admonished by the melancholy spectacle of this raver. Let us profit by the lesson; and is it not this: that if, next to mistrusting Providence, there be aught that man should pray against, it is against mistrusting his fellow-man.

And best of all, plain old assertion:

 Hope is proportioned to confidence. How much confidence you give me, so much hope do I give you.

HermanMelvilleStampWho says these things? Sometimes one and sometimes another, and they may all be the same person. It’s a masquerade. You too can read The Confidence-Man and without any expense since it is available at Project Gutenberg. One of the members of our group did not know that and is bitter about the $9 he spent for his copy of the book. He feels his confidence was betrayed.

Frederick Brown, Zola: A Life

October 5, 2014

BrownZolaI have now read more than half a dozen of the twenty novels which make up Emile Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle. Wanting to know more about Zola, both as a writer and as a man, I read Mathew Johnson’s 1928 biography, Zola and His Time, and found it disappointing, with too much literary squabbling in Paris and not enough about Zola himself. The last portion of the book, dealing with The Dreyfus Affair, was the most satisfactory. Writing before World War II, however, Johnson had no vision of the eventual outcome of virulent antisemitism.

I looked for something more recent and more comprehensive and found Frederick Brown’s Zola: A Life. More recent (1995) and more comprehensive (803 pages of text, plus notes, etc.), it is neither a quick nor an easy read. Sometimes with a work this massive, it helps to comment at intervals, but it is too late for that now. Still, it does break into three main sections: boyhood and the apprentice years, the Rougon-Macquart cycle, and the years after Rougon-Macquart, including The Dreyfus Affair. The information presented throughout is so wide-ranging, however, that I see these possible divisions only in retrospect.

What does Frederick Brown give us in this “life”?

  • A complete description of the Zola family, including his father’s career and his mother’s struggles.
  • French politics and conflicts before and during his long life. Zola turns out to have been very politically aware, even as a young man, so his later involvement with Dreyfus was far from an aberration.
  • All Zola’s literary and artistic acquaintances – their lives, their struggles, their off-and-on relationships with him. We hear about Cezanne, Flaubert, Maupassant, the Goncourts, Manet, Daudet, Hugo, Balzac and many more. These are not passing references, but full accounts with ample quotations from articles and letters.
  • The regime of Napoleon III, as it played out in reality and in Zola’s novels set in the period.
  • Zola’s writing and research methods, with the sources used for all his works.
  • Detailed synopses and interpretations of all Zola’s major writings, with critical commentary by his contemporaries.
  • Description and examples of Zola’s other writing, including journalism and plays.
  • The ins and outs of Zola marriage; his mistress and children; his houses.

Did all this information change my perception of Zola? I think not, since my perceptions come from his novels. In The Belly of Paris, I find sensitivity to both social justice and the delights of a sensual life. In L’Argent I discover an understanding of greed and how it warps the moral standards of even “good” people. In Germinal I find a willingness to grapple with the dirty details of how things get done in this world, as well as a recognition of the difficulties of achieving social change. In L’Debacle I learn that Zola knows the best and the worst that men will do in trying circumstances and how they justify these actions. Zola’s careful research into military maneuvers or mining techniques or the layout of Les Halles provided him with necessary detail for his novels, but his understanding of human nature and his moral judgment could only come from the man itself.

Some of Brown’s psychological interpretations I found intrusive. Explaining Zola’s turn from gauzy poetry to naturalist fiction, he says,

 Nurtured on romantic literature, his mind found easy purchase at extremes, and it leapt from quaking reverence for magical forces to a belief in science holding sway over the universe. This is to say that Zola wavered between superstition and rationalism, between feelings of impotence and fantasies of omnipotence. What made him conceive the progenitor who masters virgin nature also made him sire those children, prisoners of heredity, who would soon crowd his novels.

He sees patterns in Zola’s plots, and these patterns he relates to Zola’s own obsessions.

 Zola, whose recurrent nightmare was of himself buried alive, could hardly conceive drama without a sacrificial victim or denouement that expunges some character from humankind. Identity and enclosure, the self and an abode standing islandlike on the margin of some larger settlement are linked again and again in disaster.

Reading a chapter every day or so provided me with a chronological narrative of his Zola’s life, but it was too much information to digest. Zola: A Life would work very well as a reference work, to look up Zola’s sources, as well as the activities of his colleagues and critics. There is a great deal of solid information here, worth pondering, whether or not you agree with Brown’s analyses. The pictures are good also. Here is one example:

Emile Zola with his mistress, Jeanne Rozerot, in 1893.

Emile Zola with his mistress, Jeanne Rozerot, in 1893.




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