The Child was only one of two 19th century French novels about child abuse I read recently. The other is Émile Zola’s L’Assommoir, published in 1877, just a year before the otherwise quite different Vallès novel. Perhaps Zola’s success offered Vallès encouragement: don’t hold anything back. People have read worse. They already read about the little saint who is beaten to death by her drunken, psychopathic father in Chapter 12. Dickens would work the scene for pathos; Zola goes for horror.
Strangely, given such scenes, given the miserable ends of many of the characters, L’Assommoir is for most of its length a comic novel. The novel is at heart a comic form and what novel proves the point more than this one. The first chapter, just to pick one of many possible examples, ends with a catfight in a laundry, with two women fighting over a man, pouring water on each other, tearing their clothes, like in some smutty sex comedy.
A big fellow with a thick neck, he was laughing and enjoying himself hugely because of the glimpses of pink skin the two women were baring to view. The little blonde was plump as a partridge; it would be lots of fun if her chemise split open. (Ch. 1, 33)
Hey, there’s some of that free indirect narration we all enjoy so much. Zola is reminding me that he is not going to be bound by petty conventions like good taste.
Finding drawers underneath, she reached her hand into the opening and ripped them off, exposing Virginie’s naked thighs and naked behind. Then, raising her paddle, she began to pound away, just as she had pounded the wash in days gone by, back at Plassans, on the bank of the Viorne, when she was working for the laundress who did the washing for the garrison. The hard wood sank into the soft flesh with a watery thud, each smack leaving a streak of red mottling the white skin. (Ch. 1, 34)
What smutty pulp novel have I stumbled into here? But Zola has a serious purpose, likely more serious than in any of the other Zola novels I have read, the corpse-squishing noir of Thérèse Raquin (1867), or the luxury goods catalog of The Kill (1871), or the gourmet provisioner’s window of The Belly of Paris (1873). That last one barely had a story at all.
L’Assommoir is, I think, the first Zola novel that is fundamentally about the life of the poor, in this case the working poor of Paris. They work and booze, marry no-good husbands and raise no-good children, strive for better but after one hard blow too many give up the chase. Zola can hardly revisit the long, detailed inventories of furniture and dresses and carriages from The Kill since these people hardly have anything. He does revisit the food of The Belly of Paris, though, along with one of that novel’s arguments. L’Assommoir is a greasy, sugary book, and that's before we get to the hard liquor.
I read one of the older of the modern, complete translations, the 1962 Atwood H. Townsend version. He kept the French title, which is a tricky one in English. It is the name of a bar in the book, but it is also a type of bar, one that distills its own spirits, and I do not believe there is an English word to capture this. A good alternative title would be The Dive, which captures both the nature of the bar and the ultimately tragic arc of the novel.