Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Let’s Read Plays: Check-In #2

Dear LRP-ers… I feel rather guilty for abandoning our yearlong reading event. My excuse will be that I’ve been very busy with my reading schedule and other reading events (classic excuses, I know!). Now we are in the end of the 6th month of Let’s Read Plays, meaning that we have been through a half of the challenge. Let’s get to this check-in straight away….

You are invited to answer these questions in the comment box, or if you’d like to write a dedicated post, please feel free to leave your link in the comment box. You’re not obliged to answer all questions, and you can share your thoughts freely.

How have your Let’s Read Plays been during these six months, still exciting, or a bit boring? Did you read all the monthly themes, or did you miss several ones?

So far I only missed one, the Shakespeare’s History for February. But I am not going to abandon Richard III (the history play I planned to read); I’ve re-scheduled it for June (this time I’m going to make sure I would make it!). As for the rest, I could read every theme though not always in time. I’m still excited to read those famous plays, although I don’t think I’m going to be a big fan of plays in the end. But reading it every month really helps me to challenge myself.

What has been your favorite, or your failure (if any)?

Julius Caesar is the first play I have read for LRP, and it turns out to be my most favorite, along with Anthony and Cleopatra. See… I am always a fan of historical plays and anything about ancient Rome!

Which play are you expecting the most in the next six months?

Richard III; being another historical play, and I’m going to read it for my WEM self-project as well. I’m also anticipating to get back to Oscar Wilde again, he’s always hilarious and witty; An Ideal Husband is waving at me right now, though I must calm him down for a while until June :). And I’m excited to try George Bernard Shaw too, whom I pick for next freebie theme in September; Saint Joan (another historical theme…) would be my choice.

Have you been participated in Let’s Read Plays memes? Are you excited to participate more in the future?

Just to remind you, we have two memes for Let’s Read Plays. One is Listra’s Play Monthly Meme, with different topic each month. May’s would be music, one of the most interesting aspects in plays, I think, worth to expect very soon! You can read all the topics here.

The other meme is Character Thursday for Let’s Read Plays. You can write about character(s) from plays you read, and post it on Thursdays. You can put the linky in my Character Thursday for the week. At the end of Let’s Read Plays, each CT post would be counted as an entry for my Giveaway! You can check our characters collection here. And for you who have posted your CTs, please kindly check whether your posts have been added into the list. Poke me if I have missed it! :)

Let’s continue to have fun with plays, and see you again at our next check-in around July….

[Classic Movie] Les Miserables

Actually I’m not a fan of musical movies. The only one I was really satisfied with is The Phantom of The Opera (in Bahasa Indonesia). However, being the latest adaptation of one of Hugo’s masterpieces, and with a numerous talented actors/actresses playing here, I was intrigued at last to take a try on this Tom Cooper’s production. This is not a movie critic, it’s just how I thought of the movie, and it might be somehow biased.


Right after the first scene was on screen, Russell Crowe had drawn my attention. And I kept wondering during the film, wouldn’t Crowe be the more suitable casting for the constantly-brooding Jean Valjean, while Hugh Jackman could play the ever enthusiastic law servant Javert? I still think that would be more interesting. But anyway…I’ve never been in the movie industries…so, it’s just my personal opinion. But I was constantly admiring Javert slightly more than Valjean throughout the film—it’s perhaps because Crowe is so adorable and carries charismatic air in his uniform! Oh, just ignore my fangirling here… :)


The rest of the castings are pretty OK, although I still really don’t understand why Monsieur and Madame Thénardier must be made like a pair of clowns in Disney’s movies. Really!.... It’s only Éponine who is not as I’ve expected. She is lovelier than what I remember from the book, and I think her character here is indeed different from the book; she is sweet here, while in the book she is more bitter and determinate, do I remember correctly? But for me, in this film, Samantha Barks (who plays as Éponine) sings most beautifully among the females (and actually more beautiful and “live” than Cossette—played by Amanda Seyfried—who seems meek and unreal). Éponine’s dying scene in Marius’ embrace is the only one that had shed my tears.

Story and Plot

From what I vaguely remember of the book, the story follows the original story quite well. The plot is similar, but of course you cannot make a 1 hour 20s minutes film to cover the original 1000+ pages’ story! The adaptation is less engaging, and there are many parts that is missing, but what more can you expect?

Setting and Costumes

Both the setting and costumes are satisfying to me. The designers have done their homeworks by presenting the working class of France in 19th century.

Crowe looks good in this
costume, eh?

