Book review week: L’Assommoir by Emile Zola

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Today’s review concerns the 1877 realist masterpiece, L’Assommoir by Émile Zola. The book still disturbs me.

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Before he was famous for the Dreyfus Affair, before his reputation was trounced and then rehabilitated and his body moved from ignominy to the pomp of the Pantheon, Émile Zola was famous for his novels, particularly the Rougon-Macquart novels, a series of social realist novels about the history of two families in the working-class Paris of the 19th century.

One of the most famous is the 1877 novel, L’Assommoir. The word translates as “the drinking shop,” though the title is usually left untranslated to retain the connotation of the French verb, assommer, meaning to stun, bludgeon or render senseless.

L’Assommoir tells the story of a laundress called Gervaise living in the Paris of the 1850s and 60s, who, for a time, enjoys success and happiness in the small laundry she starts. Alas, everything changes when Gervaise’s husband, Coupeau falls from a roof and, unable to work, takes up drinking absinthe – the deadly green liquor of wormwood – at the local drinking shop. Some time later, her business failing through debt and the loss of Coupeau’s income, Gervaise succumbs to absinthe herself.

The story of Gervaise and Coupeau’s descent into alcoholism and degradation is the most harrowing thing I’ve read. And though it’s many years since, I can still feel its horror.

The novel was a bestseller and the cause of an immense scandal among Parisians. Could this be how the poor really lived? Surely Zola was exaggerating for his own ends? Zola, meanwhile, went on declaring the book,

“… the first novel about the common people that does not lie.”

There are many reasons for it to have caused an uproar, but it’s the horror of predestination that’s most disturbing.

As it says in the introduction to my copy, in no other Zola novel is the influence of historical and social factors “so insistently foregrounded.” Gervaise and her family are doomed, he dares to show, by the historical moment in which they live, how they live, and where they live. The novel’s setting, in every sense of the word, is the characters’ fate.

That’s why many years later when I alighted at Barbès Rochechouart station in Paris, map in hand, looking for Gervaise’s neighbourhood, it wasn’t what I imagine literary pilgrimages are usually about: paying homage or viewing something like a stage set. I wanted to enter a world. I think I wanted to save Gervaise.

Rue de la Goutte d’Or still exists. Named “drop of gold” after a 15th century hamlet on the same site famed for its golden white wine, it’s in the 18th arrondisement, north of Gare du Nord. It remains, according to my copy,

… a bustling neighbourhood of the underprivileged, but now populated by North African immigrants. In newspaper reports on crime in the French capital, it is often singled out as being infested by drug dealers; it is certainly not an area where readers of this translation will be made to feel welcome if they venture into it with camera in hand.

I can’t have read that passage before visiting. Or maybe I did, and it seemed right it should be dangerous. On the day I visited, the menace was palpable. People stopped and stared; in shop windows, sheeps’ heads grilled in rotisseries.

In the novel, Gervaise and her family live in an apartment block built around an internal courtyard. By the end, she is living under the stairs in a cardboard box.

Wait, this must be it!  A tall, 19th century building with two unvarnished wooden doors opened on to a cobbled courtyard. I could see this because someone had just entered and the heavy door was not yet closed. I looked and thought “yes, I could get through that door if I run now”. For a few seconds I was tempted. But then, “Would I be able to get out?”  And not wanting, in the end, to get too close to the ghost of Gervaise’s tragedy, we turned and went back to the station.

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