Brothers Karamazov

“The world says: “You have needs — satisfy them. You have as much right as the rich and the mighty. Don’t hesitate to satisfy your needs; indeed, expand your needs and demand more.” This is the worldly doctrine of today. And they believe that this is freedom. The result for the rich is isolation and suicide, for the poor, envy and murder.”

― Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Reading Dostoevsky in New Orleans

We finished our reading group (The Wild Detective’s DRBC [Difficult Reading Book Club]) attack on Dostoevsky Brothers Karamazov. Seven hundred thirty six-odd, dense pages. This is definitely the way to devour an elephant like that: broken up into manageable chunks and each followed by a weekly Zoom meeting to discuss and clarify the confusion.

I actually sort-of read the book in college. It was assigned on, say, Thursday and I had to write a paper on the next Wednesday. That’s not enough time. Not surprisingly, I have no real memory other than a feeling of panic and dread. And the memory of relying too much on a little yellow pamphlet.

The Brothers Karamazov is often mentioned in short lists of the greatest novels of all time. That’s a bold statement, but one I can support.

First, it is a novel of ideas. Philosophical questions are presented and then played out across the stage of the plot. The plot is complex yet melodramatic. There are many things, a whole tangled skein of threads, going on at once. Reading it like this, especially in the excellent Pevear/Volokhonsky translation, is how much humor there is in the book. The characters are deep and complex, and the novel uses a lot of literary devices that are considered “modern” (unreliable narrators, stories within stories within stories, subtle shifting points of view, ambiguous ending, unknown first person plural narrator) which helps keep the dense text fresh.

It is the story of faith against rationality. There is no doubt on which side Dostoevsky sympathies lie – but he does not give his intellectual adversaries short thrift. He has the courage to give the other argument strong, even unassailable defenses and weapons. There is no straw man here. It makes for robust conflict and gives the reader incredible insight and the opportunities for hours of thought.

Faith and Doubt, Free Will (Dostoevsky acknowledges the existence of free will and understands that it is the key to salvation, but paints it not as a blessing, but as a curse – as a terrible burden that will flatten and destroy all but the strongest of men), and the need for moral simplicity and clarity are the battlefields that the novel is fought over… and the victor is very much in doubt.

Plus, I learned a new word… nadryv, And wrote about it here.

La Bête humaine

“Don’t go looking at me like that because you’ll wear your eyes out.”
― Emile Zola, La Bête humaine

Three generations. The smoking diesel pulling the steam Big Boy, while the electric DART train zooms by overhead.

It’s been awhile… since September, 2018, to be exact. For two and a half years I have been working my way through the 20 novels of Émile Zola’s Les Rougon-Macquart series. So far:

  • 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) and the movie Gervaise
  • 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)

Looking at this list, I realize I read L’Œuvre (1886) (The Masterpiece) this summer and never wrote a blog entry about it. Sorry. It was good, not the best of the series, but an interesting take on the artistic life and the madness behind it. I’ll write it up in the next few days, once I think about it and take a look at the text again.

I have been neglecting Zola lately, mostly because I’ve been participating in a Zoom group that is reading Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov (which I have been enjoying immensely). We took a bit of a break over the holidays and I used the time to devour La Bête humaine.

I had read a paperback copy of La Bête humaine years and years ago – but I remembered very little about it other than it had trains and murders.

WOW. This is one hell of a book. One surprising thing about the 20 books in the Rougon-Marquart universe is how wildly diverse they are. They range from frilly romance to gritty poverty to hopeless alcoholism to rampant greed. And now, we have this.

La Bête humaine is a book of murder(s). By the end of the story pretty much every major character is a killer, a victim, or both. All these murders sans one stem from the same cause – jealous rage. The one other example is a chilling description of a compulsive killer, consumed by powerful, mysterious violent urges of madness, insanity, and desire. The wheels of justice don’t help much – they turn slowly, then grind to a stop. The only innocent character is eventually blamed and convicted.