All in all, this movie is quite entertaining, although sometimes I got bored when the song is too long. My favorite scenes are the opening scene when the convicts singing “Look Down”; Russell Crowe’s “Stars”—I just love the song and Crowe’s sexy voice ;)—and Samantha Banks’ “On My Own”.

Seven to ten stars for this movie!


I watched this for Books Into Movies Monthly Meme #3

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Mill on The Floss

George Eliot is the third Victorian female author whose novel I’ve ever read. The first is Louisa May Alcott (which I have failed), then Anna Sewell. And I have to confess sadly that Sewell is the only one so far I could get on very well; meaning that The Mill on The Floss did not quite impressed me like I have expected. I can blame it on Zola, for I confessed that I haven’t completely moved on from La Bête Humaine before I took The Mill, but I think it’s just me.

The Mill on the Floss is about the Tullivers who owned Dorlcote Mill on the bank of Floss River. There Tom and Maggie Tulliver had a happy childhood and formed an intimate bond as brother and sister. Until one day the Tullivers lost their fortune, land and mill from bankruptcy. Tom must drop out his education and were forced to finance the family on very early age, while the whole family was suffering from humiliation. Meanwhile Maggie met Philip Wakem, the son of Tullivers’ enemy, a hunchback and deformed young man who fell in love with Maggie. Inspired by the childhood sentimental friendship and out of pity, Maggie met Philip secretly.

Years later Tom successfully restored the family honor by paying the debt. While Philip was once again trying to renew his approach to Maggie, the girl found herself attracted to Stephen—her cousin’s fiancée—who returned her feeling. Now Maggie was in a dilemma between love and conscience. Which one should she accept: the man she didn’t love but she couldn’t hurt the heart; or the man she’s in love with, who belonged to her beloved cousin?

Actually this book is rather flat to me especially in the early pages, which I often skipped whenever the story switched to the nonsense Gleggs or Pullets. And although the ending is unexpected—but quite cliché—Eliot has failed to grab me deep into the story.

From the main characters, I did not find any favorite, Maggie is the least one. I felt there was a contradiction in her personality. In a way she was a smart girl with self-esteem, and person like this usually acts more from logic than from emotion. At first I imagined Maggie would grow up like Isabel Archer in The Portrait of A Lady; but the more I follow her story, the more I’m astonished to find Maggie turned to be sentimental and always in confused state. She kept changing her decision and could not be firm with what she has decided.

I think the main youngsters in this story were all selfish in their own ways—yes, even Maggie. Tom was the ‘best of the bad’ for me, for although he was selfish and narrow minded, he has been successful in fulfilling his father’s will. I can’t blame him too much because he had grown up with the fixed idea which his father, the families and the society have planted on him that family honor is number one. Tom has carried a burden too heavy for him; and in that situation, there’s no place for any imagination, and that’s why he kept carrying a straight purpose in life; because he saw that’s the only way he could survive.

Stephen Guest was a pure egoist man. He was born and grown up as the son of a rich and honorable family; he always got what he needed. I think there were a lot of examples of his kind. Philip Wakem was the most annoying one for me. I know that it’s hard to live as a half-crippled man, but that didn’t give him the right to force others to make him happier or make his life easier. It was selfishness too; and I always dislike people who pity himself and make his weakness as an excuse. Life is hard for everyone, but our Creator gives us the mean to survive. To be different with others doesn’t mean we are weaker than them. Wake up Wakem! Don’t just drown yourself in romantic love, there’re many other things in life you can pursue!

And last but not least there is Maggie, the so called ‘heroine’. Maggie was a person who always longed for love, she needed to be treated passionately and be forgiven from her faults, but she never tried quite hard to repentant. Maybe it’s because she was careless and lived in her own dreams; but perhaps it’s because she was indifferent; she lived only for herself. Maggie chose to be with Philip because she didn’t want to hurt Philip and Lucy. That’s ridiculous because with that, she would hurt Stephen AND Philip, because she never loved him. Nonetheless, Maggie kept her decision, because marrying Philip would be a martyrdom kind of act of her love. Selfishness… or narrow-mindedness?

With The Mill on The Floss, Eliot would like to criticize people prejudices; and particularly prejudices which made women suffered. Maggie, with her different way of thinking than the society, have successively made infamous decisions which invited unfair prejudices from the society. Both Maggie and Stephen would be cheating to their supposed partners; but while people forgave Stephen, they judged Maggie severely. This only reflect where women’s position in the society was when Eliot lived—in 19th century—as this novel was also a semi-autobiographical story of Mary Anne Evans, the real name of George Eliot.

