Tuesday, April 26, 2011

L'Assommoir

(Warning: my longass stream of consciousness reviews are getting longer)

Quick - what's the most depressing thing you've ever read or watched? Is it House of Sand and Fog? 'Cause that's pretty depressing. Is it The Grapes of Wrath? 'Cause that's pretty depressing. No, I can top all of these and more. I finally read my first Zola book, the seventh book in Zola's 20 part Les Rougon-Macquart cycle, called L'Assommoir. And boy howdy, was it fucking depressing. Let's take a look.


Gervaise Macquart works as a laundress while living in sin with her lover Lantier, who regularly beats her and their two sons Etienne and Claude. One day Lantier decides to leave and take up with a younger woman, leaving Gervaise in poverty. Somehow, over the course of a few years, she manages to work hard to keep her boys fed and she's able to put some money away. She meets the charming Coupeau, a teetotaler who wants to marry her. At first reluctant, Gervaise finally agrees, and eventually, they have a daughter named Nana.

After meeting some good friends and working hard, Gervaise opens her own laundry shop, which is busy enough at first to require assistants. But a work accident leaves Coupeau unable to maintain a job, or rather, it's his turning to alcohol that makes him unemployable. At the same time that he is sinking in alcoholism, Lantier shows up and ingratiates himself back into the family, even going so far as to take up with Gervaise, a married woman.

Things begin to disintegrate as Gervaise gets tired of supporting two husbands, Coupeau's mother, and a host of other problems. She becomes slovenly and disorganized, and she loses her business, sinking into drink as well, while all the time, Nana is growing up and becoming sexually promiscuous. Lantier even leaves her a second time for the married sister of the woman he originally left Gervaise for. Somehow, it gets worse as both Coupeau and Gervaise become doddering starving alcoholics.

Oh boy. Even writing that synopsis has left me tired and exhausted. It's so fucking depressing. Well, this is naturalism, I suppose, and Zola was doing literature a favour by examining his subjects under such harsh light. For a good portion of the book, I was just utterly fascinated by the amount of research the man had to do to create such a realistic world and cast. Each scene of workhouses, mines, buildings in construction, watchmakers, jewelers, and all of these other things are conveyed with such specific detail and attention to fidelity. It's almost an historical document in its portrayal of the working folk of 19th century Paris.


However, it's not a historical document. The novel, and it is a novel, is primarily concerned with two things: hereditary attributes and the ceaseless struggle of the poor. So, specific to the first item, we have alcoholism. I've never read a book where people got this intoxicated so often (and I've read all of Bret Easton Ellis and I've read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). It's neverending and relentless. Each time something bad happens, the cast goes out and gets stinking drunk.

Now, when I say "something bad happens" I mean, when one of the characters make a stupid decision that is somehow inevitable. And it happens all the time. For example, when Lantier comes back, I knew what was going to go down: they would share Gervaise either knowingly or not. Ugh gross. Especially since Zola spends a lot of words detailing how with a little bit of money, Gervaise is getting fat and, I quote, "losing her feminineness" whatever that fucking means. This is what I imagined she looked like, but fatter:


Hahaha. Anyways, so you know that the situation's going to get worse, but the characters keep doing the dumb things they do. Coupeau will get a few francs from Gervaise to buy some lunch during work, but I know as soon as Gervaise gives him the coins, he'll go out and drink wine until he's pissing his pants.

Here's a picture of my reaction for most of the book:

I can't help but be utterly disappointed in these characters. It's not like they're dumb or stupid or what have you. The problem is, and this is one of Zola's points, the problem is that all of these working class folks are just plain ignorant. There's this little motif that comes up now and again of their crazy folk remedies for shit, like swallowing a rat to stop indigestion and stuff like that. It's almost like Zola's nudging us in the ribs and saying, "Don't laugh at these people - they just don't know any better"

And of course, they're fighting a losing battle thanks to their genes, although Zola wouldn't have known them as genes. If there any other writer in the world who advanced the theory that alcoholism is a hereditary disease, I haven't heard of them. This whole book puts forth this idea and excruciating and depressing detail. There's a doctor at the end of the book, dealing with Coupeau's insanity due to drink, and he asks after Gervaise. Does she drink? Of course she does. He shakes his head and admonishes her. She should know better. But she can't help it. There's 20 books in this goddamn series about how she's ultimately powerless in the face of hereditary traits. She was born a drinker, no matter how little she drank in the beginning, and she will inevitably die a drinker.

See what I mean by depressing? I started this book a week ago, but I had to take a break and read Bel-Ami in the meantime. It was so exhausting. But that's not to say that I didn't enjoy the book. Although the word "enjoy" kind of stretches what my reaction was. First, I immensely enjoyed being immersed in Zola's version of 19th century France. It was quite different than the France I've pictured in Bel-Ami and Madame Bovary. Quite different. Like I said earlier, it's Zola's attention to detail that just sells this book so well.

