Zola: colorist, abstractionist.
Zola and Color Practice
It is useful, in the first instance, to review some of the key constraints on evaluating color in writing.
As soon as we try to move beyond discussions of elementary color symbolism (that of the red sky over Paris in La Curee, for example) or seek to engage in more than a rudimentary decoding of variable color (that of the dyer's water in L'Assommoir), we encounter a blind spot. Color practice is occluded in critical readings of Zola's novels (and of literature more generally). The reader of the chromatic text is, to all intents, color-blind, or at least begins from that position. He or she enters the monochrome space of (conventionally) black-and-white typography, that is, a space where the words "bluish green" appear, in colorist terms, no different on the page from "reddish brown": the verbal medium cannot begin to equal the visual medium. This is an immediate and nonnegotiable constraint on any bid to "read for color."
There is a further constraint: Zola's practice cannot be described within the parameters of normative ekphrasis. Zola's search for color or his move to inscribe color (which is a bid to activate the suggestion of color in the reader's mind) develops independently of any reference to a specific artwork and even to artwork in general, thereby resisting traditional definitions of ekphrasis. There is no verifiable given art model against which to read Zola's visual quality, the visuality of his writing. In this respect Zola's approach may be seen as the antithesis of the appropriative or colonizing bid of ekphrasis, which seeks to subordinate a given visual image to the presumed hegemony of the verbal medium.
It is clear that we must approach Zola's visuality differently: as a medium that is both distinct from and parallel to that of painting. My approach here is fundamentally interartistic in that it seeks to suggest and intimate reciprocities, connections, and analogues between visual and verbal media. Rather than speculate on the influence of particular artworks, I aim to explore the visuality of Zola's writing.
Beyond ekphrastic resistance, there are other constraints upon reading Zola chromatically. First, one can perhaps get beyond the story (to the horizon of symbol or allegory), but one cannot get beneath it: the plot is the ground that shapes the choice of metaphors and informs visuality. Color inevitably contains and reveals the inflection of story. Color cannot be subjectless and pure in the writerly medium in the way that a painting by Mondrian or Rothko might appear maximally abstract; thus, we confront an absolute difference of medium. Immersed in the diachronic work of reading a narrative, the reader is telos-bound to carry that story with him or her and to interpret the color instance on that basis, to seek meaning and to project meaning back onto that color instance. The incommensurable differences between the arts mean that reading for color is an activity at once tantalizing and variously constrained.
If the persistence of a blind spot over the writing (and the reading) of color is predictable, not to engage with Zola's color practice would be paradoxical given the writer's scrupulous inscription in his art criticism of the chromatic qualities of painting, and given the consummate color work of his fiction writing. While we must remain attentive to those intermedial differences and to what Peter Dayan in his introduction to Art as Music, Music as Poetry, Poetry as Art terms the "incalculable" relationship between artistic media, it is also possible and, arguably, productive to seek to probe potential intermedial analogues (3). Dayan offers a way forward when he invokes Mallarme's concept of "transposition" to articulate the shift of means (moyens) from one medium to another as a strategy for overcoming the disjunction between the arts (41).
While Zola's aesthetic may appear, at first, impossibly remote from the abstractionist and nonfigurative projects of Mallarme or of Whistler, there are forces of rapprochement that turn around color (and which include but exceed Zola's appreciation of the cobalt blues and the golds of Whistler). (5) So I propose to work analogically, focusing on the analogical means and the analogical effects of color transposed into language. I explore the following questions: How does color come to language? How pure or abstract can color-in-language be and, conversely, how is it informed by affect? What is the relation between pure (or purer) color or abstract figuration and affectively freighted chromatic representation? Is it viable to speak of a geography of color in narrative, one that maps to evocations of seascape and landscape, while unfolding its own chromatic variability? Does a color geography emerge that reveals the fault lines of affect amid the flatter, planal zones of color? I track instances where color-in-language gets away from the representational or figurative project of narrative, when, briefly, it slips free of narrative intentionality. Yet color is always expressive of something, not only of referents outside the literary work but also of referents inside the novel (plot, character, or situations); color-in-language is the expression of what we as readers bring to it. In this, color works remarkably like a painting by Manet or an Impressionist painting that, as Zola experienced himself when evaluating Manet's early paintings, at once draws us into the subject and, at least as much, into the process and into the materiality of art.
