First we got the lovely Balzac’s Omelette: A Delicious Tour of French Food and Culture with Honoré de Balzac that examined Balzac’s use of food as literary technique. Then Monsieur Proust’s Library, which tracked how Proust’s love for literature and pastiche amplified his works. And now, with The Pen and the Brush: How Passion for Art Shaped Nineteenth-Century French Novels, Goncourt-winning biographer Anka Muhlstein continues her intelligent literature/culture crossovers, looking this time at how a wellspring of publicly displayed art and the contemporary art scene and its ideals influenced the French literary masters’ works, making art and artists the subject of books but also allowing them to inject new literary techniques into their work. These books may sound erudite and perhaps too specialized to interest even devoted fans of Balzac or Proust, but Muhlstein treats these explorations more as pleasant and intelligent conversation over tea.
In The Pen and the Brush, Muhlstein begins with a brief history of the Louvre in Paris. Prior to the nineteenth century, access to art was limited to only the wealthy, she says; however, with the Louvre came free public access to works of wonder from around the world, spurring interest in paintings and painters across society. Because of this unique development, the French literary masters that Muhlstein focuses on in this book — namely Balzac, Zola, Huysmans, Maupassant, and Proust — used their work to enter the cultural conversation.
I’ll have to say, though, that that’s not the most exciting premise. I don’t really care that Zola, for example, knew a lot of painters and included them, their studios, and their troubles in his work. Fortunately, that’s of minor import in the book as well. Rather, the most fascinating, the most exciting parts, the ones that would have me forgetting about the appetizers if we were all chatting with Muhlstein over a meal, are the portions where she explores how the writers used visual art techniques in their written works:
For many centuries it was writers who to a large extent fueled the imagination of painters [. . .]
Everything changed with the next generation, when painters took to spurning great subjects. They thought it pointless to justify their work with a legend, an event, or an anecdote. At the same time, drawn by the power of images, writers sought to establish literary equivalents of pictorial achievements by taking into consideration effects of light and color.
Balzac, though he was not friends with any painter and, apparently, never attempted to sketch anything, even went so far as to describe himself as a literary painter. Balzac talked about what this meant to him, and it’s fitting, then, that Muhlstein uses him and his work as the foundation for the remainder of the book.
Through the remainder of the book, Muhlstein tracks the course of a century during which artists and writers worked towards similar ends, sometimes even working together.
She chooses to end her book with Proust “because it seems to me that his novel marks the point at which an equilibrium was established in the dialogue between painting and literature.” Proust, straddling the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, was moving on from the interests and concerns of his forebears. Rather than evoke the life and work of a painter, Proust is mostly interested in their artistic theories and uses them — when he does, which is limited — to evoke time and place and the passage thereof. It’s a painter, Elstir, who teaches the young Narrator in Swann’s Way to see, and Muhlstein quotes that the Narrator is trying to “discover beauty in places [he] had never imagined it could be, in the most everyday things . . . the remains of a glass of wine, dark but glittering with light . . . the metamorphosis of plums gong from green to blue and blue to gold in the already half-empty fruit bowl.” Naturally, capturing the beauty of transient things is a Proustian strength.
As I’ve mentioned, this is a fun book, a pleasant companion with interesting things to say, and not a groundbreaking, highly academic work of scholarship. That’s counts both as a strength and a weakness. The basis for Muhlstein’s argument about the Louvre, for example, is anecdotal and doesn’t really grapple with the fact that Paris was not the only place in the world with free public access to art. Some of her analyses of the author’s styles, while fascinating, is limited in a similar way. But this is also a strength because Muhlstein is not trying to revolutionize or even form bedrock scholarship so much as help her readers to see as well, and see with passion. This is a kind of cozy scholarship. It’s clear that Muhlstein loves these works of art, and she’s devoted a lot of time to looking at their details. She’s found fascinating and comfortable ways to share this gift with her readers.