Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A certain taste for charlatanism - Naturalist L'Assommoir

Ah ha, I knew it (this is from Pages from the Goncourt Journals, tr. Douglas Parmée):

This evening Flaubert, while paying tribute to his colleague’s genius, attacked the prefaces, the doctrines, the naturalist professions of faith, in a word all the rather flamboyant humbug with which Zola helps along the sale of his books.  Zola replied roughly to this effect: “You, you had private means which allowed you to remain independent of a good many things.  But I had to earn my living with nothing but my pen; I had to go through the mill of journalism and write all sorts of shameful stuff; and it has left me with – how shall I put it? – a certain taste for charlatanism… I consider the word Naturalism as ridiculous as you do, but I shall go on repeating it over and over again, because you have to give things new names for the public to think that they are new…”  (19 February, 1877, p. 229)

The ellipses are in the text I used, but it is an abridgement, so who knows.  I should have done some abridging myself, but I wanted to enjoy the sight of a writer confirming my darkest suspicions. There are reasons not to take the Goncourt journal too seriously, but whenever it supports my prejudices, I will just take it as gospel truth.  Zola’s, or Goncourt’s, end to this passage is superb:

“First of all I took a nail and with a blow of the hammer I drove it one inch into the public’s brain; then with a second blow I drove it two inches in…  Well, that hammer of mine is the journalism I write myself around my novels.”

Ouch, ha ha ha, ouch, my brain!

The Naturalist argument of L’Assommoir is, roughly, that its heroine Gervaise is doomed not by – or not only by – her own bad luck and bad decisions but an inherited flaw, a predilection for vice or alcohol or something like that, which she then passes on to her own three or four children.  She, and they, are on the corrupted Macquart side of the Rougon-Macquart series, so she, and they, take it in the neck.

The actual argument of L’Assommoir, the one in the plot and its supporting details, is almost entirely opposed to the quasi-genetic Naturalist idea.  Gervaise is ultimately, after a long period of time during much of which she is actually successful, doomed by bad luck, a poisonous social environment, and a predilection for sensualism of which alcohol is a minor component.  Much, much more interesting than inherited alcoholism, even if the latter is more likely to be True.

I had met one of Gervaise’s children in The Belly of Paris, written a few years earlier.  The painter Claude Lantier is barely in L’Assommoir, having been sent away in the fourth chapter to learn his trade.  He seems to have inherited his mother’s sensitivity to color.  He does all right in Belly, but I understand that The Masterpiece (1886) does him in. 

The daughter is Nana, who will get her own novel in a couple of years.  Nature and nurture work hand in hand with Nana.  Then there is Etienne, “now a railroad mechanic” at the beginning of Chapter 13, but Zola later changed his plans and moved poor Etienne into Germinal (1885), the coal mining novel.

The railroad novel (1890) instead features his brother Jacques Lantier, the serial killer, who – this is where I have been headed – is not in L’Assommoir at all!  No wonder he becomes a murderer – he was so neglected as a child that he was never mentioned by anyone around him, including the omniscient narrator of the novel.  Even his mother never knew he existed, never even knew she was pregnant or gave birth.  Now, though, I can see him in L’Assommoir, the silent ghost child standing in the background of many scenes, a grey creature in a colorful novel, invisible to everyone but me.


  1. So l'assommoir can also refer to the journalism with which Zola is violently bludgeoning his public - what a versatile and clever title!

    I am trying to think of other works in which a character exists but not in the work itself. Godot, but he gets talked about. There must be others.

  2. The Cosby Show introduced an extra daughter early on, a college student, four perfect children suddenly becoming five. Usually it is a failing sitcom that introduces a new wise-cracking ragamuffin or something like that. Then there is the 5th season of Buffy, but that is actually part of the plot.

    1. Dawn Summers actually gets screen time, unless you mean someone else.

      I was thinking Mrs.Newsome in The Ambassadors; she's invoked and a constant presence, but she never appears on stage. I don't know if Strether even directly quotes her letters. She might be in a brief flashback, but I'm not sure about that. There must be other examples. Is Napoleon in War and Peace? It's been decades since I read that, so I don't remember if he appears in person.

  3. Mrs Grundy in Thomas Morton's play Speed the Plough exists only as what she might say. She's reached the ultimate state of existing independently of the work she appeared in and its creator.
    If I remember rightly Napoleon in War and Peace is a sort of vague abstraction Tolstoy talks about- a representation of human folly with illusions of autonomy and will.

  4. I do not mean someone else, but I do mean something else! Not seraillon's game. Jacques Lantier also appears on screen. La Bête humaine is Season 5.

    To be clear, Zola's game here is that the character has to be added retrospectively, in a later work. You need a character who is introduced in The Golden Bowl but who insists that she was present during the action, such as it is, of The Ambassadors, but for some reason never mentioned. You need a Beckett play in which Godot is onstage, talking about Waiting as if he was on stage in it, repeatedly, and does not understand why everyone keeps talking as if he was not. "What was everyone waiting for - I was right there!"

    Crazy Jacques Lantier does not exist until La Bête humaine is published in 1890, when suddenly the characters in L'Assommoir turn out to have a third son who had never been mentioned and for whom there is no possible room.

    He is what the superhero comic book readers call a retcon.

    The Buffy plot is a parody of the device. There is no way I can explain to people who did not watch the show the audacity of the first couple of episodes that season, in which Whedon was happy to let viewers think he had ruined the show. What trust he had created with his audience.

  5. Whenever i read all that stuff about Zola's "naturalism" - that strange idea about everyone's actions being pre-determined by objective factors - I always think to myself that it's a good job the old boy didn't practise what he preached. "A certain taste for charlatanism" is a marvellous quote: I have to remember that!

  6. And incidentally, two very great film directors had a go at filming "La bete Humaine" - Jean Renoir, and Fritz Lang. Renoir's film is better known, but it has always seemed to me that Renoir's gentle humanism was far from ideal for this material.(Jean Gabin is always worth watching, though.)

    Fritz Lang's version, "Human Desire", transplants the action to US, and features Glenn Ford as the Jacques Lantier character. However, he isn't a psychopath in this one: what's the point of that, then? One of Fritz Lang's most disappointing efforts.

  7. I've got to see the Renoir sometime. He's one of my favorite directors, and I greatly enjoy Gabin, too.

  8. I accidentally deleted this comment, but kind of recovered it. From someone named "LMR" - thanks - good question. Are there different editions? No idea.

    "About the ellipses, what's bizarre is that the translation adds things that supposedly aren't in the original, like the "taste for charlatanism" line:


    You know French now, right? :)"