Mapping those instances when, briefly, color appears to elude narrative intentionality and approach abstractionism, I explore seascape in La Joie de vivre (1884) and landscape in La Terre (1887) and outline a model for reading Zola chromatically. The choice of these relatively late novels in the Rougon-Macquart cycle is motivated, for their publication is contemporaneous with Zola's culminating contribution to the understanding and promotion of modern art. (6) More precisely, the development of the later novels of his Rougon-Macquart cycle is informed by Zola's fuller encounter with art from Manet to Jongkind, Pissarro, and Monet in the period 1867-81. The two novels postdate the death of Manet in 1883, which marked Zola greatly; their writing coincides with the move of Impressionism away from empirical and referential constraints to explore a more poetic and abstractionist quality. It is this more poetic quality of visuality that emerges in Zola's writing and is characterized by the stress on color and the move toward abstraction. Already in 1879 Zola was capturing the Impressionists' techniques in ways that present a compelling analogue with the abstractionist qualities of his own writing"
[Les Impressionistes] poussent l'analyse de la nature plus loin, jusqu'a la decomposition de la lumiere, jusqu'a l'etude de l'air en mouvement, des nuances, des couleurs, des variations fortuites de l'ombre et de la lumiere, de tous les phenomenes optiques qui font qu'un horizon est si mobile et si difficile a rendre. (Leduc-Adine, Pour Manet 170; my emphasis)
One discerns in the final phrase Zola's sense of a shared preoccupation with the capturing of the movement of light and color effects. In 1884, the year of the publication of La Joie de vivre, in an important retrospective assessment of the early and changing reception of Manet, Zola writes of how the leader of modern painters pursues the abstractionist project through carefully crafted images: "Il [...] arrivait a faire de la lumiere avec son pinceau" (Leduc-Adine, Ecrits sur l'art 454). (7)
I first want to consider how landscape becomes a ground for referential dissolution, prismatic discernment, and abstraction. To this end I turn first to the later of the two novels, La Terre (1887), which offers some fascinating prospective analogues in terres of Monet's Haystacks series of 1889-91. (8)
Mariners of the Beauce: La Terre (1887)
I begin not with the novelist who writes in a visual way but with an artist who seeks to express in words his response to visual art. When Kandinsky recalls, in 1895, his encounter with a work in Monet's Haystacks series of 1889-91, his appraisal of the painting is strongly marked by the experience of visual confusion and epistemological uncertainty:
Ce fut le catalogue qui m'apprit qu'il s'agissait d'une meule. J'etais incapable de la reconnaitre. Et ne pas la reconnaitre me fut penible. Je trouvais egalement que le peintre n'avait pas le droit de peindre d'une facon aussi imprecise. Je sentais confusement que l'objet faisait defaut au tableau. Et je remarquai avec etonnement et trouble que le tableau non seulement vous empoignait mais encore imprimait a la conscience une marque indelebile. [...] Ce qui m'etait parfaitement clair, c'etait la puissance insoupconnee de la palette qui m'avait jusqu'alors etait cachee [...]. La peinture en recut une force et un eclat fabuleux. Mais inconsciemment aussi, l'objet en tant que l'element indispensable du tableau en fut discredite. (97; my emphasis)
The painter describes an experience of reception analogous to that relayed by the subjectivist viewpoint of Jean Macquart, the protagonist of La Terre. Experiencing the landscape of the Beauce for the first time, Jean develops an acute sense of the geography of desolation and a concomitant alertness to the elements and their effect on the earth. Jean's contact with the natural environment is accompanied by the abstractionist turn of description; this is marked by the abolition of defined objects and by the expression of interpretive uncertainty or equivocation, tropes that articulate something of Jean's struggle to make sense of the landscape. Consonant with the abstractionist turn of Impressionist painting, Naturalist writing eludes here its own drive to determine and to naine, resisting its normative fixity. Color, whether instanced in light pools or dark patches, precedes "meaning" and momentarily blocks or undoes representationalist desire; writing forecloses access to referents ("de petites silhouettes noires, de simples traits de plus en plus minces, [...] se perdaient a quelques lieues," 4: 368; my emphasis). Here the syntax performs the process of silhouettes becoming lines, marks, and dots before vanishing altogether as the syntax and the sense intimate: human forms are disembodied, abstracted, and evacuated into simple marks on canvas. There is a discernible contraction of the "fleshy" body of Naturalist verisimilitude to a "trait," a line, a dash, the stroke of a pen as the systole of abstraction displaces Naturalism's diastole. Naturalism, in such instances, is dissolved by the "nearly not there" of abstractionism. The object is evacuated or emptied as an object and returns abstracted as a line or graphic sign, and epistemological confusion or uncertainty surfaces (as it did for Kandinsky when he encountered Monet's Meules). Narrative unfolds the abstractionist process, for as we read along the sentence and reconstruct the scene in out mind's eye we experience something of that process: writing renders this through reflexive verbs in the imperfect tense that impart a sense of process, elongation, and motility, and through a persistent focus on the monochrome. Qualities of indetermination and indistinctness signal a striking degree of resistance within Zola's writing to the tenets of Naturalism. Jean is "enveloppe dans la poussiere vivante du grain" (4: 368). He is gloved in cereal dust; his skin is as if pulverized and subsumed. Naturalist writing reveals, enacts even, an unexpected consonance with abstractionism or the move toward it. The work of toiling bodies in the field is lifted out of those bodies and imparted to surface and curve. The energy and the movement of bodies reverberate through landscape in prefiguration of the Expressionist aesthetic. Writing seems to pull away from the here and now and to begin to impart sensation through abstractionist instances and intimations of disembodied feeling, as if the land were reshaped as a geography of sentience and remembrance" "la plaine en prenait un frisson" (4: 369).
Where Jean is the neophyte, struggling to gain a view, Francoise Mouche, his future wife, is the experienced viewer and interpreter, an acute reader of the physical and social geography of the Beauce:
"Voila mon oncle Fouan avec ma tante Rose, la-bas, qui s'en vont chez le notaire", dit Francoise, les yeux sur une voiture grande comme une coque de noix, fuyant a plus de deux kilometres. Elle avait ce coup d'oeil de matelot, cette vue longue des gens de plaine, exercee aux details, capable de reconnaitre un homme ou une bete, dans la petite tache remuante de leur silhouette. (4: 372)
Francoise surveys with a "seaman's eye," which suggests an uncommon and practiced capacity for viewing and for visualizing. As befits a character in a Naturalist novel, Francoise has developed a dual aptitude for seeing far in the distance and for discerning detail, determining whether a moving dark speck is a human being or an animal. What is conspicuous here, beyond Francoise's seeing and her sense-making, is the narrative insistence on visual equivocation, blurring, and indistinctness: the conditions for abstraction are inscribed in the text, both in the world of the recit and in the rhetoric. Francoise's capacity for visual discernment responds to Naturalism's desire to know and to name. Significantly, however, we find the Naturalist text contesting and problematizing its own criteria and its processes from the inside, reflecting on the negotiation of abstraction that is synecdochally present in the lexicon of "fuir" and "tache." Reading and deciphering are linked here to the desire to distinguish and to name ("un homme ou une bete"), while the coordinating conjunction "ou" captures a sense of variability and substitutability that is abstractionist.
