Photo Credit: Jennie Anne Benigas



May 2013

“Yesterday, I surrendered to Alex Danchev’s Cézanne: A Life. I read about 60 pages and decided that this writer’s style is for me. Procrastination ended. Commitment began.”


Surrendering to Cézanne

Dear Reader,

Surrendering to a book is not about the time involved or the weight of a typical 500-pager, it’s about the emotional immersion. I know that when I finish a good book, I will feel as if I have lost a friend. It’s sad. As a kind of self-protection, a new book will beckon from the top of the bookcase where my next-reads sit. This can go on for weeks or months. I procrastinate.

“What are you waiting for?” it demands silently. “I have a to-do list THIS long!” I answer. Yet, I have learned that investing in a long read will be worth the time. I am certain to find things to satisfy my needs as a writer and an artist. We are like wells, in constant need of replenishing. Sound too practical? Every book has a purpose. If not, I don’t bother reading it. Relaxation and escape? Not why I read.

Biographies, art and literary history, and poetry separate me from my money. I hardly ever read novels anymore. That being said, I recently finished Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence (Judy’s Journal, 2012 November). Just as I was at the end of my rope with its main character’s heartbreak and regret, I decided to stick it out and was rewarded with Pamuk’s ingenious ending. I believe it’s a writer’s book, because if the story doesn’t get you, Pamuk’s talent and skill will.

Next on top of the bookcase was Alex Danchev’s Cézanne: A Life. Like Matisse, I think of Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) as a god. Never mind that Matisse knew him, and I didn’t. I have read a lot about him, including five books in my library, one of which is a treasured gift. When Danchev’s book appeared in the New York Times Book Review, I had to have it. I asked myself: “What more can I learn about Cézanne and his work?” and took the plunge. Once I bought it, the usual simmering time on the bookcase began.

The cover beckoned me when I walked into my studio. It’s Cézanne’s 1879 self-portrait. It’s so obvious why the head is turned at that angle: he was looking in the mirror. His sidelong gaze made me imagine what is not in the painting: he is standing at his easel, mirror to his right, brushes and palette balanced in his hands. Then comes an involuntary reflex; my brain rushes back to our trip to Aix-en-Provence and the visit to his studio. And the streets. And the Musée Granet, formerly the Free School of Drawing where the 18 year-old Cézanne took classes. I guess the book and I were having a flirtation.

Yesterday, I surrendered to Cézanne: A Life. I read about 60 pages and decided that this writer’s style is for me. Procrastination ended. Commitment began.

There are some wonderful stories in the first pages. For example, Émile Zola and Paul Cézanne were schoolmates in Aix. They became fast friends (not for life, but that comes later). A third friend, future scientist and co-founder of the School of Physics and Chemistry at the City of Paris Baptistin Baille, rounded out the Inseparables. One of their favorite activities was hiking to the river for a day of talking, reading poetry and swimming. Just as writers write what they know, Danchov makes a good case for these idylls inspiring Cézanne’s series of “Bathers.”

When prizes were awarded at the end of the school year, Zola received a First Place in Drawing, and Cézanne received honors in Poetry. One can imagine what would have happened if they had followed their youthful muses. Instead, they swapped pens and paintbrushes.

Cézanne is often quoted as saying that he wanted to “astonish all of Paris with an apple.” The fruit was standard fare in still lifes. But there was more to it, according to Danchov. Zola was a new student from Paris, with an accent to match. Automatic schoolyard teasing and bullying ensued. Cézanne defended him and took a beating for it. “The next day,” Cézanne recalled, “he brought me a big basket of apples.”

One of the best discussions so far in the book has to do with the question, What was so good about Paul Cézanne’s work? You could point to passages in a painting and talk about them, but what would that mean? His body of work could not be pigeonholed into a “movement.” He was a restless original, and he paid a high price for it during his lifetime.

But why do we consider him a great painter? As Cézanne: A Life unfolds, I believe that Danchev will offer some answers.