Ah ha, I knew it (this is from Pages from the Goncourt Journals, tr. Douglas Parmée):
This evening Flaubert, while paying tribute to his colleague’s genius, attacked the prefaces, the doctrines, the naturalist professions of faith, in a word all the rather flamboyant humbug with which Zola helps along the sale of his books. Zola replied roughly to this effect: “You, you had private means which allowed you to remain independent of a good many things. But I had to earn my living with nothing but my pen; I had to go through the mill of journalism and write all sorts of shameful stuff; and it has left me with – how shall I put it? – a certain taste for charlatanism… I consider the word Naturalism as ridiculous as you do, but I shall go on repeating it over and over again, because you have to give things new names for the public to think that they are new…” (19 February, 1877, p. 229)
The ellipses are in the text I used, but it is an abridgement, so who knows. I should have done some abridging myself, but I wanted to enjoy the sight of a writer confirming my darkest suspicions. There are reasons not to take the Goncourt journal too seriously, but whenever it supports my prejudices, I will just take it as gospel truth. Zola’s, or Goncourt’s, end to this passage is superb:
“First of all I took a nail and with a blow of the hammer I drove it one inch into the public’s brain; then with a second blow I drove it two inches in… Well, that hammer of mine is the journalism I write myself around my novels.”
Ouch, ha ha ha, ouch, my brain!
The Naturalist argument of L’Assommoir is, roughly, that its heroine Gervaise is doomed not by – or not only by – her own bad luck and bad decisions but an inherited flaw, a predilection for vice or alcohol or something like that, which she then passes on to her own three or four children. She, and they, are on the corrupted Macquart side of the Rougon-Macquart series, so she, and they, take it in the neck.
The actual argument of L’Assommoir, the one in the plot and its supporting details, is almost entirely opposed to the quasi-genetic Naturalist idea. Gervaise is ultimately, after a long period of time during much of which she is actually successful, doomed by bad luck, a poisonous social environment, and a predilection for sensualism of which alcohol is a minor component. Much, much more interesting than inherited alcoholism, even if the latter is more likely to be True.
I had met one of Gervaise’s children in The Belly of Paris, written a few years earlier. The painter Claude Lantier is barely in L’Assommoir, having been sent away in the fourth chapter to learn his trade. He seems to have inherited his mother’s sensitivity to color. He does all right in Belly, but I understand that The Masterpiece (1886) does him in.
The daughter is Nana, who will get her own novel in a couple of years. Nature and nurture work hand in hand with Nana. Then there is Etienne, “now a railroad mechanic” at the beginning of Chapter 13, but Zola later changed his plans and moved poor Etienne into Germinal (1885), the coal mining novel.
The railroad novel (1890) instead features his brother Jacques Lantier, the serial killer, who – this is where I have been headed – is not in L’Assommoir at all! No wonder he becomes a murderer – he was so neglected as a child that he was never mentioned by anyone around him, including the omniscient narrator of the novel. Even his mother never knew he existed, never even knew she was pregnant or gave birth. Now, though, I can see him in L’Assommoir, the silent ghost child standing in the background of many scenes, a grey creature in a colorful novel, invisible to everyone but me.