Color, linked to the partial erasure of subject matter, becomes a site of abstractionist process revealed by the novel's palette of green, ochre, gold, yellow, and white. Color and antirealism coincide where, at the Fouans' home on the evening of the drawing of lots, the large hat of the surveyor ("un chapeau noir tourne au roux, monumental") takes on enormous proportions in the viscous light: "La nuit tombait, l'etroite fenetre donnait une derniere lueur boueuse, dans laquelle le chapeau prenait une importance extraordinaire, avec ses bords plats et sa forme d'urne" (4: 417). The narrative insists on chromatic modulation linked to formal alteration as "black" dissolves into "russet": writing invests in prismatic and formal variation and alteration, and in the modulations of monochrome. It is worth reflecting on the capacity and the constraints of "abstraction" in Zola's agrarian novel: abs-traire (Latin: abstrahere) means that writing pulls away from the actual object (Naturalism's normative focus), and yet it absorbs (and perpetuates) certain qualities of the object of empirical fact. Here, the bat is obstructing everything ("barrant les choses," 4: 420), occluding the vision of all other objects (and blocking their narrative representation). The viewer's and the reader's attention are drawn to the hat's form and surface ("bords plats," "forme d'urne"), but the original object qua object is "degrade" (to borrow Kandinsky's term), at least in the neutral sense of being erased partly or wholly, or having its primary significance evacuated.
At the end of part 1 of the novel, Jean Macquart is leaving the home of the Fouans, having spent the evening reading aloud an anti--ancien regime text, a work of Bonapartist propaganda. As he walks home Jean tries to reflect on the significance of the text and its exhorting of the peasant class to patience and perseverance. The real of political propaganda and state authority, inscribed in the ideological rhetoric of the tract, is challenged at this point by an ideal that is color freighted. When Jean's thoughts fail him and his line of political reasoning loses distinctness, the prosaic real cedes to the ideal intimated by a painterly description of the sky studded with stars. The evocation of blue crystalline light reveals writing's prismatic and abstractionist project. "Le ciel etait redevenu vif et clair, crible d'etoiles, un grand ciel de gelee d'oU tombait un jour bleu, d'une limpidite de cristal; et la Beauce, a l'infini, se deroulait toute blanche, plate et immobile comme une mer de glace" (4: 438). The flight from the here and now of Naturalist representation entails the evacuation or dissolution of the real that takes place through metaphor's abstractionist process. The choice of lexicon and of simile (metaphor) performs this flight from representationalism as the land becomes a sea of ice, as the cereal morphs into the glacial, as the blue crystalline light dilates, and as a white infinity unfolds. The landscape is captured in process ("etait redevenu," "se deroulait"). Often this process of becoming (or the state of what has "become") evokes disembodied sensation, so the crystalline light conjures up the corporeal through visual and haptic resonances (thermal, hard tactility of crystal), and, one might also suggest, acoustic resonances given the silence of stars. Here, the evacuation of landscape--the space is empty of humans--corresponds to (solicits even?) the dissolution of thought (which is always transitive: a "thinking (of) something") that is commensurate with Jean's loss of certainty and the turn from cognition to purer sensation. His reading of Bonapartist propaganda earlier that evening had stirred questions about what is and what might be, questions that are not only optical but also epistemological and existential and that shape and are shaped by the ideological specificity of Bonapartist propaganda. The character's experience ("tout ce qu'il avait lu lui tournait dans la tete [...] Il ota sa casquette [...] ayant besoin de ne plus penser a rien") marks an analogous movement from precision (the precise rhetoric of propaganda; the preciseness of typography) to the swirl of memories or impressions ("tout [lui] tournait dans la tete"), and to the impulse to abolish thought and erase figuration (4: 438).
The prismatic project is consolatory (of character, of narrator, of reader) at the point where thought is abolished ("ne plus penser a rien"). The capacity of color-writing to abstract or undo thought counters and, to a degree, transforms the dysphoric drive of the narrative. This emerges explicitly in the thematic persistence of sexual conflict and violence. For example, the exasperation felt by the farmer Hourdequin when faced with his conniving mistress Jacqueline (La Cognette) is assuaged each time by the sight of his green fields stretching far into the distance. As the wheat fields roll out their color as color, their swathe of greenness absorbs Hourdequin (in every sense of the word), and the self is as if evacuated into that greenness:
Toujours, ses querelles avec la Cognette finissaient ainsi: apres avoir tempete et serre les poings, il cedait la place, oppresse d'une souffrance que soulageait seule la vue de son ble et de ses avoines, roulant leur verdure a l'infini. (4: 451)
The focus on abstract quality ("roulant leur verdure a l'infini") and on the color concept bears comparison with Mallarme's turn from the objectal to embrace the conceptual and the ideal, or its reverse in "une ligne d'azur mince et pale serait un lac" (in "Las de l'amer repos"). More than this, colorist figuration bears an affective charge. Writerly immersion in prismatic process and painterly precision is consolatory for the reader, as well as for fictional characters. The aversive reality represented by the brutal Buteau is transcended, metamorphosed, or abolished for the reader who is drawn into the poetics of Zola's visuality:
La Beauce, devant [Buteau] deroula sa verdure [...] depuis le moment oU les pointes vertes se montrent, jusqu'a celui oU les hautes tiges jaunissent. [...] D'abord, dans les grands carres de terre brune, au ras du sol, il n'y eut qu'une ombre verdatre a peine sensible. Puis ce vert tendre s'accentua, des pans de velours vert, d'un ton presque uniforme. (4: 531)
Just as the colors of the land are distinct and changing, so the narrative attention invested in color as process solicits in the narrator (and in the reader) generous actions of discernment and enriched imaginative reconstruction. The erasure of the object is accompanied by a focus on the texture of color and an experience that is haptic and visual. Through its successive lexical adjustments, painterly writing captures (creates) chromatic variation: "le vert jaune du ble, le vert bleu de l'avoine, le vert gris du seigle [...] les plaques rouges des trefles incarnat" (4:531). Tonal variation is modulated in terms of color at least as much as the object itself wherever the focus is deflected from the thing toits prismatic particularity: "Un vacillement palissait les teintes, des moires de vieil or couraient le long des bles, les avoines bleuissaient, tandis que les seigles fremissants avaient des reflets violatres" (4:531). Later, in the August heat, the green folds of the Beauce gradually turn yellow, the prismatic process materializing as a sea of blondness, an incandescent ocean: "[La nappe verte] etait maintenant une mer blonde, incendiee, qui semblait refleter le flamboiement de l'air, une mer roulant sa houle de feu, au moindre souffle" (4: 564). The chromatic process is captured in the "turn," in the insistence on variation and becoming, and thus a sense of time and of process is imparted to surface and to substance, linked to questions of existence and mortality.