Three stars for The Mill on the Floss.


I read the Penguin English Library paperback version

This book is counted for:

Baca Bareng BBI 2013 (April – book about woman/written by a woman)

42nd book for The Classics Club

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Jacques Lantier in La Bête Humaine

If we ignore the ‘human beast’ in him, Jacques Lantier is certainly an amiable young man. He was handsome, tall, with strong built muscles which his job as a train driver required. Despite of having born from poor parents, Jacques was well educated, and he was a skillful engineer and driver too. His manly appearance and his shy and polite manner attracted quite many women.

The most interesting side of our main character in this book (for me, at least) is his love for his train engine: La Lison (the name he gave ‘her’). Being that, Jacques could have been made example of man who really loves what he’s doing. Throughout the story Jacques was always discipline at work, and he disliked his fireman’s manner although he tolerated him as long as he did his job well. Unfortunately, Jacques had also a dark side; a compulsive behavior triggered by sexual passion that he could not control. It’s a pity, because he was genuinely a kind man.

I found Jacques was very attentive towards his aunt; he visited her whenever he was around, and he listened to her sorrows. No wonder, her poor aunty loved him even more than her only daughter. I was quite relieved by how Jacques could listen to his conscience when Séverine persuaded him to kill Roubaud. It only proved that Jacques was not a real murderer, he just had an illness, and could not control it when the seizure came.

In general, I think Jacques had a problem with his explosive passion, just like his brother Claude. So the cure would only be mildly taking everything in life and maintain the balance of his every aspect. It’s much easier to say than to apply in action, of course, not mentioning that Jacques was very attractive. In the end, there was not any good choices for Jacques’ future, and I think what Zola made him in the end is the best for him. Poor Jacques…..

That is my Character Thursday of this week, an analysis of book character of my choice, who is yours?... Just put your post URL in the linky below. Do you like to join us in discussing characters from books you read? See the details of Character Thursday first.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

La Lison in Snow - from La Bête Humaine

If there is one thing I like most from La Bête Humaine—besides the story and what laid beneath it, of course—it is the beautiful way Zola wrote the passages about La Lison’s adventures. La Lison is the name Jacques Lantier gave to his locomotive. Jacques is an engine driver of a railway company, and for an engine driver, his career depends on how he takes care of the engine. Jacques always takes care of La Lison as if she is his lover. He would clean her, caress her, and look after her needs. Jacques knows her character—yes, from my experiences of working in a machinery trading company, I believe engine has its own character—and he loves her for those characters. Jacques can always trust La Lison to work together and give a magnificent output that helps Jacques become one of the most successful drivers for the railway company.

In one of the most thrilling parts of the book, Zola makes La Lison as if she is a woman. It is when La Lison and Jacques must get through a quite heavy snow to get to Paris from Le Havre. I was amazed by how vividly Zola portrayed La Lison here; the scenes I want to capture forever in my memory. Here’re just several of them depicting La Lison in her last journey….

La Lison stood puffing steam and smoke, coupled to a train of seven coaches…. The wind was blowing from the east, and the engine met it head on, lashed by its gusts… But in the darkness the brilliant beam from the headlamp seemed to be swallowed up by the thick, wan drapes of failing snow. Instead of being lit at a distance of two or three hundred meters, the track appeared through a kind of milky fog, from which objects loomed into view only at the very last moment, as if from the depths of a dream.”


“(The speed) was dropping fast, La Lison was laboring, and (Jacques) could feel the increasing resistance of the snow against the plough… The needle on the pressure-gauge had rapidly gone back up to ten atmospheres; La Lison was producing all the power of which she was capable…But it soon recovered, and the engine was snorting and spitting like an animal being driven too hard, rearing and jolting so much one could almost hear its limbs cracking. And Jacques bullied her along as if she were an old woman whose strength was failing, someone he no longer loved as once he had.”


 And indeed at that precise moment Jacques was repeating in exasperation: “She’ll never make it unless we grease her.” And he did what he had seldom ever done, he grabbed the grease-gun to lubricate her while she was running…. And La Lison, with this man clinging to her side, pursued her breathless path into the night, opening up a deep furrow of herself through the fast blanket of white.”


 Up on the plateu, La Lison did in fact make good speed, and without undue difficulty. But she was flagging nevertheless. The driver had constantly to keep opening the firebox door as a sign to the fireman to put more coal on; and each time he did, there rose above the somber-looking train—itself black against all this white and covered in a shroud—the blazing comet’s tail, boring into the night.”


