L’Assommoir

“While the storm was erupting, she stayed, staring at it, watching the shafts of lightning, like someone who could see serious things, far away in the future in these sudden flashes of light.”
Emile Zola, L’Assommoir

 I am now a good chunk (have been reading for a year and a half) into Emile Zola’s twenty volume Rougon Macquat series of novels. Attacking this pile of books in the recommended reading order:

  • La Fortune des Rougon (1871) (The Fortune of the Rougons)
  • Son Excellence Eugène Rougon (1876) (His Excellency Eugene Rougon/ His Excellency)
  • La Curée (1871-2) (The Kill)
  • L’Argent (1891) (Money)
  • Le Rêve (1888) (The Dream)
  • La Conquête de Plassans (1874) (The Conquest of Plassans/A Priest in the House)
  • Pot-Bouille (1882) (Pot Luck/Restless House/Piping Hot)
  • Au Bonheur des Dames (1883) (The Ladies’ Paradise/Shop Girls of Paris/Ladies’ Delight)
  • La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret (1875) (The Sin of Father Mouret/Abbe Mouret’s Transgression)
  • Une Page d’amour (1878) (A Lesson in Love/A Love Episode/A Page of Love/A Love Affair)
  • Le Ventre de Paris (1873) (The Belly of Paris/The Fat and the Thin/Savage Paris/The Markets of Paris)
  • La Joie de Vivre (1884) (The Joys of Living/Joy of Life/How Jolly Life Is/Zest for Life)
  • L’Assommoir (1877) (The Dram Shop/The Gin Palace/Drink/Drunkard)
  • L’Œuvre (1886) (The Masterpiece/A Masterpiece/His Masterpiece)
  • La Bête Humaine (1890) (The Beast in the Man/The Human Beast/The Monomaniac)
  • Germinal (1885)
  • Nana (1880)
  • La Terre (1887) (The Earth/The Soil)
  • La Débâcle (1892) (The Downfall/The Smash-up/The Debacle)
  • Le Docteur Pascal (1893) (Doctor Pascal)

The next one up (the thirteenth) was L’Assommoir – I picked up an excellent Penguin Classics translation by Robin Buss entitled The Drinking Den (there is no good English translation for the French word L’Assommoir).

L’Absinthe (detail) by Edgar Degas

From the article 10 Intoxicating Facts About Edgar Degas’s L’Absinthe

9. IT INSPIRED A LITERARY MASTERPIECE.

L’Assommoir by celebrated French novelist Émile Zola was an exploration of alcoholism among the poor of Paris. Zola must have seen the painting during its disastrous 1876 debut, as his book was published the following year. The author credited Degas for some of L’Assommoir ‘s imagery, telling him, “I quite plainly described some of your pictures in more than one place in my pages.”

It took me five months to finish  L’Assommoir – well, actually I read it in a week – I spent five months reading other stuff. I guess that’s all right.

After reading La Joie de Vivre  I had to decide –  I had already read L’Assommoir – along with four of the next five. Years ago, before the internet, I was able to get my hands on L’Assommoir, Germinal, La Bête Humaine, and Nana – but none of the others in the Rougon-Macquart Cycle. So, do I re-read L’Assommoir? Or skip ahead to L’Œuvre (which looks really interesting).

I decided to re-read the ones I had poured through already. At least with L’Assommoir I’m glad I did.

First of all it’s arguably (along with Germinal) the best book in the series. It’s a terribly sad story but an arresting one, full of fascinating full-blooded characters filling a complete world. We can’t live (thank God) in the world of the underbelly of Paris in the Second French Empire – but the book takes us there and we can feel the moments of passionate fun along with the grinding poverty and ultimate doom of a group of people we come to know well and care deeply about.

The story follows Gervaise Macquart, who we met briefly in the first novel in the series,La Fortune des Rougon, where she ran away from her country town of Plassans to Paris with her lover, Lantier. She works as a washerwoman and has two children with Lantier until he leaves her for another woman. Then she marries a non-drinking roofer, Coupeau and her life takes a turn for the better. She is able to put together the funds to open her own laundry, hire employees, and her daughter is born (Nana – who will have her own book later on, as will Gervaise’s other two children) – everything is going great. This is Zola, however, and he accounts for the madness in the Rougon-Macquart family and after Coupeau is severely injured in an accident they go on a long, heartbreaking, alcohol-fueled fall into abject poverty, disaster, and madness.

The second reason I was glad I re-read the book is that I was able to get a good great translation. As I’ve written before all Zola’s books are available for free in ebook form from Project Gutenberg. However, these translations done by  the Vizetelly family are not the best. Henry Vizetelly was imprisoned over the publication of his translation of La Terre, which was considered offensive. Subsequent editions of all of Zola’s novels were heavily edited by his son Ernest in order to avoid further prosecutions.

I have learned to bite the bullet and buy a modern translation if one is available. This is especially true of L’Assommoir. It is filled with street slang and risque scenes which are omitted from the Vizetelly versions. The Penguin edition I had was translated by Robin Buss and was very well done. I’m going to look for his translations of any French novels in the future.

The arc of the story of L’Assommoir is heartbreaking but I loved the structure of the novel. It is built around a series (pretty much one per chapter) of set pieces. In keeping with Zola’s style of literary naturalism these scenes are finely detailed, rollicking, and the reader feels in the heart of the action. The wedding  (with a tumultuous visit to the Louvre), Gervaise’s triumphant feast (the zenith of her life which also contains the seeds of her downfall), and the final battle with alcoholic madness of her husband Coupeau, are some of the most famous – but there are more.

So, if you want an introduction to the seedier side of Paris, an introduction to Zola and naturalist literature, with a great (although heartbreaking) story – you can’t do better than L’Assommoir.

 

 

3 responses to “L’Assommoir

  1. I love Zola! I think he’s absolutely pertinent for our time and a very underrated writer (in the US anyway). I’m reading “The Dream” right now — different for him but very good.

    • “The Dream” is my least favorite of the series. What has surprised me in reading the entire series is the different styles the various books are written in.

      You’re right about how underrated he is in the US. I think one reason for this is the fact that there are such poor translations. I would like to read one that takes some liberties and re-writes a couple of his books into a more modern style.

  2. Pingback: Gervaise | Bill Chance

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