As well as transfiguration and abolition there is deep introjection in color: color is not invariably a phenomenon separate from the fictional character who is the diegetic viewer, but emerges as formative of subjectivity; thus there is a correlation between the abolition of a corporeally present human subject and that subject's deeper absorption in color. There is an "almost-identity" between human subject and color that transcends the character and takes on a universal significance, still human but impersonal: "une inquietude venait, celle que l'homme n'en vit jamais le bout, avec son corps d'insecte, si petit dans cette immensite" (4: 564). Thus, anxiety pushes through, inflecting Zola's chromatics.
Notwithstanding the transcendence or suspension of the narrative telos in such instances, these abstractionist and chromatic instances bear a significant affective freight, often one of estrangement and alienation experienced or intuited in the encounter of the human individual with overwhelming nature: "Rien que du ble, sans qu'on apercut ni une maison ni un arbre, l'infini du ble" (4: 564).
The absorption of human subjects (or subjectivity) into the landscape is part of the abstractionist project of La Terre. Abstraction and affect are deeply connected to each other, a link that Gilles Deleuze foregrounds in relation to the painting of Francis Bacon (70). Allied to this, the body seems to escape into its own interiority, leaving only some conceptual trace of its physicality. The contortion of a woman at work on her peas seems to produce a near-metamorphosis of her body: she becomes "une femme a quatre pattes" (4: 467), as some corporeal qualities loom and others recede. If we read attentively we see that the bending Lise leaves not primarily "son derriere" but its "rondeur"; she offers for appraisal not a material object but rather an idea or concept: "[elle] ne montra[i]t plus d'elle que la rondeur enflee de son derriere" (4: 468).
There is a similar instance where Francoise constructs a haystack that begins to dwarf her (4: 482), recalling Millet's drawings of faggot-carrying women who are gradually eclipsed by their loads. (9) It is as if Zola's character, like Millet's, is progressively absorbed into the object that she constructs, an abstraction that involves subsuming the body. It is, paradoxically, the absorption or near-erasure of the human body in the material world that articulates something of the deep connection of peasants to the land and foregrounds the rigors of physical work.
Deleuze, in his reading of Francis Bacon's art, identifies as a defining trope of abstract painting the escape of one body or one entity into another in the color plane (17-19). For Deleuze, indiscernibility is integral to Bacon's art, where being ("etre") never resolves to a defined human or object (or animal) form. The human figure merges with the materiality of the thing or with the organicity of the animal (and vice versa). Moreover, Deleuze underscores the evacuation of corporeality as a feature of certain twentieth-century literature, a salient point if we read Zola's abstractionist project as, in some respects, a proto-modernist. (10) Prospectively, Zola raises in his own medium a similar range of questions: he is often less intent on capturing the "thing" (which is assumed to define Naturalism's raison d'etre and shape its objectives) and rather more intent on exploring narrative resistance to "thingness." (11) If things elude capture, if they flee determination, they cause the focus to swing around to the viewer, who may be a fictional character, a textual narrator, or a real-life reader whose unresolved view and indeterminate knowledge are defining qualities of the modern or modernist work.
Epistemological uncertainty is often provoked at the point of collision or convergence of body and material object, which is frequently highlighted or counterpointed by color in Zola's writing. Thus, when old Mouche's body somersaults and lands spread-eagled on the floor in part 2, his exorbitant left eye, which a thumb persists in seeking to close, keeps opening and appearing to survey everyone. Here visual agency is merely mimicked by the character while actual visual powers, abstractionist and prismatic, are vested in the narrator and the reader:
L'oeil gauche, referme trois fois d'un coup de pouce, s'obstinait a se rouvrir, et semblait regarder le monde, dans cette face decomposee et violatre, qui tranchait sur la blancheur de la toile. (4: 459)
Here Mouche's violet-tinged face is described in terms of its color, as an abstract prismatic instance rather than a fleshly phenomenon. The literal ground of the image, which is also the ground of color, is the canvas or cloth ("toile"); so, analogically, it is the ground of the page on which are projected the words capable of stirring the reader's memory of a chromatic experience. The violet color comes into focus against the "face decomposee" (the adjective is suggestive of art's destructuring of the elements of empirical reality) and against the achromatic neutrality of the page and the end of the paragraph. (12) This is the blankness against which color surges. Violet is also the sign (the agent, even) of violence, where the thumb in the eye or repeated thumbing of the eye signais a desired blinding. The problematization of visual agency is a trope expressed across Zola's chromatic and abstractionist instances. How color is articulated, how it appears, how it is created, and how it is received are key to the visual project of the broadly contemporaneous novel La Joie de vivre, which takes us into the chromatics of seascape.
