Short summary - L'Œuvre - Émile Zola

French literature summaries - 2021

Short summary - L'Œuvre
Émile Zola

Claude Lantier, an artist, hanged himself in his studio in front of an unfinished painting in November 1870. His wife Christine, who posed for this painting and was excruciatingly jealous of her, lost her mind from grief. Claude lived in complete poverty. There was nothing left of him, except for a few sketches: the last and main picture, a failed masterpiece, was torn from the wall and burned in a fit of rage by Claude's friend Sandoz. Except for Sandoz and Bongran, another friend of Claude's, artist-master and academic rebel, no one from their company was at the funeral.

... They were all from Plassans and became friends at the college: the painter Claude, the novelist Sandoz, the architect Dubuche. In Paris, Dubuche entered the Academy with great difficulty, where he was subjected to the merciless ridicule of friends: both Claude and Sandoz dreamed of a new art, equally despising classical models and the gloomy literary romanticism of Delacroix through and through. Claude is not just phenomenally gifted - he is possessed. Classical education is not for him: he learns to portray life as he sees it - Paris, its central market, the Seine embankments, cafes, passers-by. Sandoz dreams of a synthesis of literature and science, of a gigantic novel series that would cover and explain the entire history of mankind. Claude's obsession is alien to him: he watches with dismay as periods of inspiration and hope give way to his friend's gloomy impotence. Claude works, forgetting about food and sleep, but does not go further than sketching - nothing satisfies him. But the whole company of young painters and sculptors - the easy and cynical mocker Fajerol, the ambitious son of the stonecutter Magudo, the prudent critic Jory - are sure that Claude will become the head of the new school. Jory called her "plein air school". The whole company, of course, is busy not only with disputes about art: Magudo endures with disgust the whore pharmacist Matilda next to him, Fajerol is in love with the lovely cocotte Irma Beko, who spends time with the artists disinterestedly, that's really out of love for art.

Claude avoided women until one night, not far from his home on the Bourbon Quay, during a thunderstorm, he met a lost young beauty - a tall girl in black, who had come to enroll as a lecturer for the general's wealthy widow during a thunderstorm. Claude had no choice but to offer her to spend the night with him, and she had no choice but to agree. Chastely placing the guest behind the screen and annoyed at the sudden adventure, in the morning Claude looks at the sleeping girl and freezes: this is the nature he dreamed of for a new picture. Forgetting about everything, he begins to quickly sketch her small breasts with pink nipples, a thin hand, flowing black hair ... Waking up, she is terrified trying to hide under the sheet. Claude hardly persuades her to pose further. They belatedly get to know each other: her name is Christina, and she was barely eighteen. She trusts him: he sees only a model in her. And when she leaves, Claude admits with annoyance to himself that most likely he will never see the best of his models again and that this circumstance seriously upsets him.

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He was wrong. She came in a month and a half later with a bouquet of roses - a sign of her gratitude. Claude can work with the same enthusiasm: one sketch, even if it succeeded better than all the previous ones, is not enough for his new work. He conceived to portray a naked woman against the background of a spring garden, in which couples stroll and wrestlers frolic. The name for the picture is already there - simply "Plein air". In two sessions, he painted Christina's head, but he did not dare to ask her to pose again naked. Seeing how he agonizes, trying to find a model like her, she undresses herself in front of him one evening, and Claude completes his masterpiece in a matter of days. The painting is intended for the Salon of Les Miserables, conceived as a challenge to the semi-official and unchanging Parisian Salon. A crowd gathers around Claude's painting, but the crowd laughs. And no matter how much Jory assures that this is the best advertisement, Claude is terribly depressed. Why is a woman naked and a man dressed? What are those harsh, rough strokes? Only artists understand the originality and power of this painting. In feverish excitement, Claude shouts of contempt for the public, that he will conquer Paris with his comrades, but he returns home in despair. Here a new shock awaits him: the key is sticking in the door, some girl has been waiting for him for two hours ... This is Christina, she was at the exhibition and saw everything: both the picture in which she recognizes herself with horror and admiration, and the audience, which consisted of of dullards and scoffers. She came to comfort and cheer Claude, who, having fallen at her feet, no longer holds back sobs.

... This is their first night, followed by months of love drunkenness. They rediscover each other. Christine leaves her general's wife, Claude is looking for a house in Bennecourt, a suburb of Paris, for only two hundred and fifty francs a year. Without getting married to Christina, Claude calls her wife, and soon his inexperienced lover discovers that she is pregnant. The boy was named Jacques. After his birth, Claude returns to painting, but Bennecourt landscapes have already bored him: he dreams of Paris. Christina realizes that it is unbearable for him to bury himself in Bennecourt: the three of them return to the city.

