Posts Tagged Zola
L’Assommoir by Emile Zola (1877)
This seminal novel is given over to the working class of late 19th century Paris, and is arguably Zola’s most complete, authoritative work.
The pivotal character, Gervaise Macquart (sister of Lisa, mother of Etienne and Claude) is a washerwoman and a single mother, who has the fortune to marry Coupeau, an honest, hard-working roofer. She is aware of her ruinous hereditary compulsion for alcohol, but is fiercely determined to avoid this path in life, and has ambitions to pursue a more earnest, conscientious route by owning her own laundry service (although Johnsons The Cleaners this is not).
Tragedy strikes when Coupeau is distracted by the playful cries of their daughter Anna, or ‘Nana’, in the street below and falls from a roof, breaking his leg (he won’t be the last man brought crashing down by Nana, though we’ll have to save that for another time). Recuperation and boredom drive Coupeau slowly but surely to drink, and his life becomes an alcoholic blur, much of which is spent in the fateful assommoir.
Catastrophically, Gervaise’s former lover Lantier (father to Etienne and Claude) returns, and inveigles himself into the trust of Coupeau. The work-shy pair lead a merry life off the back of Gervaise’s moderately successful commerce, and over time the couple’s debts grow. Coupeau slithers into their home by virtue of adding a small amount of money to the family finances each week. Over time, this former lover of Gervaise’s becomes her current lover, under the nose of Coupeau who at this point is too addled to care. Perhaps more significantly, Nana is witness to this literal ménage-à-trois, later running away from home into a life of vice herself.
(as a bit of non-sequitur, I remember finding this element of the novel eerily reflected in a storyline on Coronation Street in the early 2000s, in which a former extra-marital lover of Deidre Barlow’s ended up living with her and Ken in number 1. And look what that did to Tracy Barlow)
Amid the chaos, Gervaise is inevitably drawn into the world of drunkenness and fecklessness, and her burgeoning business goes down the drain (eh, laundry, water, drain – do you see? Oh, never mind…). Coupeau is admitted numerous times to a psychiatric hospital, Sainte-Anne (to this day a specialist centre for treatment of addictions), where he suffers violent hallucinations and eventually dies. Reduced to absolute destitution, Gervaise manages to squeeze one last drop of sympathy out of an acquaintance and is allowed to take refuge in a cupboard under a flight of stairs in a tenement building. In this pitiful state she dies, and is not discovered until the tenement’s inhabitants find the smell unbearable.
For all its bleakness and desolation, the sheer power of the writing, and Zola’s refusal to compromise his desire for realism, lifts the novel out of despair and into a compelling human study.
As with the Cheese Symphony in Le Ventre de Paris, L’Assommoir features celebrated set-pieces, notably the day of Gervaise’s marriage to Coupeau, in which the wedding group embark upon a chaotic, amateurish tour of the Louvre museum, and the slapstick bottom-smacking doled out to one of the more vociferous washerwomen.
The novel was seen as scandalous at the time of its release for its depictions of everyday working life, not least the language used (most editions of the book come with a comprehensive glossary of the colloquialisms used, including around a dozen unusual words for different kinds of booze, most of which are described as “low quality…”). In the face of criticisms ranging from right-wing accusations of publishing “pornography”, to left-wing allegations of decrying the entire working class, Zola defended his stance by saying he sought to represent the reality of life:
“J’ai voulu peindre la déchéance fatale d’une famille ouvrière, dans le milieu empesté de nos faubourgs. Au bout de l’ivrognerie et de la fainéantise, il y a le relâchement des liens de la famille, les ordures de la promiscuité, l’oubli progressif des sentiments honnêtes , puis comme dénouement la honte et la mort. C’est de la morale en action, simplement. L’Assommoir est à coup sûr le plus chaste de mes livres”
“I wanted to paint the fatal deprivation of a working-class family in the infested suburbs. Drunkenness and laziness lead to the letting go of family ties, the filth of promiscuity, the gradual loss of honest feelings, and, in the end, shame and death. It’s simply morality in action. L’Assommoir is without doubt the most chaste of my books“
Le Ventre de Paris by Emile Zola (1873)
Our hero, Florent, arrives in town on the back of a horse and cart which is bringing a stall’s-worth of turnips to the market. After years’ imprisonment on an island off French Guyana, mistaken for a political dissident, he finds his step-brother, Quenu, now something of a master butcher, and sister-in-law, Lisa, of Zola’s notorious Macquart clan. They take him in under the cover of being a distant cousin. Although hugely intimidated by the coarse, brash women of Les Halles (not to mention his own anti-authoritarian instincts), Florent takes a job as an inspector in the market. In his spare time he begins to develop an ineffectual, amateurish socialist plot against the Second Empire – Lisa’s bourgeois self-interest takes hold, and she denounces him to the police, whereupon he is arrested and deported. Again.
This is generally considered to be one of Zola’s second division novels, but features several striking elements which raise it deservedly amongst the classic French works of its kind.
Firstly, as with Germinal’s mine (Le Voreux) and La Bête Humaine’s train (La Lison), Les Halles transcend their man-made limitations to become a living, breathing character in the novel. Emblematic of Paris’ imminent ruin, the belly of the capital is more important than its heart or its brain (of which there are no signs); all working-class life is seen to revolve around Les Halles: disputes are settled with fist-fights, clumsy teenage romances are consummated on makeshift beds of duck feathers, and life itself comes to an end courtesy of a lump of stone to the back of the head.
Meanwhile, the novel contains Zola’s perhaps most famous single passage of prose, a description of entering a cheese shop and being overwhelmed by a multitude of pungent odours, also referred to as The Cheese Symphony (no, really).
