Gervaise

“With almost superhuman strength she seized Virginie by the waist, bent her forward with her face to the brick floor and, notwithstanding her struggles, lifted her skirts and showed the white and naked skin. Then she brought her beater down as she had formerly done at Plassans under the trees on the riverside, where her employer had washed the linen of the garrison.

Each blow of the beater fell on the soft flesh with a dull thud, leaving a scarlet mark.”

Emile Zola, L’Assommoir

 

Yesterday I finished Zola’s L’Assommoir and enjoyed it a lot. In doing some online research about the book I discovered it had been made into a 1956 French film called Gervaise that wasn’t supposed to be too bad. It was directed by René Clément and starred Maria Schell (sister of Maximilian). I was able to find a copy of the film and waited until I finished the book – then sat down to watch it.

L’Assommoir is a big, complicated, 500 page book and I knew they would have to slim it down to get the story into a movie. They did, but remained faithful to the spirit of the Zola novel. The movie concentrates on Gervaise – not surprisingly – and leaves out a lot of the tumult around her. I really liked the film – despite being over sixty years old (a year older than me) it holds up well. Gervaise’s decent into abject poverty, despair, and destruction is rushed as compared to the book – she is still alive at the end of the film and the book conveys the horrors of her descent better. There is a political subplot added to the movie that wasn’t in the book – and I didn’t think it added much. But otherwise, I thought the movie did a good job and illustrated the look of a lot of the story that I had trouble imagining (having never been to Paris of the Second Empire myself).

Like the book, the movie suffered from prudish editing – luckily the version I found seems mostly uncut (it was 116 minutes long). The biggest difference seems to be in the fight in the wash house between Gervaise and her arch-rival Virginie at the beginning of the story – the version I saw had a bloody scene of Gervaise tearing off Virginie’s earring and then beating her bare bottom with a wooden paddle. Tame by modern standards – those scenes were too much for the 1950’s.

The movie is one of the most expensive (in modern currency) foreign films ever made. The sets are extensive, detailed, and realistic.

And the best thing is that many of the memorable set pieces of the book are preserved. The wedding party and its visit to the Louvre, the horrifying fall her husband takes off a roof on the day she is to buy her shop, Gervaise’s Name-Day feast, Coupou’s alcoholic madness (though transferred from an asylum to Gervaise’s shop – probably more dramatic that way), and most of all the famous fight between Gervaise and Virginie in the wash house – all were giving loving care and exciting treatment.

Gervaise and Virginie going at it in the wash house. Gervaise’s man, Lantier, has just run off with Virginie’s prostitute sister, Adèle.

Virginie about to hit Gervaise with the wooden paddle.

Gervaise has reversed the fight and is about to give Virginie a vicious paddling.

This scene was apparently too much for the censors. Virginie is about to get hers.

The wedding party goes to the Louvre, here Gervaise and Goujet are standing in front of Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People.

Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People

Gervaise singing at her Name Day party – the high point of her life.

A ruined and despairing Gervaise at the end of the film.

Compare this scene to:

L’Absinthe (detail) by Edgar Degas

At least Degas’ woman still has her hat (Gervaise has pawned hers).

 

Reviews of Gervaise:

Adapting Emile Zola’s L’Assommoir, René Clément’s Gervaise (1956)

Gervaise: True Grit

GERVAISE – ESSENTIAL ART HOUSE

 

The Fortune of the Rougons

“They again kissed each other and fell asleep. The patch of light on the ceiling now seemed to be assuming the shape of a terrified eye, that stared wildly and fixedly upon the pale, slumbering couple who reeked with crime beneath their very sheets, and dreamt they could see a rain of blood falling in big drops, which turned into golden coins as they plashed upon the floor.”
― Émile Zola, The Fortune of the Rougons

Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People

Let’s see – I started reading La Fortune des Rougon – the first book of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle on September 19. I finished it today – so that’s thirteen days. I had hoped to finish in ten… but that’s close.

So, one down, nineteen to go.

What did I think about it?

Well, it’s the introductory work of a twenty-book cycle. Considering that, it crams in a lot of introductory material. Zola’s 20 Rougon-Macquart novels are a sweeping account of one family during the Second French Empire. There are over 300 characters in the complete series, many of whom are introduced in first book. Also, the social and political aspects of this age are covered in all their complexity.

So there is a lot of information here. A lot of the story is an encyclopedic recitation of facts and relationships as the spotlight moves around different branches of the family tree. This gets a little confusing – I did benefit from some advice I read recently, “Don’t read lying down; always have a pen and some index cards handy, take notes.”

That isn’t really meant as a criticism, merely a statement of fact. This is a huge, rambling story and it takes a bit of effort to get the snowball rolling down the hill. The books are a statement of Zola’s belief in heredity and madness – but there is more than that.

