By Steve Kelman

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Earlier this year I wrote a column for Federal Computer Week urging people to read serious fiction. Apropos of that column, though hardly related to my normal subjects of public management and procurement, I want to share with readers that I am just finishing up one of the best novels I have ever read, "L'Ouevre" by Emile Zola (translated into English as "The Masterpiece").

Zola was a late nineteenth-century novelist and journalist; if you've heard of him, it may be because he appears in many history books as the person who broke open the so-called Dreyfus Affair, where a Jewish military officer was falsely accused of treason, convicted and later exonerated. At any rate, The Masterpiece is a lightly fictionalized account of Zola's relationship with the artist Paul Cezanne. Zola and Cezanne were old friends from high school, and Zola defended the painting of Cezanne and other artistic rebels against critics. At the time the novel was released, Zola was already a well-known novelist, and Cezanne was living in obscurity. The novel gives a brilliant portrait of bohemian life in Paris during this time, of Cezanne's yearnings and failures, and of how the annual art "Salon" in Paris was that age's equivalent of the World Series. There are amazing passages where the Cezanne character talks about the dream of an artist ignored during his life to become famous after death -- exactly what ended up happening to him. There is a great passage about journalists following the hot painter of the moment, "dissecting him, his childhood, his studies, where he lived, how he lived, even the color of his socks." After the novel came out, Cezanne never spoke to Zola again. There's a lot here that sounds really contemporary!

It's really ironic that, when the novel came out, Zola was famous and Cezanne unknown. Today, certainly outside France, the opposite is the case.

By the way, no freedom fries remarks please. I often talk about French novels with Marty Wagner and Brian Lorenze of KPMG, both of whom have one French parent and who speak fluent French.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Apr 12, 2007 at 12:08 PM


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