Marine Monochromes: La Joie de vivre (1884)
Just as Monet's landscapes with haystacks intrigued Kandinsky, so did the Impressionist painter's seascapes captivate Mallarme and Zola, as later they would fascinate Proust. (13) The appreciation of Monet by Zola and Mallarme is expressed in terres that suggest analogies with their writerly aesthetic. Mallarme, attentive to transparency and to abstractive qualities, writes in an English review in 1876:
Claude Monet loves water, and it is his especial gift to portray its mobility and transparency, be it sea or river, grey and monotonous, or coloured by the sky. I have never seen a boat poised more lightly on the water than in his pictures or a veil more mobile and light than his moving atmosphere. ("Impressionists" 117)
By this time Zola had become an established, regular commentator on Monet's seascapes in his writings on art. Indeed, as early as 1868, in "Mes Salons," he offered an affirmative, deeply thought appraisal of Monet that relates visual sensation to acoustic and kinetic values:
Chez [Monet], l'eau est vivante, profonde, vraie surtout. Elle clapote autour des barques avec de petits flots verdatres, coupes de lueurs blanches, elle s'etend en mares glauques qu'un souffle fait subitement frissonner; elle allonge les mats qu'elle reflete en brisant leur image, elle a des teintes blafardes et ternes qui s'illuminent de clartes aigues. Ce n'est pas l'eau factice, cristalline et pure, des peintres de marine de chambre, c'est l'eau dormante des ports etalee par plaques huileuses; c'est la grande eau livide de l'enorme ocean qui se vautre en secouant son ecume salie. (Leduc-Adine, Ecrits sur l'art 208-9)
Zola's verbal virtuosity articulates Monet's prismatic subtlety and his attention to material process and to the affective quality of color and texture. Zola's poetics captures the muddying of color, the particular inflections made by dirt and residue. It stresses the evacuation of color and its replacement by detritus and the signs of death. (14) Thus he sets Monet's seascapes, with their attentiveness to movement and stillness, in contradistinction to the confectionery representations of the sea produced by academic painters. A dozen years later, Zola would again capture Monet's capacity for tonal variation in "Le Naturalisme au Salon," this time in relation to the brilliance and vividness of his rendering. Monet is, in Zola's assessment, "un paysagiste incomparable, d'une clarte et d'une verite de tons superbes. Il y a surtout en lui un peintre de marines merveilleux: l'eau dort, coule, chante dans ses tableaux, avec une realite de reflets et de transparences que je n'ai vue nulle part." (15) (Ecrits sur l'art 425-6).
La Joie de vivre unfolds a vision of the sea that registers an analogous sense of variability where beauty rivais with savagery, and generation vies with destruction. As in La Terre Zola's writing foregrounds the visual acuity of the color-alert viewer and, in the process, unfolds the visual capacity of narrative. Parallel to the neophyte Jean in La Terre, Pauline Quenu, the newcomer to the Normandy coast, is the primary focus for the visualization of the sea in La Joie de vivre:
son unique recreation [a Pauline] etait de regarder la mer, toujours vivante, livide par les temps noirs de decembre, d'un vert delicat de moire changeante aux premiers soleils de mai. (3: 847)
Here the syntax and the lexicon articulate something of the fictional viewer's time-bound, phased appreciation of the sea: Pauline's alertness to color and texture registers the variability of visual impressions and the modulation of affect between optimism and despair. The writing mimes the specificity of writing on art, with modulations taking place within a restricted range of colors that is indicative of the prismatic self-sufficiency of writing. (16)
Monochrome evocations of the sea and the coast prevail, with white, black, and green forming the dominant notes of Zola's palette, counterpointed by colorlessness. The colorist self-sufficiency of Zola's palette, its adequation, contrasts, on the affective plane, with the focal lack and the longing experienced by Pauline. The concentration of color references deployed in Zola's writing of the sea is the site of tension (just as they are in Monet's colors as discussed by Zola): beauty cohabits with pain; a sense of futility accompanies feelings of wonderment. The tension around color chimes with Mallarme's evocation of "azur," the poet's marine metonym and the point of access to his metaphysics. A color concept (rather than simply a color), "azur" expresses "la sereine ironie" of his early poem "L'Azur" (1864, published 1865). Azure and the sea are in sublime counterpoint to "la revolte inutile et perverse" that is the summum of his tortured experience of seeking to combine the search for beauty and the expression of mental or metaphysical agony. (17)
In this dystopian novel haunted by death, it is color (frequently monochrome color) that articulates and seems to absorb the obsession with futility, hopelessness, morbidity, and death (just as it offers a source and a site of consolation). Death is the purest abstraction visited upon the coastal village of Bonneville that is eroded with each violent storm. Jean Borie, in his preface to the novel, makes a compelling link between the theme of mortality and the color metaphor: "La mort ne reste plus sagement incluse dans le destin de l'homme, elle agit comme une couleur qui quitterait l'image sur laquelle le peintre essaie de l'appliquer, de la localiser, une couleur diffusante, proliferante et sournoise, une chose d'epouvante, universelle" (11). Coloris treacherous in its mouvance, its instability, and its propensity to saturation and to infiltration. Coloris not simply around characters; rather, a certain feeling for color enters them, floods their consciousness, and haunts them. This is evident where Lazare's perspective is mapped.
