I was pleasantly surprised yesterday to find a big ole biography of Paul Cézanne on my doorstep. I probably won’t get to Alex Danchev’s Cézanne: A Life anytime soon (at least not until I finish Robert Hughes’s Goya bio), but it looks like a pretty solid read—with lovely glossy pictures to boot:
In the meantime, check out Evan McMurry’s full, in depth review at Bookslut.
Or, if you’re too busy, here’s the Kirkus write up in full:
A formidable biography of the Father of Modern Art bound for the annals of academia.
Danchev . . . has researched every facet and nuance of Paul Cézanne’s life (1839–1906). His comfortable childhood in Provence, his years in Paris, where he was influenced by the Impressionists, and his dependence on the allowance from his father created the artist some suggested was “not all there.” There is a wealth of information in the correspondence between the artist and his childhood friend, Émile Zola, in which they parodied Virgil, joked in Latin and discussed Stendhal. Zola knew that Cézanne’s art was a corner of nature seen through his own curious temmpérammennte. The artist didn’t paint things; he painted the effect they had on him. He saw colors as he read a book or looked at a person, understood the inner life of an object and let his brain rework that object, sometimes illuminating it, sometimes distorting it. Danchev rightly subscribes to the theory that understanding the man is important to understanding his work, and he attempts to parse Cézanne’s psyche, digging into the background of nearly every author he discussed in his letters, quoting every writer who based a character on the man. Cézanne’s work will influence artists and confuse patrons for decades to come, especially those who have the patience to study Danchev’s comprehensive, occasionally ponderous tome.
A fairly impressive achievement of a Sisyphean task—definitely a book to keep in your library.
It’s totally appropriate that food-writer Mark Kurlansky should helm Modern Library Classics’ new translation of Émile Zola’s The Belly of Paris. Not only does he have a keen ear for Zola’s revolutionary naturalism, he also captures the passion at the heart (or gut) of The Belly of Paris–a passion for food. To be clear, Zola’s book is not so much about gourmet preparations (although they’re there, to be sure) as it is about the production and marketing of food, and, more specifically, the ways in which food delineates class lines.
The Belly of Paris is the third of Zola’s twenty-novel naturalist cycle Les Rougon-Macquart, a series of books examining two intertwined families–one rich and respectable, the other poor and disreputable–during the rise of the Industrial Revolution in France. Belly takes Florent Quenu (one of the poor and disreputable) for its protagonist. Quenu, wrongfully accused of a crime, escapes imprisonment on Devil’s Island and attempts to start a new life in Les Halles, the great, sprawling market known as “the belly of Paris.” Readers are treated to lovingly detailed depictions of Les Halles and its produce stands, fish shops, cheese markets, butcheries, both through the eyes of Quenu and many other characters. There are those who work in the great market and their children (who also, of course, work in the market); artists and rabble rousers; the nouveau riche and the would-be revolutionaries.
Zola evokes a lust for life centered around this great belly, even as he dramatizes the sharp disparity between the rich and the poor. While Zola is hardly preachy, his sympathies are clearly with the poor and downtrodden. Like America’s great literary naturalist John Steinbeck, Zola’s major rhetorical gesture is to avoid the romanticism of metaphor in favor of a tightly-drawn Darwinian realism. Like Steinbeck, this means a strong focus not just on the symbolic registry of food–food as communion, for example–but also on the real-world consequences of not having enough food. Put another way, Zola’s not afraid to get his hands dirty, and there’s quite a bit of dirt in Belly. It’s easy even now to see why Zola’s naturalism was something of a minor scandal in its day (this translated into sales for Zola, of course).
Contemporary English-reading audiences will have no difficulties with Zola’s late nineteenth-century France. Kurlansky’s deft translation zips along with vivid intensity, and his detailed endnotes inform the text without intrusion. While Francophiles pining for romantic visions of a pristine Paris will likely be put off by Zola’s gritty visions, lovers of food writing and social fiction alike will undoubtedly enjoy The Belly of Paris. Recommended.
The Belly of Paris is available from Random House’s Modern Library Classics on May 12th, 2009.