David and Art - "Reading Zola"

Feb 15, 2021

When a great artist returns to a topic over and over again it’s a sign that if we pay attention we could experience something significant.

Last week I mentioned that I hope to someday read through all of August Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle” plays from start to finish. I think that in doing so, what I would get out of it would be a better understanding of Wilson’s vision of life and a very different and valuable angle on American history.

There’s another author I’m already doing something like this with.  A friend and colleague of mine in the history department and I have undertaken to read through an entire cycle of novels by a French writer named Emile Zola. 

Zola was a master of a genre that in Europe was called “naturalism,” but among most

American artists and writers it was called “realism.” 

Zola did a lot of observation and research for each of these novels. He approached his task not unlike that of a scientist.  Valerie Minogue translated the novel entitled Money in the series and in her introduction she explains the way in which an artist parallels what a scientist does.  She says that if an artist takes care to portray his characters and situations accurately “then his results should be at least plausible outcomes. Like the scientist who examines his material, however ugly, in order to analyze and heal, so the novelist would observe and accurately represent social ills in the hope that they might be remedied.” What is true here for Zola is also true for other realists in the fields of photography and painting.

This grand series of novels is called his Rougon-Marquart cycle and he wrote them between 1871 and 1893.  It follows the different branches of a single family through about 25 years of French history encompassing the rise and collapse of the second empire. We’re on our seventh novel in the series right now so we’re moving along.

Why spend time with multiple works by a single artist?  Can’t you get the essence of a great artist in one serving?  Why listen to dozens of recordings by John Coltrane or Willie Nelson?  What do you get from repeated encounters with one particular artist?  What do you get from being a fan?

I think returning time and again to the work of one artist does two things:  first it helps you understand an artist’s technique and style.  If you spend time with a lot of Rembrandt paintings you’ll start to pick up on how he does the things that you like. 

The other pay-off is that you get greater insight into what you yourself find rewarding in art.  You learn what seems particularly enlightening to you—what lifts your spirits in a certain way; what gives you that cathartic moment that great art provides and you learn to anticipate how your favorite artists, whether a musician, poet, novelist or painter takes you there.

And in this way art helps you learn more about yourself.