There's a character in this novel who decides to embark on an ambitious project to write a series of novels that "scientifically" demonstrate the effects of heredity and environment on a large family living during the regime of Napoleon III. (Whatever happened to Napoleon II?) The idea is that each book will examine some specific aspect of society and feature one member of the extended family as main protagonist. Which is odd, because Zola wrote a series of 20 books that examine the effects of environment and heredity on the fictional Rougon-Macquart family who live during Napoleon III's time in power...Yes, having abandoned (in practice if not by admission) his "scientific" plan fairly early in the 20 volume project, by the time Zola gets round to examining the world of artistic endeavor in Paris, he is entirely willing to model aspects of his characters on himself - and on his friends amongst the Impressionists, who, upon reading the book, variously, never spoke to him again, got really angry or found it flattering or funny.
Zola in this series is talking about a world only slightly in his past, that he lived through, and all of its members that I've read feel very believable in terms of the society and atmosphere portrayed, if possibly somewhat exaggerated, but in this one he is talking directly about his own experiences which differentiates this from the others in the series in a way beyond just that of being a separate plot about a seperate character in a different stratum of French society from the others - which is, of course, what they have in common.
If you are interested in that kind of game you could spend hours pondering exactly which aspects of which characters are taken from which real-life world-famous Impressionist painters.
Strangely, the world of art portrayed seems entirely familiar; paintings used as investments, people trying to manipulate the market for profit, resultant hyper-inflation of prices. The public ridiculing works that later generations see as genius. Young artists spouting revolutionary theories about art and society, an old-guard establishment who try to keep the new-comers and their radical ideas down.
The main protagonist, Claude (yes, after that
Claude) is the leader of just such a group of young, ambitious, would-be (art) world-changers. His battles with the establishment and his own flaws and genius are affectingly set out over the course of the book and leads to an end that many readers of other Rougon-Macquart novels can probably guess early. Other recognisable Zola themes are to be found; for instance promiscuity amongst the poor and attempts to describe the passionate aspects of romance explicitly that outraged many contemporary readers. A challenge as to what was permisable still being fought by D.H. Lawrence many decades later.
The style is also instantly recognisable, even across at least three different translators of his novels in the 6-10 Zola books I've read. The narrative voice, dramatic mood-swings and slow build-up (that can leave one bogged-down in the middle third) to a moving climax are all typically Zola. Despite the description of a man tortured by his obsessions and self-doubt, this member of the series was not for me as powerful as some of its more famous brethren, such as Germinal
, The Earth
or La Débâcle
. Worth reading, then, but not the one to pick as one's first or even perhaps fifth work by Zola.