Lazare goes to look at the sea and, through his deep visual and mental penetration of shapes and colors, observes that the meaning of his existence-indeed, the meaning of existence tout court--seems to bave changed. There is a strong abstractionist turn when Lazare, overwhelmed by the thought of his mother's imminent death, observes the sea and the shore lose their distinctness for him. Now the familiar seems to melt and dissolve, and the concept of knowing is itself called into question:
Lazare restait une minute immobile, a regarder un bateau pecheur de Port-en-Bessin, dont la voile grise rasait l'eau comme l'aile d'une mouette. [...] Sa mere allait mourir! Cela retentissait a grands coups dans son etre. [...] Pendant des minutes entieres, tout ce qui l'entourait disparaissait; ensuite, lorsqu'il revoyait les sables, les algues, la mer au loin, cet horizon immense, il s'Etonnait un instant sans le reconnaitre. Etait-ce donc la qu'il avait passE si souvent? Le sens des choses lui semblait changE, jamais il n'en avait ainsi pEnEtrE les formes ni les couleurs. (3: 973)
Tropes of abstraction ("tout ce qui l'entourait disparaissait") and rematerialization ("il revoyait les sables, les algues") trigger Lazare's coming-to-consciousness and spur epistemological inquiry, a process inextricable from the deep shared contemplation of colors and forms. Lazare's coming-to-consciousness is prefigured by Pauline's initial awakening to uncertainty, an experience related to monochrome foreboding. From the house Pauline watches the window darken and become saturated with "un noir d'encre" (3: 819-20). Successively, the window is an impenetrable wall and then a mass of darkness into which water, sky, village, and church have all "sombrE." Zola's evocation of this inaugural moment of existential uncertainty foregrounds tropes of dissolution, abstraction, and the loss of recognizable forms: everything is reduced to the self-saine color, and to the medium of writing's inscription and its dissolution ("encre"). Indeed, "noir d'encre" instances the dual preoccupation with color and writing (with color-writing). Looking at the window of impenetrable blackness induces Pauline's desire to see and to know ("elle cherchait la mer, elle Etait tourmentEe du dEsir de savoir jusqu'ou cette eau allait monter," 3. 820). At this point, as so often, Zola's soundscape takes over, the acoustic effecting its own abstraction of the visual and constraining viewing agency" "elle n'entendait que la clameur grandir [...] Plus une lueur, pas meme une paleur d'Ecume, sur le chaos des ombres; rien que le galop des vagues, fouettE par la tempete, au fond de ce nEant" (3: 820).
In La Joie de vivre visual and chromatic sensation and reflection (interiority) coincide. Pauline will return repeatedly to the shore, entranced by the process of the sea, which is analogous with the description of indistinction and abstraction: "Ce spectacle semblait l'absorber, malgrE la poussiere d'eau ou maintenant tout se confondait, une poussiere grise qui montait de la mer, criblEe par la pluie" (3: 910; my emphasis). Coloris thus modulated, to use Deleuze's category by tropes of diffusion and pulverization (133).
The greyness and the dustlike quality of the water ensure that colorlessness prevails over the prismatic project; the powdery quality brings a negative vitality commensurate with visual opaqueness and mental occlusion. The development from "poussiere d'eau" to "poussiere grise," from assumed transparency to opacity, reinforces the conjunction of the visual and the haptic. Zola, in his novel, inscribes the painterly effects of movement, disintegration, abstraction, and states of indistinction in the interplay of visual and other sensations. There is a strong consonance between the writerly seascapes of La Joie de vivre and Zola's art-critical reflections on the intentional greyness and the glaucous, dirty quality of Monet's seascapes where the visual is progressively challenged by the textural and haptic (Leduc-Adine, Ecrits sur Part 208-9).
It is, inevitably, a critical commonplace to underline the irony of Zola's title La Joie de vivre. Might that sense of unalloyed irony invite nuancing in terms of the color capacity of Zola's writing? Assuaging darkness and compensating nihilism, Zola's creamy whites saturate surfaces that are proximate and human: there is the poetic evocation of the milky camellia-petal transparency of Pauline's skin ("son visage immobile reprit sa transparence laiteuse de camElia," 3: 825). Here it is not the skin but the skin's transparency, the immaterial quality that receives a colorist treatment. Whiteness renders texture through metaphor that has both visual and haptic value (the remembered smoothness of the camellia petal). Zola extends the monochrome range and takes this in the direction of values of richness and beauty, driving forward his bid to write color, texture, and light in abstract ways (like the rondeur of Lise in La Terre noted above). When the same character enters the water, the metaphorics changes and iridescence is materialized analogically: the naked whiteness of Pauline's shoulder is evoked as "vague et laiteuse comme le nacre d'un coquillage" (3: 871). Zola's metaphorics indicates a flight to purity, a will to abstract the constraining here and now of the benighted Bonneville. (18)
Paradoxically, the sea is often less visible and less visual in this novel than acoustic and haptic. Floating on her back, Pauline experiences pleasurable feelings where sensual pleasure prevails over visual capacity: "elle s'abandonnait a elle, heureuse d'en sentir le ruissellement immense [du flot glacE et chaste] contre sa chair" (3: 871). This immersion in the visual and haptic aspects of the color phenomenon offers consolation, even respite and temporary escape as abstraction becomes experiential as much as aesthetic ("perdue au fond de tout ce bleu," 3: 871; my emphasis). Physical sensation intimates a metaphysical aspiration or desire linked to the seizing of prismatic beauty.
Where visual immersion in the landscape of La Terre appears often to be recorded via a long view, that set perhaps by the "mariner-viewer" Francoise, in La Joie de vivre visual and corporeal immersion in the sea optimizes more frequent close-up vision in the corporeal contact with water. Narrative moments that are slowed or static (in terms of plot unfolding) are moments of significant "opening up" to color sensation, which is often a source of consolation (or relief or distraction). Prismatic pleasure linked/related to other haptic pleasures requires and rewards the slowing of narrative telling: "La mer Etait toujours la, infinie, rEpEtant sans cesse les memes horizons, dans sa continuelle inconstance. N'Etait-ce pas hier qu'ils l'avaient vue, de ce bleu de turquoise, avec ses grandes moires pales, ou s'Elargissait le frisson des courants?" (3: 1063). Color seems to "pool" in this description, and the reader, like the fictional viewer, is drawn to a purer prismatic space, a space evacuated of any particular meaning or designation. Through color linked to an abstractive project, Zola's develops a poetics where the wildness of the seascape is taken forward in a narrative that balances movement and counters destruction with the creation of sublime pools of color.
