Tomorrow is a holiday, so I will be back on Monday with some Spanish literature. It is the arbitrarily-declared Spanish Literature Month! Or maybe I will cover Knut Hamsun first. Who knows.
Regardless, I will wrap up L’Assommoir. I could just keep writing about Zola.
I could pursue the ironing for example. Actually, I would have to do some research about it. Edgar Degas painted several examples of women ironing, including the one on the left at the National Gallery, this one at the Musée d’Orsay, and this one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Oxford World’s Classics edition features yet another Degas of a woman ironing. Zola knew Degas, and likely saw some of these paintings (most that I linked precede L’Assommoir).
The connection to painting is not coincidental. First, Zola was so intensely visual. I occasionally suspect that Zola, in a descriptive passage, is literally describing a painting – that he has simply inserted a painting, like maybe a Degas showing women ironing, into his novel. Second, one of the heroine’s children actually becomes a painter. Third, one of the craziest scenes in the novel is when Gervaise’s wedding party spends four pages touring the Louvre:
Centuries of art passed before their bewildered ignorance, the subtle rigidity of the Italian primitives, the magnificence of the Venetians, the rich and brilliant life of the Dutch. What interested them most, however, were the copyists, with their easels installed amid the crowd, painting away nonchalantly. One old lady, mounted on a high ladder and using a whitewash brush to spread soft sky-blue upon an immense canvas, struck them particularly. (Ch. 3)
The copyists, you don’t say. There we have, by the way, an example of what I suspect are concealed puddles, proto-puddles. The punchline of Zola’s joke is that a member of the party has taken them to the Louvre just to show them an earthy Rubens:
“Will you look at this!” Boche kept saying. “This one’s really worth what it cost. Here’s a guy puking. And this one, he’s watering the dandelions. Look at this fellow! Oho, look at this one here! Oh well, they’re a pretty bunch, they are!”
The painting will turn out to be thematically relevant. The wedding party’s own drunken feast starts about five pages later. For a few of the characters, it lasts for the rest of the novel.
How I have restrained myself, not writing about the food in L’Assommoir. How strange to think of this book so full of hunger and misery as a food novel. There is so much food in it, so much eating.
The Louvre trip is the only time in the novel that country girl Gervaise leaves her adopted home, a few streets and an outlying industrial area north of Montmartre. At the novel’s end, in 1869, Gervaise finds that even her Paris is being destroyed by Baron Haussmann’s urban renewal, as long open boulevards punch through the little streets in which she has spent her life. “The long vistas of avenues opening before her seemed to make her stomach feel even more empty” (Ch. 12). In The Kill, Saccard makes his hollow fortune through insider trading in real estate affected by the new boulevards. L’Assommoir is written from the other side. “Underneath the rising tide of luxury, the miserable poverty of the Paris slums was still there to undermine and to besmirch this brand-new city that was being so hastily constructed.”
I guess this can count as my backhanded contribution to Dolce Bellezza’s Paris in July event. Paris, je t’aime.