Tuesday, February 7, 2017

something else in life besides concertinas and steam beer - McTeague, Frank Norris's novel of Zola in San Francisco

Speaking of miserable, how about some time with Frank Norris’s McTeague (1899).  For once, the “Naturalism” label does me some good, since this novel is Zola in San Francisco.  It is mostly like L’Assommoir (1877), but there is a scene near the end where McTeague works in a mine, the noise of “which is like the breathing of an infinitely great monster, alive, palpitating” (Ch. 20), a description directly thieved from Germinal (1885).  A tip of the hat, there.  But there is a wedding feast so close to the one in L’Assommoir that the Norton Critical Edition includes the Zola scene for comparison.

It makes sense.  American readers without French could not read Zola’s most famous books, since they were considered obscene, so there was an opportunity for an American novelist to do his own version sans the smut but avec the violence, worse violence, even – this would become the standard American method of adapting French art.

Seriously, this thing turns into a Cormac McCarthy novel towards the end.  Or a Coen brothers movie.  To my memory, I had never read much about the novel itself, but I had read plenty about Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, the 1924 film adaptation, so there were several points where I thought “Uh oh, here it comes.”  And then, mostly, it didn’t.  But eventually it did.

McTeague is an unlicensed San Francisco dentist.  He is huge, able to pull teeth with his bare hands, and unintelligent, a “draught horse, immensely strong, stupid, docile, obedient” (Ch. 1).  His stupidity is a genuinely interesting part of the story.  There are a number of scenes which begin as comedy but turn into something more pathetic as McTeague proves unable to handle ordinary activities.  The scene in Chapter 6, for example, where he is almost too stupid to buy theater tickets in advance.  Or see Chapter 4, where the poor brute almost chokes to death on a billiard ball.

He learns there is “something else in life besides concertinas and steam beer” when he begins fixing the teeth of petite Trina.  “The male virile desire in him tardily awakened, aroused itself, strong and brutal” (Ch. 2).  Meanwhile, Trina is in some ways repulsed by McTeague but also turned on by his strength.  “McTeague had awakened the Woman” (Ch. 6), etc. – Norris has to resort to abstractions at points like this.

Reading these scenes soon after reading The Awakening, published the same year, was amusing?  Everyone is awakening!  Was the word showing up in magazines a lot or something?

The San Francisco setting is terrific, and strangely intact and recognizable.  Characters walk to the Cliff House or the Presidio; the cable car is in the same place; even McTeague’s dentist parlor, with its big gold tooth for a sign, is in more or less the right place, except now it is a saloon.


  1. I've had this on my shelf waiting to read for a while – will pull it down! The Erich von Stroheim Greed is worth seeing – I think there's a three-hour cut on DVD?

  2. Yes! I hadn't thought of it, but you are right when you point to the Cormac McCarthy ending. The rural v. urban split in the novel struck me as strange when I read it in college. Now, because of you, I have this _Blood Meridian_ comparison stuck in my mind! And I just remembered that I have a dentist appointment in a couple of weeks. Yikes!

  3. I'm planning to finally read L'assomoir, so this was most interesting and the setting appeals as well. I'm just a bit worried by the Cormac McCarthy comparison. I'm squeamish these days.

  4. Back when I watched a lot of movies, I never came across a copy of Greed. I would love to see it someday.

    The urban / rural split is strange, but 19th century California was strange, and Norris is using the strangeness, the modern, big city at the edge of an enormous wilderness.

    Fortunately dentistry has advanced enormously since 1890. Heck, since 1990.

    Although McTeague is the most violent 19th century American novel I know, setting aside Moby-Dick, there is still a lot of restraint. The worst scene - and it is pretty bad - is hidden behind a break, a fade-to-black. Even Norris doesn't think we need to see that for ourselves.

    McCarthy would have treated the event rather differently. Loving close ups.

  5. Love your comparison to Zola, one of my favorite writers whom I find criminally under appreciated. I also think Germinal must have influence Steinbeck when he wrote The Grapes of Wrath.

  6. You might be interested in looking at the McTeague critical edition sometime - it includes some interesting short pieces by Norris on Zola.

    This goes something beyond influence - open imitation!