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For Granta: Best Book of 1886: The Masterpiece
“There is very little that seems normal about this, the year of our lord two thousand and twenty. It was a year in which we were all supposed to use our time in lockdown to write King Lear, or at least to make a lot of noise about how that was never going to happen. Could mass death and no social life actually give us the space in which to write our masterpieces? Survey says . . . probably not. Many are giving themselves a pass on meeting ambitions entirely, content to merely survive in the most basic sense of the word.
The end of one year and the beginning of another is often a time of strange anxiety for a modern writer. It is usually when the ‘best of’ lists exert their tyrannical reign. These are the best books of the year that just was, and worse, the best books of the year that hasn’t even started yet. These ‘most anticipated’ listicles in particular can make an overlooked writer feel as if their own nascent tome is a flop before it has even gone to the printers; that it is already over, not just for their book, but for them.
It was in this spirit of panicked messages from lamenting author friends that I returned to Émile Zola’s L’Oeuvre of 1886. Inexactly translated as The Masterpiece – L’Oeuvre literally means ‘The Work’ in French – it is by far the most autobiographical of his twenty-novel Rougon–Macquart cycle. Were it published today, it might have been called Art Monster, or Les Workaholics…”