The two novels explored here in terres of their color-writing and abstractionist instances reveal a sensibility profoundly marked by the writer's sustained engagement with the work of Manet and Monet, and other painters of the Impressionist moment. (19) MallarmE, the poet of the sublime refinement of azure, often expresses his appreciation of Zola's poetic writing and its interdisciplinary capacity. It is Zola's own prospective aesthetic, his "insight into the future," as manifested in his literary works as well as his writing on art, that--as we have seen--MallarmE recognizes in "The Impressionists and Edouard Manet" (1876).
Beyond the art-historical coincidence and analogous developments in modern literary and visual culture, our reading of landscape and seascape in La Terre and La Joie de vivre has allowed us to explore the practice of color and abstraction in narrative writing. It has examined questions (and spurred further questions) that could be extended to the color work of other modern writers and to literary writing more generally in order both to chart how color and abstraction inform and shape the textual medium and to speculate on how readers might respond to prismatic and abstractionist impulses.
In many ways we have been appraising the effects of color and abstraction. This reading of two of the later novels of the Rougon-Macquart series has revealed something of the value(s) of color within the world of the text: its aesthetic, affective, and consolatory values in the diegesis. Color and abstraction reflect and generate affect that frequently shapes affirmative or meliorative phases in the writing. Color instances are often related to characters' (or narrators') attempts to know and to come to self-knowledge. The consolatory values of color and abstraction reveal a characteristically Zolian paradox where prismatic beauty arises out of fracture: color instances mitigate violence, alter repetition, abstract constraint; color assuages dystopian experience lived or imagined. This opens another dimension in Zola's poetics of oxymoron where violence, dystopia, and other forms of fracture (social and psychic) are alleviated by the beauty of color. In exploring the values of color and abstraction in novel-writing, this reading has also drawn attention to the crucial space beyond the text, the space of reception. There we intuit the value and the values that color-writing has, not only for fictional characters but also for readers whose experience of a dystopia may be interrupted or arrested, transformed or transposed in prismatic and abstractive instances. We sense something of the implications of these questions of effect and affect for a wider and deeper exploration of Zola's color-writing that takes us properly into the process of color.
The process of color precedes and informs value, so it must be central to any reading that seeks to break free from the elementary discussion of color symbolism. Lexical discernment, prismatic precision, and attention to nuance and color-texture form a space that develops in abstraction--albeit partially and provisionally--from the narrative project of La Terre and of La Joie de vivre. This reading has been concerned with how the process of color and its materiality inform and shape the affective value of writing. In particular, the relation of color to the abstractionist turn informs and inflects the articulation of affect in Zola's writing of landscape and seascape. We have seen something of how color is written, as a prismatic pool or patch, of whether it is deep or thin. Sometimes we are engaging with a poetics of sudden saturation, sometimes with more sustained color investment. A prismatic pool or patch may appear to detach itself from the narrative telos, but it is also simultaneously and profoundly altering that telos: color and abstraction so often move forward in parallel, convergent, or coincident ways. Reading La Terre and La Joie de vivre makes us alert to the capacity of color-in-language to resist the figurative or representational project of writing. While chromatic writing bears the imprint of affect and story, exquisite color also evinces a capacity to abstract or transform those essential categories of the Naturalist narrative such that, occasionally, color work becomes almost--though never quite-an end in itself.
University of Bristol
Abbott, Helen. Between Baudelaire and MallarmE: Voice, Conversation and Music. Farnham: Ashgate, 2009.
Bal, Mieke. Reading Proust Visually. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1997.
Dayan, Peter. Art as Music, Music as Poetry, Poetry as Art. Farnham: Ashgate, 2011.
Deleuze, Gilles. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. London: Continuum, 2003.
Kandinsky, Wassily. Regards sur le passE et autres textes. Ed. Jean-Paul Bouillon. Paris: Hermann, 1974.
Leduc-Adine, Jean-pierre, ed. Emile Zola. Ecrits sur l'art. Paris: Gallimard, coll. Tel, 1991.
--. Emile Zola: Pour Manet. Paris: Editions Complexe, 1989.
MallarmE, StEphane. Correspondance complete 1862-1871. Ed. Bertrand Marchal. Paris: Gallimard, 1995.
--. "The Impressionists and Edouard Manet." Art Montbly Review 1.9 (1876): 117-21.
Mitterand, Henri. Zola. L'Homme de Germinal 1871-1893. Paris: Fayard, 2001.
Newton, Joy. "French Literary Landscapes." Framing France: The Representation of Landscape in France, 1870-1914. Ed. Richard Thomson. Manchester and New York: Manchester UP, 1998.35-58.
Scarry, Elaine. Resisting Representation. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1994.
Trotter, David. Cooking with Mud: The Idea of Mess in Nineteenth-Century Fiction and Art. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000.
Zola, Emile. La Joie de vivre. Ed. Jean Borie. Paris: Gallimard, Folio, 1985.
--. Les Rougon-Macquart. Ed. Henri Mitterand. Vols. 3 and 4. Paris: Gallimard, PlEiade, 1966.
(1.) Manet's blacks are central to his painting, emerging often in representations of clothing, maie and female: Breakfast in the Studio: The Black Jacket, 1868; Berthe Morisot in Black Hat, 1872; and the barmaid's dress in Un bar aux Folies-Bergere, 1882. At the time of writing, the exhibition "Manet in Black," which focuses on Manet's printmaking and graphic art, is taking place at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. In ekphrastic terres we think of Manet and Mallarme's collaboration over the translation-illustration of Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven in 1875.