And finally, we have the ever-present symbolism of a bitter struggle throughout the book. The most common English translation of the title is ‘The Fat and The Thin’, reflecting the ongoing battle between ‘les gras et les maigres’ – there is little or no subtlety about this from Zola: Florent (the exiled, starved, socialist) is painfully thin and barely eats, while Lisa and Quenu are portrayed as human mountains of flesh, compared favourably with the glistening charcuterie they sell. Quenu’s love for his brother is ultimately undermined by his wife’s petty aspirations – indeed, ‘le tout Paris’ has no time for the poor or the miserable: les maigres.
Following on from the train theme below, and the semi-regular appearance of power stations, it seems only sensible to include the following photos. Particular highlights are the high-speed sheep, the flooded fields, and the lonely house on its own.
The Doncaster-York line might not have quite the romance of Zola’s steam-powered trains hammering through the lush Norman countryside (I’m undecided as to how it compares for rutting and killing), but it does pass within close proximity of Eggborough Power Station. As such it gives the unoccupied traveller the opportunity to grab a few snapshots, as well as to inadvertently make themselves the target of undercover police officers. My thanks to Ray for his thoughtfulness.
At some point, if only to bring a bit more clarity to these power station photos, I may have to start getting technical about them. Or more realistically, seeing as I don’t really know what I’m on about (look, I only work at one, ok?), technical-ish.
Jacques Lantier, brother of Etienne, is the main character in La Bête Humaine, in which Zola considers the rage within man. I find the novel’s setting strangely evocative, based as it is around the Le Havre-Paris railway line, travelling through the Normandy countryside; a route and final destination of Paris’ Gare St Lazare which are still close to my heart. I can also confirm that this setting is much more apt for literary treatment than the coach station in fin-de-siècle (fin de 20th siècle, that is) Rouen: another Norman vehicular setting, but, from my experience, populated by many more weirdos than Zola’s – even allowing for the ‘human beast’.
Unlike many of his ancestors, Jacques avoids the old green fairy but instead finds himself consumed with murderous desires, which he attempts (unsuccessfully, natch) to suppress. There are several occaisons where Jacques comes close to succombing to his rage; he manages to rein in his homicidal urges, but finally snaps and kills his lover.
Indeed, lust, sex, and desire are never too far away in this novel (and are usually inter-twined with a dose of murder for good measure): an(other) extra-marital affair is central to the plot from the very beginning, Jacques is deeply attached to his engine (‘La Lison'; this relationship even seems to keep his rage in check) and, well, trains and tunnels and that. You know.
At the dénouement of the novel, Jacques attacks a colleague; the train they are supposedly in charge of hurtles down the tracks, throwing them to their deaths as their unknowing passengers drink themselves into a stupor. Zola being Zola, these passengers are of course patriotic soliders on their way to the border to fight in the Franco-Prussian war. Train or bullet lads: either way, you’re screwed.
Incidentally, I’m fairly certain the image above is not from the original 1890 edition of the novel.
Etienne Lantier, son of Gervaise Coupeau of L’Assommoir fame, is the ‘star’ (if you will) of Germinal, my all-time favourite French novel, in which the initially shy and politically naive young man becomes an inspirational leader of a community (and stays politically naive).
Etienne leads a workers’ uprising at a northern coal mine, in search of improved working conditions. In the ensuing months-long strike, the miners and their families suffer appallingly and are driven to the very edge of survival. Ok so they don’t debate canibalism, but one family does sell (for a pittance) everything in their house, apart from the portrait of the benevolent Emperor, hung above the (cold, empty) fireplace, kindly provided free of charge by the company. In a particularly grimly captivating scene, as anger rises among the community and ferocious riots break out, the local shop-keeper (who insists on alternative forms of payment from the miners’ wives for what limited food stocks he has) has his manhood ripped from his body. It is then paraded around as if t’were a trophy.
A small number of miners (including Etienne – oh, Etienne) eventually cede and return to work, only to be trapped underground following a tunnel collapse brought about by sabotage (carried out by a Russian anarchist, a close friend of Etienne’s) intended to cripple the mining company’s position. Etienne’s own hereditary blood-lust finally takes grip, and sees him attack and kill a love-rival (a sub-plot), shortly before they are rescued. Etienne subsequently leaves, with his former colleagues returning to work for longer hours and lower pay than before the strike.
Despite this bleak resolution to the strike itself, the novel concludes as follows:
“Aux rayons enflammés de l’astre, par cette matinée de jeunesse, c’était de cette rumeur que la campagne était grosse. Des hommes poussaient, une armée noire, vengeresse, qui germait lentement dans les sillons, grandissant pour les récoltes du siècle futur, et dont la germination allait faire bientôt éclater la terre”
“Beneath blazing skies, in that youthful morning , it was with a growing murmur that the countryside swelled. Men were growing, a black and vengeful army, germinating slowly in the land’s furrows in readiness for the next century’s harvest, and whose ripening would soon burst open the earth itself”
I can in no way do justice to this novel; its portrayal of an impoverished mining community is hugely sympathetic without being romanticised; its consideration of the political and class struggle illuminates the immediate setting of the novel, but also speaks volumes about late 19th-century France; its depictions of conditions inside the mines reflect Zola’s (as always) devoted research to his novel, and are incredibly atmospheric to the point of claustrophobic.
I bought this book for 10FF (about a quid) from a second-hand bookstore in the very small town in Normandy where I lived and worked as a teacher for a while. I suspect the fact that I almost immediately adored this book was strongly related to the fact that I was fairly well isolated from friends and family at the time, I have a generally quite bleak outlook on life, and I’m also a raging lefty.