Saturday, 31 March 2012


1879 poster for an American
theatre production of 
Augustin Daly
from Wikipedia

I've just finished Emile Zola's L'Assommoir published in 1877.  The novel is a relentlessly grim tale of poverty and alcoholism in nineteenth century Paris. Cheery it isn't - believe me.

It opens with Gervaise Macquart being abandoned in Paris by her lover Lantier. Left with two children to bring up, she marries Coupeau, a sober roofing worker. Eventually, through thrift and borrowing from friends, she manages to open her own own laundry and clearstarching business.

Throughout the novel lurks L'Assommoir, a kind of bar with its own brandy still, not really translatable into English. Zola uses the huge copper brandy still as a kind of malign spirit (forgive the pun) lurking in the background yet dominating the wretched lives of those poverty-stricken unfortunates drawn into its fatal embrace.

Gervaise's laundry is the high point of her life, but Coupeau falls from a roof, is badly injured and although he eventually recovers he takes to drink. Why he falls into alcoholism isn't clear, but the novel tends to be plot-driven rather than character-driven. It may be out of character for Coupeau to become an alcoholic even after his accident - but the plot demands it.

Zola tells a good story and the book is well worth reading, but don't expect too much insight into the psychology of his characters. L'Assommoir is considered to be a masterpiece, but for me it is somewhat didactic. A good read but not a great novel in my view. Nevertheless, I've only read this book and Thérèse Raquin and both have whetted my appetite for more of  Zola's work.


Macheath said...

If you found this a good read, may I suggest you follow it up with 'Nana' - one of my favourites?

Although the narrative is linked - it's the story of Coupeau's daughter Anna - it stands alone as a narrative charting her meteoric rise in the Parisian theatrical demi-monde, allowing Zola free range to chart human failings from the gutter to the top of high society.

You are right that Coupeau's descent into alcoholism is not clearly accounted for; this may be because the series of 20 novels of which this forms part was designed to examine the families of two men - Rougon and Macquart (Gervaise is Macquart's daughter)- whose character flaws emerge in the character and actions of their descendants; it is thus Gervaise's decline rather than that of her husband that is of primary interest to the author.

Zola's recommended order for reading the series is given in Wikipedia under 'Rougon-Macquart' but be warned, they can be deeply depressing when consumed in large quantities.

A K Haart said...

Mac - I will follow it up with Nana.

I've downloaded all Zola's novels onto my Kindle and it wasn't until I was part way through L'Assommoir that I thought to check if I should be reading them in some kind of order.