L'Assommoir by Émile Zola.

L'Assommoir by Émile Zola was first published in 1877 and, in order of publication, it is the seventh of Zola's 'Les Rougon-Macquart' novels following His Excellency Eugene Rougon (1876) and preceding A Love Episode (1878). Nana, often regarded as a 'sequel' to L'Assommoir followed A Love Episode in 1880. There are a few different titles to the novel: The Assommoir (which is the name of the pub in the book), The Drinking Den, The Dram Shop, The Gin Palace, and The Drunkard.

I'll start by saying it was so good to return to Zola's Rougon Macquart novels - the last one I read was The Belly of Paris (1873) back in October and since then I've been reading a few of the short stories and the Three Cities trilogy (1894-8). L'Assommoir was never a particular favourite of mine, although I did enjoy reading it very much the first time around. This time I took the opportunity to read a different translation - this was by Margaret Mauldon and was first published by the Oxford University Press in 1995. Previously I had read the Leonard Tancock (Penguin) and I really did enjoy it, but it wasn't quite as gripping as the Mauldon version.

Coupeau, Gervaise, and Nana by A. Poirson.
The main character of L'Assommoir is Gervaise Macquart, who we first meet briefly in The Fortune of the Rougons (1871; the first of the Rougon Macquart novels) in which she is described as having been "conceived when her parents were drunk, no doubt one of the nights they beat each other senseless". She was born in 1828, the daughter of Antoine and Joséphine Macquart, and the sister of Lisa (who we meet in The Belly of Paris) and Jean (The Earth or La Terre, 1887, and Le Débâcle, 1892). In The Fortune of the Rougons she runs away to Paris with her lover Lantier, who she is waiting for in the beginning of L'Assommoir:
Gervaise had waited up for Lantier until two in the morning. Then, shivering all over from sitting half-dressed in the cold air from the window, she'd dropped off into a feverish doze, lying across the bed, her cheeks soaked with tears. Every night for a week now, as they left the Veau à deux têtes, where they had their dinner, he'd sent her home to bed with the children, and had not come in himself until the small hours. He said he was looking for work. That particular evening, while she was watching for his return, she thought she'd  seen him go into the Grand-Balcon dance hall, whose ten blazing windows lit up with a sheet of flame the black expanse of the outer boulevards; and she'd caught sight of little Adèle, a burnisher by trade who ate at their restaurant, walking five or six paces behind him, her hands dangling as if she'd just dropped his arm so they wouldn't be seen passing together beneath the glaring lights of the door-way.
By René Georges Hermann-Paul for the 
1920 edition of L'Assommoir.
What follows is the depiction of "the inexorable downfall of a working-class family in the poisonous atmosphere of our industrial suburbs" (Zola, in the preface of L'Assommoir). In the novel Zola writes of "intoxication and idleness" and the subsequent "weakening of family ties". Gervaise is very quickly abandoned by Lantier and she is left with her two young children Claude, who later appears in The Masterpiece, or L'Œuvre (1886) and Étienne of Germinal (1885). Note: a third brother, Jacques, appears in La Bête Humaine (1890) but he does not appear in L'Assommoir (I don't think now is the time to go into that - I'll save it for when I come to read La Bête Humaine!). But Gervaise is soon married to Coupeau, a roofer, and together they save their money so that Gervaise can start her own laundry business. To complete their happiness they have daughter, Anna (nicknamed Nana, who is of course the protagonist of Nana, 1880). But tragedy strikes - Coupeau is injured, and Zola presents a keen study of their downfall - of poverty in the Second Empire (which is essentially what the Rougon Macquart novels are about), and its effects not only on one's life but one's attitude. How it pulls and pulls and eventually people collapse under its weight, unable, in the end, to move. Zola presents it as inevitable, there is a sense that this is predestined - that no matter what Gervaise wishes and desires, how hard she tries, even how, essentially, how nice she is (she's one of the nicer characters in the series), this threat hangs over and inevitably it will strike her down.

This idea of predestination and inevitability comes not from 'the gods' but from society and family. Zola explains in his preface to The Fortune of the Rougons:
My aim is to explain how a family, a small group of human beings, behaves in a given society after blossoming forth and giving birth to ten or twenty individuals who, though they may seem at first glance totally dissimilar from each other, are, as analysis shows, linked together in the most profound ways. Heredity, like gravity, has its laws. 
By solving the dual problem of temperament and environment, I shall attempt to discover and trace the thread that leads mathematically from one person to another. When I am in possession of every thread, and hold in my hands an entire social group, I shall describe the behaviour of this group as it plays its part in an historical period; I shall show it in action, with all its varied energies; and I shall analyse the aims and ambitions of its individual members along with the general tendency of the whole.
Nana by Jim Avati (1964).
Gervaise works hard like her mother Joséphine (described in Fortune as a 'beast of burden' for her husband Macquart), and her limp is said to come from the night she was conceived when Macquart beat Joséphine "black and blue". With suffering and the threat of poverty following Coupeau's accident, Gervaise becomes self-indulgent - as Frederick Brown writes in Zola: A Life, "nature gains sway over will" and regardless of her fight she becomes a part of the seedy, filthy backdrop of the working class suburbs of Paris. As with many of Zola's novels there's an intense feeling of claustrophobia, the very walls seem to be closing in on her and many other characters in the other novels. In her gradual defeat, Gervaise simply acts out her destiny, and unfortunately for her, like other members of the Macquart part of the family tree she is a sensualist, something Nana will inherit from her.

