The beginning was excellent. It has all the intensity and humor you'd expect from Zola. But then something happened to the writer. I've never seen anything like it in any of his other books. After an amazing first chapter, his protagonist turns into a 2-dimensional stick figure. His wife fares a little better as a cartoon. And what's worse, everyone else seems rather realistic.
FYI: the inspiration for the main character is Zola's childhood friend, Paul Cezanne.
I don't think Zola was in his right mind when he wrote this. How else could he have written so abstractly? It smelled of bitter vehemence. They must have had a falling out before he wrote the book, because no writer would stick a real friend in a book without making them immensely likeable. You should be able to feel the affection. Zola previously wrote this character in The Belly of Paris. There, the Cezanne character was cute, loveable, and quirky. But in this work, the feeling is... antipathy.
The whole book leads up to this conversation with Zola and Cezanne:
Zola: "... Have you ever reflected that posterity may not be the faultless dispenser of justice that we dream of? One consoles oneself for being insulted and denied, by reyling on the equity of the centuries to come; just as the faithful endure all the abominations of this earth in the firm belief of another life, in which each will be rewarded according to his deserts. But suppose Paradise exists no more for the artist than it does for the Catholic, suppose that future generations prolong the misunderstanding and prefer amiable little trifles to vigorous works! Ah! What a sell it would be, eh? To have led a convict's life - to have screwed oneself down to one's work - all for a mere delusion!...
Cezanne: "Bah! What does it matter? Well, there's nothing hereafter. We are even madder than the fools who kill themselves for a woman. When the earth splits to pieces in space like a dry walnut, our works won't add one atom to its dust."
And it ends with the painter killing himself for a woman, his painting. He becomes obsessed with it and can't work on anything else. "He was hanging there in his shirt, with his feet bare, looking horrible, with his black tongue protruding, and his bloodshot eyes starting from their orbits..." So not only does his "friend" fail in life, love, and success, but he commits suicide because life isn't worth living for.
Is that how Zola treats his friends?? Or someone he's angry with? Hmm.... There were clues in the text: the painter was antagonistic, he didn't talk to people for years before running into them again, completely disregarded the feelings of others, he had a horrible temper, ego, etc etc. Either way, Zola lost his "friend" after the publication of the book.
I think "mission accomplished."