Posts Tagged Drink
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“
As part of my ongoing attempts to manage my music through iTunes, rather than have iTunes derange me to the point of murderous intent (so far it’s winning comfortably), I recently stumbled across a home-made music compilation I’d nearly forgotten about. Harking back to the very late 90s/very early 2000s, this compilation is something of a personal time-stamp for me, reflecting as it does what I thought of as the definitive soundtrack to a night out back then. It was inspired by a long-standing weekly Saturday night out in a club called Le Bateau in Liverpool. The full track listing is below, but before we get there, a few (self-)reflections:
…could I be/have been any more of an ‘indie kid’? Two Charlatans tracks? Two?? Jesus Christ… Loaded by Primal Scream now sounds like just about the dullest thing I’ve ever heard. Clearly I was becoming obsessed by The Hives. The inclusion of Skeleton Key reminds me how the club played The Coral’s debut album in its entireity on the night of its release, them being local rising stars and all (the Wirral being part of Liverpool when it suits, of course)…
|Side A||Side B|
|Sexy Boy||Air||Brown Sugar||The Rolling Stones|
|Not if You Were the Last Junkie on Earth||The Dandy Warhols||Do You Remember The First Time?||Pulp|
|Trash||Suede||21st Century Rip Off||The Soundtrack Of Our Lives|
|Just When You’re Thinkin’ Things Over||The Charlatans||Hate to Say I Told You So||The Hives|
|This Is Love||PJ Harvey||Fools Gold||The Stone Roses|
|Town Called Malice||The Jam||Last Nite||The Strokes|
|Loaded||Primal Scream||Main Offender||The Hives|
|There She Goes||The La’s||Love Will Tear Us Apart||Joy Division|
|Kung Fu||Ash||Animal Nitrate||Suede|
|Panic||The Smiths||Bigmouth Strikes Again||The Smiths|
|The Only One I Know||The Charlatans||Laid||James|
|Waterfall||The Stone Roses||Once Around the Block||Badly Drawn Boy|
|Skeleton Key||The Coral||I Am the Resurrection||The Stone Roses|
|Doledrum||The La’s||Die, All Right!||The Hives|
|There Is a Light That Never Goes Out||The Smiths|
Anyway. This is a ground I’ve visited five times, three times for the cricket, and twice for music (the first of these was a fairly depressing experience which saw Oasis headline. My abiding memory is of plastic pint glasses full of urine being thrown around, which says it all. The second of these was much, much better).
As for the cricket, two of the three days were back-to-back during the Ashes series of 2005. On the first day me and my companion saw Ashley Giles’ ‘ball of the century’ and were inadvertently included in a promo for Channel 4’s coverage of the series, while on the second it rained most of the day: having bumped unexpectedly into a couple of other friends we spent most of the dry drinking expensive lager under dripping stands, later getting a part-refund on our tickets. And what, indeed, speaks of an English cricketing summer more than that eh?
I’ve noticed you don’t drink much, but then you eat a lot of fruit so you get your liquid source from your food input.
1991’s Kill Uncle found Morrissey in something of a half-way house. While the response to his debut solo album, Viva Hate, had been almost wholly positive, following this up proved tricky. As a result, Bona Drag, intended to be his second studio album, instead became a compilation of non-album singles, B-sides, and the two biggest hits from Viva Hate.
Thus, after a near-three year gap, Kill Uncle was released, Morrissey having parted company with Stephen Street, who successfully co-wrote and produced Viva Hate, and teaming up with song-writer Mark Nevin of Fairground Attraction. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the resulting album was musically slight (Found Found Found standing out as an obvious attempt to remedy this) and lacked much of the deft ear for a popular tune that Street had brought. Lyrically, much of the album is on equally thin ice: King Leer is usually put forward as exhibit A in this prosecution, featuring rhymes and puns which are, regrettably, as bad as the title of the song itself. Either that, or in twinning “surprise yer” with “Tizer”, Morrissey is simply demonstrating that any fool can indeed think of words that rhyme (as per Sing Your Life).
Similarly, Mute Witness can be an uncomfortable listen for its seemingly unkind treatment of the witness (and implied victim) in question. There’s an argument which says Moz is merely reflecting the attitudes of the criminal justice system when faced with a young, vulnerable, and possibly disabled victim, but he doesn’t manage to pull off this ambivalence with as much empathy as in November Spawned A Monster.
This is becoming far too serious and earnest (not to mention nearly hinting at gentle criticism of my hero), so, moving swiftly on…
(I’m) The End of the Family Line is a statement of intent (or rather, non-intent) regarding parenthood. Getting beyond the inevitable speculation as to the meaning of lines such as a family “all honouring nature / until I arrived / with incredible style”, this is a touching song which acknowledges the selfish side of the decision (“I’m spared the pain of ever saying goodbye”) as well as being a declaration of a life to be spent alone.
Asian Rut is delivered with the singer’s typical mix of sympathy, pity, mild scorn, fatalism, despair and empathy for the outsider, and sees Morrissey contemplating a schoolboy who is seeking revenge for the killing of his best, and only, friend. From the outset it is clear that the ensuing confrontation will not go the way of our wannabe hero.
Our Frank, the opening track and first single, comes the closest to Morrissey’s initial (and still arguably finest) batch of guitar-pop radio-friendly solo singles. Ostensibly aimed at an acquaintance who insists on initiating deep and ‘meaningful’ conversations, more revealing is the end of the track where Moz is desperate to be released from his incessant introspection: “won’t somebody stop me / from thinking / from thinking all the time / so bleakly, so deeply / so deeply all the time / about everything”. Sounds familiar.
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.