It is a novel of the railroad. Specifically, the nineteenth century steam engines that ran between Paris and the coast at Le Havre. Zola’s prodigious powers of description are used to paint portraits of the stations, the line, and especially the powerful engine “La Lison” which becomes practically a living character imbued with almost sexual powers.

Finally, it is a novel of arresting and amazing set pieces. The entire chapter where a wagon containing two huge hunks of rock is pushed into the path of “La Lison” is one of the most sensational and electrifying chunks of text I have ever read. There are horrifying killings, terrifying betrayals, and moments of sexual tension surprising for a classic novel. The final scene, especially, is chilling and horrific, even though it ends before the inevitable apocalypse.

There are free public domain versions of the novel available (from Project Gutenberg and other places) but I am glad I bought the excellent Roger Pearson translation from Oxford World Classics. It is written in a modern style, which fits this story very well.

So this was an enjoyable, if horrific, read. And now, on to Germinal, arguably the best in the series. I’ve already bought a good translation and am ready to go. However, I will wait until the end of January, have to finish The Brothers Karamazov first.

So little time, so many books.

The Grand Inquisitor

“In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet and say to us, Make us your slaves, but feed us.”
― Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Grand Inquisitor

Reading Dostoevsky in the French Quarter, New Orleans

For the last month or so my Wild Detectives Difficult Reads Book Club (DRBC) has been digging through Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. It was originally scheduled for the beginning of the year, with a weekly meeting at the book store – but was cancelled due to the quarantine. Finally, we started back up with Zoom meetings every Wednesday evening, instead of meeting in person. It actually works pretty well.

I made sure I could call into the Zoom meeting from my son’s apartment when I was on my New Orleans trip last week. He is working remotely and is something of a gamer – he had dedicated panel lights and an expensive headset with fancy microphone and the meeting worked really well from his place – I need to up my Zoom game from home now. In particular, everyone said my voice was very clear.

“You sound like a DJ, and you look like one too,” one woman said.

“Look like a DJ?” I replied, “Everyone has always said I have a face for radio.”

But before the meeting I had to get my weekly chunk of reading done (we are about a third of the way through). We had made it up to The Grand Inquisitor chapter (which sort of stands on its own) – the heart of the book and arguably is one of the most famous and influential works of literature ever written. It is also a dense and difficult read.

It was a beautiful day. I took my Kindle, walked down through the French Quarter and picked out a bench along the Mississippi to sit down and work my way through the (e-ink) pages.

The French Quarter is known for a lot of things – but it isn’t really known for a place to hang out and read Russian Literature (though a lot of literature has been written there). For me, however, it was perfect.

And I don’t care what you think… the bars are closed for Covid anyway.

Nadryv

“Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.”

― Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth Conjoined, Roxy Paine

My “difficult book club” read Book 4 (7 chapters) of The Brothers Karamazov this week and are meeting to discuss the section on ZOOM tonight. I am really enjoying the book – reading a long/and or difficult book in a group is definitely the way to do it. Plus the weekly schedule (not too bad – a couple hours of reading at most) breaks the chore up into palatable pieces. Looking at 800 pages is really daunting, but looking at 70 pages a week is easy peasy.

The chapter headings for this week’s section feature the word “Strain” – as in  “Strain in the Drawing Room” or “Strain in the Cottage.” The word “Strain” occurs in the text a lot also. This word seemed odd in context and more than a little out of place.   We are reading the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation of the book. Other translations use the word “Laceration” instead of “Strain.”

It didn’t take much research to discover that the original Russian word used by Dostoyevsky was the word NADYR (pronounced nud-RIF) – which shows up in various lists of Russian words that do not have an English equivalent.

Its surface meaning is “tear” or “rip” but it has a deeper significance as a strong emotional experience. Or something like that. Looking online – everyone in English is dancing around some meaning there – it obviously was very important to Dostoyevsky and critical to the meaning of this novel.

I found this little Youtube Video that seems to make the most sense.