L'Assommoir was Émile Zola's first real commercial success, though it was also met with great criticism. Albert Millaud wrote,
It isn't realism, it is grubbiness; it isn't crudity, it is pornography.
Today this can be seen as a rather over-the-top summation, but in the 19th Century this novel, full of strong, coarse swearing, fighting, and sex would have greatly shocked the audience. Millaud believed Zola should be prosecuted, however, somehow, he did manage to escape that. Anatole France wrote, "L'Assommoir is certainly not likeable, but it is a powerful book", which seems to me a reasonable reaction to it. Other critics loved it, Bourget writing "The very fury of attacks prove it", and Mallarmé writing, "Here is a very great work, and worthy of an epoch in which truth has become the popular form of beauty!" It is a great work: hard to like, easy to love. It is powerful, extraordinarily so, and though Zola frequently lacks subtlety with his message, the way he draws his characters and circumstances are psychologically flawless at times: it is so believable one doesn't really question it as one is reading. It's one of his finest novels, and I'm glad to have read the Mauldon translation that has given me a new love for this novel.

Further Reading
From Wuthering Expectations:


  1. Your Zola posting both interests and embarrasses me. The latter reaction is because of this: I have not read anything by Zola. Shame on me! Ah, too many books and too little time! So, I turn to you. Tell me what one Zola book I should read as my introduction to one of your favorite authors? Note: I might have time for only one Zola book, so I want to read the best. I defer to you.

    1. Germinal! And there's a read-along happening this month if you're interested - Fanda is hosting it. I'll be reading it for the third time in a few weeks - this weekend I'm hoping to read Nana.

      Be careful about translators, by the way. Avoid Ernest Alfred Vizetelly. As I said in the post my preferred editions are OUP, but I'm certainly not the expert (aside from avoiding EAV - you must avoid him where possible - he claimed to have changed one sentence in every three to make Zola suitable for the English Victorian audience!).

    2. I need to do further investigation into Vizetelly. I did do a cursory comparison and I didn't find his translation as awful as I've heard it to be. He used "bosom" instead of "breast" but otherwise the translation was reasonable. That said, it was only a couple of paragraphs that I checked so those could be two that aren't that altered. If he really changed the original, I have issue with that, but if he just used less shocking word choices and people are complaining because they want the shocking ones translated, I would find that a bit weird.

      I really loved Brian Nelson as a translator but the Valerie Minogue translation for "Money" sounds somewhat odd or awkward and I can't say that I'm enjoying it. I haven't checked it against the original though.

    3. Oh no, it is much much worse than that. Maybe necessarily so to be published at all - poor Vizetelly did not bowdlerize enough to keep him out of jail. He didn't just change one sentence in three, but omitted one in eight. Or in that last passage Guy examines, 6 of 8.

    4. Thanks for that link Tom, and yes - it was pretty bad.

      I *think* EAV did manage to stay of jail - wasn't it his father Henry who was imprisoned for his Zola translation of The Earth? I'll have to look that up, but I think that is possibly why EAV's translations are even more, shall we say, extreme!

      And Cleo - weren't we going to read Money together last summer? I couldn't get into it either, but I must try at some point. Not this month, though - I'll wait for you to fully test the waters! :)

    5. You are right; I think I have conflated the Vizetellys.

  2. Zola is always so much fun to write about. And to read about.

    I love those woodcut illustrations. How sad that illustrations have become so rare.

    1. Agreed.

      There are some really nice L'Assommoir illustrations here, unfortunately the website owner has disabled downloading them so I couldn't share them.

  3. I skimmed and picked over your review, planning to come back to it when I get to L'Assommoir. I loved the edition picture and the illustrations ...... my dream is to find a wonderful old edition of a Zola book one day.

    Such different reactions to the book! I'm not fond of books that appear to have certain scenes put in for shock value only, but Zola was truly conducting an examination of human nature that, while I might not always agree with it, I find fascinating.

    1. Indeed - I think sometimes he did go slightly overboard with shock value, nevertheless I still love him!

      Looking forward to you reading this. I'm hoping (rather ambitiously) that this month I'll read Nana, Germinal, and The Masterpiece - all sort of off-shoots to L'Assommoir. So, I suppose, is The Beast Within, but as I say he doesn't appear in it even though he ought to have done. :)


Post a Comment