How is L’Assommoir written? It is the seventh of the twenty interconnected Rougon-Macquart novels, of which I have read only, I remind myself, numbers two and three, The Kill and The Belly of Paris. L’Assommoir is in many ways written quite differently than those two books.
Zola has modified his list-making. The earlier novels sometimes felt like catalogues, with their long lists of descriptions of carriages, dresses, furniture, plants, and cheeses. The best-written catalogues in the history of mail-order retail, I mean, but the problem, more ethical than aesthetic, is that the lists are too easily detachable. They lack meaning. They are effective as brilliantly thick scene-setting, but they crowd out character, story, and action. These baroque sensory passages threaten to become the point of the book.
This is hardly a problem for me. I love this stuff. I refer you to the magnificent Symphony of Cheeses in The Belly of Paris, a masterpiece of description in a novel that has barely more than a wisp of a story and was written for its baroquely rich descriptions, as well as – I am arguing with myself – a powerful metaphor that will be of great importance in L’Assommoir. But few readers think of the elaboration of a metaphor as a meaningful story. I mean the “fat versus thin” theme. I want to save that for a later post.
L’Assommoir has no lack of story, the rise and sad fall of Gervaise Macquart the laundress, and no lack of meaning, ethical and even sociological.
Good Lord, all I have said so far is “no lists.” Yet L’Assommoir has plenty of description. Zola is more careful to keep descriptions within the range of the characters, usually Gervaise. It is not exactly her language, but an intensification of what she sees, as when she visits the gold-wire makers who will becomes her relatives by marriage.
… Gervaise was all a-flutter, stirred particularly by the notion that she was entering a place full of gold… At last, however, her eyes focused upon Mme. Lorilleux, a short, stout redhead who was pulling on a black wire with all the strength of her short arms, aided by a pair of heavy pliers, drawing the wire through the holes of a drawplate held in the vise. Lorilleux, also short of stature but slimmer than his wife, was seated before his workbench, toiling away as lively as a monkey, holding in tiny pincers something so minute that it was lost between his knotty fingers. He was the first to raise his head, a skull on which only a few straggling hairs were left, with a long, drawn face the pale yellow of old wax. (Ch. 2, 63)
The passage is obviously full of descriptive language, and it is not the only one that describes the Lorilleux’s work as low-level goldsmiths. A long paragraph soon follows, for example, describing how Lorilleux makes gold chains. Work, the concern of the working-class poor of L’Assommoir has replaced the long lists of stuff that obsess the rich of The Kill and the shopkeepers and market-women of The Belly of Paris.
Goldsmithing, roofing, metal work, laundering, and ironing – I think that is the list of occupations that are described fastidiously by Zola. The last one was a special trial. Heaven help me, I thought, he is going on for pages about ironing. What could be more dull?
Paper flower-making. I forgot that one. “Just one motion of picking up a narrow strip of green paper, a swift rolling of the paper around the brass wire, a drop of paste at the top to hold it, and there it was, a sprig of fresh and delicate greenery, ready to grace a lady’s bosom” (Ch. 11, 400). Zola does not give so much detail about flower-making, though, because the relevant character never learns the trade well.
Gervaise is, for many years, a truly great ironer, so Zola gives me more information than I could have possibly wanted about ironing, because the character cares about it. Whether I care or not is of no interest. Zola sticks to his characters.
OK, this is one way L’Assommoir is written.