La Lison had just entered a cutting where she should have to plough through snow more than a meter thick. She was now making progress only under the utmost strain, and her whole frame shook with it. For a moment she faltered, as though she might grind to a halt like a ship running onto a sandbank. What weighed her down was the heavy layer of snow which had gradually accumulated on the roofs of the carriages."


On they rolled, black against white along a furrow of white, with their white pall stretched out above them; while La Lison herself was merely trimmed in ermine, that clothed her dark flanks where the snowflakes melted into watery trickles. Once again, despite the weight, she freed herself, and through she went. And up on the broad curve of an embankment, the train could still be seen running easily, like a ribbon of dark shadow lost in a wonderland of dazzling whiteness.”


But soon there were further cuttings… Once again the engine was losing speed. She had run between two banks, and the final halt came slowly, without a jolt. It was as though she had run into glue and it was sticking to every one of her wheels, holding her tighter and tighter till her breath was gone.”


Oh, how could I not falling in love with the man who wrote it? As I have written in my review, It feels as if Zola has painted his idea into a canvas called novel, instead of writing it!

Monday, April 22, 2013

La Bête Humaine

In all human beings there is always the beast within. That’s what Zola wanted to remind us in La Bête Humaine (= the human beast). There’s always the animal side in us which lay side by side with the human conscience deep in our soul. In some people, it might perhaps never been unleashed, and so they would die honorably after living a decent life. However in most of others, this human beast could anytime leap out of them uncontrollably. The interesting question is, why some people can control it, while others can’t? Moreover, could it ever be controlled? And Zola took us to analyze these in this psychological thriller novel.

Jacques Lantier (son of Gervaise and Auguste Lantier—L’Assommoir; brother of Étienne—Germinal and Claude—The Masterpiece) is the main “human beast” in this story. He was an engine-driver of a French railway company; and was a handsome, educated and skilful worker indeed. From the first time Jacques had noticed that in time to time a kind of uncontrollable passion to kill a female would attack him; and when the seizure came, the passion would control his entire mind and body. For the time being he lived a healthy life as there was no female in his life, other than ‘La Lison’, his locomotive engine. But one day when he was visiting his aunt, Jacques was seduced by his cousin Flore who had been falling in love with him for a long time. Then and there the seizure came, and in his runaway of the scene, Jacques witnessed a man cutting another man’s throat in a fast-running train. As a witness in the murder case, Jacques came to the acquaintances of the murderers, Roubaud and his beautiful wife Séverine. When Jacques started to have passionate love towards Séverine, the beast was awaken there within the recess of his soul, waiting for the right time to once again control its master.

No wonder that La Bête Humaine was called the most brutal novel of Les Rougon-Macquart series. Before 60 earlier pages elapsed, we have been offered not less than three murder scenes or murder attempts by three different characters to three different victims. And the murders continued on till the end. Most of all were related to or caused by sexual passion, while others were moved by greediness. At first I was wondering whether the poverty was the root of these beasty passions; when human passion was imbalanced with their brains. However, the murderers came from both the intellectual workers and the uneducated ones, so it’s not that.

Moreover, Jacques was portrayed as an educated man, a dedicated worker with a polite manner. On several occasions, his education and his conscience prevented him to do such low-moral deed, and that’s why Jacques could not kill the man he ought to. But then, Jacques was not a real murderer, he won’t kill a man just because he needed to. When the urge to kill came, it was the ‘beast within’ which dominated his logic and conscience and took over his body. So, whence did the beast come, then? From the way Zola based the Rougon-Macquart series on scientific (taxonomy and physiology) point of view, the answer could be in the hereditary moral corruption. From Jacques’ part, he inherited it from his ancestors—whom were portrayed as ‘a cave man lifted his prey on his shoulder’—and especially from his drunkard parents. Now, did that make sense?

Train dans la neige, 1875, Claude Monet
picturing La Lison, Jacques' train in La Bete Humaine

I’ve been thinking quite a lot after finishing this book. Basically I can accept Zola’s theory of the human beast, the savage ‘animal’ passion in human. However, I also believe in the human free will; the free will God had granted us since we were born. Physically, human kind had perhaps evolved like animals—as Darwin put it—but one thing is sure, God granted us first, the divine spirit in our soul (conscience) to fight the animal passion, and second, the free will to use or not use it.