In the final analysis, the judgement of a novel like this is whether or not you give a damn. There aren’t a lot of heroes in this kaleidoscope of selfishness and dysfunction… but there are two. The two young lovers, Silvere and Miette, are quiet innocent saints. They, alone in all the characters deserve something better, and your heart goes out to them. When they are on the page – you give a damn.

Unfortunately, they are doomed.

When I put down the book I had to sit and think for a few minutes – I felt like I had just returned from a long journey and had to digest all that I had seen and learned. And that – I think – is the sign a book had been worth reading.

Now on to the next – Son Excellence Eugène Rougon (1876) (His Excellency Eugene Rougon/ His Excellency)

AUTHOR’S PREFACE

I wish to explain how a family, a small group of human beings, conducts
itself in a given social system after blossoming forth and giving birth
to ten or twenty members, who, though they may appear, at the first
glance, profoundly dissimilar one from the other, are, as analysis
demonstrates, most closely linked together from the point of view of
affinity. Heredity, like gravity, has its laws.

By resolving the duplex question of temperament and environment, I shall
endeavour to discover and follow the thread of connection which leads
mathematically from one man to another. And when I have possession of
every thread, and hold a complete social group in my hands, I shall
show this group at work, participating in an historical period; I shall
depict it in action, with all its varied energies, and I shall analyse
both the will power of each member, and the general tendency of the
whole.

The great characteristic of the Rougon-Macquarts, the group or family
which I propose to study, is their ravenous appetite, the great
outburst of our age which rushes upon enjoyment. Physiologically the
Rougon-Macquarts represent the slow succession of accidents pertaining
to the nerves or the blood, which befall a race after the first organic
lesion, and, according to environment, determine in each individual
member of the race those feelings, desires and passions–briefly, all
the natural and instinctive manifestations peculiar to humanity–whose
outcome assumes the conventional name of virtue or vice. Historically
the Rougon-Macquarts proceed from the masses, radiate throughout the
whole of contemporary society, and ascend to all sorts of positions by
the force of that impulsion of essentially modern origin, which sets the
lower classes marching through the social system. And thus the dramas of
their individual lives recount the story of the Second Empire, from the
ambuscade of the Coup d’Etat to the treachery of Sedan.

For three years I had been collecting the necessary documents for this
long work, and the present volume was even written, when the fall of the
Bonapartes, which I needed artistically, and with, as if by fate, I
ever found at the end of the drama, without daring to hope that it
would prove so near at hand, suddenly occurred and furnished me with
the terrible but necessary denouement for my work. My scheme is, at
this date, completed; the circle in which my characters will revolve
is perfected; and my work becomes a picture of a departed reign, of a
strange period of human madness and shame.

This work, which will comprise several episodes, is therefore, in
my mind, the natural and social history of a family under the Second
Empire. And the first episode, here called “The Fortune of the Rougons,”
should scientifically be entitled “The Origin.”

EMILE ZOLA PARIS, July 1, 1871.

Because They Are Searching

“When lovers kiss on the cheeks, it is because they are searching, feeling for one another’s lips. Lovers are made by a kiss.”
― Émile Zola, The Fortune of the Rougons

Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People

I have never been a huge fan of book series. I haven’t read The Hunger Games, Twilight, or The Mortal Instruments. I did binge read Harry Potter, but I wish I hadn’t. But now I think I’m going to dive in to a much more ambitious string of tomes.

I think I’m going to read the whole Les Rougon-Macquart cycle by Émile Zola. We were talking about… something… at a writing group the other evening, and I remembered these books (though I have forgotten the subject we were discussing). The twenty books follow the two branches of the Rougon-Macquart family in France during the turbulent years of the Second French Empire.

I have read Zola before. A long time ago, maybe a quarter-century. This was before e-readers and the internet was in its glorious dial-up infancy. Half-Price books arranged their fiction by author and it was easy to find Zola at the very end.

I read four:

  • L’Assommoir
  • La Bête Humaine
  • Germinal
  • Nana

Nana was wicked fun, La Bête Humaine was horrific good, Germinal was heartbreaking, and L’Assommoir was a work of genius.

I knew that they were part of a series – people in each book were related to those in the others. But I wasn’t sure of the overall arc of books. You forget how hard it was to find information in the pre-internet days. For the curious, like myself, finding facts was scrabbling under rocks in a desert… rather than drinking from a fire hose as it is now. We are drowning in information.

I no longer have an excuse. Not only do I know of the series… all of the works are available for free on Project Gutenberg. The only problem is the English versions are old bowdlerized translations by the Vizetelly family – but I can soldier through and pick up a modern book when I can.

I will read the twenty novels in the recommended order:

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

I’m digging into the first one, La Fortune des Rougon on my KIndle, and enjoying it so far.

I have no idea how long this will take – 20 books (or 16 if I skip the ones I’ve already read) is a lot of pages. So little time, so many books.