THE PEN AND THE BRUSH by Anka Muhlstein


How Passion for Art Shaped Nineteenth-Century French Novels
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How hundreds of stolen paintings affected 19th-century French writers.

Goncourt Prize–winning author Muhlstein approaches literature in a unique way. In Monsieur Proust’s Library (2012), she explored his lengthy novel via the books he read, while Balzac’s Omelette (2011) examined how food influenced his novels. Here, Muhlstein looks at French authors of the 19th century via art, starting with the French Revolution. Thanks to Napoleon’s victories and his “to the victor belong the spoils” approach, convoys laden with great art made their ways to France (especially the Louvre). The government then did something new, letting their citizens view the art for free. The public and writers went in droves. Thus, “two forms of art were entwined.” Muhlstein focuses on the writings of Balzac, Zola, Huysmans, Maupassant, and Proust to show how they were profoundly affected by these works of art, many of which they had never seen before. Each began creating more artist characters and, more importantly, “truly invented a visual style of writing.” Balzac came under the influence of Rembrandt, Raphael, and Delacroix. “Opening a Balzac novel,” writes Muhlstein, is like walking into a museum,” watching the artists and models “step out of their frames to come into the story.” Unlike Balzac, Zola always lived among painters, and the influence of art on his writing style was immense. Cézanne was a good friend, and Zola often modeled for his paintings. Under the influence of the impressionists and their attention to light, Muhlstein argues, Zola “became the first landscapist writer.” Huysmans’ “extravagant and fantastical” novel Against the Grain clearly shows the influence of the painter Gustave Moreau. Maupassant chose to make a painter his main character in Strong as Death: “his characters’ choice of art would inform readers about their personalities.” The “last great fictional painter” of the century, Proust, was deeply affected by the works of Monet and Turner.

An enlightening exploration of the symbiotic relationship between art and literature.

Pub Date: Jan. 31st, 2017
ISBN: 978-1590518052
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Other Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 2016


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