Review- Zola, “L’Assommoir”

Émile Zola, “L’Assommoir” (1877) (translated from the French by Margaret Mauldon) – My understanding is that “L’Assommoir” was Zola’s breakthrough, as far as selling the series of which it is the seventh volume, the Rougon-Macquart novels, to the public. He was popular, but this one was a real hit. Whether this is down to the French public finally getting behind Zola’s experiment in extended-form literary naturalism, prising what he saw as the hereditary and environmental factors determining human existence out of the web of mystification around it, or just that people like depictions of low life and few had been served up to them like this before, is for wiser commentators than me to say.

“L’Assommoir” tells the story of one Gervaise (yes, it took a while for me to stop seeing her as Ricky Gervaise in a dress), a low-ranking member of one of the titular families (the Macquarts, for anyone keeping score) of the series. She starts out poor, working as a laundress in a north Paris slum, with two little kids from a dude, Lantier, to whom she wasn’t married and who ditches her early on. Life in the slum is crowded, dirty, and violent, not just physically but emotionally. Everyone is in everyone’s business. It’s the worst of both worlds in terms of people engaging in disapproved behavior — drinking, illicit sex, petty crime — but everyone still being highly moralistic about it all. Like I’ve said before, poverty and trauma don’t, on their own, ennoble- they fuck you up. People in “L’Assommoir” are pretty badly fucked up.

Towards the middle of the book, things look up for Gervaise. She gets married to a roofer, Coupeau, and makes/borrows enough money to open a laundry shop of her own. Zola understood himself as a naturalist, not a sentimentalist ala Dickens. There is, supposedly, a logic to what happens. It’s too much to say it’s the opposite of Dickens, that morality doesn’t enter into it, it definitely does, but in some weird late-nineteenth-century way I don’t fully grasp. So when the downfall starts, there seems to be multiple reasons. One is that Coupeau falls off a roof, hurts himself, and finds out he prefers chilling (and, eventually, drinking a lot even by prevailing standards) to working. If that were all, it would imply that Zola was making a commentary on bad luck. But there’s more to it. Gervaise can’t stop herself from “greed,” which in Zola’s usage means it’s old sense- she wants to eat a lot, and good food too. She also wants to laze and gossip with her workers rather than really attend to the neighborhood’s dirty laundry, and she likes throwing parties, even with her in-laws who hate her.

So as you can see, there’s a weird mix of dynamics going on in this Petrie dish Zola set up. Things get weirder when Lantier re-enters the picture, with mysterious money, political opinions (opposed to the Emperor, but not in an especially helpful way), and good lines of shit. Zola depicts Lantier as a sort of boarder-parasite (not a few social scientists from this period described the horrors that come in the wake of having to take on boarders, especially men) who men and women both find irresistible. He takes back up with Gervaise and also starts borrowing money from her. Coupeau doesn’t care, but he doesn’t care about much by that point besides going down to L’Assommoir, the lowest dive in the neighborhood, and swilling rotgut. Eventually, between Coupeau’s drinking, Gervaise’s laziness and gluttony, Lantier’s depredations, and factors like the utter lack of care options for elders or children, Gervaise is pretty badly fucked. Zola strings this out for hundreds of pages, not sparing details: humiliations at hands of vicious in-laws and former enemies, madness, free-falling standards of appearance and hygiene, eventual demise.

What to make of all this? Well, it held my interest pretty well, more than in-jokes about Second Empire politics or weird Genesis-allegories like you got in earlier installments of the series. Zola claimed this was “the first novel about working people that does not lie” and it scandalized many readers for its (relatively) frank references to sex and low life. The French is, supposedly, in the slum argot of the time, not just the characters’ dialogue and thoughts but much of the omniscient narration as well. The introduction warns this makes “L’Assommoir” notoriously difficult to translate. The translator of this edition made the interesting choice to basically turn it into cockney, which took me out of it some. I’m not sure what a better choice would be, but constantly hearing things described as “not half” this or that, “bleedin’” as a modifier, etc., felt wrong.

I’m also not sure what Zola meant me to carry away from the book. I should reign in my habit of compulsively politically classifying literary writers, but I guess I’d slot in Zola as a left-Republican (in the French sense, though American Republicans were a bit closer to that sense circa 1877). He’s sympathetic to the poor but also thinks they by and large do it to themselves. Character, as transmitted by heredity and shaped by environment, will out. Gervaise and Coupeau’s kid, Nana, subject of a later novel, is the result of slum breeding and slum environment, neither of which can result in anything good as far as Zola is concerned. Workers’s self-assertion in the world of “L’Assommoir” is usually either empty boastfulness, as in the case of the slacker Coupeau, or a grifter’s cover, like with Lantier. Meritocracy and striving don’t do much either. Would Gervaise had made it with a better husband? Zola definitely gets across that women are screwed way worse than men in the slums, structurally screwed. Well- it seems a thing with French social novelists they don’t do much with solutions. A lot of French social theorists used to, at the time, and their solutions were novelistic enough (see Comte, Fourier). This was a pretty good book in any event. If you’re not a weird Rougon-Macquart completist like me, there’s worse places to jump in, despite the translation issues. ****

Review- Zola, “L’Assommoir”

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