Saturday, June 28, 2014

A pair of heavy pliers, drawing the wire through the holes of a drawplate held in the vise - Zola describes work

How is L’Assommoir written?  It is the seventh of the twenty interconnected Rougon-Macquart novels, of which I have read only, I remind myself, numbers two and three, The Kill and The Belly of ParisL’Assommoir is in many ways written quite differently than those two books.

Zola has modified his list-making.  The earlier novels sometimes felt like catalogues, with their long lists of descriptions of carriages, dresses, furniture, plants, and cheeses.  The best-written catalogues in the history of mail-order retail, I mean, but the problem, more ethical than aesthetic, is that the lists are too easily detachable.  They lack meaning.  They are effective as brilliantly thick scene-setting, but they crowd out character, story, and action.  These baroque sensory passages threaten to become the point of the book.

This is hardly a problem for me.  I love this stuff.  I refer you to the magnificent Symphony of Cheeses in The Belly of Paris, a masterpiece of description in a novel that has barely more than a wisp of a story and was written for its baroquely rich descriptions, as well as – I am arguing with myself – a powerful metaphor that will be of great importance in L’Assommoir.  But few readers think of the elaboration of a metaphor as a meaningful story.  I mean the “fat versus thin” theme.  I want to save that for a later post.

L’Assommoir has no lack of story, the rise and sad fall of Gervaise Macquart the laundress, and no lack of meaning, ethical and even sociological.

Good Lord, all I have said so far is “no lists.”  Yet L’Assommoir has plenty of description.  Zola is more careful to keep descriptions within the range of the characters, usually Gervaise.  It is not exactly her language, but an intensification of what she sees, as when she visits the gold-wire makers who will becomes her relatives by marriage.

… Gervaise was all a-flutter, stirred particularly by the notion that she was entering a place full of gold…  At last, however, her eyes focused upon Mme. Lorilleux, a short, stout redhead who was pulling on a black wire with all the strength of her short arms, aided by a pair of heavy pliers, drawing the wire through the holes of a drawplate held in the vise.  Lorilleux, also short of stature but slimmer than his wife, was seated before his workbench, toiling away as lively as a monkey, holding in tiny pincers something so minute that it was lost between his knotty fingers.  He was the first to raise his head, a skull on which only a few straggling hairs were left, with a long, drawn face the pale yellow of old wax.  (Ch. 2, 63)

The passage is obviously full of descriptive language, and it is not the only one that describes the Lorilleux’s work as low-level goldsmiths.  A long paragraph soon follows, for example, describing how Lorilleux makes gold chains.  Work, the concern of the working-class poor of L’Assommoir has replaced the long lists of stuff that obsess the rich of The Kill and the shopkeepers and market-women of The Belly of Paris.

Goldsmithing, roofing, metal work, laundering, and ironing – I think that is the list of occupations that are described fastidiously by Zola.  The last one was a special trial.  Heaven help me, I thought, he is going on for pages about ironing.  What could be more dull?

Paper flower-making.  I forgot that one.  “Just one motion of picking up a narrow strip of green paper, a swift rolling of the paper around the brass wire, a drop of paste at the top to hold it, and there it was, a sprig of fresh and delicate greenery, ready to grace a lady’s bosom” (Ch. 11, 400).  Zola does not give so much detail about flower-making, though, because the relevant character never learns the trade well.

Gervaise is, for many years, a truly great ironer, so Zola gives me more information than I could have possibly wanted about ironing, because the character cares about it.  Whether I care or not is of no interest.  Zola sticks to his characters.

OK, this is one way L’Assommoir is written.


  1. I think it's great when writers master a specific knowledge and cram novels with it, just to show off. In many ways, information has become the main character of the novel in recent times. But I better not insist on that or we're back at James Wood.

  2. We also seem to get a lot of detail about food, maybe because there just wasn't enough of it, that when they do get to eat,they savour it more. That wedding banquet is a great example of the 'list' approach maybe?

  3. In the Goncourt Journal, Zola often expresses his anxiety, or even panic, about getting all of the information right. He plans to write a novel about railroads, for example, but how is he going to learn what he needs to know about railroads?

    He must have spent time in every one of these workshops, taking notes, sponging it all up for the book.

    The party scenes are the essential point of continuity between the earlier Zola novels and this one. I think of them as a quite different technique, but I would not want to argue the point too much. By the end of a party, it is true that Zola has brought in a huge amount of stuff, like he did with the lists, just organized differently. It is perverse to think of L'Assommoir as a food novel, but it is, it really is!

  4. With all these posts, you're making L'Assommoir sound like a fun, enjoyable novel, but must admit it's my least favourite Zola (I know a lot of people like it), utterly overshadowed in my opinion by its offspring (particularly Germinal).

    The novel with all the railroad research is presumably La Bete Humaine.

  5. I had fun with L'Assommoir! And in these posts, I have not even gotten to the fun stuff. The post that goes up tomorrow, that finally - finally - gets to the fun stuff.

    The railroad novel is, in the 16 January, 1884 Goncourt entry, titled Les Chemins de fer, but I assume you are right. Zola was not ready to write it at that time. "He would rather make a start on something about a strike in a mining district, beginning with a bourgeois having his throat slit on the first page."

  6. The lists "are effective as brilliantly thick scene-setting, but they crowd out character, story, and action. These baroque sensory passages threaten to become the point of the book."

    Yes, absolutely. I do actually find this frequently a problem with Zola. I haven't yet read The Kill or The belly of Paris, but all too frequently, Zola's obsession with the detailed physicality - often expressing itself in the form of lists - does all too easily drown out character, story, and action. Usually, Zola gets the better of his urge to overwhelm his novel with physical detail,but sometimes, only just. And in one novel "Au Bonheur des Dames", the lists take over altogether. In this novel, Zola depicts the emergence of the consumer society - that point when we stopped being citizens and became consumers - but the endless descriptions - and yes, lists - of the merchandise in the newly opened department store crowds everything out.

    I still love Zola's writing, but increasingly, I find myself less interested than I used to be in the sheer physicality of things: I want writers who are more interested in matters intangible. I suppose it's just my temperament changing with age. I have to try another Zola novel again to see how I react to it now.

  7. I plan to stick with sheer physicality. Character, story, action - it's not like we have a shortage of that stuff in other books.

  8. It's not so much character-story-action that I find myself looking for either these days. I'll have to give this matter a bit more thought ... I think there's a blog post coming up here...