In this book, Zola focused solely on the losers, those who failed to use their consciences when deciding the murders. Actually, I have had a very slight hope that Jacques would conquer the human beast somehow, but having been knowing Zola much better now, that would be in vain. I know that Zola always intended to capture the worst of human being in order to awaken us to not falling in the same gutter. Jacques, Roubaud, and several other murderers in this book became murderers because they had both the human beast AND the conscience within, but nurtured the former and shut up the latter. Let’s take Jacques for instance, he knew perfectly well why and when the ‘beast’ would show up in him, i.e. when he was sexually aroused by a woman. Jacques was intelligent enough to know that the only thing he must do to prevent the beast from showing up is to stop making up with women and focused solely his passion to his works. It would need a huge effort, but again, we always have the choices, and the free will to choose one. So, we could not put the blame only on the ancestors, as if some of us were doomed to have ancestors with bad moral, and so we can’t do anything but to accept it, no! We can always fight it. The only question is, would we?

Over all, Zola wanted to point out that the rapidly growing industry turned out not to be in line with overall human civilization. With the new century lurking, came the moral decadence; with the prosperity in some area, came the poverty in others. Zola pictured the irony as hundreds and thousands people rushed in express trains to welcome the modernization without ever realizing others around them who struggled with poverty and beasty passion; poor people whom they must have seen from their window for split of seconds, but whom were unrealistic for them. The cost of modernization was often the humanity!

"People go fast now, they know more... But wild beasts are still wild beasts, and they can go on inventing bigger and better machines for as long as they like, there'll still be wild beasts underneath there somewhere."

And the train of modernization would rush pass the humanity with its indiferrence and dignity; without recognizing that in the deep root of the humanity something would soon emerge; slowly and silently, painfully and terrifyingly....the human beast!

I must thank Zola for this brilliant and appalling book, which allowed me to think and reflect a lot. But besides that, I also loved Zola’s vivid portrays of the railway industry; the busy lives around the railways and the clanking and the hissy voices of train coming and going, leaving one civilization to another. But most of all, I loved how Zola personified La Lison. I was actually deeply touched at the ‘death’ of La Lison—imagine when I was weeping over a locomotive! But that’s just the genius in Zola. They are so vivid and so beautiful. Yes, only now I realize that engine can be feminine. The scenes of La Lison went through the snow will always be my favorite! If other writers 'wrote' beautiful passages, Zola beautifully 'painted' them in his novel as a canvas. I doubt if any movie director could even capture that scene into movie in the perfect emotion and feeling as Zola wrote it; only Zola can do it, in his perfect painted novel!

Five whole stars then—I’d love to grant more if I can—for La Bête Humaine. C’est tres bien, Monsieur Zola, merci beaucoup!


I read the Oxford World’s Classics paperback version

This book is counted for:

2nd book for Zoladdiction
41st book for The Classics Club

Friday, April 19, 2013

[Classics Movie] A Christmas Carol

I have actually watched this 2009 computer animated motion-capture adaptation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol last December, but unfortunately I haven’t got chance to review it. So, I replayed my DVD last weekend, and after having lightly browsed the story from my ebook reader to refresh my memory, here’s what I thought about the movie….

What I love most from it, is the setting. The 19th century London is vividly portrayed in the film, as if we are taken into a stroll on the streets, sensing the Christmas spirits around in the cold snowy days as well as nights. I might say that Robert Zemeckis has carefully put small details of what we might have seen from that century every where in this film, including the costumes. And apart from the motion-capture, the setting itself is very vividly captured!

The main characters are also portrayed perfectly (I guess this is the advantage of making animated film, you can create the characters as similar as possible with the book). Ebenezer Scrooge is “scrooge” enough for making others feel the rush of cold sweeping whenever he’s passing by. Fred the nephew is enthusiastic and gay enough to annoy his uncle. Bob Cratchit is melancholy enough to be the poor staff with a big heart for his family. And of course, Tiny Tim is “saint” enough to be the angelic child (seems that Dickens could never resist the temptation to create such angelic child in his tales…).

Now let us talk about the ghost and Scrooge’s encounter with the three of them: of Christmas Past, of Christmas Present, and a Christmas Yet To Come. The Christmas Past ghost might be my favorite, because it does not look like a ghost at all :). The Christmas Present is cheerful enough with his red and green costumes, but I don’t quite like his too-often-laughs which I don’t think appear in the book. And his departure is rather weird, I think…. As for the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, the dark hooded shadow gives a chill reflection all right, but unfortunately Zemeckis was trapped in the typical Hollywood to create a black carriage to chase Scrooge and to make Scrooge shrink to a mouse size. As if every movie must have a suspense effect to catch audiences…. *sigh*

All in all, this is one of the most satisfying classics movie adaptations I have ever watched so far. Two thumbs up and 8.5 to 10 is my generous rating for it. Although it’s still far from Christmas, I can’t resist to borrow Tiny Tim’s greeting to end this review—just as he ended the book—God bless us, everyone!


