De l'affaire Manet à l'affaire Dreyfus: the subtitle of Henri Mitterand's early study of Zola's journalism speaks of controversy marking the span of his career.1 Lodged within it is the ‘affaire Cézanne’ which has generated almost as much debate as ‘J'accuse …!’, extended across the work of generations of art-historians and literary scholars. Indeed, the relationship between Zola and Cézanne occupies such a prominent place in our cultural histories that it is not merely readers of FSB (let alone dix-neuviémistes) who will be familiar with the reported drama occasioned by the publication of L'Œuvre in 1886. This was the moment, so the legend had it for over a century, that Cézanne put an end to a thirty-four-year friendship, never again having any contact with the novelist. The sensation created by a newly-discovered letter from him, dated 28 November 1887 and thanking Zola for sending him a copy of La Terre, can hardly be over-estimated.2 For it will require a re-writing of nearly all the books, articles and exhibition catalogues (not to mention enticing publishers' blurbs for editions and translations of L'Œuvre and biographical entries on the internet) which have relied on the categorical declarations of John Rewald to the effect that Cézanne's letter of 4 April 1886 was the last he ever wrote to Zola, so hurt was he by his identification with the fictional painter, Claude Lantier.3 Nor, it should be stressed, is this simply quibbling about a date. This supposedly fraught end of the relationship between Zola and Cézanne has had massive consequences: according to the latter's best and most recent biographer, ‘the legend of L’Œuvre stoked the legend of Cézanne',4 his own reaction to the novel apparently confirming, in this textual mirror, a self-portrait marked by personal neuroses and anticipated artistic failure; it has been read back across what is deemed a roman-à-clef; it has contaminated analyses of Zola's art-criticism; and it has offered his detractors multiple angles from which to attack this ‘betrayal’.
A minority of commentators, it should be said, have remained unconvinced, while making little headway against the more compelling ‘human interest’ of the legend.5 The notorious 1886 letter has been subject to what Alex Danchev has called an ‘exercise in rune craft’, Cézanne's words having been combed for any hint of tell-tale emotion. But Danchev himself persuasively demonstrates that its terms and register are altogether different from genuinely frosty letters occasionally sent to others.6 There has been a particular focus on its envoi, normally transcribed, pace Rewald, as ‘tout à toi sous l'impulsion des temps écoulés’, and variously translated as ‘under the impulse/impetus of past times’.7 A return to the original manuscript, however, reveals this to read instead: ‘sous l'impression des temps écoulés’, with potentially different connotations.8 The authorized text of the letter, sent from Gardanne (outside Aix), is now therefore:
Mon cher Émile,
Je viens de recevoir L'Œuvre que tu as bien voulu m'adresser. Je remercie l'auteur des Rougon-Macquart de ce bon témoignage de souvenir, et je lui demande de me permettre de lui serrer la main en songeant aux anciennes années.
Tout à toi sous l'impression des temps écoulés.
‘L’Œuvre', argued Danchev convincingly a couple of years ago, ‘was not the cause of the break’.9 The newly-discovered letter of 1887 is also a vindication of Mitterand's footnoted hunch that, to finally lay the legend to rest, missing correspondence from the period 1886–89 might one day be found.10 Written this time from Paris, Cézanne's letter of 28 November 1877 is no less, and no more, telling than the somewhat similar one acknowledging receipt of L'Œuvre:
Mon cher Émile,
Je viens de recevoir de retour d'Aix le volume la Terre, que tu as bien voulu m'adresser. Je te remercie pour l'envoi de ce nouveau rameau poussé sur l'arbre généalogique des Rougon-Macquart.
Je te prie d'accepter mes remerciements et mes plus sincères salutations. Quand tu seras de retour j'irai te voir pour te serrer la main.
Both letters are formulaic, though the response to L'Œuvre does suggest an actual reading of its early chapters in which their adolescence in Provence is nostalgically evoked.11 The third-person formality there of the address to ‘l'auteur des Rougon-Macquart’ is consistent with what has been called the ‘mock obsequiousness’ characteristic of Cézanne.12 And, in the 1887 acknowledgement, the proferred handshake is no longer rhetorical but ‘quand tu seras de retour’, obviously aware that Zola had been away but ignorant of the fact that he was already back in Paris.