So, at least in her interpretation Nadyr is the emotional state of intentionally inflicting pain on oneself – putatively for the purpose of being able to feel something. In the context of the events of the chapter, that makes perfect sense. Several characters make heartbreaking choices that extinguish the hope of happiness for themselves and others, for seemingly trivial reasons – pride, mostly… maybe tradition, maybe the idea of simply giving in to fate. It’s terrifying. Especially when you think about it – you realize how often people do this. The Russians are lucky I guess, they have a word.

The rest of us are still flailing around in the dark.

I read Dostoyevsky when I was young – I didn’t pay much attention and didn’t get much out of it. That was a mistake.

Short Story (flash fiction) of the day, My Dead by Peter Orner

“The world says: “You have needs — satisfy them. You have as much right as the rich and the mighty. Don’t hesitate to satisfy your needs; indeed, expand your needs and demand more.” This is the worldly doctrine of today. And they believe that this is freedom. The result for the rich is isolation and suicide, for the poor, envy and murder.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Beautiful Cars, Deep Ellum, Dallas, Texas (click to enlarge)

Tonight, I had a Zoom meeting from home. I used to go to these reading group meetings at the Wild Detectives Book Store in Bishop Arts. My favorite was when I’d take the train and trolley from work every Wednesday after work for that week’s meeting on reading Gravity’s Rainbow.

It was fun.

It feels like a thousand years ago.

So now the same group is going to do another “Difficult Book.” We are reading Dostoyevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov over the next few months – about a hundred pages a week. We will meet on Zoom every week to discuss what we’ve read.

Tonight was the kickoff meeting – no reading yet… only introductions and strategies. It was a little awkward – everyone seems so lonely. Hopefully, we will all get along. It should be fun.

Ok, here’s the opposite of a Russian novel – some flash fiction from The New Yorker.

My Dead, by Peter Orner.





 


Short Story (flash fiction) of the day, Sorry Dan, But It’s No Longer Necessary for a Human to Serve as CEO of This Company by Eric Cofer

I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of “Admin.” The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the office of a thoroughly nasty business concern.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

Braindead Brewing, Deep Ellum, Dallas, Texas

Is there a word for being in a constant state of angry/funk? I can’t think of one.

I guess I’ll have to make one up.

Here’s some thesaurus entries for anger:

acrimony 
animosity 
annoyance 
antagonism 
displeasure 
enmity 
exasperation 
fury 
hatred 
impatience 
indignation 
ire 
irritation 
outrage 
passion 
rage 
resentment 
temper 
violence 
chagrin 
choler 
conniption 
dander 
disapprobation 
distemper 
gall 
huff 
infuriation 
irascibility 
irritability 
miff 
peevishness 
petulance 
pique 
rankling 
soreness 
stew 
storm 
tantrum 
tiff 
umbrage 
vexation 
blow up 
cat fit 
hissy fit 
ill humor 
ill temper 
mad 
slow burn

And here’s some for ennui (a more technical term for funk):

apathy 
languor 
melancholy 
sadness 
tedium 
weariness 
blahs 
blues 
dejection 
depression 
dissatisfaction 
doldrums 
dumps 
fatigue 
lassitude 
listlessness 
satiety 
spiritlessness 
surfeit 
yawn 
ho hums 
lack of interest 
languidness 

Let’s pick three of each:

-fury

-rage

-conniption

and

-blues

-dumps

-doldrums

And now, pick two that go together:

The Conniption Dumps – Yeah, that’s the ticket.

I suffering from serious Conniption Dumps.

One of the (though by no means the only) sources of my anger and my ennui (my Conniption Dumps) is that I am being swept under and drowned in waves of corporate bullshit. Real Office Space levels of mendacity. The Covid Lockdown has enabled the evil armies of schemers and buttkissers out there (they particularly flourish in hours-long zoom meetings) and those enemies of all that is human and good are running rampant across the land. The rough beast is slouching toward Bethlehem.