(2.) Joy Newton discusses Zola's practice in terms of "interdisciplinary osmosis" (35). The key primary texts are, of course, Baudelaire's "Salon de 1846" and "Le Peintre de la vie moderne" (1863).
(3.) I am thinking here of Whistler's Symphony in White, No. 2, 1864; Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Artist's Mother, 1871; Symphony in Flesh Color and Pink: Portrait of Mrs. Frances Leyland, 1871-74; and Nocturne Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge, 1872-75. Whistler insisted on the need for art to transcend representation and, in the process, free itself from affective, didactic, and anecdotal freight. For Whistler, the modern artwork stands in and for itself, generating value that is existential rather than representational. For a probing examination of Whistler's aesthetic, see Dayan, chapter 1.
(4.) Mallarme's attention to the symbolic and plastic resonance of monochrome values is a structuring quality of his poetry and his poetics. See Abbott on the expressive
qualities of color in Baudelaire's and Mallarme's aesthetics, specifically the power of color to speak as if with its own voice.
(5.) Whistler's cobalt blues and golds, designed for the Peacock Room that he created in 1877 for Frederick Leyton (now housed at the Freer Museum in Washington, DC), inspired Zola for the decoration of his cabinet de travail at Medan. See Mitterand 972.
(6.) The chronology of Zola's art contributions spans 1865-96, with 1865-77 representing the period of the most intense activity. See Leduc-Adine, Emile Zola. Ecrits sur l'art 506-7 for a detailed chronology.
(7.) The essay "Preface a l'Exposition des Euvres d'Edouard Manet" was written to accompany the posthumous Manet exhibition at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Zola offers a retrospective appraisal of Manet and takes pride in recalling that his own views on art bave now been reprised and repeated in the wake of the death of the painter who is precursor to the development of late-nineteenth-century modern art.
(8.) In the close reading that follows, references to the novels, indicating volume number and page range, are to the Pleiade edition of Les Rougon-Macquart, edited by Henri
Mitterand, vols. 3 and 4 (Paris: Gallimard, Pleiade, 1966).
(9.) See Elaine Scarry, chapter 2, where Millet's drawings are briefly discussed in relation to Thomas Hardy's depiction of the working body and its encounter with the material world.
(10.) Deleuze, throughout his study of Francis Bacon, proposes analogies between Bacon's painting and the modern dystopian literature of Beckett, Moritz, Conrad, and Burroughs. The reading of visual-textual analogues may be fruitful also in the case of Zola, a highly "visual" writer.
(11.) Indiscernibility and the merging of one entity into another are key features of part 3, chapter 4.
(12.) "Decomposition" is one of the key terms in art writing of the Impressionist period, evoking in the wake of Chevreul's color theory the breaking down and blurring of colors. A useful study would track Zola's use of this term in his visual writing and in his art criticism. In Zola's 1876 Salon review he evokes the "decomposition de la lumiere s'irisant de toutes les couleurs du prisme" (Leduc-Adine, Ecrits sur l'art 315).
(13.) The reception and writerly transformation of Monet's seascapes by writers extends from Zola to Proust. Critical readings of Proust's fictional painter Elstir focus largely, though not exclusively, on Monet, whose haystack series and Rouen cathedral works were admired by Proust. Elstir emerges as a hybrid figure, reflecting to varying degrees Manet, Monet, Turner, Whistler, and Vuillard. In Reading Proust Visually, Mieke Bal has argued that comparisons with the pictorial arts are futile and that the visuality of Proust's writing should be explored for its surface, its "flamess," and its undoing of the illusion of depth that is central to painting. Just as the critical debate in Proust studies tries to evaluate the relative influence of Monet's art on Elstir's marine painting in A la recherche, so we should consider Monet's impact on writerly vision of Zola.
(14.) David Trotter's Cooking with Mud is a fascinating reading of dirt and debris, a topos frequently occluded in critical readings of textual and visual culture.
(15.) Zola, returning to comment on painting in 1896 in "La Peinture," evokes Monet's achievement: "ces etudes de reflets, ces chairs oU passent des tons verts de feuilles, ces eaux oU dansent toutes les couleurs du prisme [...] ce sont des Monet" (Leduc-Adine, Ecrits sur l'art 473).
(16.) In the Folio edition of the novel, Jean Borie quotes Louis Desprez, Lettres a Ernile Zola (Paris: Belles Lettres, 1953) where the young writer and critic compares Loti and Zola and suggests that Zola views the ocean with the eye of a man of the land ("Vous voyez l'Ocean en terrien, avec une pointe d'hostilite comme Lazare. [...] vous etes, vous, pour les epis et les digues"; Zola, La Joie de vivre 440). This seems,
in some ways, an unfair assessment given Zola's strong and nuanced evocation of the sea. Nevertheless, Desprez's observation is interesting from the perspective of the transformation of aquatic into earthy, sea into land. Metaphor and metamorphosis are formative of Zola's literary vision as he moves beyond sensation to develop figuration in his writing.
(17.) "L'Azur" is commented on by Mallarme in a letter of [7?] January 1864 to Henri Cazalis where the poet offers a discussion of his method: "L'azur torture l'impuissant en general" (Correspondance 161).
(18.) This contrasts with the sickly whiteness of the dropsy sufferer Madame Chanteau. Lazare sees his mother's "jambes monstrueuses, ces paquets inertes de chair blafarde," the sight of which spurs a form of anxiety that almost chokes him (3: 962).
(19.) By 1881 Zola had all but ceased to write about painting. His final essay is a review of the Salon of 1880 (indicated by Mitterand 677).
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|Title Annotation:||Emile Zola|
|Publication:||The Romanic Review|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||May 1, 2011|
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