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The Painter From Provence : She loved the old biography; why pick up a new one? : LOST EARTH: A Life of Cezanne, By Philip Callow (Ivan R. Dee: $30; 398 pp.)

November 19, 1995|Denise Levertov | Denise Levertov's most recent book is "Tesserae."

If one's first serious love in music was Bach, and one's first in painting, Cezanne, they will remain the bedrock of one's responses, listening or looking, no matter how broad one's capacity for musical and visual enjoyment may be. And if the child or adolescent who falls in love with either has a sense of some artistic vocation, then something about these artists as people becomes inextricable from the effect of their work.

In the case of Bach, that respectable, devout paterfamilias, not much seems exciting except the work. But yes, it's there in his sheer abundance, his heroically irrepressible getting-on-with-it. One doesn't see it as that until later in life--it's the music alone that first enchants and convinces. Eventually, though, the triumph of the music's emergence from an outwardly humdrum life comes to seem strangely enthralling--much more so than the story of more romantic lives.

In the case of Cezanne, we know so much more of his thoughts, feelings, conflicts and struggles. And from the very beginning, the exemplary single-mindedness of his devotion to art and the faithfulness of his vocation seem visible in every piece of his work. There are many other examples of extraordinary perseverance, productivity and integrity among the annals of the arts, but there is something in Cezanne's sheer intensity and his lack of any ingratiating charm that makes one feel that he is the patron saint of disinterested creative endeavor.

I found a biography of Cezanne when I was 13, not long after my first encounter with the paintings of his that are in London. The book was Gerstle Mack's "Paul Cezanne," and I'm sure that in my teens (when I repeatedly borrowed it from the local library) I didn't read every word of it--it was more as if I inhaled it. It is a straightforward, factual, thoroughly serviceable biography, and it's a little hard to explain why I found it so intoxicating, but somehow it conveyed to me a whole lot more than it actually says.

I have remained so loyal to it that I've never till now read another biography of Cezanne. And it was from it that I obtained my first concept of Cezanne's unswerving service to his vision. However, at 22 I read Rilke's letters in an edition that included his wonderful letters about Cezanne, and whatever I knew was thereby dramatically heightened and deepened.

With these two books--Mack's, giving the names and dates and events of Cezanne's life, and Rilke's (those letters are now available as a separate volume) giving his profound insight into Cezanne's art and spirit, and with Cezanne's own words as quoted by people who knew him or in letters, I have felt no need to read other biographical accounts.

I approached "A Life of Cezanne" with hesitation and some suspicion. Was it going to be one of those psychologizing, muckraking biographies I so detest? Or a novelistic one that tells you what the subject thought and felt as if straight from the horse's mouth, when you know all the time it's just the biographer being presumptuous and fanciful? Or would it be decently plain, like my old standby? In that case, why would I need to read it?

To my relief, Philip Callow's book is no Freudian trip, and invents no simplistic cause-and-effect links between the painter's relationship with his parents and others and the character of his paintings. When Callow ventures to project himself into Cezanne's emotions he does so with persuasive sensitivity.

Writing of the artist's state of mind when at work in the late 1880s, he speaks of "an intuitive consciousness that now was fully awake. . . . He was trying to capture the anima of the whole picture by making himself responsive to the myriad things in it that were each alive in their own way. It was extraordinary when it worked, terrible when the thread snapped and he fell into a void, his brush poised for the next intuitive dab that would affect the whole, and the clue horribly lost."

This is not the biographer's fancy at work, for it describes what many statements of Cezanne's testify to. And as a useful source of dates, personages and outward events, Callow's book does have, like Mack's, that decent plainness I so much prefer to other biographical approaches.

Does it supplant other biographies? Callow certainly makes ample use of Mack's and has some interesting quotations from Jack Lindsay's ("Cezanne, His Life and Art") and others. In recounting factual material and its chronology, it is inevitable that it sometimes seems a mere paraphrase. Neither Mack nor Callow accord more nor less than just weight to Cezanne's painful financial dependency on his father, to his timidity with women, his less-than-satisfactory marriage; they're there, historically accredited, but both writers enable one to perceive that a far more dynamic factor in his creative evolution is his passionate and lifelong affair with nature.

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