Today’s Flash Fiction, Sorry Dan, But It’s No Longer Necessary for a Human to Serve as CEO of This Company by Erik Cofer is a tale of such a disaster.

Although, it is implied, in this case, that the downfall of the human is an error in a company softball game. That seems, as horrible as it seems, almost comforting to me. At least it is something real.

Sorry Dan, But It’s No Longer Necessary for a Human to Serve as CEO of This Company by Eric Cofer

from McSweeney’s


Borne

“Once, it was different. Once, people had homes and parents and went to schools. Cities existed within countries and those countries had leaders. Travel could be for adventure or recreation, not survival. But by the time I was grown up, the wider context was a sick joke. Incredible, how a slip could become a freefall and a freefall could become a hell where we lived on as ghosts in a haunted world.”
Jeff VanderMeer, Borne

Chihuly Glass (click to enlarge)

 

I have now read all the Borne series of books and stories by Jeff VanderMeer, pretty much – as far as I know… but the thing is I read them out of order. And I think that was a good thing.

   First of all was the newest Borne book – The Dead Astronauts, which I read on behest of the Wild Detectives Book Club (back in the day when you would actually go to a book club). The book was incredibly weird – so difficult to read that I thought that would be the end of the Borne Dystopia for me.

    But before I finished The Dead Astronauts I stumbled across and online short story/novela written about the same world – quite a bit earlier as it turns out – The Situation. This detailed a very strange world but told the story in a familiar way – the destruction of everything told as a story of corporate back-stabbing. I really enjoyed The Situation and that led me to check out The Strange Bird from the library and devour that short novel. It too told a strange tale but was written in a familiar style – that of a quest or journey. It was set in the same world and had a few characters in common with the other two works – enough to continue to increase my interest.

    So, I bought a copy of the central novel in the series Borne – and finished it late last night. It was really good, a crackerjack of a novel. The most complete of the books, it explains a lot of what what mysterious and curious in the others… explains some, maybe not a lot, really, … and definitely not everything.

    At the book club discussion of The Dead Astronauts someone describe Borne as a love story.  And it is the typical girl finds odd plant in fur of giant bear, girl falls in love with plant, plant turns out not to be a plant but a ruthless killer, girl loses plant/killer, and finally girl discovers her love is something else entirely type of story. Yeah, it is a love story.

    Having read it last it was inevitable that I would read it trying to ferret out the connections with the other works. The three Dead Astronauts from their own epynomous novel made an appearance in Borne but they didn’t do much probably because they were dead. The story of The Strange Bird and Borne are dovetailed – the identical tale told from two different points of view and in very different styles – the same characters populate both.

   The Situation is a prequel to all the others. It contains the origin of the Giant Bear, Mord, along with other clues. In Borne, it is strongly hinted that Wick is the narrator of The Situation but I wasn’t absolutely sure. In researching this, I came across a graphic version of The Situation  from Tor books – where Wick is named explicitly. Now I wonder if Scarskirt is the Magician from Borne and The Strange Bird. She is described as someone who “stared at reflective surfaces all day” which is a connection. I don’t know – but it’s fun to speculate. At any rate, click that link and look at the drawings – they are very good.

  So now I’m done with Borne and I can get back to reading Zola. Except… now I’m thinking about VanderMeer’s Annihilation (I liked the movie) and the rest of its Southern Reach trilogy. We’ll see. So many books, so little time.

    By the way, I’ve been reading rumors that AMC has optioned Borne for a miniseries. Wow, I have no idea how this goes onto the screen. It would be like a science fiction version of Game of Thrones… except on acid.

Short Story Of the Day, I Can See Right Through You by Kelly Link

It’s hard for the demon lover to grow old.

—-Kelly Link, I Can See Right Through You

Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, Texas

I first read about Kelly Link and her fiction when I read that Salon had named her collection of short stories, Stranger Things Happen, a book of the year. I tracked down the paperback and read it – and it was as good as advertised. I’ve been a fan of her work – a weird melange of oddly modern adult stories told as twisted fairy tales – ever since.