I watched this for Books Into Movies Monthly Meme #2

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Pierre Sandoz in The Masterpiece: Character Thursday (59)

This young novelist, Claude’s best friend in The Masterpiece, actually represented Émile Zola’s personalities which makes this book the most autobiographical in Les Rougon-Macquart series. Sandoz was portrayed as an amiable and enthusiast young man, loved socializing and was always attentive to his friends. He had a habit of inviting his artist friends to have dinner in his humble house every Thursday evening, and to have warm discussions—or rather debates—around arts and politics after the meals. He continued this habit even after marriage.

Sandoz was indeed the oldest of the gang, but it’s not the only reason that he appeared to have a fatherly quality. Despite of being one of the members of the revolutionary young artists, Sandoz had a proportional and healthy life. Unlike his maniac friends, Sandoz possessed the ability to balance his creativity and his personal life. He did confess that sometimes he would be carried away by his imagination, that he’d forgot everything surround him; he would be drowned into his works and ignored his family. Nevertheless, he still kept his marriage well enough, and he have never neglected the Thursday’s dinner for his friends! I should say that Sandoz was the ‘glue’ of the gang. I believe Sandoz was the wisest and most logical artist of them all.

Portrait of Emile Zola - Paul Cezanne, 1864

Among the young artists, Sandoz befriended Claude Lantier most closely. I think it’s because Sandoz’ fatherly quality perfectly matched Claude’s childish and trustful personalities. Sandoz understood Claude very well, he never laughed at his mistakes, not because he was afraid to hurt his best friend’s feeling, but more because he knew that Claude was very sensitive, and criticizing him openly just brought him down. Sandoz knew how to bring it softly to encourage his friend. And when Claude did not do Sandoz’ suggestion and failed, Sandoz never blamed him.

When Claude completely failed, unlike the others, Sandoz kept befriending him; he even worried about him and took great care of him and Christine. Sandoz was willingly to put his effort and time to take Claude on their strolls to break his despair. And finally, at the funeral, Sandoz faithfully defended his poor friend; and was one of few who attended the funeral and took dear old Claude to his last resting.

What a friend Pierre Sandoz was, and how lucky Claude for having such a good friend! I won’t talk about Sandoz’ novels, for Sandoz is Zola, and we all know how genius this French novelist and Naturalist is!

That is my Character Thursday of this week, an analysis of book character of my choice, who is yours?... Just put your post URL in the linky below. Do you like to join us in discussing characters from books you read? See the details of Character Thursday first.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Turn Of The Century Salon April: Naturalism and Impressionism

During April I read two books from Émile Zola for my Zoladdiction event; one of them is The Masterpiece, which relates quite a lot about the turning of the century, or specifically pointing to the birth of Impressionism. Zola was one of several young artists in Paris who originated the new wave of arts. Having been saturated by the “dark and grim” Romanticism arts, these energetic young men (Zola, Paul Cezanne, Claude Monet and Edouard Manet were among them) introduced more natural, bright sunshine into paintings. I am quoting a few passages from the book, which I believe was Zola’s own thoughts.

…Courbet’s “black” painting is already beginning to feel rusty and reek of a musty studio where the sun never enters… Do you see what I mean? Perhaps that’s what we need now, sunlight, open air, something bright and fresh, people and things as seen in real daylight. I don’t know, but it seems to me that that’s our sort of painting, the sort of painting our generation should produce and look at. ~The Masterpiece, p. 37.

Claude Monet, Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise), 1872

Impressionist painting characteristics include relatively small, thin, yet visible brush strokes, open composition, emphasis on accurate depiction of light in its changing qualities (often accentuating the effects of the passage of time), ordinary subject matter, inclusion of movement as a crucial element of human perception and experience, and unusual visual angles. [wiki]. And Claude Monet with his painting “Impression” has inspired the name of the new style: Impressionist.

Not only in paintings, Zola believed that the naturalism and impressionism should occur also in other branches of arts: music, sculpture, literature, and architectural.

