Wednesday, April 1, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: The Drinking Den (L'Assommoir) by Emile Zola

L’Assommoir by Emile Zola was first published in 1877 and was an enormous, if controversial, success. The title has been variously translated as "The Hammer," "The Dram Shop," "The Trap," "The Drunkard," and, in the edition/translation I read, "The Drinking Den." Apparently, the original title, French slang for a working class bar, derived from assommer - to bludgeon, does not translate directly. Cheap booze bludgeoned the customers. This is the theme of the book, but it is their poverty as much as the alcohol that destroys them.

The sad heroine of the tale is Gervaise Macquart. A good-hearted, well-intentioned young woman, Gervaise is burdened with a lover who is a wastrel and two sons (four and eight). Lantier, the lover, seduced her when she was fourteen. Thinking she would escape a life of rural poverty and a father who beat her, she fled with Lantier to Paris. However, they quickly ran through the little money they had. Lantier decided he wanted someone more fun than the mother of his children. He took off with their last few sous; he even took the pawn tickets. Leaving was the kindest thing he ever did for Gervaise.

Shortly, Gervaise pulls herself together and goes to work as a laundress. She is pursued by a neighbor, the sturdy Coupeau. He’s none too bright, but he’s cheerful and devoted. He is also a sober man with a steady job. He’s a roofer (so he doesn’t dare drink. . .much.) However, Gervaise has had enough of men and refuses him, time and again. At last, desperate, he proposes marriage. Worn down by his persistence and pitying his apparent sincerity, Gervaise accepts.

This couple works hard, struggles, and scrapes by. They scrimp and save. They have a baby girl. Every once in a while, they splurge, partly to enjoy themselves and partly to impress the neighbors. They meet a blacksmith, Goujet, who lives with his widowed mother. The four of them are upright people who seem to be on course to ride above the tide of poverty and despair all around them. In fact, Gervaise has saved up nearly enough money to take out a lease on a bigger place and open a laundry shop of her own.

No such luck. Coupeau is hard at work one morning and falls off the roof.

He doesn’t die. Gervaise devotes herself to nursing him back to health and, to everyone’s astonishment, he recovers. But after a convalescence of more than a month, then two, he finds he prefers not working. And if he’s not working, he can drink with his buddies. Gervaise’s savings disappear. Goujet comes to the rescue, lending Gervaise the money to open her shop, but this may be a mixed blessing.

For some time, hard work again seems to pay off for Gervaise. Unfortunately, no matter how hard she works, she can’t keep her head above water as Coupeau descends into drunkenness and dissipation. And then, Lantier returns.

It is a train wreck from here on out, but the sad thing is, even from the beginning, even rooting for Gervaise to succeed, you always know there isn’t any hope. They are swimming in an ocean of poverty and despair. It’s only a matter of time before Gervaise, too, gives up.

The book is astounding in its meticulous attention to detail and its psychological characterizations. Zola follows a Naturalistic method of writing– and the book is painfully real.

It makes a fascinating comparison with the novel I just finished, Mademoiselle Chanel. Gabrielle Chanel also began her life in poverty in rural France, but experienced a "rags-to-riches" trajectory by dint of driving ambition, hard work, and good fortune. Gervaise went from rags to slightly better rags, then fell to utter destitution. Although she worked hard, she had miserable luck (no rich men), a yielding personality, and her ambitions were modest. She wanted to work quietly, to always have bread to eat, to bring up her children well, to have a reasonable place to sleep, not to be beaten, and to die in her bed. These things don’t seem like too much to ask. When you follow Gervaise each step of the way, watching each of them slip from her grasp, it is ghastly. Yet it’s difficult to see how her life could have turned out differently, given how trapped she was by circumstances. It’s terrible when "phew!–they’re finally out of their misery"– is the end of the story.

Zola’s books will put you through the wringer, but they are unforgettable classics. Some are true masterpieces. (I will vouch for L’Assommoir and Germinal.)

This is my classic in translation for the back to the classics challenge. It’s also book number 9 for the historical fiction challenge.

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