I’ve linked to two of her short stories before – Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (unfortunately, no longer online) and Catskin. Buy some of her books – and visit her publishing house – especially since she offers so much that she has written and/or published under a creative commons license.

So today I’ll link to I Can See Right Through You – it starts out fragmented and jumping around and then settles down and then veers into something a little unexpected. Worth it… genius, really.

Read it here:

I Can See Right Through You by Kelly Link

from McSweeney’s

Kelly Link Homepage

Small Beer Press

Kelly Link’s Twitter

The Strange Bird

For he had no typewriter ribbon left and only fifty sheets of paper and he counted on the stabbing imprint of the keys to make an impression like a branding, and when he had used the fifty sheets, front and back, he would start again, typing over what he had already impressed upon the page.

—- Jeff VanderMeer, The Strange Bird

 

Bird, Scavenging along an Interstate Highway in Texas

Back in the olden days, the days when we did things, I would go to a book club in a bookstore on the other side of town and join a group that would read the same book and discuss it. It seems so long ago.

One book we read was Jeff VanderMeer’s Dead Astronauts. I really can’t say I enjoyed the book – it was too, too difficult to read. I looked forward to the discussion. I was curious about what everybody thought – but the thoughts were jumbled. I asked, at the end of the evening, “Would anyone here have finished this book on their own – without the pressure of having book club?” The answer was a resounding NO.

Though I won’t say the book was enjoyable, it was interesting… and it was… haunting is the best I can come up with.

And when I came across an online short story written by VanderMeer – The Situation – I read it and wrote about it. It was another fabulous story but told in a more conventional way – not too difficult to get through.

And then… well, there’s this thing I do. I always like to have some short books laying around – something to read when I don’t have very much time, energy, or patience. What I do is I walk down the aisles of the library in the fiction section simply looking at the physical books. Then I pull the small and slim volumes out and see if they are something I might be interested in. This, again, was back in the olden days when there were libraries.

The last book like that I checked out – I looked at it and, surprise, it was another by Jeff VanderMeer – a short novel, novela really, called The Strange Bird.

And it, again was in a different style. It was a straightforward (though bizarre) tale told as a hero’s journey – like The Odyssey, or The Alchemist,  or The Hobbit, or something like that.  The protagonist is the eponymous “Strange Bird” – a creature that may have started out as a bird but had been manipulated in a horrific futuristic bio-tech lab – bits added from many different animals… and humans… fantastic properties and abilities… until what was left was an intelligent, damaged, powerful, fearful, beautiful, hurt and most of all – unique thing – the Strange Bird:

In the lab, so many of the scientists had said, “forgive me” or “I am so sorry” before doing something irrevocable to the animals in their cages. Because they felt they had the right. Because the situation was extreme and the world was dying. So they had gone on doing the same things that had destroyed the world, to save it. Even a Strange Bird perched on a palm tree on an artificial island with a moat full of hungry crocodiles below could understand the problem with that logic.

—- Jeff VanderMeer, The Strange Bird

Even though the styles are varied – the Strange Bird is a “Borne” novel and The Situation is a “Borne” novela and The Dead Astronauts is another “Borne” novel. They are set in a fantastic world established in the linchpin novel Borne by Jeff VanderMeer. This is a dystopian earth destroyed by the experiments conducted by The Company – a giant biotech conglomerate. The blasted world is left with the few remaining humans battling for survival with the genetic monsters created by The Company – now escaped and running amok.

There are characters and locations shared (though often at different times – different stages of their lives) – Charlie X, Rachel and her lover Wick (who sells drugs in the form of customized beetles that produce memories when shoved in one’s ear), the Balcony Cliffs, and especially the giant flying killer bear, Mord. Borne himself(herself? itself?) is mentioned briefly in The Strange Bird.

So, now, what choice do I have? I picked up a copy of Borne – will read it next.

 

 

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.