Surely all the arts were intended to march forward together, and the process of change which was taking place in literature, painting, and even music, was going to lead to a renewal of architecture too. If ever there was a century in which architecture should have a style of its own, it was the century shortly to begin, the new century, new ground ready for reconstruction of every kind, a freshly sown field, the breeding ground of a new people. Down with the Greek temples, down with the Gothic cathedrals; belief in legends was dead! Down too with the delicate colonades and the intricate tracery of the Renaissance, that Classical revival crossed with medieval art… What was wanted was an architectural formula to fit that democracy, the power to express it in stone, building which it could feel to be its own, something big and strong and simple, the sort of thing that was already asserting itself in railway-stations and market-halls, the solid elegance of metal girders, developed and refined still further, raised to the status of genuine beauty, proclaiming the greatness of human achievement.” ~The Masterpiece, p. 139.

The Card Players, an iconic work by Cézanne (1892)

Zola also emphasized the condition near the end of the century with a vast rebuilding scheme took place, which also touched the land prices and many people attracted in investments. In short, Zola portrayed the early decadence of the society at the end of the 19th century through The Masterpiece.

We are living in a bad season, in a vitiated atmosphere, with the century coming to an end and everything in process of demolition; buildings torn down wholesale; every plot of land being dug and redug, and every mortal thing stinking of death. How can anybody expect to be healthy? The nerves go to pieces, general neurosis sets in, and arts begin to totter, faced with a free-for-all, with anarchy to follow, and personality fighting tooth and nail for self-assertion. ~The Masterpiece, p. 359

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Literary Hero & Heroine: The Classics Club April Meme

Who is hands-down the best literary hero, in your opinion? Likewise, who is the best heroine?

That’s the April prompt of The Classics Club Meme. For me, hero or heroine must be someone who does things that I admire, which I don’t think I’d be capable to do. I don’t have to have a crush on him (for this would lead to some fangirlings :D) or to like her to be my best friend. It’s just that he/she had done something I believe in.

Literary Hero

At first I had some candidates, mostly I picked from my Top Five Book Boy Friends end of last year and from my Classics Character list. Among them: D’Artagnan, Étienne Lantier, Pip, Ralph Touchett, and even Sydney Carton had come to my radar. But choosing most of them would be just fangirling; as for Ralph Touchett and Sydney Carton, to me, they did all they had done because of ‘love of a woman’. Not that I underrated the power of love, but I really want to pick someone with a greater value than it. And finally I found him!

Ralph from Lord of the Flies

But he’s just an adolescent!—you might have protested :D. Yes, he is an ordinary teenager, and without the incident of being stranded in an uninhabited island, Ralph might always be an ordinary indifferent urban teenager until he’s grown up. But at that certain point, when he was left all alone, betrayed by many of his friends who at first voted him for leading them, when all the others have transferred to be savages, and he won’t have any chance to survive, lonely and terrified; at that critical moment, a teenager he was, Ralph persisted to keep his conscience: ‘Cos I had some sense’. Ralph could simply pretended to join his friends’ tribe to save his life (I think that would be our first instincts); but what makes him my literary hero is that he successfully ignored the temptation and took the risk of losing his life by keeping his conscience. And the fact that he is just a teenager only makes his heroism distinguished from others…. (see also my character analysis on Ralph)

Literary Heroine

It is really more difficult to choose a heroine than a hero, perhaps because back to last centuries women had not been respected as they were in modern era. Or maybe…. Ah..I believe this is the reason—I haven’t read many classics enough about women or women’s struggles! I have tried to bring in mind several female characters, but one that was so prominent is…

Isabel Archer from The Portrait of A Lady

Nicole Kidman as Isabel Archer

Now, you might really protest me, as in The Portrait of A Lady, Isabel seemed to be a loser; instead of getting away from her authoritarian husband, Isabel had chosen to return to him. Then how could that makes her a heroine? It is because Isabel had the courage to live a life she detested. And why did she pick that choice? Because Isabel knew she could not leave her husband just like that, being a woman who ran away from her husband; Isabel knew there won’t be a place for her in the society. She had made a choice of her own—although it turned out to be a huge blunder—so she must take the consequences, and made the best of it. In short, Isabel Archer is an intelligent and very brave woman who refused to be defeated by her husband. I believe—although Henry James did not mention it clearly in the book—that after her decision, she would return to her husband as a new woman. Yes, she surrendered herself physically to him, but not mentally. From then on Isabel would never be afraid of him again; Isabel lived her life because she had chosen it, not from fearing of her husband. (see my character analysis on Isabel)

So, who’s your literary hero and heroine?

