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.