That in itself suggests, if not the end of a lifelong relationship, then at least a gradual parting of the ways after 1886. A number of reasons have been adduced for this: Zola's wife's impatience with Cézanne's table-manners and temper-tantrums; the awkwardness of having been introduced to her future husband (in her biographer's ambiguous phrase) ‘au bras de son ami Cézanne’, for whom she had modelled;13 or the painter's increasing discomfort in Zola's social circle and ever-expanding country house. None of these stand up to scrutiny or can be reconciled with the fact that, until his last visit in 1885, Cézanne was frequently at Médan, often staying for weeks at a time. What seems to have been far more decisive than L'Œuvre was an affair of a more literal kind. Throughout the summer of 1885, a distraught Cézanne confided in Zola about his ‘folly’, seeking his friend's services as go-between in the hoped-for exchange of passionate missives. It is not clear whether this remained strictly entre hommes, or whether the respectable ‘Madame Zola’ (as Cézanne now ironically referred to her in his letters) was in the know and prompted Zola to demur, at first, when the nomadic painter thought of inviting himself to stay. But the end of this short affair almost certainly catalysed the legitimization of another. For less than a month after receiving his copy of L'Œuvre, Cézanne finally married Hortense Fiquet, with whom he had been ‘living in sin’ for the best part of two decades. Only Danchev has really picked up on Sophie Monneret's passing suggestion, some thirty-five years ago, that this, rather than L'Œuvre, may be the key.14 For Hortense was viewed with contempt, especially by Zola's wife, perhaps uncomfortably reminded of her own humble origins. Coarse, extravagant and hen-pecking, Hortense was, with her Maupassantian plumpness, dismissed as ‘La Boule’ (as her son, born out of wedlock in 1872, was known as ‘Le Boulet’) by Alexandrine Zola as well as by Zola's personal friends and literary colleagues. Danchev makes the case for this perception being unfair. But, while Cézanne could be tolerated, there was no question from now on of welcoming to Zola's homes a couple of such dubious provenance and with a secret family to boot.
The narrative of reciprocated loyalty and friendship will doubtless be reconstituted in the light of a mysterious ‘silence’ after 1886 now exploded by Cézanne's letter to Zola more than a year later. It stretches from their time together at the Collège Bourbon, through requests to mutual acquaintances for second-hand news of Cézanne, all the way to the latter's reported distress at the news of Zola's sudden death in 1902. And beyond, to the occasion in 1906, shortly before his own, when Cézanne was again apparently moved to tears by Zola's wife's public initiative in securing the publication of the writer's Lettres de jeunesse, in which his correspondence with the painter would take pride of place. But that seamless story has yet to engage with the end of the Affair, in which Zola and Cézanne found themselves on opposite sides. Like Degas, Renoir and (less overtly) Rodin, Cézanne was an anti-Dreyfusard. Unlike the rabidly anti-semitic Degas, this did not prevent him remaining friends with, for example, Pissarro. But the impact of the Dreyfus Affair on the rift between Zola and Cézanne retailed by posterity is inseparable from the ideological positioning of those most directly responsible for sustaining the legend, notably in the unreliable recollections of Émile Bernard and what Mitterand calls ‘les ragots’ peddled by Ambroise Vollard.15 The latter went so far as to ‘cite’ Cézanne's view that Zola, always driven by self-promotion, would not have thrust himself into the limelight of the Affair had he been successful in being elected to the Académie Française. Bernard, as one if his acolytes, ‘remembered’ Cézanne's outrage at his distorted portrayal in L'Œuvre.16 As for Vollard, the entrepreneurial, not to say predatory, art-dealer had visited its author, at the turn of the century, hoping in vain for a glimpse of the writer's collection of thirteen Cézanne paintings, three of which he would in due course buy at the posthumous sale of Zola's effects. Long after Cézanne's death, Vollard's malicious contribution to an explanation of dissolving affection was unrestrained: the visits to Médan had stopped after 1885, he claimed, because Cézanne was increasingly fed up with the pomposity of the self-regarding Zola household (‘un sale bourgeois’); and he voiced Cézanne's assertion that L'Œuvre had indeed ended the relationship, while including the anecdote of the painter's ‘howling’ grief at the writer's sudden demise as yet further evidence of, by comparison, Zola's lack of insight and sensitivity.17 These reports hardly square with the fact that it was only in 1895 that hostile or equivocal critics started, at least in a systematic way, associating Cézanne with Zola's fictional painter.18 On the other hand, this in itself, together with the painter's anti-semitism, may have inflected the wisdom of hindsight. What is certain is that the revaluation of Cézanne (in every sense) at Zola's expense has to be situated in the context of both Bernard's and Vollard's allegiance to right-wing values and beliefs all the more virulent after the Dreyfus Affair had supposedly ended.19
Questions remain.20 Future researchers will explore these added dimensions of a legend hopefully (or disappointingly) now entering the realm of myth, and perhaps find missing letters and evidence that Zola and Cézanne did in fact meet again. They, too, will ask whether the title of the present update should have had inserted, whether over or within it, a question-mark.