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Masterpiece

Should we devote our time and energy to leaving a mark in some way (a painting, a sculpture, an opera, a fortune), or should we indeed ‘spend more time with our family’ and live for the present?

Zola seemed to let us answer the above question by depicting Claude Lantier’s struggles between arts and life, imagination and reality. The Masterpiece—although not Zola’s masterpiece—is a prominent work from the Father of Naturalism which was also the most autobiographical piece from Les Rougon-Macquart series. Claude was the son of Gervaise and Auguste Lantier (in L’Assommoir), now lived in Paris as a painter. Together with his junior artist friends (painters, architect, sculpture, novelist, journalist), he started the new wave of arts, which later on became Impressionism. Zola’s own personalities could be found in Pierre Sandoz, Claude’s closest friend, a novelist who acted as ‘the glue’ of their friendship since school to their adult lives as artists. They met every Thursday to discuss about the fading Romanticism that they hated, and the urge to bring their fresh ideas of Impressionism to public.

Claude was the leader of this group (it is assumed that either Paul Cézanne and/or Claude Monet or Edouard Manet might have inspired his character). Real objects, natures and outdoor landscapes were his obsession—while at that time painters used models for indoor paintings of mythological or historical themes. Unfortunately his paintings were repeatedly rejected by the Salon des Refusés (an exhibition of works rejected by the jury of the official Paris Salon), while his friends—who adopted his ‘Open Air’ ideas and who were less talented than him—could gain successes little by little.

Bennecourt, where Claude & Christine spent their happy times together

Claude then found a perfect landscape in Ile de la Cité for his masterpiece, and became obsessed to paint it in big canvas, using his wife Christine as his nude model. However, no matter how hard he had worked on it and revised it many times over, Claude could never put the painting in a meaningful whole; and this depressed him severely. Claude could never recover from his humiliating failure until the end, and it ruined Christine’s life too in the process.

The Masterpiece (originally L’Oeuvre or The Work) is simply Zola’s way to criticize Parisian arts society. Many of the artists were so obsessed to be famous and a master of their art, that they ignored their private lives, happiness and families. They were never satisfied with their works, and worked madly day and night to create such a masterpiece; often drove themselves to severe despair or even madness. But on the other hand, there was also the Salon with its overwhelming tasks to sort art works from hundreds of artists. The Selection Committee would decide whether their works deserved to be hung for the Salon or not. This committee would walk together from rooms to rooms, inspect each painting, and vote for its inclusion or exclusion.

People gathered to discuss Cezanne's painting,
might it be some kind of the Salon?

I can imagine how tiring the task might have been, and in those pressured events, who could maintain their fair judgment all the time? It was more than possible that a painting of a talented artist would be rejected just because it’s different from the current trend. And don’t forget, there were many collectors who did not understand arts and just took whatever the Salon exhibited as the most valuable paintings to collect. In short, there were so many small wrong aspects in the Salon exhibitions running by men who might not have had enough artistic sense to execute their jobs, while these aspects might have influenced an artist’s failure or fortune, wealthy or poverty.

Although The Masterpiece would not shock you like L’Assommoir or entertain you like Germinal, but it’s enough to take us to see the ugly struggles beneath the beautiful works of arts! Zola wanted also to make us see how a child who was born from generations of drunkards might be deformed either mentally or physically. Claude, in particular, had the problem of madness attack every time he was exposed to an intense emotion. The art was the dearest thing of his existence; it’s his life, it’s his soul….

“What was Art, after all, if not simply giving out what you have inside you?”

But that was also one thing that triggered his madness, and when the madness came, it would dominate him such, that his painting would be one disaster. Oh, poor Claude! The only one which made him happy, caused his ruin. Genius in brain but corrupted in soul….and that was not his fault! It’s his parents’; but most of all, it’s the society…Paris of the late 19th century, under the Second French Empire.

Although the novel has a rather hopeless tone, it actually marks the turning of the century. The birth of impressionism in arts—and painting is only one of them, because it would change architecture, sculpture, literature, and music as well—would certainly bring a new change to the civilization.

Four stars for The Masterpiece, a very interesting and educating novel! And thank you Monsieur Zola for ever writing it….

“What price glory, then, the thing we’d die for?”

“In life everything comes to an end, but nothing is ever repeated.”


I read the Oxford World’s Classics paperback version

This book is counted for:

1st book for Zoladdiction
40th book for The Classics Club