Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Intoxicating herself with this stench of humanity - fat L'Assommoir

The Goncourt journal, or at least the abridgement I read, is full of Zola, who is mentioned more than any other individual.  The index, under Zola, has four entries just for “and food,” including this one:

Zola was tucking into the good food, and when I asked him whether by any chance he was a glutton, he replied: “Yes, it’s my only vice; and at home, when there isn’t anything good for dinner, I’m miserable, utterly miserable.  That’s the only thing that matters; nothing else really exists for me.  You know what my life is like?”  (25 January, 1875)

Poor Zola.  I knew Zola was a glutton from reading his foodie novel The Belly of Paris, a book built on a metaphor of the Fat versus the Thin, with the Fat eventually eating the Thin.  Zola has sympathy for the Thin, but is himself one of the Fat.  This is not so much a matter of girth or caloric intake but of temperament.  At the end of L'Assommoir, the heroine Gervaise has nothing to eat, yet she has become not merely fat but obese.  Her husband was fat until alcohol finally, after a decade of abuse, hollowed him out again:  “Now his unhealthy soft fat of earlier years had melted away and he was beginning to wither and turn a leaden gray, with greenish tints like those of a corpse putrefying in a pond” (Ch. 10).

The father of Gervaise’s children, Lantier, a monstrous parasite, is also one of the Fat, even if he never becomes more than plump.  For a stretch of the novel, for example, he lives on nothing but sugar, devouring his way through his girlfriend’s candy store: “He seemed actually to be turning into honey” (Ch. 10).

Curiously it is the eldest son of Gervaise and Lantier, Claude Lantier the painter, who delivers a long “Fat versus Thin” lecture in The Belly of Paris.  Claude defeats his heritage – he is one of the Thin.  Nana is Fat; her chapter is plump and fleshy, her appetites more sexual than gluttonous.  Someone will have to fill me in on the other son, or sons.

Again, this is all metaphor, all character.  Whatever the reputation of the novel, Gervaise is not done in by alcohol or food but rather by dirty laundry:

She thrust her bare pink arms deep among shirts yellow with grime, towels stiff from greasy dishwater, socks threadbare and eaten away by sweat.  The strong odor hitting her in the face as she leaned over the pile of clothes made her a bit drowsy.  Sitting on the edge of a stool, bending far over, reaching her hands to right and left with slow, easy gestures, she seemed to be intoxicating herself with this stench of humanity, smiling vaguely, her eyes misty.  It may be that the beginnings of her laziness came from that, a kind of asphyxiation caused by dirty clothes poisoning the air about her.  (Ch. 5)

Since the piece I bolded is the craziest thing the narrator says in the entire novel, Zola repeats it four pages later:

The long kiss that they exchanged, mouth to mouth, amid all this accumulated filthiness of soiled laundry, was perhaps a first step downward in the gradual corruption of her life together. 

Is this even subtle enough to be foreshadowing?  There is still two-thirds of the novel to go.  It was, to me, the biggest shock of the novel.  Gervaise’s weakness is sensualism.  Thus her sensitivity to colors and odors, her appetite for food and men and, eventually, strong drink.  Gervaise is doomed by her love of life, her gusto.  The Thin, of whom there are plenty of examples in L’Assommoir among the supporting characters, fail to live.  Gervaise lives.


  1. A long kiss further defined as mouth to mouth . . . Egads! . . . What sordid devils! But tell me, how is a long kiss performed other than mouth to mouth? Perhaps I do not want to contemplate that answer. Then we would have a different kind of novel.

  2. Mouth to extended fingers; mouth to nape of neck. That would be a different novel, a more elegant one, perhaps about rarefied aristocrats.

    The scene actually is just a bit sordid, even aside from the stinky laundry.

    What does the French have? "Et le gros baiser qu'ils échangèrent à pleine bouche..." So the translator is fussing with "à pleine bouche." "On the mouth" might do it, or "full on the mouth," which suggests to me more of a smacker than a deep kiss. But "exchanged on the mouth" is not really English. Some kind of tweak is needed.

  3. I got bounced out of your comments box last night--ye olde "disappearing comment" trick that's now happened to me on two different computers and three different blogs of late (meh)--so I shall try again. Really must try and make time for my first Zola this year. These crazy descriptions--they're just too a good way, of course!!! Happy day off to you, by the way.

  4. Yes, so try some Zola. He is not what I thought he was. Perhaos I will expand on that when answering comments to the next post.

  5. I loved both L'Assommoir and The Belly of Paris. You've inspired me to start Nana, but it hasn't really grabbed me yet. However, it's Zola, so I have faith and will stick with it!

  6. Nana would logically be my next Zola, just to follow her adventures, such as they are. Next year, maybe.

    I'm sure Nana will kick in. A scene will come up where Zola spends three pages describing, I don't know, curtains, or canaries, and you'll say - I would say - "Ah, here we go!"

  7. "Nana is Fat; her chapter is plump and fleshy, her appetites more sexual than gluttonous. Someone will have to fill me in on the other son, or sons."

    Nana is certainly fat: as far as I remember, her soft, sensual plumpness is frequently mentioned. i do not remember the physical description of her siblings - Jean in "La Terre" and "La debacle", Etienne in "Germinal", and the psychopathic Jacques in "La Bete Humaine" - but I'd be surprised if any of them were fat, physically or temperamentally. But Jean and Etienne are primarily observers in their novels: they do not "live" in the way Gervaise or Nana "live", but that's all right if you're an observer. Psycho Jacques is another matter, though.

  8. Wait, there's another one? Who is Jean? Or is Jean a sibling of Gervaise, maybe, an uncle of Nana?

  9. Sorry - I got that wrong. Jean is Gervaise's brother, as you say.