Like many a tradition-breaking artist, Edouard Manet — "the first of the moderns" — was misunderstood, even vilified, in his own time. His bold manner with paint was bad enough (Slapdash! Unfinished!), but his subject matter! No glowing landscapes, heroic generals or noble peasants, but contemporary Parisian life, shorn of myth and sentimentality: street scenes, bar life, even brothels.
Repeatedly rejected by the art establishment, he nevertheless painted on, staying true to his artistic vision until his untimely death at 51.
In its barest outline, Manet's life suggests a narrative we've all heard before: the rebel genius who dies young, unrecognized (and often mad). What makes Manet's life more interesting is how very little it fits the romantic trajectory.
He was born into a well-to-do family, with an uncle who supported his artistic ambitions from an early age and a father who, while originally disappointed in his son's career choice, nevertheless paid for art lessons from an esteemed academic painter.
No brooding loner in a garret, Manet was called debonair, sociable, even charismatic, frequenting the cafe concerts and bars with Zola, Degas, Renoir and Monet. He had a wife, a son (passed off as his wife's younger brother, but to whom he was very close), friends, enemies and many mistresses. True, he did die young (of advanced syphilis), but not before finally gaining the recognition he'd long sought: a medal from the Salon and the top prize, the Legion of Honor.
And in his last year, despite crippling illness, he painted one of his masterpieces, "A Bar at the Folies-Bergere." It was a huge canvas of a life, worthy of a three-volume 19th-century novel.
All this is to say that Minnesota writer Maureen Gibbon made a wise choice to confine her quietly dazzling novel "The Lost Notebook of Edouard Manet" to the last three years of Manet's life, when crippling illness forced him off the boulevards and into his own mind.
The premise is simple: His best friend gives Manet a notebook to help him pass the time in convalescence when the pain is strong, painting impossible. Despite his initial resistance, Manet writes, jotting impressions and memories, ruminations on art and love, friendship and sex. Some entries, like this one from May 22, 1880, are very brief: "A white spider with a pink stripe on its belly sat on the peonies today. How can a spider match a flower so precisely?"
A few spill onto a second page. The pacing is skillfully handled, creating the illusion of a genuine journal, with mundane observations of daily life juxtaposed against passages of great insight and wisdom.
The Manet who emerges crafts as insightfully with a fountain pen as a paintbrush: Gibbon creates wincingly convincing dramas of physical pain, with its vacillation between hope and disappointment, and quieter dramas from the interplay of memories tender and sensual.
Most striking of all is the way in which Gibbon convinces us that we are inside the mind of an artist in the act of creation; Manet's observations become ours; we become artists, co-creators.
"The Lost Notebook" sneaks up on you. I read slowly, almost impatiently, at first, perhaps wishing for a stronger narrative thread. But as I read on, I became mesmerized by the deep pleasure of taking time, immersing myself in the sensory delight of the small, the ordinary, the ephemeral. I felt I was learning to see, not just look. This book is a rare gift.
Patricia L. Hagen is professor emerita at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.
The Lost Notebook of Edouard Manet
By: Maureen Gibbon.
Publisher: W.W. Norton, 393 pages, $17.95.