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Customer reviews

4.1 out of 5 stars

on April 10, 2014
I'm kind of at a loss for how to describe this. It's 5 portraits of various painters, some of them famous, some of them the disciples of the famous. Each one is told from a beguiling outside perspective, sometimes by a famous subject (the weirdly poignant Joseph Roulin of Van Gogh fame), sometimes by a person who merely seems to observe them in the course of their work, sometimes the narrator seems to be Michon himself.

These are complex profiles, full of rich allusions to European painting, it's history, and the challenges it presents to the lives of those who practice it, and animated by a series of repeating motifs that at times are confined to each tale but which occasionally bleed over to the other stories. Michon's prose has a dense, almost babbling quality (Wyatt Mason deserves major credit, translating these must have been excruciatingly hard).

None of these stories is longer than 50 pages but each feels as densely alive and as intricately wrought as a full novel. Michon seems to be a part of that European tradition of writers who don't merely write about the past but dive full bore into it with an intense level of psychological insight that makes it feel less like your reading a fiction and more like your listening to a ghost speak (think W.G. Sebald, Marguerite Yourcenar, etc), which is something I really tend to enjoy. I'm giving this maximum star-age because I think it deserves more attention
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on August 28, 2000
Too often, the best books published in any given year are doomed to obscurity. I discovered 'Masters and Servants' in the New York Review of Books in a review by one of America's best critics, Roger Shattuck, author of the famous 'Banquet Years' and 'Forbidden Knowledge'. Shattuck was reviewing a book called 'Degas in New Orleans' published by a big publisher. Shattuck added a review of 'Masters and Servants' into the review, saying that everything that the Degas book tried to be and failed at was everything that 'Masters and Servants' was. Guess what? Shattuck is right. 'Masters and Servants', five stories about painters, is one of the finest pieces of fiction published in America in the 90's. So what are the virtues of this brave book? Great writing, writing that 100 years from now will be around, if there's anything like literary justice. Michon, a Frenchman regarded by intelligent critics as the finest living French author, has published a variety of books in France, most of which are novella-length accounts of lives. 'Masters and Servants' looks and five famous painters-Vincent van Gogh, Goya, Watteau, Piero della Francesca and Claude-via the prism of other people. In the van Gogh story, that person is a postman whom van Gogh painted, Joseph Roulin, a bearded fellow who worked for the mail service in Arles when van Gogh lived there in the late 1890's. There has lately been a trend towards 'faction,' that odd blend of fact and fiction that drives big books like Oates 'Blonde'. Usually an ungainly form that has neither the rigor of history or the whimsy of fiction, 'faction' could not be farther from what Michon is doing. His 'lives' aren't wide-eyed glimpses through history's keyhole at the private lives of famous people. Rather, he uses the barest bits of biography, a single line from Vasari, a famous portrait, as the equivalent of a chalk outline at a crime scene: suggestive but incomplete. That admission of incompletion is the purgatory that Michon fills with his paradisiacal art. And it should be said that Michon isn't an 'easy' author. He rewards the effort his writing requires. But just as when we switch from reading Dickens to Joyce we have to adjust our expectations or else be frustrated, we must adjust when reading Michon. I can't recommend the Michon enough, nor sufficiently praise his translator, Wyatt Mason, for the quality of his work. Too often, translators use the work of foreign authors as a springboard for inventions that bear little resemblance to the originals. Mr. Mason's work is accurate and felicitous, capturing the rhythms and the sonority of the original-a great feat. Finally, not that such things matter, the little book is also beautifully designed, including a series of elegant illustrations by Mr. Mason that seem to indicate he possesses other gifts. I urge you to read this book, and to pass it on to people who know that literature matters.
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on August 23, 1998
I'm glad to know that one of the greatest living French prose writer is now available in English transalation. His stories on art and artists are splendid examples of his central concern: to catch and describe these moments when an individual life either becomes a destiny, or, on the contrary, is denied its destiny, is robbed of its destiny. For instance: How a seemingly ordinary man (Goya) discovers that he is in fact different from his fellow painters? How, on the contrary, an Italian painter, maybe a genius, ends up with two lines in Vasari? At the time of his death, what remains of Watteau's life, of his work? The style is without any doubt one of the most original, personal, and powerful, of this century in French litterature. Michon is not a very prolific writer. I hope his other books (in particular his masterpiece, in French: Vies Minuscules) will soon be translated in English.
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on May 18, 2014
Words, words, words. That was Hamlet’s response when Polonius asked what he was reading, and it’s the only thing that comes to mind when I consider how to respond to this book. Once again, I allowed myself to be led astray by an exciting concept. At first glance, it should be right up my alley—stories describing the collision of master artists and the real world they lived in. The first story especially appealed, featuring Joseph Roulin, a postman who, along with his family, modeled for several of Van Gogh’s paintings.

Unfortunately, I was so excited about the concept of the stories, I forgot an important lesson learned as an English major: I really dislike writing that’s intended to be literary. Without plot or even much character development, all that remains is words—fancy words in odd constructions designed to show off how intelligent, polished, and literary the author (or in this case, translator) is. If you enjoy wading through classic works of words, you may well love this book, but I have no patience for it. The introduction contains a snippet of advice given to translator Wyatt Mason, “'Simplicity offends no one, clarity delights all.'” I just wish he’d listened.

Review written for San Francisco Book Review
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