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“