Second, I enjoyed how realistic it is. When you read Dickens, for example Oliver Twist or David Copperfield, both books dealing with poverty on some level, you never get a sense of reality. It's always Dickens' artifice that remains. There's no better way to describe it, though. It's truly an artifice, a fake version of England where people have super fun names like Mr. Melvin Twemlow or Wilkins Micawber. Also, in Dickens' England, things generally do alright in the end. It's an artifice and Dickens never lets you forget it.

In terms of Zola, for sure there's an artifice, a sense of not-reality because Zola's narrator is always up in your face reminding you how poor they are or how dirty they are. 19th century narrators are always up in my grill about shit. Bitch, step off!


I keep it classy on this blog. Anyways, Zola's narrator keeps to reality though. By this, I mean that the characters don't speak the prettiest language and often swear. Yes, this book, published in 1872, features multiple instances of swearing. In my translation, from 1970, contains the word "fuck". A lot.

Oh man, I love the word "fuck". I use it a lot. It always sounds so good. It's perfect euphony really. So when I'm reading a book that's old as fuck, it's super pleasant and super true to life that the characters swear. And talk about sex. And have sex. Not just in the sense that they "make love" or have intense moments of passion. No, in L'Assommoir, characters fuck. They do the dirty deeds.

Why is this pleasant to me? Reality. If David Simon was a writer back in the 19th century, he'd be Emile Zola. Les Rougon-Macquart cycle feels like The Wire, and we all know how I feel about that show, right? This adherence to reality isn't simply about being titillating. No not at all. Did I mention how depressing this book is? There's not much pure entertainment to be had in L'Assommoir, but it is an entertaining book in the same way that The Wire is entertaining. It's important.

Other than shaking my head all the time in disappointment with the characters, the other reaction I had was how would I adapt this to film? It's something that interests me, and I'm always trying to see how to adapt an unfilmable novel into a movie. Well, this can't be filmed. Not only is the timeframe far too long (20 years) but it's also not relevant anymore.

Hold on, let me qualify this statement a little - unpack it for you. It's not relevant because we don't have the same working conditions and even jobs that these people did. Modern audiences wouldn't be interested in watching 2 hours of a drunk laundress with two drunk lovers. The point that Zola is making about hereditary and determinism just doesn't quite jibe with Hollywood's pseudo-Objectivist leanings, where the little guy who tries hard enough can somehow make it on top. Americans love underdogs stories. Love 'em. There's no underdog rag-to-riches story here. All there is in L'Assommoir is a promise from the author that no matter what these people do, they are stuck in a deterministic cycle of alcoholism and poverty.

Ah, determinism, one of my favourite themes, something that pops up in my writing all the time. In fact, a lot of the themes I write about are touched by this book: the social realism, the determinism, the poverty, the substance dependencies. There's a reason why I like this book and The Wire and stuff like this. It makes me feel like I'm involved in something important. Too bad I'm not, and I'm just blogging about shit and putting up stupid pictures of General Zod and pictures of lesbians kissing in bed (thanks, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec).

It's hard to talk about this book in any great detail. It does what it says right on the tin. It's the long involved process of taking a character, putting them under the microscope and watching them squirm. It's not an experiment because Zola knows exactly where these people are going to end up.

A complaint that many people have of Zola is his cardboard characters. I didn't get this. Well, not entirely. Some of the secondary cast seemed a little one-note to me, but they remained memorable in spite of this problem. Otherwise the main cast, Gervaise and Coupeau and Lantier, are sketched out for us in such a manner as to lay bare everything that makes them tick. It's a vivisection, not just of the cast, but of the society.

Let's wrap it up here. So we got Zola's attention to reality, check. We got all of my favourite themes touched on, check. We got Zola's cast, check. We also got lots of swearing and sex and violence (including a brutal fight between Gervaise and another chick - and I mean brutal - it last like thirty pages!) This book pretty much has it all. It's also made me want to read Germinal (which follows one of Gervaise's sons) and Nana (the eponymous daughter of Gervaise) and see how Zola puts them through the wringer, or rather, their genetics does for them.

Okay... next up on the reading list is Stendhal's The Red and the Black. I also have Huysmans' La-Bas on the list, but I might have to take a break from 19th century French lit just so I don't burn out. I have Urban Waites' The Terror of Living out from the library and I might read that, but don't hold me to it. Thanks for reading as usual.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

And then there was that bastard Bijard, who murdered his wife and then his daughter Lalie. Like you, by the end of reading the book I had a sense of numb despair, I felt like crying to Mummy..

Nikki said...

Loved this shit!! Great blog... I am gonna go write my paper on this book now..

matthew. said...

Hopefully I contributed to your paper in some meaningful or even minuscule way. Feel free to not credit me, cause I know you Googled this book hoping for some sort of direction! Hahaha I do that shit all the time

Klaus Geltl said...

The eight year old girl whose mother was killed by the father was a bit too much Charles Dickens like, the only character in the story which just couldn't exist.