Claude visits old friends: Magudo yields to the tastes of the public, but still retains talent and strength, the pharmacist is still with him and has become even uglier; Zhori earns not so much from criticism as from gossip and is quite pleased with himself; Fajerol, who is stealing Claude's picturesque finds with might and main, and Irma, who changes lovers every week, from time to time rush to each other, for there is nothing stronger than the attachment of two egoists and cynics. Bon-Gran, an older friend of Claude, a recognized master who rebelled against the Academy, for several months in a row cannot get out of a deep crisis, does not see new paths, talks about the artist's painful fear of the embodiment of each new idea, and in his depression Claude sees with horror an omen own torment. Sandoz got married, but still receives friends on Thursdays. Having gathered in the same circle - Claude, Dubuche, Fajerol, Sandoz and his wife Henriette - the friends notice with sadness that they are arguing without their former fervor and are talking more and more about themselves. The connection was broken, Claude goes into a lonely job: it seems to him that now he is really capable of exhibiting a masterpiece. But for three years in a row, the Salon has rejected its best, innovative, striking creations: the winter landscape of the city outskirts, Batignolsky Square in May and the sunny, like melting view of Carousel Square in the height of summer. Friends are delighted with these canvases, but the harsh, roughly accentuated painting frightens off the jury of the Salon. Claude is again afraid of his inferiority, hates himself, his insecurity is transmitted to Christine. Only a few months later he came up with a new idea - a view of the Seine with port workers and bathers. Claude takes on a gigantic sketch, quickly writes down the canvas, but then, as always, in a fit of uncertainty, he spoils his own work, can not finish anything, ruins the idea. His hereditary neurosis is expressed not only in genius, but also in the inability to realize himself. Any finished work is a compromise, Claude is obsessed with a mania for perfection, the creation of something more alive than life itself. This struggle leads him to despair: he belongs to the type of geniuses for whom any concession, any retreat is unbearable. His work becomes more and more convulsive, inspiration passes faster and faster: happy at the moment of the birth of an idea, Claude, like any true artist, understands all the imperfection and half-heartedness of any incarnations. Creativity becomes his torture.

Then she and Christina, tired of the neighbors' gossip, decide to finally get married, but marriage does not bring joy: Claude is absorbed in work, Christina is jealous: becoming husband and wife, they realized that their former passion had died. In addition, the son annoys Claude with his excessively large head and slow development: neither the mother nor the father yet knows that Jacques has dropsy of the brain. Poverty comes, Claude begins his last and most ambitious picture - again a naked woman, the personification of Paris at night, the goddess of beauty and vice against the backdrop of a sparkling city. On the day when, in the twilight evening light, he sees his just finished painting and is again convinced that he has been defeated, twelve-year-old Jacques dies. Claude immediately begins to paint "The Dead Child", and Fajerolle, feeling guilty before the tattered older comrade, with great difficulty places the picture in the Salon. There, hung out in the most remote hall, high, almost invisible to the public, she looked scary and pitiful. Bongran's new work - "The Village Funeral", written as if in conjunction with his early "Village Wedding" - has also not been noticed by anyone. On the other hand, the fajerol is a huge success, softening the finds from Claude's early works and passing them off as his own; Fajerol, who became the star of the Salon. Sandoz looks longingly at the friends gathered in the Salon. During this time, Dubuche married profitably and unhappily, Magudo made an ugly pharmacist his wife and fell into complete dependence on her, Jory sold out, Claude was awarded the nickname of a madman - does all life come to such an inglorious end?

But the end of Claude turned out to be worse than friends could have imagined. During one of the painful and already meaningless sessions, when Claude again and again painted naked Christina, she could not stand it. Terribly jealous of the woman on the canvas, she rushed to Claude, begging for the first time in many years to look at her again as a woman. She is still beautiful, he is still strong. On this night, they experience such a passion that they did not know in their youth. But while Christina sleeps, Claude gets up and slowly walks to the studio, to his painting. In the morning, Christina sees him hanging from the crossbar, which he himself once nailed to strengthen the stairs.

... The air of the era is poisoned, says Bongran to Sandoz at the funeral of a genius from whom nothing remains. We are all misguided people, and the end of the century is to blame for everything, with its decay, decay, dead ends on all paths. Art is in decline, anarchy is all around, personality is suppressed, and the century, which began with clarity and rationalism, ends with a new wave of obscurantism. If it were not for the fear of death, every true artist would have to act like Claude. But even here, at the cemetery, among the old coffins and dug up earth, Bongran and Sandoz remember that at home they will have work - their eternal, only torture.