Tag Archives: Naturalism

Emile Zola on the Destructive Power of Creative Work

French Naturalist Émile Zola (1840-1902) is one of my favorite authors. His most autobiographical novel, L’Oeuvre (The Masterpiece), one of the books in his Rougon-Macquart series, provides insight into Zola’s relationship with his childhood friend, Paul Cézanne. In this excerpt novelist Pierre Sandoz, representing Zola, speaks to his friend, obsessed painter Claude Lantier, representing Cézanne:

“I, whom you envy, perhaps–yes, I, who am beginning to get on in the world, as middle-class people say–I, who publish books and earn a little money–well, I am being killed by it all…. Listen; work has taken up the whole of my existence. Little by little, it has robbed me of my mother, of my wife, of everything I love. It is like a germ thrown into the cranium, which feeds on the brain, finds its way into the trunk and limbs, and gnaws up the whole of the body. The moment I jump out of bed of a morning, work clutches hold of me, rivets me to my desk without leaving me time to get a breath of fresh air; then it pursues me at luncheon–I audibly chew my sentences with my bread. Next it accompanies me when I go out, comes back with me and dines off the same plate as myself; lies down with me on my pillow, so utterly pitiless that I am never able to set the book in hand on one side; indeed, its growth continues even in the depth of my sleep. And nothing outside of it exists for me. True, I go upstairs to embrace my mother, but in so absent-minded a way, that ten minutes after leaving her I ask myself whether I have really been to wish her good-morning. My poor wife has no husband; I am not with her even when our hands touch. Sometimes I have an acute feeling that I am making their lives very sad, and I feel very remorseful, for happiness is solely composed of kindness, frankness and in one’s home; but how can I escape from the claws of the monster? I at once relapse into the somnambulism of my working hours, into the indifference and moroseness of my fixed idea. If the pages I have written during the morning have been worked off all right, so much the better; if one of them has remained in distress, so much the worse. The household will laugh or cry according to the whim of that all-devouring monster–Work. No, no! I have nothing that I can call my own. In my days of poverty I dreamt of rest in the country, of travel in distant lands; and now that I might make those dreams reality, the work that has been begun keeps me shut up. There is no chance of a walk in the morning’s sun, no chance of running round to a friend’s house, or of a mad bout of idleness! My strength of will has gone with the rest; all this has become a habit; I have locked the door of the world behind me, and thrown the key out of the window. There is no longer anything in my den but work and myself–and work will devour me, and then there will be nothing left, nothing at all!”

Are you obsessed with your creative work? Do you wish you could be satisfied, living day to day without creating? Do you manage to balance your creative work and your life better than Pierre Sandoz? How do you do it?

Excerpt from Zola, Emile (2007-10-22). Works of Emile Zola (20+ Works) Includes The Three Cities Trilogy (Les Trois Villes): Lourdes, Rome and Paris, The Fortune of the Rougons, Nana, The Fat and the Thin and more (mobi) (Kindle Locations 45022-45029) MobileReference. Kindle Edition.