The schoolboy Paul Cézanne was a sensitive brute. At thirteen, he was almost full-grown.

He entered the Collège Bourbon in Aix as a half-boarder in the sixth grade in 1852. Half-boarders slept at home—in Cézanne’s case, a bourgeois house in the center of the town, a fifteen-minute walk away—but spent most of their waking hours at school, from seven in the morning (six in summer) until seven in the evening. Like many Aixois families, the Cézannes took advantage of the opportunity to combine public education and domestic education, as the school prospectus tactfully put it, for a modest three hundred francs per year, dinner and snack included. This arrangement continued for his first four years. For the last two he became a day boy. Whether he was by then sufficiently domesticated must be open to doubt. Intelligent, spirited, somewhat introverted, he was clever enough and sturdy enough to get by with the other boys. He boasted of translating one hundred Latin verses in no time at all, for the price of two sous. “I was a businessman, by Jove!” It was as commercial as he ever got. His ambitions were inarticulate. Among friends, he was eager for adventure: boys’ own pursuits, of a wholesome kind, spiced with poetry. Girls were out of bounds. They could be adored but not accosted. Making love meant serenading the object of one’s affections from afar—the ungovernable in search of the unattainable. For Cézanne, romantic fervor and libidinous impulse vied with conventional inhibition. He was unsure of himself, but Aix was his stamping ground. Here, he knew the form. He had the patter, or the patois. He spoke the language. In the year below was little Émile Zola, a boarder. Émile did not mix well. “My years in school were years of tears,” says the hero of his fiercely autobiographical first novel, La Confession de Claude (1865). “I had in me the pride of loving natures. I was unloved because I was unknown and I refused to make myself known.” Émile did not speak the language. He spoke with a lisp and a Parisian accent; his name sounded foreign; he was fatherless (Zola père died of pleurisy when Émile was six); his mother and grandmother came to visit him every day, in a parlor reserved for the purpose. In the bear pit of the boarders, Zola was a mama’s boy. He could not pass for Provençal. He did not care. The insult was cordially returned: they called him le Franciot (Frenchy). Among the bourgeois Aixois, Zola was different. They were fat, he was thin. Worse, he was poor. His early writing fairly pulsates with contempt for the good-for-nothing bourgeois. The last lines of the novels are often revealing. The last line of Le Ventre de Paris (1873) is the Cézanne character’s parting shot—one of the real Cézanne’s favorite expressions— a muttered imprecation against the plump of the world: “What bastards respectable people are!” Zola craved renown and respectability. At the Collège Bourbon, he was deprived of both. He was a boursier, a scholarship boy, living on charity. “Beggar!” the other boys taunted him. “Parasite!” Sometimes they beat him up. Sometimes they refused to speak to him altogether. “For the smallest thing, he was put in quarantine,” Cézanne remembered. “And really our friendship stemmed from that . . . from a thrashing I got from everyone in the playground, big and small, because I took no notice, I defied the ban, I couldn’t help talking to him anyway . . . A decent sort. The next day, he brought me a big basket of apples.” Recounting this to the young Joachim Gasquet, the son of Cézanne’s friend Henri Gasquet, some forty years later, he added with a sly wink, “Cézanne’s apples, see, they go back a long way.” Apples were not only Cézanne’s capital subject, the subject he succeeded in knowing fully, “all round,” as D. H. Lawrence aptly said; they were freighted with meaning and complex emotion.

In Zola’s novel Madeleine Ferat (1868), this story of origins (minus the apples) becomes the tale of Jacques and Guillaume at a local collège in Véteuil. The family backgrounds are transposed, and the character sketches jumbled, but the thrust is clear. Guillaume is christened “Bastard” and persecuted by the other boys. He is tearful and wretched, but soon enough he finds his savior. Guillaume, however, had one friend at school. As he was about to start his second year, a new pupil entered the same class. He was a big, strong, sturdy boy, who was two or three years older. His name was Jacques Berthier. An orphan, having only an uncle, a lawyer in Véteuil, he had come to the school in that town to complete the humanities course he had begun in Paris . . . On the very day he arrived, he noticed a big rascally boy bullying Guillaume. He raced over and made the boy understand that he would have to reckon with him if he tormented the others like that. Then he took the arm of the persecuted one and walked with him throughout the break, to the outrage of the other boys who -couldn’t understand how the Parisian could choose a friend like him . . . Guillaume . . . developed an ardent friendship for his protector. He loved him as one loves a first mistress, with absolute loyalty and blind devotion . . . Jacques accepted in good part the adoration of his protégé. He loved to show off his strength and be praised. Besides he was overwhelmed by the fond caresses of this character, puny and proud, who crushed the others with his scorn. During the two years they spent at the school, they were inseparable. “The Inseparables” became their call sign and caste mark. Like the Musketeers, they were three. Cézanne and Zola were joined by Baptistin Baille, later a distinguished scientist, professor of optics and acoustics at the School of Physics and Chemistry of the City of Paris, an institution he helped to found. Young Baille was a bright spark, and good company. He played host to their schoolboy escapades. The Bailles lived in a large house on the Cours Sextius, near the baths. A big room on the third floor served as the Inseparables’ den, laboratory, and workshop. Here they ate the grapes that hung from the ceiling; they risked their lives (so they liked to think) brewing up strange concoctions in chemical retorts; they composed three-act plays. At school, if Zola’s fictionalized reminiscence is to be trusted, they were not always little angels. They stole the shoes of Mimi-la-Mort, otherwise known as the Skeleton Day Boy, a spindly youth who used to keep the others supplied with snuff, and burned them in the stove. They stole matches from the chapel to smoke dried chestnut leaves in their homemade pipes. They marched round the pond in a cortège, singing dirges, with sawed-off benches from the playground, pretending they were corpses come to life, and Baille fell in as he tried to fill his cap with water. The young scamp Cézanne seems to have reveled in all this. One day he had the bright idea of roasting some Maybugs in the bottom of his desk, to see if they were good to eat, as people said. The smoke escaping from the desk was so thick and acrid that the supervisor grabbed a jug of water, thinking there was a fire. These japes must have been welcome distraction. Life at the Collège Bourbon was not an unalloyed pleasure. There was no heating. In winter, the interminable recitations began in clouds of steam. The ground-floor études, or study rooms, were depressing places: airless, humid, dimly lit, with the damp running down the walls. The pond where the boys learned to swim was covered in slime. School uniform was a trial: blue woolen tunic with red border and gold palms on the collar; matching blue trousers; blue kepi. School meals were so bad that there were occasional riots. Zola, who liked his food, remembered horrible dishes, “among others, a strange

codfish stew that poisoned the mold . . . We made up for it with bread, we stuffed crusts in our pocket and ate them in class or in the playground. For the six years I was there, I was hungry.” Excerpted from Cezanne by Alex Danchev. Copyright © 2012 by Alex Danchev. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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