Saturday, October 9, 2010

Claude and Camille by Stephanie Cowell

There's a whole sub-genre out there of historical novels that are based on real people, and this week I'm sampling a couple of them from my favorite literary era, the 19th century. I'm never 100% convinced that I like this kind of blending of fact and fiction in principle, but in practice I invariably find them escapist fun while taking everything that's written with a large pinch of salt.

Claude and Camille is about Claude Monet and his first wife (and before that long-time mistress), Camille Doncieux. It begins much earlier in Monet's life, at the point where he first began to paint in oils at the age of 17, and traces the early steps that led him to join forces with the group of painters that became known as the Impressionists. It ends somewhere in the middle of Monet's career, I think, at about the time he was starting to have some success but his finances were still extremely precarious.

I enjoyed reading this book, although to me there was a big difference between the middle part of the book and the first and last 50 or so pages. The beginning and end of the novel seemed to have a somewhat documentary tone, perhaps because they were moving faster through the events of Monet's life. The part I really liked was the middle, where Monet was constantly struggling with the tension between remaining true to his artistic vision and providing for his family. I think Cowell brought out well how Monet lived for his art to the point of rejecting all other offers of work and, in effect, to the point where art became a destructive element in his personal life.

I got a good sense of Monet's relationships with some of the other Impressionists, which is always interesting as we tend to see these painters studied in isolation with the other characters just dim figures in the background. I did a lot of reading about these people when I was writing a master's thesis on Zola and Henry James, and that whole society of artists, writers and intellectuals holds a fascination for me. In fact I would have liked to have seen more detail and more names, but then I suppose we would have had a different type of novel, and Cowell does a good job of sticking to her main focus, the relationship between Monet and Camille. All in all, it's an entertaining read.

For really detailed descriptions (straight from the source) of the artist's life in 19th-century Paris I would recommend Zola's L'Oeuvre, generally titled The Masterpiece in English, and the de Goncourt brothers' Manette Salomon, which unfortunately is not available in English (it's a hard sell because of some anti-semitic elements, but it really is a good picture of the artistic life of the time). Incidentally, this is one of those instances where e-books and POD are an absolute boon - it always amazes me how few people actually want to read books that are, after all, only 140 or so years old. If Claude and Camille inspires a few people to dig a bit deeper, I'll be happy.

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