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L'Assommoir - Émile Zola

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Genre: Fiction / Author: Émile Zola / Edition: Reissue / Paperback / 528 Pages / Book is published 2009-01-29 by Oxford Paperbacks

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      19.05.2010 13:55
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      A view of Napoleonic Paris through the eyes of the working classes

      I have just finished reading Emile Zola's novel L'Assommoir, not in the original French unfortunately, but an English translation by Leonard Tancock, from the Penguin Classics collection. I picked this book up out of curiosity at our youngest daughter's school fair last Christmas, having remembered the author's name from years ago when I was studying art history at school. Zola was a contemporary of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters in France in the 1800s. He was a childhood friend of Cezanne, and a famous portrait of Zola painted by Manet hangs in the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. So his name cropped up a lot, but I'd never read any of his work, and at 10p here was an ideal opportunity!

      There is a huge introduction by the translator - its fourteen pages start by explaining that this is the seventh in a series of twenty novels relating to one fictional family, the Rougon-Macquarts, and that like many novels in the 1800s it was published as a serial in newspapers. In fact it was published in two - the first to print it halted its publishing in 1876 after six episodes, probably partly due to politics, but more so to the unflinchingly blunt nature of the narrative. It was picked up by another, however, and published weekly, and was eventually released properly as a book in 1877. I haven't read the whole of the introduction as I just wanted to press on with the story, but I may now have a look back at it as I'd be interested to find out more about the rest of the books in the series.

      My edition has Degas' painting 'L'Absinthe' (or The Absinthe Drinkers) on the cover, which gives a clue as to the subject, and the blurb on the back cover unfortunately assumes that you already know the whole story, since it's a long-standing classic, and summarises it pretty much up to the final page. The series of novels follows various members of the Rougon-Macquart family through their successes and failures, some rising to the heights of society, others falling to the depths. L'Assommoir is one of the latter.

      The main character of the story is a woman called Gervaise. She and her partner Lantier had run away to Paris with his inheritance, and their two young sons, the first of whom having arrived when she was 14. They were unmarried still as their families didn't approve of their relationship. Now they were living in tiny rooms in a cheap boarding house, she looked after the children, while Lantier spent what was left of his money on himself, and got her to pawn their belongings, and then pinched that money too. He eventually tired of her and ran off with a newer model. He reappears later on in the story and we get to see the full extent of his exploitative nature.

      Meanwhile, Gervaise was wooed by a roofer who cared very much for her, and eventually they married. Throughout this account, Zola's descriptions of the characters are very vivid, not to mention the family politics - the account of the couple's wedding is quite spectacular in a strange way, and certainly had me wondering what it would be like now if a rag-tag wedding party walked en masse to a local museum and art gallery (in their case The Louvre!) to kill a few hours before the time they'd booked for the wedding dinner, eventually gravitating to an arch under a bridge on the Seine for a sit down and a rowdy but friendly chat. The wedding meal itself descends into chaos and the poor couple are scorned by their own family, but they carry on regardless with their lives with determination.

      She has a steady job in the wash-house, they work hard and save and make a good go of things. They also have a daughter together, who is christened Nana. In fact, one of the later books is devoted to her story - in fact all of the children feature in later books, perhaps the most famous being Germinal, in which Gervaise and Lantier's son Etienne is the hero. Still, you know from the blurb that things are not destined to stay rosy, and when the roofer suffers an accident at work, it is the beginning of a gradual but steep decline for this little family.

      Zola doesn't romanticise the plight of the poorest of the working classes at all. He writes as he sees, and I feel that his observations are very vivid and credible. His descriptions of the environment that they live in bring to life a poor corner of Paris that has its own social structure, ranging from small craft-workers such as watchmakers and employees of the local forge, to the squalid poor living in complete deprivation. The slippery slope from one down to the other is almost always the pub, where the earnings are drunk away if the wives haven't managed to get the wages from their husbands, despite lying in wait for them at the factory gates on pay-day.

      Particularly vivid is his description of the apartment block that is the centre of most of the narrative, with it's unending staircases and corridors - I could almost see the children as they poured down the gangways into the courtyard to create their own chaotic entertainment. You also get to meet a lot of the other characters as Gervaise climbs the stairs, since a lot of the doors are open onto their rooms. I found his depiction of the various folk and their situation pretty fair, really - you get to see a real cross-section, some people hard-working but hugely conceited and tightfisted; some genuinely caring, and sharing what little they had in the hope that it would save those on the way down; some who just gave up and let life get the better of them.

      One thing that stood out for me though was a real contemporary twist - with so many people in debt these days, this is an object lesson in the dangers of living on money that doesn't belong to you, and getting too comfortable with it. It's very sobering, and really very tragic. To say that I enjoyed this book doesn't sound right as it is a very sad story, but it is very well-written, and I found it quite gripping, despite more or less knowing the ending. It does have some strong language in it - if that offends you, be warned. Don't assume it's polite just because it's a classic! These are salt-of-the-earth people and the some of the language used very much reflects that.

      Bearing in mind that my edition was printed as part of the Penguin Classics series in 1970, the cover is now a little different, as is the publisher - Penguin aren't publishing it present. However, Oxford University Press are, and for its 528 pages, the cover price is £8.99. As usual it's available for varying degrees of quality and price on Amazon & eBay, and possibly your local school fair for a real bargain! If you spot a copy, I'd recommend you have a read.

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