Publication Date: Jan 31, 2017
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A scintillating glimpse into the lives of acclaimed writers and artists and their inspiring, often surprising convergences, from the author of Monsieur Proust’s Library
With the wit and penetration well known to readers of Balzac’s Omelette and Monsieur Proust’s Library, Anka Muhlstein’s Pen and Brush revisits the delights of the French novel. This time she focuses on late 19th– and 20th-century writers: Balzac, Zola, Proust, Huysmans, and Maupassant, through the lens of their passionate involvement with the fine arts. She delves into the crucial role that painters play as characters in their novels, which she pairs with an exploration of the profound influence that painting exercised on the novelists’ techniques, offering an intimate view of the intertwined worlds of painters and writers at the time.
Muhlstein’s deftly chosen vignettes bring to life a portrait of the nineteenth century’s tight-knit artistic community, where Cézanne and Zola befriended each other as boys and Balzac yearned for the approval of Delacroix. She leads the reader on a journey of spontaneous discovery as she explores how a great painting can open a mind and spark creative fire.
Excerpt from The Pen and the Brush
The young Zola’s friendship with two fellow pupils—Paul Cézanne and Baptistin Baille, a future lecturer at the Polytechnique—brightened these years made tough by the dirt, bad food, cold, bullying, and lack of freedom that went hand-in-hand with boarding life. Cézanne was a year older, bigger, stronger, and wealthier (his father was a banker), and he took Émile under his protection, which was of great benefit to this shy, puny boy who was the butt of his classmates’ jibes. In contrast to the other pupils, whose only aspiration was to lounge around on café terraces and play cards, the three friends escaped to the countryside whenever they could. Cézanne never set out without his “powder flask and . . . his box of color cartridges” while Zola “always had a book of poetry in his pocket.” They walked for hours; if it was hot they would take a dip in the river Arc, which ran through a series of goures, pools deep enough for swimming, but mostly they talked—they talked endlessly. Years later, in 1866, in his dedication to Cézanne of his Salon de 1866, Zola reminded his friend that “we have been talking about art and literature for the past ten years.” Cézanne shared Zola’s enthusiasm for the romantic poets and gladly saw himself as a poet while Zola enjoyed drawing and actually won the drawing prize at their school. But Cézanne’s passion for depicting the world around him soon asserted itself. On their outings he was constantly stopping to draw things, and revisited some sites years later: in a letter to Zola dated June 20, 1859, he sketched three young boys playing a the river beneath a large tree: one wore a straw hat, another was swimming with his head above the water, and the third was doing a sort of somersault—only his backside and feet were visible. The image needs no explanation.
“With personable prose and erudition, Muhlstein reveals seemingly all there is to know about the relationship between 19th-century French novels and painting….Her extensive knowledge of art and literature make for a fascinating, instructive, and absorbing read.” —Publishers Weekly
“In a brilliant examination of the work of Balzac, Zola, Huysmans, Maupassant, and Proust, Anka Muhlstein brings to light the many forms of reciprocal exchange among them and their painter friends, both thematic and stylistic, that resulted in a highly original form of pictorial writing—a phenomenon intrinsically tied to its time and place. Her illuminating analysis and deft weaving together of literature and art in The Pen and the Brush are sure to change the way we read the nineteenth-century French novel.” —Susan Grace Galassi, senior curator of the Frick Collection
“In nine admirably concise and evocative chapters, Anka Muhlstein surveys a major theme in nineteenth-century cultural history: the relationship between modern novelists and modern painters. Her heroes are Balzac, Zola, and Proust, and she offers insights into the different ways in which each writer engaged with the art and artists of his time. One of the chief pleasures of this book is the diversity and precision of Muhlstein’s literary selections and visual references: she spurs the reader to return to familiar texts as well as to discover new ones.” —Colin B. Bailey, director of the Morgan Library & Museum
“Reading Anka Muhlstein’s delightful new book is like attending a salon of brilliant artists and writers who exchange ideas and profoundly influence each other. Muhlstein quotes Zola: ‘I have not only supported the Impressionists, I have translated them into literature’. ” —Jean Strouse, author of Alice James, A Biography
“In the culminating chapter of The Pen and the Brush, Anka Muhlstein cites the painter Turner’s credo to ‘draw what I see and not what I know is there.’ Her book is itself a demonstration of dazzlingly original critical insight. The freshness of her readings of Balzac, Zola, Huysmans, Maupassant, and Proust in relation to nineteenth-century painting is only heightened by the erudition she brings to the project and the clear, jargon-free language of her writing.” —Janet Malcolm, author of Forty-one False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers
“A well-crafted reminder of how in the nineteenth century writing and painting coalesced, like sea and sky. So Balzac and Delacroix, Zola and Manet, Maupassant and Courbet, and especially Proust with his writer Bergotte and painter Elstir: for French writers, artists were ‘essential to the plot.’ For a writer the task was ultimately how to see, and to see not just one world but many.” —Anthony Bailey, author of Vermeer: A View of Delft
“Anka Muhlstein knows and loves nineteenth-century French painting with a passion, and this she pours into her study of writers who made painting a principal optic for viewing the world. The Pen and the Brush is both lively and enlivening.” —Peter Brooks, author of Henry James Goes to Paris
Praise for Monsieur Proust’s Library:
“This gemlike exploration of the literary underpinnings of À la recherche du temps perdu reveals a Marcel Proust who did not so much read books as ‘absorb’ them.” —The New Yorker
“With Monsieur Proust’s Library, Anka Muhlstein has added another volume to the collection of splendid books about Proust. A woman of intellectual refinement, subtle understanding, and deep literary culture . . . Ms. Muhlstein is an excellent provisioner of high-quality intellectual goods.” —Wall Street Journal
“Anka Muhlstein’s Monsieur Proust’s Library, which looks at In Search of Lost Time by way of the books that Proust himself read and the way they influenced both the book and its characters, has become a permanent addition to my Proust library, and is a must-read for Proustians and want-to-be Proustians alike . . . It’s a marvelous book.” —Publishing Perspectives
“Muhlstein shows admirable restraint, focusing on select topics to contextualize Proust’s work in an accessible way . . . It’s a quick read, and the tight focus and brisk, topical chapters offer an entrée to a work that is not always easy to penetrate.” —Coffin Factory