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A study in the artistry of friendship

The Youth of Cezanne and Zola: Notoriety at Its Source: Art and Literature in Paris, Wayne Andersen, Editions Fabriart: 530 pp., $47.50

August 24, 2003|Theodore Zeldin | Theodore Zeldin is president of the Oxford Muse and author of "An Intimate History of Humanity" and "Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives."

Every individual deserves a biography, though no declaration of human rights has yet claimed that. On the contrary, they say the opposite: that you have the right to keep your life a secret, in the name of privacy. But are you sure you are worth only a few lines on a tombstone? Do you not have a duty to tell your autobiography, so that others avoid making the same mistakes as you? Have you really had no experience that can illuminate the problems others face?

The lives of Paul Cezanne and Emile Zola would be interesting even if they were not famous. Instead of focusing on their art, Wayne Andersen revisits their story from the perspective of what they can tell us about choices that concern us all intimately. Their relationship is a powerful stimulus to thoughts about what friendship means and what it could be in the future.

They grew up in the same town and were close friends until their mid-40s. Suddenly their correspondence stopped, and they broke off all contact. We are not sure why. The simplest explanation is that their relationship ended precisely in the year that Zola published his novel "The Masterpiece," whose hero was more or less modeled on Cezanne and whose plot echoed experiences the two men had shared. It is conceivable that Cezanne felt betrayed.

Though there are no statistics to show that the betrayal of friends is becoming more common, Kiss and Tell seems to be a growing industry. The management theory of downsizing has even given fashionable respectability to the stab in the back by colleagues who are supposed to be friends. Does this mean that loyalty to friends is becoming outdated?

An alternative explanation of the break between the two artists is suggested by what Cezanne is reported to have said 10 years after their estrangement: that it had nothing to do with the book. "I no longer felt at ease with him, with his oriental carpets, his servants and his desk of sculpted wood. It was enough to make me feel that I was paying a visit to a minister. Zola had become a filthy bourgeois." That would make the collapse of their friendship a precursor of millions of sad modern stories in which one partner in a couple has a successful career while the other fails. Zola's novels made him rich and famous well before Cezanne found buyers for his paintings or could even decide what he should be trying to do as an artist. Is it inevitable that inequality should be a barrier to friendship?

It is also arguable that the two men were basically quite different, that their early association was simply a youthful accident, that they came together because they were both misfits. "I am nearly as lonely as you," wrote Zola. Though they shared childish fantasies about a glorious future together, their dream vanished as they discovered that adult experiences brought out different reactions in them. Zola was exhilarated by the noise of crowds and heat of human conflict, for example, and Cezanne increasingly preferred the stillness of nature.

Today, the majority of long-term friendships are still established in youth, and adulthood often fosters a narrowing of sympathies. Despite the fact that marriage is increasingly thought of as involving friendship too, divorcees do not normally end up good friends. Professionally, people seem more intent on developing networks than intimacy. So we have the paradox that, because so many traditional ties are disintegrating, friendship is valued more highly than ever before, but the skills needed to establish and maintain it are still rudimentary.

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